Reflections from the Farm: The Culture and History of On-Farm Slaughter

Scroll this

March 10th, 2021, 5am: The Port Alberni Valley of Vancouver Island, Canada

In March when snow rarely falls, but the mornings are still cold enough to see your breath, a cycle of birth begins. At 5am in the dark with a tattered fleece jacket, flashlight and muddy rain boots, the farmer walks to the barn. For the following weeks, new lambs are ushered into the world as the farmer becomes a midwife to ensure the birthing process goes smoothly. Ewes average two lambs while some breeds regularly produce triplets. If a mother chooses not to feed one of her of offspring, they may be brought inside by the fire to be bottle fed until they can regain their strength and join the others again.
The process is tiring, but gratifying. After about a month of early mornings, new life begins to spend time outside as the fog lifts and green grass emerges through the brown. The sheep graze as spring turns into summer and days shorten into autumn until inevitably the day of slaughter arrives. The birth, growth and death of livestock on these farms occurs beneath many mountain ranges across British Columbia where the farmer holds responsibility for the animal’s exit as they did for its entry.

Two Spring Lambs. 2020. Photo by the author.

In the summer of 2022, I was the lead author of an article entitled Meat Production, Local Food Sufficiency and The Right to Slaughter in British Columbia, Canada.1 In the article, we argued that on-farm slaughter is a unique form of what academics call a ‘meat culture’ as it carries specific environmental, economic, social and spiritual characteristics. We documented the role that the Alberni Farmers’ Institute played in helping to change meat regulations in 2020 and noted how regulations in the 21st century represented a major rupture in British Columbia’s food sufficiency timeline and put many small-scale meat producers out of business. With two farmers also co-authoring this paper, we clarified that although regulations have now changed, serious challenges still remain. Foucault was never far from my mind or heart when writing as he reminded me that regulating the death of other animals is essentially an exercise in power. The province calls livestock ‘units of production’ in laws that classify other animals and the conduct of people in relation to them. This makes meat regulations always something historically specific, and as Foucault often saw our contemporary world, perhaps also something quite peculiar.

March 19th, 2021: Meeting Michel Foucault in Coombs, Vancouver Island, Canada

It is still March. The sky is grey and has been raining for weeks. Driving back from Victoria we decide to stop at a crowded eatery off the highway in Coombs. It looks warm, like it could provide some relief after our disappointing meeting with government. We stomp in, quickly removing our wet jackets, and as our eyes adjust we see Michel Foucault sitting the back alone drinking coffee. What luck. Our spirits lift and we approach and ask to join. After ordering, we look down at the table and confess how we are struggling.
What does he think, we ask, have the farmers we know reached a point that they cannot come back from? A point at which raising meat within a community, to feed that community, will be relegated to the distant past, to be crudely thought about in the same way so many describe medieval agriculture, knowing nothing of its realities while professing its backwardness? He smiles and replies: Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are?

Rooster in the Garden, 2022. Photo by the author.

Foucault entered and excavated historical archives in order to uncover and identify the ways in which power works to regulate and control ideas and individuals in society. He documented ways in which authorities have policed many things – our bodies, prisoners, and those classified as mentally ill. His focus was the act of governing itself; that is, the way in which we govern ourselves and each other. Meat regulations are essentially an exercise in classifying other animals and the conduct of people in relation to them. When we talk about a ‘meat culture’ in British Columbia, we are talking about a relationship of production that involves not just a farmer, but also an overseer and a negotiated code of conduct for action. These fundamentals are critical to remember.

April 2020: Alberni Farmers’ Institute to the Minister of Agriculture of British Columbia

“We contend that the Ministry cannot continue to claim it supports B.C. farmers and food producers at the same time that it blocks their economic livelihoods and undermines local food security in this manner. The weight of these contradictions will not hold. AFI is committed to continuing this discussion across B.C., we are committed to ensuring the Ministry acts with residents in mind, and we are committed to analyzing the effectiveness of solutions. We also continue to do this, not on a public servant’s salary, but for free, while we grow the food that feeds our communities.”3

Two Piglets Grazing, 2020. Photo by the author.

In 2004, following an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the British Columbia government decided to close operating legal abattoirs and prohibit on-farm slaughter sales altogether. Several hundred licensed and unlicensed slaughterhouses were forced to close and local meat production has arguably never recovered.4 This provincial decision ultimately put small-scale meat producers at a significant economic and practical disadvantage.

