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Wisconsin Journal Sentinal: Raw-milk advocates plan appeal to state Supreme Court

10/6/14
By Rick Barrett
Full Article

Raw-milk advocates say they’re filing petitions with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in cases they say are about the rights of consumers and food groups to buy raw, unpasteurized milk direct from a farm.

Two of the petitions were expected to be filed Monday, said plaintiff Gayle Loiselle, a food-rights activist from Dousman. They stem from cases brought by dairy farmers Mark and Petra Zinniker of Walworth County and Grassway Organics Farm Store in New Holstein.

Earlier, a state appeals court ruled against the Zinnikers and Grassway Organics in disputes with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, but the court sidestepped the issue of whether a person has a right to purchase and consume unpasteurized milk.

“The Wisconsin appellate court refused to rule on the question before them regarding the constitutionality of food rights and instead deflected the issue to license violations,” Loiselle said.

A third petition was filed with the state’s highest court earlier this summer involving a case stemming from dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger of Loganville.

“The plaintiffs in all three cases, along with thousands more seeking fresh food directly from the farm, believe they have a fundamental constitutional right to choose what they eat and to choose where that food comes from. We have constitutional rights to conduct business directly between farmers and citizens without government interference and without middlemen like food processors or distributors,” Loiselle said.

With the exception of limited, incidental sales, state law prohibits the sale of unpasteurized milk to the public because it may carry bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses.

Raw-milk advocates say they want access to fresh, unprocessed milk that contains beneficial bacteria. They claim the beneficial bacteria are destroyed by pasteurization, in which milk is heated to a high temperature to destroy pathogens.

“This is about basic rights,” Loiselle said. “We believe the Supreme Court has an obligation to the people of Wisconsin to review these three cases on the merits of these constitutional rights now under question.”

In early 2010, a limited liability coalition formed by raw milk supporters, called Nourished by Nature, entered into a contract with the Zinniker farm to purchase a herd of dairy cows. Nourished by Nature agreed to pay a fee to the Zinnikers, and members would then visit the farm and collect raw milk for their own consumption at home.

The Zinnikers’ attorney asked the state whether that arrangement was legal, and the Department of Agriculture responded with a letter saying it was a “sham arrangement” that could result in civil and criminal penalties. The Zinnikers then filed a lawsuit, seeking a court ruling that their operation was indeed legal.

State regulators argued, and the appeals court agreed, that the Zinnikers were breaking the law because they were distributing milk produced on their farm without a milk producer’s license.

Because of that conclusion, it wasn’t necessary to determine whether a person has a right to consume raw milk, the court said.

“Even assuming that the members of Nourished by Nature have a right to consume unpasteurized milk, the Zinnikers do not have a legal right to operate a dairy farm as milk producers without a license,” the court said.

In the Grassway Organics case, the appeals court said the operators of the farm store needed a retail license to sell milk to members of an association who paid a fee to buy from the store. State officials had told Grassway they couldn’t sell or distribute raw milk from the store.

Store owners Wayne and Kay Craig sued, seeking a circuit court ruling that selling raw milk to members of the association was legal.

The appeals court agreed with the circuit court, which determined the Craigs needed a retail food establishment license. The ruling did not address whether the sale of raw milk would be legal if a retail license were obtained.


Seven Days LTE: Freedom to Slaughter

By Ben Hewitt
3/19/14
Full LTE

I enjoyed Kathryn Flagg’s article about her experience with Green Pasture Meats’ mobile slaughter unit ["A Gentler Exit," March 5]. However, Vermonters have humanely and safely slaughtered animals on-farm for generations without the benefit of fuel-guzzling, $225,000 mobile facilities that must sit idle waiting for lost federal inspectors. While I wish Mark Smith nothing but the best with his ambitious endeavor, let us not forget that the very assumption of the necessity for such infrastructure is emblematic of our severely eroded rights with regard to how we feed ourselves. According to Flagg’s article, many Agency of Agriculture officials acknowledge the existence of a so-called “black market” in farm-slaughtered meat. To those consciously participating in that market, either as producer or consumer, I encourage you to remember that you’re dealing in something far more important than meat and money. You’re dealing in your freedom.


Seven Days: A Writer Says Farewell to Her Beef Cows — at a New Mobile Slaughter Unit

By Kathryn Flagg
3/5/14
Full Article

Slightly more than three years ago, one bull, five cows and two calves arrived at the farm in Shoreham where I live with my husband, Colin Davis. In the years since, our herd has grown to 17. We — and here the credit falls almost entirely to Colin and his father — built fences and unloaded hay. We learned how to drive cattle, to rotate pastures, to undo the mistakes made when someone (me) let the cows escape their fences. We filled water troughs and bottle-fed the occasional sick calf. And on a recent Friday, we slaughtered the first four animals from our herd of Scottish Highland beef cows.

We did it on the farm, thanks to a visit from Vermont’s first large-animal mobile slaughter unit.

A year ago, slaughtering these animals on our farm would have meant hiring an itinerant butcher, who likely would have carved the meat as a carcass hung from the bucket of a large tractor. It would have meant the final cuts, wrapped in white butcher’s paper, would have borne the stamp “Not for Sale” — in other words, only for consumption by friends and family, or for sale on the black market that many ag officials acknowledge exists.

Instead, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector looked on as butchers from New Haven’s Green Pasture Meats slaughtered three steers and one bull. The butchering happened inside a 36-foot trailer with its own generator, kitted out with clean water and electricity and heavy metal winches. In the afternoon, the meat headed to Green Pasture Meats, where it will hang and age for two to three weeks. And it most certainly will be for sale.

Just a few years after state officials and farmers bemoaned processing capacity as a major bottleneck in Vermont’s flourishing food landscape, the mobile slaughter unit — along with new slaughterhouses slated to go in across the state — is speeding traffic along.

“I think, just like we need a diversity of farms, it’s great to have a diversity of scales and models of meat processors,” said Chelsea Bardot Lewis, an agricultural policy administrator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “There have been some great, positive steps forward in terms of increasing capacity.”

The Green Pasture Meats trailer is the state’s first mobile slaughter unit intended for large animals — cows, lambs and pigs. Vermont previously experimented with mobile poultry slaughtering. In 2008, the state pooled $85,000 in legislative funding with private foundation money to purchase a custom-built, 36-foot trailer for a total cost of $93,000. The plan was to create demand for the service and then entice an entrepreneur to take over — so the state put the unit up for auction in early 2012. It went to Tangletown Farm’s husband-and-wife team of David Robb and Lila Bennett for $61,000. Last year, the farmers slaughtered 7,000 birds — mostly chickens and turkeys, but also some guinea fowl and ducks. This year they’re offering farmers custom processing under inspection.

The man behind GPM’s mobile unit in Addison County is Mark Smith, who entered the meat-processing world without much butchering experience. Smith, who’d grown up in Vermont and worked on farms, was seeking to branch out into a new business after work at his construction company slowed down. While visiting a friend who raises grass-fed beef in Colorado, Smith started thinking about the meat industry. He daydreamed about an “old-time butcher shop” where he could sell Vermont-raised beef, pork and lamb from a walk-up counter.

The dream would become GPM. But Smith quickly realized that to control the quality of meat coming into his shop, he’d need to control the slaughter and butchering, too.

