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Small-scale poultry farmers say state regs are hurting their ability to sell chickens

Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, along with a few members of the House Agriculture Committee, listen those testifying during Tuesday's hearing. Photo by Steve Wilson

Several small-scale poultry farmers and Mississippi-based chefs told the state Senate Agriculture Committee that regulations from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture are preventing the two groups from doing business together.

They also said the state was missing out on the economic benefits of the farm to table movement that is popular nationally in culinary circles.

State Sen. Angela Hill (R-Picayune) was the driving force behind convening the hearing. She said the state's regulations need to be consistent with the current exemption for small poultry producers under U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.

The U.S.D.A. allows producers who have 20,000 or fewer birds to not have to comply with inspection and facility requirements that include daily presence of a federal inspector.

In Mississippi, the state's regulations are far more stringent and make it nearly impossible for small farmers to enter the market. They prohibit poultry farmers who raise 20,000 or less birds per year from selling to consumers that include restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, schools and hospitals.

Small-scale poultry farmers are only allowed to sell directly and transport their goods to their consumers, which keeps them from using distribution networks that would allow them to sell to a wider variety of customers.

Forty states allow small-scale producers to sell their products to consumers.

Ben Simmons owns an organic farm that raises grass-fed beef and pastured chicken and pork and says that the state's economy is missing out on economic activity in states without the restriction, such as North Carolina.

"It warms my heart when we can use Mississippi-grown products," said nationally renowned chef and Edwards native Nick Wallace.

"It's a shame that I own a place called the Bird House and I can't use birds grown here in Mississippi," said restaurant owner Katie Dixon.

Rose Hancock, who owns a farm in Mize with her husband and Jackson-based chef and butcher David Raines also spoke to the committee.

Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson told Mississippi Matters that his attendance at the hearing was part of his "listening tour" meeting farmers and others in the industry.

The key point for the committee and Gipson, who is also an attorney, is to decide where a fix that would help the smaller poultry producers would be done. The agriculture department could tackle it by writing a new rule. Or a bill could be passed by the Legislature.

A bill that would've clarified the situation and was authored by Hill died in last year's session.

"I've been reading all of the state laws and regulations to determine what the answer is," Gipson said."Today, I don't have the answer. I expect we'll be in discussions with the committee, whether a bill is required or not."

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