In 1973, Michel Foucault wrote that where there is power, there is resistance.5 Could it be also that where there is resistance, there is empowerment? Push back against these changes led to the government introducing a ‘Class D and E’ licensing system in 2010 which allowed small-scale livestock farmers to slaughter and sell their livestock (in halves or whole sections only) in some of the more rural ‘designated areas’ of the province. Alberni Farmers’ Institute (AFI) members, who resided in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD), were not permitted to apply for a Class D license, and they were unlikely to be approved for a Class E as they were outside of a designated area. Things have changed since then. In 2020, after years of reports, letters and media releases as well as advocacy by local agricultural support workers, the ACRD was granted the ability to apply for Class D and E licences. The following year, farmers across the entire province were allowed to apply for what are now called ‘Farmgate’ or ‘Farmgate Plus’ licenses which allow for an annual production of up to 5 animal units (5,000 lbs, live weight; ~2270 kgs) or a maximum of 25 animal units (25,000 lbs, live weight; ~11,340 kgs).

Despite this, challenges remain. Insurance costs for farmers who hold slaughter licenses are rising and some farmers report being told their insurance will be outright cancelled because they hold a slaughter license. Small-scale producers are also still required to sell slaughtered animals in halves or wholes. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit and many meat packing plants across Canada temporarily shut down, AFI and others witnessed the vulnerability of a supply chain built on non-local production and wrote to the government asking them give back farmers the legal right to slaughter and sell meat from on-farm.

June 1978: Ernest Burnett, President of the Alberni Farmers’ Institute to the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District

“There were many questions asked. Different points of view given. The main concern appeared to be the loss of another freedom – the right to barter – a change in a way of life. It was felt by some that the added cost and inconvenience would put many of the small or part time farmers out of business. There is a fear of a monopoly with no price control. Many thought the situation as it stands now is ideal. If a producer or customer wants inspected meat he can have it, on the other hand, if you want to slaughter your own meat and sell it without inspection you can do it.
A minority felt it was a good thing. That meat inspection gives a wider range of customer, opening up potential for more local sales, an economic asset to the valley.
We hope that our stand and points given will aid you in any decision you may have to make.”6

In 1978, the Regional District wrote to the Alberni Farmers’ Institute asking for their position on designating the region as a meat inspection area. The Institute took a vote on the matter and two to one were against the designation. At that point in history, the institutionalization of meat regulations spanning the province was considered untenable. Farmers and local government were asked to volunteer to participate in meat inspection and the Regional District was told that they could either make a request to the province to become a meat inspection area or enact a by-law to enforce meat inspection. At that time, many abattoirs operated across the province and both unlicensed and licensed on-farm slaughter were allowed without any government oversight. The only Act related to meat inspection was the Stock Brands Act which required simply that slaughterhouses across the province maintain records. The Public Health authority inspected the slaughterhouses for sanitation, but not the meat itself. Essentially, livestock farmers (at that point) were not required to use abattoirs with meat inspection services. They could slaughter themselves, or have someone else in the area do so, and sell their meat.

The right to on-farm slaughter is a part of the legacy of agriculture in B.C. We do not choose our legacies. What has been transmitted by or received from the past, from our ancestors or those before us, is ours regardless of whether it provides us with pain or comfort. Our only choice is to face our past. Whether we embrace or reject it, change or reconcile it, we cannot deny it is there. At one point in time, farmers argued, bartered, and attempted to democratically choose their future relationships with livestock. It is no longer in 1978, but this legacy remains and the task before us now may be to answer Foucault. A conscientious student would probably heed his advice and stop trying to defend what we are and begin to refuse aspects of what we have we become.


1. This article is currently under review.
2. Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. Afterword by Michel Foucault. In: Dreyfus, H.L., Rabinow, P. (eds). Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf: p. 216. * Michel Foucault died on June 25, 1984. For an introduction to his work on YouTube see: Foucault: Biopower, Governmentality, and the Subject (by Then & Now) or Introduction to Foucault.
3. AFI (Alberni Farmers’ Institute). Alberni Farmers’ Institute to the Minister of Agriculture of British Columbia, April 21, 2020. Letter: Slaughter Capacity Urgency in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD). AFI Correspondence.
4. Miewald, C., Ostry, A., & Hodgson, S. (2013). Food safety at the small scale: The case of meat inspection regulations in British Columbia’s rural and remote communities. Journal of Rural Studies, 32.
5. Foucault, M. (1972). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books: p.95.
6. AFI (Alberni Farmers’ Institute). Ernest Burnett, President of the Alberni Farmers’ Institute to the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, June 7th, 1978. Letter: Proposed Designation of a Meat Inspection Area. Alberni District Historical Society Archives.

Feature Image: Two Pigs and Corn Husks, 2020. Photo by the author.
The following two tabs change content below.

Meagan J Curtis

Choices related to food production affect our legacy on earth. During some of these years of regulatory changes, I wrote for the AFI on slaughter regulations. Reflections here are dedicated to Auntie Guus - my old auntie from the Netherlands who wrote to me when I was born about what a nice holiday it would be on a farm.

Latest posts by Meagan J Curtis (see all)

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.