“Straight-up common sense tells you that on-farm slaughter, where the animals aren’t being transported long distances … is a lot less stressful for the animals,” Smith said. He researched mobile slaughter units — MSUs, in industry shorthand — and settled on a design used in Washington State, often to slaughter livestock on islands in Puget Sound that don’t have slaughterhouses of their own.

Last May, Smith’s custom unit — a $225,000, 36-foot-long trailer — hit the road. Since then, Smith and his employees have focused primarily on slaughtering animals that they sell under their own label at GPM. They buy directly from farmers, mostly in Addison County, and sell the meat at a Route 7 storefront just north of Middlebury. Everything in their meat cases — with a few exceptions such as bacon and smoked meats — comes through their own slaughter unit.

A few months ago, the company started taking on other customers — such as Colin and me — who were looking to have a few animals slaughtered and didn’t want them trucked to another location. The MSU has also switched from state inspection (which meant meat could be sold only in Vermont) to USDA inspection.


VPR: With Vt. Meat Industry Booming, Ag Agency Looks To Add Inspectors

2/18/14
By Angela Evancie
Full Article

Vermont’s slaughter and meat processing industry is booming, and meat inspectors at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets can’t keep up.

That’s according to Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary at the Agency, who told participants at a policy roundtable at the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont (NOFA) winter conference on Feb. 16 that the Agency is looking to expand its staff to meet a growing demand for locally butchered and processed meat.

The Agency has requested funding to add two more inspectors, called Food Safety Specialists; if the budget is approved by lawmakers, the safety specialist ranks would grow from seven to nine.

The number of slaughter and processing facilities in the state has more than doubled since January of 2012. There are now seven facilities, up from three in 2012, with an additional five facilities proposed for this year, according to data provided by Bothfeld.

The number of processing-only facilities has also doubled, from four in 2012 to nine in 2013.

Part of the reason for the staffing increase, officials said, is that Food Safety Specialists must pay daily visits to facilities that are in operation. Meat Programs Section Chief Randy Quenneville says that Vermont’s geography makes it difficult for inspectors to travel between multiple sites in a given day.

“One inspector covering three or four processing plants in a day in itself isn’t bad,” Quenneville says. “But if you take into account the travel time, it starts to make a difference.”

Quenneville noted that existing staffing is adequate for the current number of facilities, but said that the Agency would have trouble monitoring the additional proposed facilities without extra staffing.

Inspectors also pay occasional visits to 28 custom processing operations, which butcher meat that customers have slaughtered themselves, to check sanitation and record keeping.


VPR: On-Farm Slaughter May Be Legal, But It’s Complicated

By Angela Evancie
1/2/14
Full Article and Audio

A law passed last spring that led to new rules for commercial on-farm slaughter is going through some growing pains.

H-515, the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets housekeeping bill, made it legal for farmers to facilitate on-farm slaughter, but not conduct it themselves. The limitations – and wording – of the rule are causing some frustration and confusion.

At Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield, for example, the law’s stipulation that only an itinerant slaughterer or the animal’s buyer can perform the slaughter on-site means that farm co-owner Laura Olsen can’t do it herself.

The farm does have a retail cutting license that allows them to butcher inspected meat. On a recent afternoon, Olsen and Kegan Refalo sharpened knives and prepared to butcher two of their pigs. The animals had been transported to Royal Butcher in Randolph to be slaughtered and inspected. The transport is an extra step that Olsen says she wouldn’t mind having the option of foregoing.

“To have the flexibility to do some on-farm slaughter at least would be really nice,” she says.

Olsen says she can tell it stresses her animals to move them to the slaughterhouse. And there would be a financial benefit to doing everything on-site.

“There’s a slaughter fee and a box fee and a dealing-with-waste fee,” she says. “And that’s actually one of the places where [with] on-farm slaughter we could save a lot of money, because we do high-quality compost.”

Some say the wording of the rule is unclear. H-515 stipulates that “the meat from the slaughter of the livestock is distributed only as whole or half carcasses to the person who owned the animal for his or her personal use or for use by members of his or her household or nonpaying guests.”

Graham Unangst-Rufenacht, who contracts with the Maple Hill School and Community Farm in Plainfield to raise cattle on their land, says that could rule could be interpreted multiple ways.

“In the law it says whole or half animal, and it uses both the term individual and person, which, looking through a legal dictionary looks like that could point to an individual grouping of people or a person, which is actually an incorporated group of people,” the 31-year-old farmer says.

These nuances got Unangst-Rufenacht into a bit of trouble with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture when he tried to sell the beef from two cows to six people. The agency temporarily retained the meat, and issued Unangst-Rufenacht a $750 fine, $250 of which is deferred.

He says the one animal-one buyer rule is problematic:

“To find one person who wants to take home four to six hundred pounds of beef, and arrange for the slaughter on their own, is a feat,” he says. “It’s not only a lot of beef to eat; it’s a lot of beef to store and pay for.”

Unangst-Rufenacht admits that he didn’t actually read the law beforehand – he went by other peoples’ advice. But he stands by his interpretation.

“If I had read the law beforehand, I would have had a lot of questions,” he says.

“It’s very complex,” says Andrea Stander, executive director of the advocacy group Rural Vermont.

“Federal rules, state rules, animal health rules – the way in which these things intersect is incredibly complex,” says Stander. “It’s very difficult for farmers and/or consumers to really understand, in some total way, how all this stuff affects them.”

Randy Quenneville, meat sections program chief for the Agency of Agriculture, says he thinks the law was “fine the way it was.”

Quenneville’s main problem with the law is sanitation. He says the original law, which allowed for non-commercial on-farm slaughter, actually had stricter sanitation rules when it came to slaughtering for other people than the new law has for commercial on-farm slaughter.

Under the new law, “sanitary” is defined more loosely.

(2) “Sanitary conditions” means a site on a farm that is: (A) clean and free of contaminants; and (B) located or designed in a way to prevent: (i) the occurrence of water pollution; and (ii) the adulteration of the livestock or the slaughtered meat.

Quenneville says he’d rather see more farmers build their own commercial slaughter facilities, or use the ones that already exist.

The law requires record keeping, and the agency is starting to look into potential violations. So far, Quenneville says he’s gotten records for eight on-farm slaughters at five farms. That’s for 35 animals – but Quenneville isn’t sure about that last number. He thinks some of the forms may have been filled out incorrectly.


Seven Days: Black River’s Processing Plant Is a Boon for Local Meat Industry

By Corin Hirsch
08.14.13
Full Article

The 25 Berkshire-Chester pigs that recently arrived at 45 Fairbanks Road in North Springfield had lived a charmed life, at least for pigs: eating grain that had been hand-ground by their owner and waddling contentedly around 200 hilly acres near Enosburg Falls. And, after they met a quick end at a local slaughterhouse, the pigs became pioneers, of a sort.

Cut lengthwise, they were packed into carcass-size plastic bins and trucked to Black River Produce. This spring, the North Springfield-based fresh-food distributor took on a new role: meat processor. It was there, at Black River’s still-under-construction processing facility, that the pig sides were unloaded and rolled through the mostly empty building to the hanging room at its center. There, six men in white coats and rubber boots hung the sides on hooks and, one by one, got to work on them with saws and knives. In just a day and a half, the 25 pigs were transformed into piles of ham, loins, chops, trotters and heads.

