Local News

Vermont farmers urge senators to not chicken out of passing cut poultry bill


By Holly Sullivan, Community News Service

Editor’s note: The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

Vermonters want more pre-cut poultry, and local farmers are eager to meet their demand. But are legislators game?

As the law stands, Vermont farmers raising fewer than 20,000 birds a year can’t sell pre-cut meat in state if it hasn’t been inspected and prepped at a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture facility. Instead they must sell their poultry whole.

Back in January, House Agriculture Committee members passed H.603, a bill allowing poultry farms of three sizes to slaughter and sell their own birds without the need to keep them whole: farms raising fewer than 1,000 birds a year, 5,000 birds a year or 20,000 a year. By meeting a slew of conditions, those producers wouldn’t need inspections to sell raw chicken products from the farm, at farmers’ markets or to restaurants in Vermont.

The fate of H.603 lies in the hands of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Even though the bill is essentially a one-word edit, the State House was buzzing last week with local farmers who called it a game-changer for small outfits. 

Elizabeth Roma, meat farmer at Putting Down Roots Farm in South Royalton, spoke on March 12. Her business trends reflect the average Vermonter’s desire to purchase pre-cut meat, she said. 

“People want to buy breasts, want to buy legs, want to buy wings. They don’t want to buy a whole bird,” she explained. “I definitely sell out of parted chickens way before any whole birds. Maybe of the 20 birds I sell a week, I might sell one whole,” she later said.

Roma said H.603 would also ensure more people eat locally.

“If we want Vermonters to eat Vermont meats — which I think that’s the goal — we need to be able to allow this to go through so that can actually happen,” she told committee members.

Hannah Pearce, co-owner of Hillside Farm and Pearce’s Pastured Poultry in West Glover, echoed Roma’s attitude during the same meeting. 

Pearce’s place isn’t a USDA site, and she has to send her poultry elsewhere. That, she said, makes it nearly impossible to keep up with customers’ requests. 

“I started bringing birds to be cut up in 2020, and I’ve sold out of everything I’ve brought every single year far before I get to the next year of production,” she explained. Pearce said she saw a 61% increase in parted bird sales from 2022 to 2023 alone. Her whole bird sales remained the same. 

Pearce said her birds are noticeably anxious when traveling long distances to be slaughtered. 

“We don’t want to load a trailer full of birds and bring them an hour and a half away. That extra stress for the animals, we don’t want to do that,” she said. 

Though H.603 is generally well-received by the farming community, some larger-scale farmers are hesitant, fearing fewer inspections would mean hazy sanitary procedures.   

Bruce Hennessy, farmer and slaughterman at Maple Wind Farms in Richmond, one of the only USDA processing facilities in Vermont, spoke to committee members March 15. During his career, Hennessy said he transitioned from an uninspected facility to an inspected one. Based on personal experience, he thinks unsupervised butchering has the potential to ignite unexpected safety hazards. 

“We wanted to be as clean and sanitary as possible. When we went under inspection, we realized that we weren’t even close,” he recounted. “As diligent as we were, we didn’t really understand the problems that can occur. There’s just things you wouldn’t even think of.” 

Hennessy clarified that he is in favor of H.603, but only if its language ensures sanitary butchering conditions. He believes poultry farms should be required to have Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plans, based on a U.S. Food and Drug Administration framework to reduce potential food safety hazards. His sentiment was paralleled by a few of the farmers who testified. 

Despite those safety concerns, most farmers who’ve been in the State House lately are in full support of H.603. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Heather Surprenant, D-Barnard, said she saw zero backlash when it was in the House. 

“We didn’t have anyone oppose it,” she told senators Feb. 28. “Everybody was like, ‘Chicken parts? Let’s go! We love that!’”

Taylor Blackmer, farmer at Lucky Fields Farm in Springfield, said the bill would be groundbreaking for her and her husband’s farm.

“We would retain in the business about 50% of our current processing costs, so this year that’s about $5,000 a year,” she told Senate committee members March 15. “Which, if you know anything about farm finances, that is like a make-it-or-break-it kind of number.” 

Currently, Blackmer processes her birds in Rhode Island, a two and a half hour drive from her farm. She, her husband and her toddler, Rosie, have to make the trek down about five times a year. Blackmer said transporting 300 birds in a truck is a struggle. 

“We don’t want to be driving down at 2 o’clock in the morning to get to the processor as early as possible, having to wake her up,” Blackmer said, referring to Rosie, who was sitting on her lap. “Our quality of life would be better. We would have less stress.” 

The Senate Agriculture Committee is slated to discuss the bill March 27.

Mountain Times Newsletter

Sign up below to receive the weekly newsletter, which also includes top trending stories and what all the locals are talking about!