GARDINER — For Ryan Wilson, the growth of his business is not a question of if; it’s a question of when.

“My expectation is to be the largest (poultry) processor in New England,” Wilson said.

Wilson, who with his wife, Gina Simmons, owns Common Wealth Poultry Co., has a clear vision for where he wants to go. Common Wealth Poultry is the state’s only USDA-inspected poultry processor, and its growth rate has been strong.

“We have gone from (processing) 1,000 birds in a week to 2,800 in a day,” Wilson said. In a couple of weeks when the summer season hits, he estimates Common Wealth Poultry will reach 6,000 birds a week and stay that way until the seasonal slowdown leading into winter.

Even with the ability to hit that capacity, he’s still constrained — not by the supply of poultry, but by the supply of workers.

Last week, Wilson joined representatives of two other Gardiner companies for public hearings at the Gardiner City Council meeting on their requests that the city submit applications for state economic and workforce development funds through the Community Development Block Grant program on their behalf. Sebago Lake Distillery and Central Maine Meats are seeking job creation funding to hire workers. Wilson is seeking funds to train both existing and new workers at the processing plant in the Libby Hill Business Park.

In the past two years, Gardiner city officials have secured job creation grants for the Gardiner Food Co-op, Central Maine Meats and Lost Orchard Brewing and a workforce training grant for Central Maine Meats.

“People want to know what they are putting in their bodies and where it comes from,” Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said. He hopes Gardiner is seen as a community that is aggressively recruiting food-related business to locate and grow there.

“It’s really an exciting time for Gardiner,” he said.

Gardiner’s identity as a food hub got its start with the Gardiner Food Co-op and expanded with the recruitment of Emery’s Meat & Produce through the Gardiner Growth Initiative.

Common Wealth Poultry and Central Maine Meats gives Gardiner the only two USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in the same place in the state.

“That benefits Gardiner, and it benefits the farmers in Gardiner and in the region. Without these facilities, they would have to go to Pennsylvania for processing to get their animals to market,” Harnett said.

Wilson said he needs more trained workers to keep up with demand.

“I’ve had to turn down farmers who want to bring their birds here and sell it under their own labels,” he said. “I can’t accommodate more people because I don’t have enough trained employees.”

He doesn’t have any trouble filling entry-level positions. He is limited in the number of people who can do more advanced-level work like running the equipment and ensuring the safety of the poultry and rabbits that are processed and packaged at his plant. Wilson’s application seeks $100,000.

If the company’s grant application is successful, Common Wealth Poultry would train existing workers and the additional people he anticipates hiring in the multi-step process of harvesting, processing and packing poultry.

“Our birds come in live and are out the door in 48 hours without chemicals. Everything we do is by hand. We’re not highly mechanized,” he said.

Common Wealth Poultry air chills its birds. Most large-scale producers water chill their poultry, but for Wilson, that’s not desirable for two reasons. First, the poultry absorbs some of the water, and second, chlorine and trisodium phosphate are added to the chilling water to kill the bacteria that naturally occurs on the chicken. In addition, sodium is often used as a preservative.

“Fifteen people are looking at the bird before it becomes the final product. We’re able to produce a high-quality product in a short amount of time,” he said.

Although most of Common Wealth’s products go to restaurants, they are also for sale at Emery’s Meat Market and the Gardiner Co-op in Gardiner and at the Sheepscot General Store in Whitefield.

Central Maine Meats, which leases space to Common Wealth Poultry at its facility in the Libby Hill Business Park, is also planning to expand its workforce.

The company has been staging its operations to add on an expanded flash freeze facility and a smoke kitchen to add to the products and services it provides.

Joel Davis, managing director for the red meat processing facility, said the company is planning to double its employment, bringing the number of workers there to 44, to meet the demand for its expanding product line. It’s seeking $690,000 to support that job creation.

Davis said his company recently signed a contract with NorthCenter PFG and has likewise secured a contract with Sodexo to provide meat products, and it has a contract to process sheep from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham.

“If we continue to service these three outlets, we’ll have to add a second shift in a couple months,” Davis said.

Central Maine Meats has been a proponent of the food hub idea, and even as it explores new products and offerings, it sees what’s happening elsewhere in Gardiner.

“Businesses are moving to Gardiner,” Davis said. “It’s good for Gardiner, it’s good for us and it’s good for the state of Maine.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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