Just as quickly, those parts disappeared in something of a pork diaspora: bellies and ham were sent to Vermont Smoke and Cure; other bellies to the chef of Craigie On Main in Cambridge, Mass. Legs went to Rhode Island’s Daniele to be made into prosciutto. Various cuts were trucked to chefs around Vermont (“One chef buys all of the heads,” says production manager Dominic Barone). Tenderloins and other chops were sealed, marked with a Black River Meat label and shelved in the company’s enormous cooler, destined to be sold at retail stores around Vermont and New Hampshire.

Though Black River Produce’s new plant — which also processes seafood — is barely three months old, its cutters work with intensity and speed, making this place a potential game changer for the local meat industry. Vermont has long struggled with a bottleneck at the slaughtering and processing levels, a frustrating challenge for farmers who might otherwise grow their herds to meet the rising demand for local meats.

“It takes longer to process an animal than it takes to slaughter,” says Chelsea Bardot Lewis, the state’s senior agricultural development coordinator. In grad school, she wrote a thesis examining whether slaughterhouses stalling the meat sector’s growth — and concluded that the real problem was with processing.

For Bardot Lewis, who also heads the Meat Processing Task Force of the state’s Farm to Plate initiative, processing has been a key problem to solve. “The meat industry comes up as one of Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross’ top three in terms of where he sees the future of the Vermont ag sector growing,” she says. “We’ve been putting a lot of investment into both the regulatory and development sides, to expand capacity for slaughter and processing.”

Once upon a time, Vermont had more than 20 slaughterhouses, Bardot Lewis points out. In the 1980s, those abattoirs began to lose business to the growing meat-industrial complex out west, “and they couldn’t keep up with some regulatory changes that required a new level of record keeping,” she says, referring to the detailed safety protocol that meat and poultry processors must follow to operate.

Now there are only five functioning slaughterhouses in the state, and this limitation on farmers was a key driver in Black River’s decision to purchase this 40,000-square-foot building in North Springfield.

Just about the only clues to the former life of the 50-year-old behemoth are a few walk-in refrigerators; Ben & Jerry’s made its Peace Pops here in the 1980s and ’90s. After the company moved out in 2002, the place housed Ellsworth Ice Cream, which in turn moved out in 2007. Soon, vandals made off with some of the building’s wiring and pipes; two years ago, a quarter of the structure collapsed under the weight of snow on the roof.

Even in horrible shape, the place caught the eyes of Black River Produce founders Mark Curran and Steve Birge, who have a proven knack for noticing gaps in the local food system. Rather than ruin, they saw potential.

Special delivery
Curran and Birge were self-professed ski bums when they met in the late 1970s; Birge hitched a ride to Okemo in Curran’s van, and they soon began chatting about business ideas. Birge, who worked in a restaurant, knew how hard it was for Vermont chefs to get their hands on fresh produce. So they painted the side of a van with the phrase “Give Peas a Chance” and began picking up produce from markets in Boston to drive back to Vermont, stopping at restaurants along the way.

Thirty-plus years later, Black River has 2000 wholesale accounts throughout New England, including schools, food markets, farm stands and its earliest bread-and-butter customers, restaurants. That single van has been replaced with a fleet of trucks, all adorned with the company’s signature strawberry logo. They deliver produce, cheese, flowers, fish and meat to chefs and retailers, often within 24 hours of their orders being placed. Black River’s 63,000-square-foot North Springfield warehouse employs 155 people; last year the company’s meat sales totaled $5 million, and they are expected to grow by 25 percent this year.

Black River didn’t sell much meat at all until five years ago, when the company hired Tom Biggs, of a cooperative called Vermont Quality Meats, to grow that sector. When Black River began selling grass-fed beef, Curran says, it wholesaled for $3.79 per pound — a price that caused some customers to balk. “They said, ‘We’re paying $1.99 a pound. End of story,’” he recalls.

Still, the company persisted in selling local beef, chicken and quail, mostly to restaurants, specialty-food stores and a few institutional clients, including Fletcher Allen Health Care. About two years ago, demand for local meat began to surge — but, like farmers, Black River was beholden to the processing fees charged by slaughterhouses, which could tack on upward of $1 for every pound of meat. And, because processing techniques varied from place to place, the cut consistency prized by chefs was sometimes hard to achieve, Curran says.

Black River bought the building from the city in the spring of 2012 for $125,000 with plans to relocate its seafood processing there, as well. At the time, Curran reported to Seven Days that the company planned to sink $1 million or so into its rehab. So far, Black River has spent $2 million, with $3 million more to go, he says now.

Since Black River is “very healthy,” according to business development manager Sean Buchanan, most of that money came from company coffers, but the state also granted Black River a $50,000 Working Lands Enterprise Initiative award.

As rehab got under way, the company had to figure out a key component in keeping the facility running: securing a steady supply of animals. That meant locating farmers who raised their animals in humane, sustainable ways and whose operations were large enough to provide animals to Black River year-round.

“The [consumer] demand is there. Our job was to go out and get farmers to ramp up,” says Curran. “We’re looking for all-natural, welfare-approved meat. People want total transparency, all Vermont born, raised and slaughtered.”

“We’ve very cautious of who we get into business with, as we’re not looking to buy from everybody,” adds Buchanan, who knows the meat system from his time as a professional chef and from his visits to local farms. “We have a lot of producers who contact us,” he continues. “We know what we can sell [the meat] for, and we look for producers who have access to capital to scale up, who can meet commitment guidelines. That’s a pretty limited market.”

Black River’s leadership also recognized the importance of finding a broader audience for its meat, which means selling it at a price point consumers can accept. “If we have one goal with this plant, it is to be able to get Vermont meat into bigger markets,” says Buchanan. “We want to see the product not only on food-service shelves; we’d like to send these products to independent and mainstream retailers.”

Meanwhile, Buchanan helped design a circular rail system that would minimize processing time, and hired meat cutters as the advance guard to staff the facility that might eventually employ dozens.

Staffing up
Dominic Barone, 25, was a meat cutter at Healthy Living Market in South Burlington when Buchanan reached out to him. Barone says the prospect of moving from the state’s largest city to sleepier Springfield wasn’t daunting, given the opportunity. “Essentially, I was at the stage where I could keep chugging along doing what I’m doing, or take that next step and develop a career path,” he says. “This is a company I can retire from. This plant is only going to grow.”

Two other Black River meat cutters, Kelly Ireland and Briton Laslow, also used to work at Healthy Living. They and their fourth colleague, Aaron McAllister, are all under the age of 30.

Barone moved to Springfield in April and works five days a week in a place that still feels largely abandoned. But the building has another occupant, Black River’s thriving seafood sector. Just outside the meat-cutting room is a fishy-smelling one, anchored by a pile of shaved ice; nearby, lobster tanks burble away. In Barone’s domain, rosy-pink carcasses rotate into the cutting room from the hanging room, circulating on both sides of the central workspace so the cutters can work on a few animals at once.

Despite his standard white coat, Barone’s black-framed specs and tattoos give him a sort of hipster-butcher look. And he holds forth passionately on flesh. “We know meat. It’s our life,” he enthuses, adding that the industry needs “new blood.”

