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By Erin Post
Last summer, when American Flatbread in Waitsfield wanted to serve poultry from the Gaylord farm, just across Route 100 from the restaurant, business owner George Schenk was told it couldn't happen under existing state regulations.
According to law, in order to sell poultry from any place other than an on-site stand, farmers need to have their birds processed at a facility inspected by the state, a cost-prohibitive requirement for small family farms.
So Schenk and farmer Hadley Gaylord set about changing the law: They staged a protest, arguing that it's time to rethink a system that doesn't allow a restaurant to purchase meat from a farm a stone's throw away.
Less than one year later, they might be getting their wish.
A bill now working its way through the state legislature would make it legal for farmers who produce less than 1,000 birds annually to sell their poultry at farmers' markets and to restaurants, in addition to farm stands.
Lawmakers included a clause that requires restaurants to note on menus if poultry has not been inspected; it also requires the state Department of Health to create labels for poultry products exempt from inspection.
"It's really about consumer choice," said Amy Shollenberger, director of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy organization that has been lobbying support for the legislation, which also includes several other initiatives related to agriculture.
The House of Representatives passed the bill 119-0 in late March; last week, the State House hosted a public hearing on the legislation.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is now reviewing the bill. If passed out of committee, it may go to the Senate floor for consideration as early as next week, Shollenberger said.
She said Rural Vermont is tracking the bill closely and would be calling on its members-and interested citizens-to contact their senators to lobby for its passage when the time comes.
The legislation does have some opposition: At last week's hearing and in published reports, officials from the state Department of Health have spoken out against the poultry provisions in the bill, particularly in regard to the possibility for E. coli and salmonella contamination. State oversight ensures consumers are protected, the department has argued, as have several state legislators in published reports.
But proponents argue that small farms already selling poultry at farm stands have adequate safeguards, relevant to their scale of operation, in place.
Gaylord pointed out that government oversight doesn't necessarily guarantee safety, citing recent contaminations of spinach and peanut butter. He said he produces between 600 and 700 birds annually, and has never had a problem with a customer getting sick.
Robin McDermott, an organizer of the Mad River Valley Localvores, has been working with fellow group members to garner legislative support for the bill.
"Basically we have been making lots of calls and writing a lot of notes to various people depending on where the bill has been in the process," she said via e-mail this week.
McDermott also testified at last week's hearing along with a handful of Valley residents, including Schenk and Gaylord, about the demand for locally produced food and the differences between industrial processing and family farming.
Gaylord said he was impressed with the attention legislators gave to the issue during the hearing, adding that the group seemed to be considering all sides.
"I think they're doing a good job here," he said. "Those guys really listened to us."
In addition to localvores and farmers speaking to the issue in the State House, the bill may also be in part a response to national issues, McDermott said.
"I think that there is just an overall increased awareness about food," she said, noting the attention the 'eat local' movement has been getting in the mainstream press.
"Whatever it is, I feel that the time is right," she said.
In addition to the poultry provision, the Vermont legislation, termed the farm viability bill, sets the stage for a wider examination of agriculture policy.
The bill boosts support for mobile meat processing units and in-state processing facilities for dairy; it also calls for development of a "state farm energy purchase program" and a dairy pricing system that guarantees farmers a fair price for milk.
More generally, the bill sets new goals: It specifically notes the public's interest in "locally produced food" and references the benefits of local food systems. These acknowledgements may signal the beginning of a shift in thinking, Shollenberger suggested, when it comes to small farms and their importance to Vermont.
Gaylord said consumers want to support their local farmers, both through farmers' markets and restaurants, and lawmakers seem to be taking note.
"This is what government's all about," Gaylord said. "It's of the people, by the people, for the people."