Law tweak makes it easier to sell deer, elk meat in New Hampshire 

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 08-07-2023 4:22 PM

For many years, farmers in New Hampshire have had problems getting their cows, pigs and sheep slaughtered and processed due to a shortage of facilities in the region.

Turns out that deer farmers have that problem, too.

“Getting a USDA slaughter plant that does deer has become problematic since the pandemic. All the slaughter plants are overwhelmed,” said Henry Ahern, owner of Bonnie Brae Deer Farm in Plymouth.

Things should get easier now that Gov. Sununu has signed HB119, which removes a state law that required U.S. Department of Agriculture certification for plants that process meat from red deer and elk. Sununu was scheduled to sign the bill in a ceremony Wednesday at Bonnie Brae Farm.

The state law was stronger than federal law, which classifies deer, elk and bison as “non-amenable” species, meaning their meat can be sold to the public if processed at a plant that was certified locally even if it wasn’t USDA certified. Bison were already exempt from the USDA requirement.

Bonnie Brae Farm raises European red deer – 113 of them at the moment although the herd has been as big as 400 – and sells the meat at the farm itself, at farm shows and through mail-order.  It doesn’t produce enough meat to sell through supermarkets or at restaurants, Ahern said.

Ahern had been taking deer to a USDA-certified facility in Maine but that plant was sold recently and no longer handles venison. The only USDA-certified slaughterhouse and processing plant in New Hampshire is Lemay and Sons in Goffstown.

“They’re so busy that getting slaughter dates is a problem,” Ahern said.

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In the future, the deer would be killed at the farm by Ahern or an employee – the farm does not allow hunting of the semi-domesticated stock – rather than taken live to a slaughterhouse prior to processing, as is currently done.

“They still have a bit of the natural deer personality so doing the slaughter here on the farm, their home base, is a lot more humane. It’s better for the animal and the quality of the meat, because they don’t get stressed by putting them in a trailer and hauling them over the country,” Ahern said.

The carcasses will then be taken to a state-licensed butcher to be turned into cuts of meat, he said.

The law change will also help Rivervail Farm in Erroll, which raises elk for meat, along with bison.

The new law applies only to commercial farms and does not affect individual hunters who can eat meat from deer and other animals that they kill but cannot sell it.

It is difficult for meat-processing facilities and slaughterhouses to stay in business in New England because relatively little beef, pork and mutton is raised here, and what animals are raised tend to be on smaller farms rather than the large commercial farms seen further west. That makes it hard for a slaughterhouse to maintain a year-round income. Even poultry processing, which is much easier and less capital-intensive than processing red meat, is limited here.

That problem has put a damper on efforts to expand the state’s agricultural scene since raising livestock can be an important money-maker for even small farms.

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