Asked how butchering has changed since the days of sawdust-covered floors in the backs of supermarkets, Barone cites faster cutting techniques and even new cuts, such as Denver and Sierra. “We have chefs doing crazy things, and it’s a pleasure to be able to give them what they want,” he says.

About three-quarters of the meat that Black River’s butchers process goes to chefs and institutions, with the remainder going to retail. All of the beef at this USDA-inspected facility is painstakingly tested for E. coli.

These meat cutters, along with two packagers, are already processing 30 pigs, 10 lambs and two to four cows each week. Almost all the meat is spoken for by the time it’s ready for delivery. Even the inedible bits — skin and bones — are placed in a chilled rendering room, where a New York company pays by the pound to use them in products such as lip balm, soap and dog food.

The remaining vacant spaces at Black River will eventually be transformed. Next to the meat cutters, a room with black-and-white-tiled walls will become a packing and sausage-grinding nexus. A dramatic 8000-square-foot space will hold a smokehouse and, down the road, a dry-curing facility for making salami and other cured meats. And, in an oblong-shaped room near the back of the plant, Black River is considering installing an onsite kill floor, aka slaughterhouse.

The company launched its processing operation with meat from four farms: beef from Reading’s Newhall Farm and Hartland’s Clay Hill Farm, and pork from Danville’s Deer Run Farm and Vermont Family Farm. Since then, two lamb producers and one beef grower have joined the roster.

Those 25 Berkshire-Chester pigs that were recently processed came from Vermont Family Farm owner Greg Finch. After 15 years of raising pigs, Finch says he’s planning to expand from 60 sows to 100 by next year. That will yield more than 1000 pigs annually, and Black River will purchase all of them, at prices based on hang weight.

Finch notes that while all the state’s slaughterhouses seem “maxed out,” he’s been able to navigate the bottleneck and long waits by offering a consistent flow of animals year-round. That made him an attractive partner for Black River. Finch thinks scale is key to profitability, especially as many consumers continue to balk at what they consider inflated prices for local meat.

“My price is at a reasonable level right now, but those folks who farm at smaller volume, they need to make more per pig,” Finch notes. “That has kept the price [of meat] very high. I will always keep my pork affordable.”

Point of sale
Price is always on the minds of retailers such as Alex Buron, the deli manager at Putney Food Co-op and doyenne of both the cheese and meat cases. “[The meat case] used to be this teeny-tiny cooler at the back of the store,” she notes. “We’ve done a lot of different things with our meat department, trying to make it a successful small department. We did commercial-meat pork and beef for a while, and, though it’s the cheaper price, people say they want the quality [of local meat].”

They just don’t necessarily want the price that comes with it. And therein lies a fundamental challenge to the enterprise of raising and selling local meat. “People want it, but it’s sticker shock,” says Buron. “I understand where the price is coming from, but a big part for consumers is not understanding that. People think that we jack up the price. A huge chunk of my job and efforts is to get local food in people’s mouths, and I spend so much time trying to get the cheapest price for these products. I’m at the lowest retail price that I can go.”

Buron buys beef and pork from Black River, as well as beef from North Hollow Farm in Rochester, pork from Harlow Farm in Westminster, and chickens from Misty Knoll Farms, Coleman Natural and Bell & Evans. As she narrates the deals she tries to land on each batch, it’s clear they involve a complex equation in which the variables are what she can afford to pay, what the consumers will pay, and which meat will move before it spoils on the shelf. “It’s like playing Tetris with a highly perishable and expensive product,” Buron says. For instance, poultry processing is so expensive in Vermont, “It can be cheaper to eat local beef than local chicken,” she says. That’s why Buron’s store features several choices.

Though Black River meat tends to be “pricier,” Buron says, “they’re trying to provide a safe, clean place for people to bring their animals. I was excited to hear about it both professionally and personally.”

Buron will soon be raising her own cows for beef on land she purchased in Springfield.

Like her, Sean Buchanan describes static between what consumers say they want to buy and what they’re willing to buy. “People say, ‘I only want 100 percent grass-fed.’ But sometimes there’s an imbalance between what people are vocalizing and what they really want.”

For now, the six guys who work at Black River’s meat-processing plant are not only cutting the meat but grinding and packing it, too. “Yesterday we had to pack 800 pounds of sausage into 1-pound packs,” Barone says. “That was a long day.”

After those pigs were out the door, the cutters anticipated a few more long days processing 38 lambs. That kind of traffic explains why Black River is on the lookout for “qualified cutters,” says Barone. “The more we have, the more meat we can take on.”

That’s music to the ears of people like Buron, who hopes that a consistent supply of locally raised, reasonably priced meat might coax people away from supermarket coolers and into independent retailers — and, in turn, support the growth of local farms. “If customers buy local meat from their local small store, they’re ultimately supporting a bigger cause,” she says.

The original print version of this article was headlined “Fresh Cut.”


New York Times: Where Corn Is King, a New Regard for Grass-Fed Beef

By KATHRYN SHATTUCK
June 17, 2013
Full Article

BASSETT, Neb. — Isolation comes with the territory in the Sandhills of Nebraska, where grassy dunes laced with wet meadows undulate above the Ogallala Aquifer, and the thinning towns are few and far between.

Tom Lasater, who runs his family’s beef-marketing business in Colorado, has discussed a collaboration with Prescott Frost.

In the four years since he settled here, Prescott Frost has found himself set apart more than most. In a state where corn is king, he is on a quest to breed a better cow for the grass-fed beef industry — one that can thrive without chemical pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and, the clincher, grain — and to market his own brand of artisanal meat.

A great-grandson of the poet Robert Frost, who tended Ayrshire cattle in Vermont, the Connecticut-born Mr. Frost has spent a lifetime taking the road less traveled by. He put down roots on 7,000 acres in what he calls the Napa Valley of ranchland, home to more than 700 species of native grasses and forbs: bluestem, buffalo, reed canary, brome — the salad bar on which grass-fed beef is raised.

“If change is going to come to the cattle industry, it’s got to come from educated people from the outside,” Mr. Frost said, quoting from Allan Nation, the publisher of The Stockman Grass Farmer, considered the grazier’s bible.

“There’s a cultural kind of fear-mongering that is involved,” said Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and the president of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. “The attitude out there is that grass-fed is for the crazies.”

In late April, Mr. Frost was attending the Slow Money National Gathering in Boulder, Colo., where food producers trawled for investors, when he found himself at lunch with Tom Lasater of the storied Colorado and Texas ranching family. Dining on burgers and kale salad, the men could have been mistaken for oenophiles as they debated the nuances of dry aging and terroir, or how various grasses and soil conditions affect the taste of meat.

“When the wine industry started out in California, nobody had a language for what a bouquet was,” Mr. Frost, 55, said. “Vintners had to come up with a way an audience could have a conversation about hints of raspberries, of camomile. And that’s what we have to do with beef.”

The next week, Mr. Lasater, 42, who in 2009 settled in Denver to run his family’s beef-marketing business, paid Mr. Frost a visit to discuss a possible collaboration.

The connection was easy to understand. Each had been educated at Eastern boarding schools (Mr. Frost at the Putney School in Vermont; Mr. Lasater at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire), had lived abroad (Mr. Frost in Paris and Rome; Mr. Lasater in China and Hong Kong) and had spent time in California (Mr. Frost as a stockbroker and decorative painter in Los Angeles; Mr. Lasater as an Internet entrepreneur in Silicon Valley).

