Chert Hollow Farm is a sustainable homestead farm growing certified organic produce near Columbia, Missouri. In addition to vegetables, the farm manages dairy & meat goats, poultry, small grains, fruits, timber, and more as part of a diversified model that emphasizes economic and environmental sustainability. We feed ourselves year-round by raising, processing, and preserving our own meat, milk, cheese, eggs, vegetables, some fruits & grains, and more from our land.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year's Wish for Missouri farmers

Here's a simple New Year's wish for the Missouri government to consider; a basic rule change that would ease bureaucracy, improve the chances of small farms and rural landowners to make an income, and improve the diversity of and access to fresh food for consumers. I'm talking about a simple change in the meat butchering and sales laws.

Currently, meat can only be sold if slaughtered in a larger state-inspected facility. There are fewer and fewer of these, and many folks report that it is harder and harder for small farms with just a few animals at a time to get attention. Factory farming is slowly undermining the small, local meat industry.

On the other hand, the state is littered with small custom meat processors, the types that handle lots of venison in the fall and a few animals at other times of the year. These processors are not allowed to process meat for sale, only for use by the owner of the animal. The way the law stands, I can take a deer, goat, lamb, cow, or other animal to a small custom processor, and receive butchered, packaged meat in return. I can share that meat with my family and children; I can give it away to friends; I can trade it with others; I can serve it to a potluck or community event; but the second I take a dime for it, it becomes a dangerous, illegal substance that under no circumstances is legal.

Where is the logic in this? What is it about earning money that suddenly makes that meat unsafe? If the meat is safe to serve to children and potlucks, if it's safe to give to my neighbor, surely it's safe to sell to my neighbor? I think the reason behind this, as in many well-meaning food-safety laws, is the rise of the large-scale food system. If the meat under discussion was sold into the grocery-store stream, moving through middlemen, sitting on shelves, etc., then I think there would be concern. After all, this meat isn't packaged for that sort of life, it's just wrapped in butcher paper and frozen. It's fair to be concerned about its life if it entered the distribution system. Still, these facilities do have to meet basic state standards, they are operating under supervision, and they would be shut down if they did not produce safe meat.

But selling that meat to a grocery store and selling it to neighbors are two very different things, and far too often our laws are so broad and so blind that they fail to make rational distinctions between circumstances (frankly, the same is true for dairy. If I regularly give my neighbors milk, cheese, and yogurt, how do those products magically become illegal food safety hazards if they wish to reimburse me for my efforts?).

So here's my proposal: Pass a law stating that meat butchered at a small custom facility may be sold direct to final consumers by the owner of the animal, if the packages are clearly stamped for final sale only by _______. This precludes the meat entering the larger food system, but allows small farmers or even household landowners to raise small amounts of animals and make local sales to neighbors and family. This would be an economic boon to rural areas, allowing another income stream for many folks, while improving access to fresh, known meat and diversifying our food sources.

If the regulation extended to hunted game, it could become a shot in the arm for falling hunter numbers; MDC is worried about falling hunter participation rates, and deer populations are still plenty high; what if rural hunters, especially low-income ones, could make some extra money selling venison to non-hunters who would love to have it?

There is a precedent out there for this already; Missouri's Share the Harvest program. For years, hunters have been able to donate meat slaughtered by custom facilities to feed the poor. The facilities (the custom ones I'm talking about here) package the meat separately and mark it specially, then send it to food banks and so on where it is distributed to needy families. Wonderful program. But what rational reason is there for this to be legal and safe, but basic sales of the same meat is not? If we can allow poor people to be given this apparently safe and healthy meat, processed in exactly the manner I suggest above, how does that same meat magically become dangerous when a neighbor or a customer who is NOT poor wishes to pay for it?

It's a senseless bureacratic boot on the neck of small farmers and landowners. Adapting the rules I propose here would cost Missouri nothing; the legal and practical framework (Share The Harvest) is already in place. Far too often, well-meaning proposals for helping small farms and rural areas involve expensive grant programs, complicated tax breaks, and think tanks; for once why not adopt policies that remove regulation and bureacracy rather than create it? Many of the worst barriers to small farms are regulatory, not just economic. Let's try this approach and see what happens.

2 comments:

porkboy said...

I'll second that motion.
I currently drive 65 miles one way to have my animals processed. I then drive another 65 miles one way to pick them up some 2 weeks later. I have a private processor less than 10 miles from my home, round trip.

Eric Reuter said...

Indeed, that seems typical of many folks I know (do I know you?). It's certainly a barrier to me wanting to raise more meat animals. Over at the Columbia Tribune's discussion boards, where I posted this as well, it's gotten good reviews as well. Any input on how to proceed fixing this?