Vermont's Meaty Future

John with his prized Hereford bull, Miro

I have been writing for years about the threat to Vermonters of a steadily growing dependency on a dangerously consolidated meat “industry.” Now those (antibiotic-saturated, mistreated) chickens have come home to roost. There is no quick fix, but fix this we must.

By favoring profits over human health, America’s meat industry has for decades integrated operations both horizontally (processing) and vertically (production). As with many other areas, American consumers have wilfully acquiesced in this disaster, making food purchasing decisions based on what is cheapest. This has directly supported practices that are bad for animal welfare, human health, the environment, and food security (the supply of trustworthy local food).

If this tragedy is to be reversed, people must rethink their purchasing decisions relating to food, and understand that cheap food is not cheap. Short-term savings translate into long-term suffering. In particular, illegal immigrant labor and increased Chinese ownership of our food supply chain have come together to compromise the ecosystem, and are now responsible for meat shortages.

Over the years, tighter state regulations (initiated by federal regulators) have increased costs and discouraged local Vermont meat production. I have steadfastly battled against these regulations, including my challenge to the state of Vermont to arrest me for selling halves of beef that were slaughtered on my farm. I fought the law, and… I won -- last year Vermont repealed the planned elimination of all on-farm slaughter in the state!

What this means is that Vermont consumers can still buy meat from local farmers. This is illegal in many states, but in Vermont we have preserved a direct connection between the farmer and the consumer, in a demonstration of respect for the common sense and liberty of both. The current crisis reveals why this is so important, and must be preserved -- even expanded -- for the future.

To become dependent on meat trucked from California or Texas, loaded with hormones and/or antibiotics, then ground together in massive vats and distributed through huge self-regulated corporations, is foolish. Even more bizarre is the growing reliance on meat shipped from China, Indonesia, or Vietnam. There is no vendor more trustworthy than your neighbor farmer.

China pays lower wages, subsidizes processors, and has lax (or corrupt) regulations. Vermont farmers must pay property and income taxes, comply with strict regulations, and still earn a dollar to survive -- THAT’S why it costs more. The adage “You get what you pay for” is apt -- buy cheap Chinese food, or cheap burger from downer cows, and E. coli, hormones, and antibiotics await you. So too, is the animal more likely to have been treated inhumanely through its life or at processing. Consumers who only see the price tag still bear the costs (and responsibility) for those horrors.

Vermonters must educate themselves in this COVID-19 crisis about this other crisis -- cheap industrial meat. Vermont farmers must be supported, as I have proposed in my 2020 Vermont Farming Manifesto. This ensures animal welfare, human health, environmental preservation, and economic growth. All shortcuts to save money sacrifice one or more of these important values.

On top of that, as the current unfolding crisis demonstrates, there is a risk of food security -- that Vermonters will become so totally dependent on faraway corporations to feed them that we will be servile slaves, losing the liberty to eat healthy food, or perhaps to eat any food. Can this be the same state that fed itself through the Great Depression rather than stand in inner city breadlines? How far we have departed from the values that have defined our greatness as well as our humility, our culture as well as our self-reliance.

It is high time we embraced anew that important heritage. In addition to reliable, fresh, and trustworthy food supplies, it also preserves our landscape, tourism, and economic vigor, and encourages young people to move (or remain) here to start food-producing businesses.

While the nation watches a dangerous interruption in meat supplies, Vermont has a meaty future. Support Vermont, and your own family -- buy local! You will spend much less in the long run.