And though Mr. Frost took up farming in 2003 after inheriting land in Illinois while Mr. Lasater grew up in the saddle, each was focused on addressing the distribution imbalance between the heartland and the coasts, and on increasing name recognition of their brands.

“The intrigue and the interest in eating grass-fed beef is more in the areas of urban concentration, and where you have the cheaper land is more in the rural Midwest areas,” Mr. Kirschenmann said. “In New York, land is so expensive that farmers can’t afford to raise animals from birth to butcher on grass.”

After beef samples sent to food writers received enthusiastic reviews, Mr. Frost created a monthly Internet club, at PrescottFrost.com, that offers organic, grass-fed ground beef and hot dogs, with steaks as a bonus for subscribers. All the meat, his own and that of other producers, relies on the genetics masterminded by his partner, Rick Calvo, who fine-tunes their ranch’s two herds: Mr. Frost’s Murray Greys and Mr. Calvo’s Red Angus.

“You want a minimum-input type cow, with more depth of body, more thickness, good udder structure and a good disposition,” Mr. Calvo said. “An angry cow is not a very good eating experience.”

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Lasater’s father, Dale Lasater, whose holistic management techniques have been chronicled in National Geographic and the documentary “Food, Inc.,” decided to market the Beefmaster, his family’s breed.

“We learned that just because we liked our beef didn’t mean that anyone else in the world did, or even really cared what grass-fed beef was,” Tom Lasater said. “For the first 10 years it was a real uphill battle.”

Lasater Grasslands Beef sells about 75 percent of its product through retailers like Whole Foods and Natural Grocers, with the remaining 25 percent online.


VT Digger: New slaughtering rules are a way forward from Vermont’s ‘black market’ in meat

by Kate Robinson
May 27, 2013
Full Article

John Winn’s growing market providing farm-raised lambs to Muslim families for halal slaughter, as well as to other Vermonters, will be capped by new regulations in a miscellaneous agriculture bill, H.515, that passed at the end of the legislative session.

The provisions were a response to a clash between the mostly careful traditional outdoor on-farm slaughter convenient for small livestock raisers who sell animals directly to the public and USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) standards that govern federal and state meat inspections.

Some use the term “black market” for the direct sale of animals that are not slaughtered to FSIS standards on the farm or not taken to a commercial slaughterhouse.

Under the new regulations, the Franklin County farmer must build a custom slaughter facility if he slaughters more than 25 sheep per year. But his customers for on-farm slaughter have been increasing steadily over the past few years, especially in the Muslim community. This season he has 85 lambs in the pipeline.

Winn had offered an outdoor space on his Georgia farm for halal slaughter because he was comfortable with occasionally providing customers a patch of his land to use along with some help, including cleanup and disposal of the offal. Like more and more farmers around Vermont, he has been responding to the rising demand for local meat raised in healthy, humane conditions. He also wanted to expand sales of his Clun Forest sheep.

As a compromise for farmers who want to raise and sell no more than “10 swine, three cattle, 25 sheep or goats; or any combination … [but] no more than 3,500 pounds of live weight of livestock … per year,” the new law permits on-farm outdoor slaughter — that is, without a custom facility — but under more tightly regulated conditions.

Winn ran afoul of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, when a rival farmer, who had built a custom slaughter facility, filed a complaint about Winn’s outdoor operation. Winn was served with a cease and desist order and the state levied a $2,000 fine, since reduced to $500, but requiring him to build a facility if wants to expand his business beyond the 25-sheep maximum. Building a custom facility is estimated to cost between $5,000 and $15,000.

As a compromise for farmers who want to raise and sell no more than “10 swine, three cattle, 25 sheep or goats; or any combination … [but] no more than 3,500 pounds of live weight of livestock … per year,” the new law permits on-farm outdoor slaughter — that is, without a custom facility — but under more tightly regulated conditions. The farmer cannot “assist” in any way and the site must meet more stringent sanitary conditions that include being free of contaminants and designed to prevent water pollution and livestock or meat adulteration. The slaughter must be done by the buyer or an itinerant slaughterer hired by the buyer.

Rob and Tamara Martin of Chandler Pond Farm in South Wheelock are among the younger farmers who have been expanding into whole-animal sales, in their case pork and poultry. In her testimony before the House Agriculture Committee, Tamara Martin spoke to the “high cost of infrastructure for farmers just starting out.” With the limits imposed by the new regulations, expanding the meat-animal side of their business would mean facing the added costs of either building a custom facility on-site or taking her animals to a commercial slaughterhouse.

Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, advocates for the growing number of small farms around the state. Stander sees on-farm, outdoor slaughter as an intermediate step for a farmer, particularly a young farmer, to figure out whether it is a viable part of their business. “These are farmers who are not on a trajectory to become part of a commercial stream,” she said. “They intend to remain hyper-local.”

During hearings on H.515, there was some ardent opposition to the bill, both in House and Senate agriculture committee testimony. It focused on the number of animals allowed before the requirement for building a facility kicks in, but also on worries about the “case-by-case” basis on which the state Agency of Agriculture inspectors would evaluate the permitted on-farm slaughter.

For the agriculture agency, the rock and a hard place is that USDA-FSIS regulations require states with their own inspection service to do meat inspection for food safety at least “equal to” the FSIS requirements. Federal requirements are at odds with traditional on-farm slaughter, so much so that the term “black market” is now used for those who have been selling animals slaughtered on the farm under conditions that might not have passed state inspection, which are governed by federal regulations.

H.515 language was an attempt at compromise

Under H.515, any farmer slaughtering for his or her household or “nonpaying guests or employees” is still free to do so in the manner they see fit and without applying for a license. But when selling animals to others, a licensed custom slaughter facility is required at the farm with the following exception: the buyer of the farm-raised animal does the slaughter themselves — or hires an itinerant slaughterer to do it — on a site approved by the farmer, conducts the slaughter in a way that meets specific “sanitary conditions,” and does not get assistance from the farmer except by being provided with a site and some “implements” and relying on the farmer for “disposal of the carcass and offal from slaughter.”

Among other requirements: The farmer must keep a record of livestock sales and file it with the state. The farm can be inspected at any time and whether the farm’s methods pass muster is up to the individual inspector.

To its supporters — the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and a good number of the small farmers affected — the custom slaughter clauses of H.515 are an acceptable compromise because the exemptions allow small-farm enterprises that sell a few animals to do so without building a facility or going to the expense of taking the animals to a commercial slaughter facility. At the same time, they provide oversight of the Vermont brand. The agriculture agency sets conditions for building a custom slaughter facility, something that meets FSIS standards, and sets sanitary conditions for any on-farm slaughter which their inspectors will rule on if a verifiable complaint is filed.

Prior rules to help propel the new market weren’t working

Rising demand among Vermonters for locally raised, high-quality, humanely slaughtered meat prompted the Legislature to passed Act 207 in 2008, with the expectation that it would help farmers expand the in-state market for whole or half animals.

Act 207 was passed “to help small farmers to raise beef to sell to neighbors,” as Sen. Bobby Starr, head of the Senate Agriculture Committee, puts it.

That legislation did not end “black market” meat sales, as traditional non-FSIS-compliant on-farm slaughter continued. It left gaping holes in the regulations, even though it laid out rules for legal sales.

