The United States poultry meat industry is one of the most concentrated in the food system, with four poultry companies controlling 60% of the market. Vermont’s poultry meat producers compete against industrial poultry prices, and consumer price tolerance is a limit for growth in this field, especially for organic poultry (given high organic feed costs). Added production costs, spatial limitations, and slaughtering considerations present a challenge for Vermont poultry farms who wish to scale up production to meet customer demand beyond their limited direct markets. However, poultry is an enterprise that could pivot with relative ease and help fill gaps in national supply chains as food system vulnerabilities become apparent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Collaboration between producers, processors, lawmakers, and policymakers is needed to take advantage of these gaps, close grey areas in packaging claims, and get Vermont’s small-scale poultry producers into regional and metropolitan markets.
Vermont has approximately 300 meat poultry producers. They produce over 400,000 birds per year, typically raising birds from early spring to late fall.1 Poultry is often one of many enterprises on diversified farm operations, due to the low cost of set-up and the quick turnaround on a salable product.
Vermont has two state-inspected and four USDA-inspected on-farm poultry slaughter and processing facilities (USDA inspection is required to sell across state lines). Five of these facilities slaughter only poultry they have raised, while one offers services to other producers. All other Vermont poultry is slaughtered on-farm with an exemption from state inspection, which restricts how and where birds can be sold, and limits slaughter to under 1,000 birds annually.
Over the last decade, and especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have become increasingly willing to pay a premium to food products that prioritize humane animal practices, environmental considerations, and transparent production claims.2 Unfortunately, most Vermont producers processing with an on-farm inspection exemption, who could take advantage of this consumer trend, can only sell birds whole and only on-farm, at local farmers markets, or to local restaurants. Small producers can take their birds to a licensed facility in order to have them processed into specific cuts, but as mentioned above, only one Vermont facility offers this service. On-farm licensed facilities with the ability to process birds raised on other farms struggle with the choice of triggering stricter labor requirements or supporting the success of small poultry operations.