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May 28, 2013

Ag Agency Loosens Rules for On-Farm Slaughter — Slightly

618-slaughter-1On-farm slaughter has long been a contentious issue in Vermont.

Vocal consumers, farmers and their advocates have campaigned hard for the right to raise an animal, then slaughter it and buy and sell its meat all on the same farm. But Vermont's Agency of Agriculture has resisted that pressure, contending that farmers needed to provide a "custom" slaughter facility if they wanted to process animals close to home.

The fear, agency meat inspectors explained, was that the state could lose out on U.S. Department of Agriculture funding if Vermont ran afoul of federal food safety standards.

Well, meat inspectors have changed their tune — slightly. And thanks to new language in this year's ag housekeeping bill (H. 515), farmers will be allowed to butcher and sell a small number of animals directly from their farms. 

Is it a big win for farmers? Not exactly, says Rural Vermont executive director Andrea Stander. 

"It’s not the be all and end all of where we’d like things to be, but at the same time ... this is a significant step forward," says Stander. She notes that the new legislation — once it's signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin — will represent a growing acknowledgment from lawmakers and regulators about the importance of on-farm slaughter.  

"From our perspective at Rural Vermont, we’ve always been arguing that there is a portion of our local food economy that isn’t commercial," says Stander. "It’s neighborly. It’s at the community level, and it’s between friends and neighbors."

And with caps on the number of animals now allowed to be slaughtered on farm, that's precisely the demographic likely to benefit most from the new rules.  

VTDigger has the story in more detail for the policy wonks among you. The take-away is this: Farmers will now be allowed to sell up to 10 pigs, three cows, or 25 sheep or goats — or any combination of those not amounting to more than 3500 pounds — for slaughter on their farms each year. Customers must either slaughter the animals themselves, or hire an itinerant butcher to do the work for them. It won't be a free-for-all, though; farmers can't do the butchering themselves, and their assistance in the slaughter process will be tightly defined. The slaughter must also take place in an area that meets stringent sanitary conditions.

It's not yet clear exactly how the Agency of Agriculture will interpret the new legislation, and Stander says Rural Vermont hopes to sit down with meat inspectors and ag agency regulators to hash out details shortly after the bill is signed into law. A few other states — including New York, Ohio and Connecticut — have similar on-farm slaughter provisions on the books, and Stander says farmers there have found the rules "highly susceptible to interpretation." 

Will this open the floodgates for on-farm slaughter? Likely not, says Stander. But for now, she's taking what she can get. She thinks the new rules will be especially meaningful for young farmers who want to test the market before scaling up their livestock operations.

"What we feel most positive about is that we have moved from that place of the agency saying, 'Our hands are tied' … to a place where we’re starting to acknowledge that there's a portion of the local foods economy that can function legally," says Stander.

File photo/Kathryn Flagg

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