Andrea Stander

Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, at the Statehouse in 2012. Photo by Alan Panebaker/VTDigger.

Starr says that the new regulations in H.515 respond to the fact that “the USDA had severe problems with the way [on-farm slaughter] was being handled” even after Act 207 was passed. The committees worked very closely with the USDA and the agriculture agency in crafting the language in H.515, he said.

Stander advocated for some leeway for small meat producers. From Rural Vermont’s point of view, economic viability for small farmers is of primary concern and the cost of custom facilities is too great for many.

When funding was discussed in the Senate Agriculture Committee and Starr asked whether funds might be made available to help someone like John Winn, he was told that meeting the demand for such facilities all over the state is beyond the capacity of the ag agency’s budget.

H.515 regulations come into being at a time of change. But there is unanimity across the board — small livestock producers, the Agency of Agriculture, and an array of nonprofits and quasi-governmental organizations such as the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and its Farm to Plate Initiative, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, Rural Vermont and NOFA-VT — on the desirability of promoting the sale of animals direct from the farm to Vermont consumers. More and more, Vermonters want to know where their meat comes from and how it was raised and slaughtered.

Enthusiasm for buying farm-fresh food has grown exponentially in the last decade, according to the latest Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. That includes those raised for the buyer on a farm where they are, in due time, slaughtered. Vermont is, in fact, part of a livestock renaissance in New England. In March, New England livestock producers celebrated the new market for high-end meat with its first annual “Meat Ball.”

A report from the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Farm to Table in February confirmed that, if the supply grows, demand will continue to grow. But among the “pinch points” that are retarding growth of this market, according to the report, are convenient, year-round, USDA-FSIS facilities.

Commercial slaughter facilities are becoming more available — there is a new state-inspected slaughter facility coming on line in Lyndonville, commercial facilities in New Haven and Wilmington and a mobile slaughter facility in Middlebury — but they are still few and far between. And it is really only larger or specialized meat operations that find commercial facilities convenient.

Some operations, such as Sugar Mountain Farms in West Topsham, owned by Walter Jeffries, and Rep. Chip Conquest’s Full Circle Farm in Wells River, are investing in slaughter and processing facilities of their own. Last fall, Conquest hosted a tour and discussion about the “opportunities and challenges a custom slaughter facility might provide for your farm or region” for NOFA-VT.

The state and sustainable farming nonprofits are eager to encourage on-farm slaughter. Rural Vermont backs local facilities for “neighbor-to-neighbor” sales because they revive the old tradition of a local source for food.

Will H.515 put an end to the tension between farmers and the Agency of Agriculture? That may depend on the availability of funding for custom slaughter facilities and whether the limits on the number of animals permitted are enforced.

Stander has been in touch with the Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross to initiate a conversation leading to a clearer definition of “sanitary conditions,” the next battleground for the small-scale lifestock producers Rural Vermont represents.

This is needed, she says, “so that farmers can go ahead with on-farm slaughter without fearing they will not pass inspection if a state inspector comes to the farm. Knowing how to meet the intent of the regulations will protect the Vermont brand while enlarging the market for small producers.”

For Stander, the overriding issue is that with more and more Vermonters wanting to buy safe meat and local food, “we are going to have to rely on small farmers. So let’s find a way to make this work.”


On Pasture: Vermont Goat Collaborative “Meats” New American Needs

By Kathy Voth
May 20, 2013
Full Article
This collaboration between goat dairy farms, recently arrived refugees, and a coalition of supporters is a win-win example of how to provide fresh local meat for immigrant communities, build bridges between old and new Americans, and improve land stewardship.

A new meat goat operation was born in Vermont this spring after several years of gestation and labor.  Located in Colchester, Vermont it will provide affordable goat meat to families who were forced to flee their countries because of persecution, war, or violence.  The farm was the vision of Karen Freudenberger, a volunteer then working with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, who realized that “comfort food” is more than an indulgence, it’s a way of finding home in an unfamiliar country.  Working with a coalition of supporters including The Association of Africans Living in Vermont, the Vermont Land Trust, and the Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the Vermont Goat Collaborative was born.

The Seed of the New Farm

Every Monday when Karen went to volunteer, people would tell her about wishing they could find affordable goat meat.  They just couldn’t cover the $8 to $10 a pound for locally raised goat meat and so were buying imported frozen meat that they viewed as substantially inferior  She realized how important this taste of home was to the refugees from the stories they told about their former lives.  An older man, Mohamed, was sad and withdrawn until Karen asked him if he’d ever had animals.  As he started telling her about his camels, cows and goats, “His eyes just lit up, and he was a different person.  It hit me harder than any day since…what a hugely important piece of people’s lives is missing when they come here,” she said.

In response she visited markets serving immigrant populations to figure out the demand for goat meat, and where the meat was coming from.  When I met Karen by email in June of 2011, she wrote, “What we’re trying to do is figure out a way to help refugees here in the Burlington (VT) area produce goat meat for the ethnic market. We estimate that approximately 3000 goats are being imported frozen from Australia to meet the demands of our local refugee populations….just here in greater Burlington.  This seems a bit crazy as we struggle to maintain a working landscape, promote local foodstuffs and so on. However, as always in these ventures, the economics are sobering.  (Someday I need to figure out how the Australians can ship goat to the US for less than $3/lb!!!!)”

Finding Fertile Ground for the Farm

From there Karen began to put together the pieces of a puzzle that would create a new picture of home for these new Americans.  Vermont goat dairies needed a place to send the bucklings born on their farms every year, making them a good source for goats for a new farm venture.  To find land in proximity to where the recently resettled refugees live, she turned to the  the Vermont Land Trust.

The Vermont Pasture Program at the Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture is also providing support to the young collaborative.  Jenn Colby has been a tireless supporter of the project, advising on grazing issues and all things livestock.  Both Karen and Jenn continue to gain inspiration from the All Cows Eat Weeds workshop they attended last year especially since, as Karen says, “if all cows grudgingly eat weeds, all goats LOVE them.”   They are currently working on a farm management plan that will over time transform old hay fields that had been treated with enormous amounts of fertilizer (on land that is in the floodplain of the Winooski River) into a more diverse and natural woody browse that will be “as full of weeds as possible.”  They hope that this will reduce parasite problems, provide a more balanced diet for the goats, and be good to the land and river they steward.

The farm is now stocked with 77 baby goats from Steve Reid’s Fat Toad Farm and two other dairy operations.  The project, with funding patched together from  Green Mountain Coffee Roaster, the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and many individual donations is helping the new farmers purchase their capital equipment and subsidizing operating costs until the first animals can be sold.  The farmers will then reinvest the proceeds so as to expand their operation next year. The project also has lots of volunteers to thank for help with everything from cleaning out the detritus from a century old barn to building pens and painting signs at the farm entrance.  Volunteers from University of Vermont fraternities, City Market co-op, and the Bhutanese community have worked side by side to get the farm off the ground, often sharing a delectable Bhutanese meal at the end of a hard work day.

The project was recently awarded one of Vermont’s prized Working Lands Grants that will enable them to build a small custom exempt slaughter facility at the farm.  Rather than eating meat imported frozen from 16,000 miles away, Vermont’s New Americans will by this fall be able to ride their bikes to the Collaborative Farm, choose a goat that has been raised on wholesome Vermont weeds, slaughter it according to their own cultural traditions, and bring the meat home for dinner.


