Farm: Stark Hollow Farm
Location: Danville, Vermont
- 130 Icelandic Sheep
- 2 American Milking Devon Cows
- 2 Tamworth breeding sows and 5 Tamworth piglets
- 25 Heritage breed laying hens
Certification: Animal Welfare Approved (sheep, dairy cows, pigs)
In 2014, Laura Smith and Vanessa Riva bought a 78-acre farmstead in Danville, Vermont, now Stark Hollow Farm. Today, Stark Hollow Farm raises 130 registered pure-bred Icelandic sheep, 2 American Milking Devon cows, a small herd of Tamworth pigs and piglets, and a flock of heritage breed laying hens. Laura and Vanessa sell meat products, eggs, Icelandic pelts, fiber products and farm equipment through their farm stand; their CSA; at the Burlington, Vermont, farmers market; through occasional online farm stands; and wholesale, through Green Pasture Meats.
According to Laura, in the warm season, Stark Hollow rotationally grazes its cattle and sheep on pasture. The farms’ Tamworth pigs are raised outdoors in woodland lots and on pasture. Laura and Vanessa state that they constructed a barn to meet specific AWA standards, which the animals have access to during winter months.
In 2016, Laura and Vanessa came across the AWA certification program website. After contacting AWA they felt that the program was a great match, as it seemed to offer very high animal welfare standards, good customer service, technical support, and affordability.
According to Laura, she and Vanessa decided to pursue certification: (1) to help them run a more sustainable and humane operation; (2) to provide their customers with assurance that their animals were being raised in accordance with a formal set of standards; and (3) to set themselves apart in the industry.
Laura and Vanessa have had to spend money to scale up their buildings to meet AWA standards. Laura notes: “AWA size requirements for structures and loafing areas is generous, so any increases in flock size, even by an animal or two, must be considered and accommodated.” However, like other AWA members, Laura and Vanessa do not have to pay any fees for the standard AWA certification. (They pay a $100 fee for the “Grassfed” certification.)
AWA Certification Outcomes
Benefits to Animals. In order to become certified, Laura and Vanessa had to make some changes to their farming practices in order to become certified, such as being more conscious about the exact timing of their piglet castration and not having their ewes lamb before 13 months. However, after reviewing the materials provided by AWA, they believe these changes are beneficial.
Marketing & Consumer Interest. Stark Hollow Farm uses the AWA label on its products and on its website and promotional materials. Although Laura and Vanessa are relatively new AWA members, they believe it has already made an impact on their customers, who seem concerned about animal welfare and appreciate the validation the certification provides. They highlight that, since becoming certified, they receive more questions from their customers about the certification and their practices, which has provided them with more opportunity to educate consumers and “set themselves apart.” They state that their customers generally would rather pay a bit more for products when they know the animals are certified as meeting AWA’s standards. Though Laura and Vanessa have not yet taken advantage of AWA marketing support, they plan to do so.
Being Better Prepared. According to Laura, the required health and emergency plans have made them better-prepared farmers. Specifically, they now have plans in place in case of disasters such as fire, disease or even the breakdown of slaughter transportation. Laura also notes that preparing for certification audits has made them more organized, generally.
Support Meeting Welfare Standards. Laura and Vanessa have found AWA audits to be “very rigorous.” They believe the auditors “really know farming” and offer helpful technical support as to how to achieve program standards. They also feel that the AWA program supports efforts to achieve certification, working with farmers to figure out how to make farms compliant. When they have had minor non-conformances with program standards, they have found the Corrective Action Plan process to be “very manageable.”
Why Certify with AWA?
Vanessa recommends AWA certification, explaining: “Certification demonstrates the commitment of a farmer to the welfare of their animals and gives consumers the assurance that the products they are purchasing come from animals allowed to live a life truer to their nature.”