Three years ago, lawmakers approved new slaughter regulations that gave small farmers a foothold in the local meat market. Those rules are set to expire in July, and lawmakers must now decide whether or not to extend them.
And the question has reignited a long-running debate over the regulatory hurdles small farms navigate in order to capitalize on growing demand for local beef, pork and lamb.
Peter Burmeister raises organic livestock at his farm in Berlin. There’s one thing he hates most about the venture.
“The worst day on the farm, the very worst day, is when I have to load pigs or cattle onto a trailer,” Burmeister says.
Burmeister may raise the animals for their meat. But he says that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of his family while they’re around. Each gets its own name even. And Burmeister says that makes it all the difficult to watch as they’re loaded up for the 100-mile trip to the U.S.D.A-inspected facility where he sends them for slaughter.
“And the panic and fear that I see in the eyes and the body language of the cow or the pig … is very, very distressing both to the animal and to me,” he says.
Burmeister is among the small Vermont farmers asking lawmakers to rewrite the regulations that govern the slaughter and sale of cattle, pigs, lamb and goats.
In 2013, lawmakers approved an agricultural experiment that allowed small farmers to sell live animals to customers prior to their slaughter. The law permits customers, or an "itinerant" slaughterer of their choosing, to then slaughter the animal on the farm. And it's an arrangement that's allowed even if the farm doesn’t have an inspected slaughter facility.
The law is set to expire this July. And its sunset could eliminate a niche market that has been a boon for small, diversified farmers, like 28-year-old Taylor Hutchison, of Starksboro.
“We’ve definitely talked about getting bigger in the future, but right now we’re enjoying being super-diversified,” Hutchison says. “We’re really enjoying being able to do 10 pigs, and to allow our customers to come out and meet the pigs.”
As some farmers push for the extension of on-farm slaughter rules, others are asking lawmakers to increase the number of animals a farm can sell for meat without having to take them to a state or federally inspected facility. And still others are asking lawmakers to allow them to sell individually packaged cuts to retail customers after the livestock has been slaughtered – existing regulations allow only for the sale of whole animals. And while that animal may leave the farm in pieces with the buyer, the transaction, in order to be legal, must be completed while the animal is alive and intact.
“With the animal limit per year, there’s a growing concern among small-scale farmers that they’re basically kept at hobby status,” says Andrew Bahrenburg, organizer and advocate for Rural Vermont. “They don’t want to be hobby farmers – this is an important revenue stream.”
Right now, farmers can engage in on-farm slaughter for up to three cattle, 10 pigs or 25 lamb or goats.
For farmers like Burmeister, expanding the caps would allow him to slaughter his animals on the farm, and eliminate the stress of transportation and the hassle and expense of dealing with third-party processors. For others, upping the caps would allow them to expand their herds, and derive more revenue, “particularly for young and beginning farmers who are trying to diversify their operations and may not want to go into debt investing in a large-scale slaughter facility,” Bahrenburg says.
Windham Rep. Carolyn Partridge, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forest Products, says what the question “all … boils down to really is the concept of food safety.”
Partridge says lawmakers want to nurture the small-farm movement in the state. But she says they can’t do at the cost of food safety. Partridge says slaughtering at inspected facilities help ensure the sanitized environment needed to avoid contamination.
Partridge’s committee has passed legislation extending the on-farm slaughter rules for another three years. But she says committee members were uncomfortable expanding the numbers of livestock that could be slaughtered at an uninspected facility.
“If there was bad instance of tainting or whatever, E. coli, whatever might happen, that Vermont’s brand would be tarnished in some way,” Partridge says.
The House bill extending the sunset is now in the Senate, where Rural Vermont will try to convince Senate lawmakers to repeal the sunset of the on-farm slaughter rules altogether, and also to increase the caps on animal numbers.
This story was edited at 9:33 a.m. on 4/6/16 to correct errors related to the on-farm slaughter statute