Seven Days: A Kinder Kill

Skipping the slaughterhouse is increasingly popular — and sometimes illegal
By Kathryn Flagg
11.21.12
Full Article

For Monte Winship — “pushing 59,” stout and jovial and a well-known itinerant butcher in southern Vermont — it was business as usual on a mid-November Monday morning. With a reporter in tow, he’d taken the back roads to Spoon Mountain Farm in Middletown Springs in his black Ford F-150, admiring the views and chatting about the history of old farms along the way.

Having left his .22 rifle behind in the cab, he knocked on the door of the little white farmhouse and said his good mornings to the Lewis family, who milk about 25 Jerseys at their organic dairy.

But it wasn’t milk on the menu today — it was meat. Winship, who has been butchering animals in Vermont since his boyhood, was here to dispatch a beefy steer destined for the dinner table.

“Hi, girls,” Winship said to the doe-eyed Jerseys as he followed longtime friend and farmer Toby Lewis to the corral near the house.

Lewis and his adult daughter, Bess, spent a few moments cornering the steer in the corral, sending the gaggle of a dozen or so cows hustling this way and that. “You might want to come in here, too, Monte. Join the party,” Lewis called, so the butcher, a second halter in hand, slipped into the pen. Lewis sprang into action at an opportune moment, and soon they had a halter over the steer’s head; the animal went still and calm as Bess and Toby Lewis leaned heavily against his sides.

“He’s in good shape, Toby,” said Winship, appraising the 2-year-old animal — a Jersey-Hereford cross that Lewis nicknamed a “Jerford.” Out of the ring, the steer went a little stubborn, reluctant to move down the dirt road to the barn, but Bess and Lewis urged him along. “That’s a good boy,” Lewis said in a low, pleasant tone. “What a good boy.”

Soon enough they had him alongside the rear of the barn, at the top of a slight incline and out of sight of most of the herd. Winship pulled the .22 from his truck and loaded two bullets. “Not that I thought I’d have to shoot him more than once,” he said later, “but better safe than sorry.”

“He’s going to go down quick,” Lewis warned Bess. Winship raised his rifle, pointing the barrel directly at the steer’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. Just like that, the steer collapsed, as if his legs had turned to jelly beneath him. Winship slit his throat next, and the cow’s thick, red blood began its slow trickle down the hill. “No fuss, no muss,”

Winship said. What used to be the routine manner of acquiring meat for many Vermont farm families — raising and slaughtering an animal at home — is today a choice that borders on countercultural. Individuals are free to raise and slaughter meat for their own families’ consumption, but to buy or sell meat that has been slaughtered like the Lewises’ steer is illegal, and it’s hard to pretend otherwise. Meat processed at custom cutting shops, as this steer will be, leaves the shop wrapped in butcher’s paper stamped “Not for Sale.”

Yet farmers, butchers, meat inspectors and ag advocates all say there’s a thriving underground market for meat slaughtered on farms instead of in slaughterhouses. “What we hear, we figure, is the tip of the iceberg,” says Randy Quenneville, section chief for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s meat-inspection unit.

For farmers, on-farm slaughter can be a way to make a little extra money, hashing out deals under the table with friends and family. And some consumers are choosing this route — despite its illegality — for any number of reasons, from taste preferences to philosophical beliefs about how animals should be raised and killed.

“[A farmer might] have a bunch of people over for dinner, and everyone says, ‘Oh, this is fantastic. Can I buy some?’” explains Andrea Stander, director of the advocacy group Rural Vermont. “If they want to be legal, they have to say no.” But that leaves farmers — especially small-scale producers — facing something of a conundrum. Shipping animals to a slaughterhouse is expensive.

Slaughterhouses are slammed during the times of year when many producers want to process their meat, typically the fall. In some cases, Stander says, “people are booking slaughter dates literally before the animals are born.”

There’s more to the choice than just convenience. Stander says some farmers — and consumers — much prefer killing an animal in the low-stress environment of the farm where it was raised to loading it onto a truck and shipping it to a slaughterhouse.

Rural Vermont has pushed hard for laws that would allow on-farm slaughter, and helped pass a 2008 bill that would allow customers to purchase living livestock, which the farmer would then raise and slaughter on the farm. At the time, it seemed like a loophole that might loosen on-farm regulations. But the state ag agency, after consulting with the feds, said the law would threaten Vermont’s standing with the USDA. Stander maintains the state wasn’t asking the right questions and didn’t push hard enough at the federal level.

“We have been arguing all along that they didn’t get a definitive answer from the USDA,” she says. “They didn’t really go to bat for this law.”

Federal guidelines dictate that if farmers want to sell and butcher an animal on-farm, they must, at the very least, use a “custom” slaughter facility. That doesn’t have to be fancy — basically, it boils down to a sanitary room that has hot and cold water as well as washable floors, ceilings and walls.

Quenneville says the state could face serious consequences if it ignores USDA rules and allows farmers to butcher meat on farms and sell it to whomever they like. The USDA could yank its funding for Vermont’s meat-inspection program and step in to enforce federal rules.

With advocates and regulators at a standstill on the issue, a few farmers are looking into the USDA-sanctioned option of building small, custom slaughter facilities. Chip Conquest, a legislator and farmer from Wells River, is rebuilding his barn after a fire destroyed it several years ago. He’s including a small slaughter room and meat-cutting facility.

“I’m finding out that it is expensive,” says Conquest, who has a small beef herd of about 21 cows. He can’t separate the cost of the slaughter facility from the overall cost of rebuilding his barn, but he does say it’s greater than he had anticipated.

Conquest and Stander want to see a pilot project that would make available basic floor plans and designs for on-farm facilities. And the state is on board. Earlier this year, the Vermont Agriculture Development Board recommended a similar plan.

“A lot of producers felt like the cost of that [facility] would just be prohibitive,” says Chelsea Bardot Lewis, the senior agricultural development coordinator at the ag agency. The pilot project would not only nail down costs but give producers a blueprint for moving forward.

Bardot Lewis still calls commercially inspected meat processing the “gold standard” in Vermont, but she acknowledges that, for small producers with direct relationships with their consumers, legal on-farm slaughter could be a better business model.

“It’s a nice stepping stone,” she says. “Selling halves and quarters is a really great way for small producers to be profitable, and if we can get more consumers to think about buying meat that way, that’s fantastic.”

At the Lewis farm in Middletown Springs, Winship worked in the open air. First he rolled the massive steer onto its back and propped up the animal with a steel bar. He stepped into rubber boots and strapped on a long, black rubber apron. He filled a bucket with soapy water, which he used to splash his hands and instruments every few minutes. Though Winship admitted, “You’re not in a controlled environment” on the farm, he said he always does his best to keep his tools clean.

Before beginning the heavy work of skinning, gutting and cleaning the carcass, Winship rolled the steer’s long tail between his toe and the grassy ground. He always tests the tail because an old butcher once taught him that a cow’s tail is especially sensitive.

“Usually I take the tongue out first,” he continued, slicing the foot-long muscle from the animal’s head and tossing it into a plastic bag lining another bucket. Here he would collect some of the vitals — tongue, heart, liver — for adventurous diners. The feet followed, removed at the joints to make the severing easier and then tossed aside.

