A Tennessee Sheep Dairy Farm

One-Size-Fits-All Farm & Food Regulation

One of the biggest challenges a small farmer will face is compliance with USDA and FDA laws that focus on the majority of the industry - large, factory farms. These regulations are often impractical or prohibitively expensive for small farmers, and it quickly puts them out of business.

On our small Southern Tennessee farm, we face a handful of obstacles in order to get our pasture raised lamb to your table. The most difficult challenge in TN can be selling sheep milk on the farm.

As a consumer, understanding these restrictions helps make things go more smoothly.

As an example, consider a small raw dairy farm where the state may require farmers, who produces milk for human consumption, test their milk for antibiotic residue every time the milk is collected.

In 2012 the USDA Ag Census estimated that 49% of all dairy farmers milked over 1,000 cows, and another 34% milked between 100 - 999 cows, testing the bulk tanks is a minimal expense compared to the amount of milk being produced at this level.

Large farms sell in bulk and often are unable to separate and care for individuals that are undergoing treatment, and in many cases, the entire herd gets treated at once. This regulation ensures that unsafe levels of these antibiotics are not entering your milk supply.

For the farmer who milks 5 cows, knows them all by name, and never uses antibiotics, this is a tremendous expense and completely unnecessary. But without compliance, the state can shut down her dairy. If the farmer does comply, the extra expense eventually will cause her business to fail to make a profit. 

Another example would be that a licensed dairy would require a milking parlor and processing building that has separate water sources, septic systems, a bathroom - these things add up!

In Tennessee, if you raise, slaughter, and process less than 1,000 chickens a year, you are exempt from inspection. If you raise less than 3000 chickens a year, you may also sell ungraded eggs without inspection. 

This would be an excellent example of adjusting the rules to accommodate small producers. So, why not apply the same principals to processing lambs on the farm, or selling small quantities of milk?

Many states have adopted similar exemptions for dairy sales, including the allowance of raw dairy to be sold on the farm if the farmer maintains 3 cows or fewer. So, what's the deal Tennessee?

Recently, in Tennessee, SB 1913 and HB 1963 would have permitted the direct sale of raw milk butter, while SB 2104 and HB 2229 would have exempted raw milk and dairy products sold from a home kitchen from licensure, inspection, and regulation. The General Assembly passed on both, effectively killing them for at least another year.

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) had advised state lawmakers in Nashville to oppose the proposals.

These types of regulations can be difficult to change. Food safety and animal welfare are important, but so are small farmers and your choice as a consumer. Small farmers often focus on quality over quantity and without more flexible regulations, our access to good food is at risk. 

We are very small, raising just 40 lambs a year and a handful of pigs. We focus on natural and ethical treatment of our animals, healing the land, and using sustainable farming practices. The sale of meat in Tennessee is regulated by the USDA, but we can sell lambs and pigs on the farm and deliver them to the local butcher to be processed under “custom exempt” regulations - this helps keep our costs down, stay local, and support our small local butcher. We can divide the animal up and sell half and quarter shares which helps those who might not have a large freezer.

Raw or unregulated milk is illegal to sell for human consumption in TN, but we can sell herd-shares that allow buyers access to raw milk legally during the season. Raw milk sold for “pet consumption only” is also legal with a state pet food license. 

If you are looking to support your local farmer, help protect the environment and animal welfare, consider buying meat and dairy from our farm. Do some research, understand the restriction we are placed under, and help us thrive in a system designed to make us fail.

Thanks so much for following, and as always, don’t hesitate to email me with any questions.

Your Sustainable and Ethical Farmer,

Ellen Gray of Autumn Earth Acres

Ellen Gray