Why didn't the chicken cross the road? Because the State of Vermont wouldn't let it.
That was the joke flying around Waitsfield last week, where George Schenk, owner and founder of American Flatbread, got into a high-stakes game of chicken with state regulators from the departments of health and agriculture over the poultry he wanted to serve in his restaurant. Though Schenk blinked first before the feathers started flying, the dispute is far from resolved. In fact, his near-act of civil disobedience attracted so much public interest and support, it could mark the start of a full-blown revolution in the way Vermonters access locally produced foods.
At issue: Schenk is a socially responsible restaurateur who's committed to supporting sustainable family farming in Vermont. His eatery and frozen pizza business spend about $1 million a year on food, 80 percent of which is grown or raised by local, regional and/or organic farmers. (The Burlington restaurant of the same name is under different ownership.) However, state health codes don't allow Schenk to serve in his restaurant meat that hasn't been inspected, including the chickens he wants to buy from a farm directly across the road on Route 100. The farmers, Hadley Gaylord and his daughter, Connie, have a small poultry operation -- too small to make it worth the expense of upgrading their building and equipment to meet state and federal requirements for an "inspected facility."
To market their chickens directly to restaurants and retail stores, the Gaylords would need to truck the birds to the nearest USDA-inspected slaughterhouse and processing facility, which is about two hours away in Springfield, Vermont. The Gaylords, who raise fewer than 1000 chickens each year, say such an arrangement wouldn't be economically feasible.
Schenk, who founded American Flatbread 21 years ago, says he's always abided by state health codes. This situation, he suggests, reveals a larger systemic problem: Over the years, state and federal rules and regulations have been put in place to benefit large, industrial food producers at the expense of small-scale family farms.
"It struck me as fundamentally wrong, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the system is broken," Schenk explains. "Farmers like Hadley are producing the kinds of food we really need more of in Vermont. Instead of criminalizing their work, we should be honoring, respecting and celebrating their work."
So Schenk decided to take matters into his own hands. With the help of the farm advocacy group Rural Vermont and other local-food advocates, he announced that he was going to commit a public act of civil disobedience. He scheduled "The Chicken Event" for Friday, June 16, during which he planned to sell flatbreads made with chickens raised and slaughtered on the Gaylord Farm. The event would include several films, speakers and a public discussion about the future of small-scale sustainable agriculture in Vermont. Governor Jim Douglas and Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr were both invited to attend.
The Vermont Department of Health immediately cried foul. One day before the event, Schenk was issued an injunction, warning him that if he served the aforementioned chicken, he would be held in contempt of court and could lose his restaurant license. Though Schenk could have skirted the rules and bought Gaylord's chickens on the sly, he knew it wouldn't address the larger issue at hand.
During a teleconference on the morning of June 15 with Interim Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture David Lane, Schenk agreed to not serve the chicken. Moffatt and Lane also agreed to a follow-up meeting, during which they would take a closer look at this issue and discuss what could be done at the state level to promote better public access to locally raised, farm-fresh foods.
As Moffatt explains, the health department is sympathetic to Schenk and Gaylord's plights. But she says the state's first priority must be the protection of public health. After all, uncooked poultry can harbor as many as 140 different varieties of microbial nastiness, including salmonella and E. coli.
"When a consumer eats in a restaurant, they're making a reasonable assumption that they're dining in a facility that has meat and other foods that have been inspected and are safe," Moffatt says. "We take those regulations very seriously."
Lane agrees. Under state law, farmers like Gaylord who raise fewer than 1000 birds are permitted to sell uninspected chickens directly to consumers at the farm, where customers are in a position to "make a rational and informed decision about the cleanliness of the facility." The same can't be said for patrons of restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and grocery stores.
Lane acknowledges that the dearth of poultry-processing plants in Vermont makes it challenging for small-scale chicken farmers to market their products, though he insists that "a resourceful farmer" can make it work.
"I know that there are business models out there for poultry farmers to be successful in the small-to-medium market," Lane adds. "I'm positive the market is there today, even without the restaurants and retailers. It won't be easy, but it can be done."
One possible solution the Vermont Agency of Agriculture has considered is setting up an inspected, mobile chicken-processing facility, which could be mounted on a trailer and driven from farm to farm, as is done in other states. Lane says the department already has the designs for such a unit -- the estimated cost is about $70,000 -- but so far, no entrepreneur has expressed interest in operating it.
In the end, Schenk's "Chicken Event" went ahead as scheduled -- minus the white meat. It was a gorgeous Friday evening in the Mad River Valley, and Highway 100 outside American Flatbread was lined with dozens of cars in both directions. More than 150 supporters sat on the lawn behind the restaurant, drinking beer and wine, tossing Frisbees, enjoying the campfires, and listening to speeches delivered from the back porch. Though neither the governor nor the ag secretary showed, Assistant Secretary Lane and Director of Food Safety and Consumer Protection Carl Cushing both made an appearance, fielded questions from the public, and enjoyed some flatbread.
"It's not just about us, the farmers across the road," Connie Gaylord told the crowd. "It's about all small farms . . . We just want to continue doing what we do."
Schenk also spoke and thanked his friends and patrons for their support. He then told a story about how he's been "living with a ghost" from his past. When Schenk was a little boy, he used to visit his aunt and uncle's farm in northern Vermont. It was a small, diversified family farm where, he recalled, the food was plentiful and delicious and the milk all came from cows whose names he knew. Though his aunt, uncle and cousins always had enough to eat, they were also very poor; Schenk's father used to buy them 50-pound bags of flour "just to help out."
Schenk said he grew up believing that they had failed as farmers; later he realized the more sobering truth.
"It wasn't my aunt and uncle who failed," he said. "It was we who failed them. A whole society simply stopped valuing farm-fresh food."
With American agriculture at a crossroads, Schenk seems intent on doing his part to save the family farm -- even if it means crossing some lines do it.