Winship has been butchering at least one animal every year on the Lewis farm for the past 35 years. “When you go, there won’t be many people doing what you’re doing,” said Toby Lewis, who sat on the grass near the butcher, looking on while Winship worked. “Do you want this fat for the birds?” Winship asked, as he began the long cut down the steer’s stomach.

Before long, he was ready to hoist the animal up on two hooks dangling from the bucket of Lewis’ John Deere tractor. A foul-smelling liquid gushed out and rushed down the hill. Winship didn’t balk. He moved around the animal methodically, loosening its hide from the body with quick flashes of his knife. The animal’s fat — yellow, owing to its Jersey genes — gleamed in the mid-morning sun.

When he finished splitting the steer’s belly, an enormous pile of innards — four stomachs and a curling mass of intestines — rested on the ground beneath the carcass. Winship stepped in among them and continued his work.

It’s not just inspectors who are skittish about on-farm slaughter. Some farmers take offense at the idea, too. Among them is Arthur Meade, who used to skirt the rules and allow Muslim customers to slaughter their animals in the Koran-prescribed halal fashion on his Morrisville farm. He straightened out after some run-ins with the state, and became the first farmer in Vermont to build a custom slaughter facility on his farm. Now he, and other farmers who rent his facility, can sell customers a live animal and then kill it legally on-site.

Meade alleges that there’s a “tremendous amount” of underground meat sales.  Meade says it’s just not fair when another farmer undercuts his prices by ignoring the rules. So when he heard about a farmer allowing illegal on-farm kills during the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha in October, Meade filed a complaint with the meat-inspection unit at the Agency of Agriculture.

A few years ago, after his new facility was up and running, Meade could sell 40 or 50 animals for that feast holiday. This year, he sold two — a change he blames on illegal farmyard slaughter. The complaint resulted in an ag agency investigation, which is still under way. Meade says he only filed the complaint after first approaching the farmer and offering to help explain the regulations.

“I just want everybody to play in the same sandbox,” he says. Meat inspectors admit it’s impossible to clamp down on illegal slaughter unless they receive such complaints. The state doesn’t even keep a registry of itinerant butchers, so no one can be sure who is providing the service. What’s more, Quenneville says, it’s difficult to catch illegal slaughter in the act. If an inspector stumbles on an on-farm slaughter, and the farmer says the animal is for his or her personal use, it’s hard to prove otherwise.

By the end of the morning, Winship had transformed the steer into a skinned carcass — not the living, breathing animal it had been two hours earlier, but not quite a supermarket steak, either. He cut the carcass in half lengthwise with a reciprocating saw run off an extension cord from the barn, but left the two halves joined at the shoulder. Lewis kicked the John Deere into action and slowly rumbled toward Winship’s Ford. Winship explained that he liked waiting to make the final cuts until the tractor was poised above the truck — otherwise, two swinging halves of meat, each more than 300 pounds, could leave a smaller tractor “tippy.”

This time, though, that wasn’t much of a concern. “That tractor could hold up an elephant,” Winship said. With the carcass still dangling in the air, Winship and Lewis unspooled a roll of heavy plastic wrapping and lined the deep truck bed. Then Winship severed the last bonds at the cow’s shoulder, and, as Lewis lowered the massive halves into the truck, the butcher made his final cuts — slicing through meat and fat and connective tissue to render the carcass into four hulking quarters.

He folded the edges of the plastic around the quarters and covered the meat with a few clean, faded sheets — to let it breathe, he said. “It’s all over but the crying,” Winship added. But the mood on the farm was far from somber. Lewis’ wife and adult daughter ambled out to visit with the butcher. “It just looks so small now in the back of the truck,” Bess Lewis said, peering into the truck bed. She remembered Winship visiting the farm when she was a little girl, and the sense of horror and fascination she felt in those days about the process of slaughtering animals. Winship was always kind to her, she recalled, dutifully teaching her about the parts of the animal’s body as he plucked them, still warm, from a carcass.

“This cow didn’t even know to be afraid,” she said a few minutes later. “That’s the nice thing about Monte. He always has such a calm presence.”

Depending on how far he travels, Winship charges between $50 and $75 to slaughter a cow and transport it to a custom meat-cutting shop. He also takes the animals’ hides; after cramming the steer’s thick, heavy hide into a large bag at the Lewis farm, he told me he could sell it for perhaps another $20 to a fur buyer in New York.

Winship first took up itinerant slaughter work as a young newlywed trying to make ends meet, but he said it was no get-rich-quick proposition. On this particular morning, the task required him to schlep from his home in Clarendon Springs down to the Lewis farm in Middletown Springs, then over to Fair Haven to deposit the quarters at Tom’s Custom Meat Cutting Shop. All in all, it took between four and five hours — and at 3 p.m., Winship would start his eight-hour shift at the General Electric plant in Rutland, where he’s worked for 32 years.

After a morning with Winship, it was hard not to suspect that he was in the slaughter business, at least a little bit, for more than just the money. He was a talker, and, after packing up the steer, he spent a long time leaning against his pickup, gabbing with the Lewises about old friends and neighbors.

As he took the back roads to Fair Haven, Winship had a story about every other farm along the road, not to mention every meat cutter who worked in this part of the state. There was Stanley Baker’s “cut-up shop” in Ludlow, and the Tarbell place, and the old Clark Norton farm. In the ’70s, it was “a lot of pigs, a lot of pigs,” he recalled.

When Winship’s three sons were teenagers, he used to take on lots of poultry jobs, bringing the boys along to earn spending money. All along, he said, his work had been mostly for backyard farmers. In Fair Haven, Winship backed his truck right into the meat-cutting shop attached to Theresa and Tom Fitzgerald’s house on 2nd Street. Tom, 77, was wearing a Marine Corps ball cap and a white jacket.

Winship and the Fitzgeralds fell into a practiced routine: Winship pulled the quarters to the edge of the truck and snagged them with a large metal hook; Theresa operated the winch that hoisted the meat from the truck bed. They weighed each half — 311 and 326 pounds, respectively — and Tom Fitzgerlad stamped each quarter with a blue “Not for Sale” label. In five or six days’ time, the meat would be cut, frozen, packed and ready to truck back to the Lewis farm. “That’s a nice clean job, Monte,” Tom said approvingly.

Winship said he thought about opening a slaughterhouse as a younger man, and, a few years ago, the state approached him with a similar proposition. But now it’s too late for him — at nearly 60, he’s no longer game for the risk and investment of starting a business.

Winship admitted the work is hard — tough on the fingers, in cold weather and physically demanding — but he’s determined to keep with it as long as he’s able. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who fishes all day and drinks beer all night,” he said. Winship described the work in prosaic terms — “not the most pleasant job in the world” — but said he likes to be outside and work with farmers.

“I don’t think too much about the killing part of it. You can’t dwell on it.” He respects the animals, he added, and prides himself on working quickly, efficiently and cleanly. Does he care whether the farmers he serves sell their meat on the underground market? “It’s like that old saying: If you don’t know, you don’t have to lie about it,” Winship remarked. He takes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, he said, just trying to do right by his customers and the animals. “It’s honest work,” Winship said. “It keeps me out of trouble.”