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USDA refuses Vermont's request for more on-farm slaughter

A photo of sheep in a barn.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Sheep at Sunrise Farm in White River Junction. Sunrise Farm has been selling processed meat to customers under the existing on-farm slaughter law.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently rejected an idea to allow so-called on-farm animal-share agreements, in which farmers slaughter livestock on the farm for a small group of customers.

Local experts say this kind of thing is already quietly happening, and that it would be better for both Vermont farmers and consumers if it were formally approved.

The number of cows and pigs that are raised for meat has almost doubled in the past 10 years, and agriculture leaders are trying to find ways to make it easier, and more profitable to raise livestock.

Farmers have always been allowed to slaughter their own animals, and give away or sell the meat to family members and employees.

But the USDA has strict food safety standards for selling meat to the general public. The feds insist that commercially sold meat must undergo USDA inspection, and so farmers are not technically allowed to sell what they process on the farm to the public.

“There’s zero flexibility in the federal system. So unless we can figure out a way to either modify that, or come out of that program, there really is not much of a future for animal agriculture in Vermont.”
Chuck Wooster, Sunrise Farm

Chuck Wooster runs Sunrise Farm, in White River Junction, and he says the federal meat inspection system is not really written for small, local producers.

“There’s zero flexibility in the federal system,” Wooster said. “So unless we can figure out a way to either modify that, or come out of that program, there really is not much of a future for animal agriculture in Vermont.”

Wooster has been taking advantage of a 2013 Vermont law that allows farmers to sell a live animal to a single customer, and then help process the meat with the aid of a state-inspected butcher shop. The law has basically served as a workaround to the federal inspection requirements, but the USDA has been okay with the process.

Last year, the state asked USDA if Vermont could extend that law, and allow farmers to not just sell an animal to a single customer, but to a small group of them. For instance: if four people want to go in on a share of a pig.  Farmers say there is a big demand for this kind of thing.

A photo of a cardboard box with cuts of meat inside wrapped in plastic.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Processed lamb for a customer waits in a freezer at Sunrise Farm in White River Junction. Farmers are allowed to sell meat from an animal slaughtered on the farm, but to only one customer.

But the feds said no — they don't want meat that hasn’t been inspected by the USDA to become any more widely distributed than it already is. Wooster says the decision was a blow to Vermont's local meat market.

“It’s really time for the state, for the farmers, for the agency, for everybody, to stop tinkering around the edges here, and really get serious about trying to fix this,” he said. “And addressing this meat slaughter issue is a major part of that.”

Steve Collier is with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and he said Vermont's state inspection program, which has to be approved by USDA, would be in jeopardy of losing its federal backing if the on-farm slaughter law was expanded.

“Our agency very much wants to support all forms of agriculture, and we also want to make sure that food is safe,” Collier said. “So our interest is in making sure that we balance those things. But we’ve never gotten past complying with federal law, because that’s what we’ve been… We need to make sure that we’re doing that.”

So the idea, that would have helped some farmers, and clarified the rules, is being shelved, for now.

“Our agency very much wants to support all forms of agriculture, and we also want to make sure that food is safe ... But we’ve never gotten past complying with federal law …We need to make sure that we’re doing that.”
Steve Collier, Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets

Caroline Gordon is with the farming advocacy group Rural Vermont, which helped pass the on-farm slaughter law.

Gordon is frustrated that the feds object to something the state supports, and which Gordon says is happening anyway largely due to the confusion over how the rules are written.

“I know it’s happening already in the small scale, that customers are allowed access to the on-farm slaughtered meat,” Gordon said. “It’s happening, but is it legal? No.”

Genevieve Smyth helps raise pigs and sheep on Oak Hollow Farm, in Enosburgh. She says the confusion around the on-farm slaughter law is slowing down the growth of local meat sales, and forcing farmers to skirt state and federal agriculture laws.

“I would say, we are doing the best we can,” Smyth said. “I don't think it's designed to be well understood by farmers. I personally know people who think they have a good understanding of the rules and choose to do it otherwise, because that's their personal choice. And I have other people, like other farmers that I know, who have entirely different understandings of the rule than I have, but we both think we're doing it.”

Ultimately, it will be up to lawmakers to decide if they want to try to clarify the rule, and better support Vermont's livestock farmers.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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