Two years ago, Vermont farmer John Klar described on this blog how he had decided to challenge state efforts to prevent him from custom slaughtering animals on his farm. In this new piece, he provides an encouraging update to his efforts. 

Klar raises grass-fed beef and sheep in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He and his wife have also raised chickens and pigs, and made raw-milk artisanal cheeses from cows’ and goats’ milk. Klar practiced law until he grew ill in 1998 from Lyme disease, which caused him to succumb to severe pain from fibromyalgia syndrome, which he still battles. The clean food and routine exercise provided by his modest farming efforts have helped him to improve over the years: stress and food additives aggravate his condition.

by John Klar

John Klar, on his Vermont farm

Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets faces difficult times, as anemic milk prices and public outcry over water pollution from dairy farms converge upon the Agency responsible for regulating both. But after a period of wrangling over the extent Vermont should regulate the sale of meats slaughtered on-farm, Vermont’s small farmers appear to be agreeing to a compromise with the VAAFM under the leadership of Secretary Anson Tebbetts. This is good news for all “sides.”

Like many farmers, I have long sold animals (chickens, pigs, sheep, and cows ) for food that has been slaughtered on site. But about two years ago, I was shocked when a VAAFM inspector visited my home to prevent me from selling halves of beef (which I had advertised on Craiglist). This was a senseless restriction, as there is no sanitary difference between the on-farm slaughtering of a whole versus a half animal which would justify such a distinction. But this law severely hinders sales of on-farm slaughtered products, because few households can afford (and consume) an entire beef. 

I was still free to sell halves, the regulator told me, if I ship my animals off-farm. The problem with this approach is that my customers wish to know that the animal did not suffer from the stress of transport at slaughter: this guarantees meat quality (which can be greatly compromised if animals endure stress at slaughter) as well as humane treatment. The statutes also limit how many on-farm slaughtered animals I can sell yearly, and impose a “sunset” provision which will prohibit all on-farm slaughter sales effective July 1, 2019 (6 V.S.A. §3311a).

In protest, I challenged the VAAFM to cite or arrest me for violating this law, and proclaimed that I would sell halves as I always had. I appeared at the Vermont Senate Agriculture Committee (with many other farmers), and complained about these restrictions on our traditional farming practices. 

Despite some sympathetic legislative ears, the changes I demanded were not passed, and so I set out to sue the State of Vermont to uphold our rights to raise and sell animals from our farms, as we have always done. I organized a number of farmers, itinerant slaughterers and custom processors to pool resources and retain a Vermont attorney to carry our case before the courts. I lined up national press outlets to politicize our cause and called attention to these regulatory restrictions.

On the eve of launching our long-planned offensive, I was advised by several people that the new VAAFM Secretary, Anson Tebbetts, was a “good egg,” who should be given the benefit of the doubt and that I should seek his Department’s alliance for change rather than plunge into litigation.

And so I sent Mr. Tebbetts a letter outlining my aggressive plans, and requesting that the VAAFM meet with me on behalf of the farmers, to avoid such conflict. I am pleased to report that this olive branch was gracefully accepted. It is therefore appropriate to memorialize an understanding which must involve many in conversation before taking the shape of legislation that I hope will be introduced next year. 

This commentary is an invitation for participants and the public to involve themselves in this process, so that a balanced regulatory structure may be instituted which will guarantee public health while preserving the Vermont tradition of on-farm slaughter.

The VAAFM does not draft legislation, but obviously its input is solicited by our legislature and its position merits consideration. Mr. Tebbetts has agreed to consider the small farmers’ concerns about existing legislation that restricts our sales to whole animals only; which imposes overall weight limits; and which is set to expire completely next year (meaning all sales of animals slaughtered on farm will be illegal effective July 1, 2019 unless something is done). Changes to these statutes would provide more latitude to small farm operations while retaining VAAFM oversight, and with ongoing conversation this will be achieved.

I am hopeful that a compromise will be achieved between farmers and VAAFM regarding on-farm slaughter laws, which can be presented with a common front to our legislature for consideration and approval. Sales of Vermont meats continue to grow, and many young people are choosing to embrace such small-scale farming alternatives to dairy. 

In 1966, Vermont enacted sweeping meat inspection laws, but specifically reserved an exemption: “Animals slaughtered by a producer on his premises may be sold to a consumer in quantities of not less than one quarter carcass….” (1966 Public Acts No. 42, Sec. 16(c)). That was then and what is now is that the 1966 statute has been superseded by the current law, which prohibits even halves of a carcass. And if we don’t act soon, all on-farm slaughter will be illegal come 2019. 

Our Vermont farmers produce safe and healthy meats. In a time of increased modern “practices” (like the RAPs), it is refreshing that farmers and the VAAFM seek together to preserve sensible traditions like on-farm slaughter.