By: Bernadette Barber
The subcommittee was examining two bills dealing with what farms (mainly small ones) can do without government interference. HB 268 is a continuation of a fight started in last year’s legislative session, and seeks to limit the power of local governments to restrict ancillary on-farm activities like the sale of true local crafts and value added products, and agri-tourism. HB 135 is a bill to allow small farms to produce and sell food to end consumers without government interference. Rather than re-craft what I’ve said so much already in the last few days, for the sake of explaining our position, here’s the message we sent t o the members of the subcommittee:
I am writing to urge you to vote yes today to forward HB 135, Home-produced or farm-produced products, also known as the Virginia Food Freedom Bill, which removes restrictions on direct farm-to-consumer sales. Specifically, HB 135 would remove restrictions on the sale of foods that are processed in the home or on a farm of 10 or fewer people and sold directly to the end consumer as long as the product is labeled with the producer's name and address, product ingredients, and a disclosure statement indicating that the product is not inspected by Virginia's food safety laws or regulations.
This is not a question of food safety, as some might frame it. The regulations currently in place were written to address dangers common to large scale production and processing, done far from, and out of view, of the end consumers. This bill would not change that. What it will do is allow what never should have changed- allowing those who want to be responsible for their own food supply to seek out producers and products without the government inserting itself in a private economic choice between consenting adults. It will allow greater economic freedom for producers, and it will positively affect the tax revenues of the state and local governments, as those producers who already must collect sales tax, would still do so, but on more product lines. It may even allow some cottage-level producers to grow into small farm status.
This bill, and your vote, is a question of personal freedom and support for small businesses. Virginia was built by small farmers and tradesmen who had the freedom to unleash their creativity, and market their products to their neighbors and peers, who took responsibility for their own discerning purchases. Americans should never have abdicated their responsibility for ensuring a healthy and safe food supply for their family to the government. This bill will allow those Virginians who want to take that responsibility back to seek out the healthy foods they want from the producers of their choice. In this extended period of tough economic times, it would also allow many families to earn a little extra income, and would allow small family farms to open some additional income streams. I challenge Virginia legislators to do more than pay lip service to increasing economic opportunity and freedom of choice for Virginians.
The biggest emphasis there is FREEDOM. Freedom should ALWAYS be the primary consideration over economic and all others.
Well, actually, they didn’t even pay lip service. In the hearing, supporters of HB 135, including Joel Salatin and a representative of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, gave passionate testimony that HB 135 would give small farms greater ability to make ends meet, and help consumers have REAL choices, but most important, that this was an issue of FREEDOM first and foremost. One young farmer gave a particularly rousing testimony that hinged on the issue of freedom first. An interesting and illuminating point in the pro testimony came when a delegate asked the FTCLDF rep how many members of her group file a Schedule C, which I can only presume from his tenor and attitude was an attempt to determine if the fund represents legitimate farmers or a bunch of rednecks who already ignore government. Apparently he doesn't realize that farms file Schedule F on their income tax. Ah, what are details to a legislator, though?
Then the opponents had their say, and a line of pasties in dark suits got up to name the many trade groups they represented, and proceeded to wave the public safety bogeyman with horror stories of plague and pestilence from unregulated milk and meats. The state Meat Inspection Service had its say as well. The delegates duly noted the concerns of agribusiness and unanimously voted to table the bill quicker than you can say "Freedom is dead". The whole vote smacked transparently of a foregone conclusion.
The bill dealing with zoning came up next, and this bill did pass on to the full committee, only because during a lengthy working group over the last year, big agribusiness and small farm supporters actually came to a rare agreement (in my opinion, possible only because agritourism does not directly compete with the bottom line of big food processors). The disheartening part was the line of opponents representing county and local government groups, and even a lobby group composed of neighbors of wineries who want to ensure that activities on their neighbors’ wine businesses do not disturb their peace. (You just couldn’t make this stuff up!) The opponents testimony raised some outwardly valid concerns, but every argument emanated from a presupposition that the citizen must have the approval of the government to do, well, anything, because if a government does not deem the issue to require a specific permit, it is still implied that the government has examined the general activity and deemed that it will allow such activity with silent consent. Well, I just don’t see it that way. Neither did the good folks who wrote our Constitution, and the many more citizens who approved it.
And so readers, the spirit of ’76 is dead. Americans now fear freedom. And I want to know why. Why do state regulators and legislators fear my freedom to sell what I make, to others who have the freedom to choose? If I go to a state inspected restaurant, and become ill from tainted food, whom do I sue? Is the state inspection service, or the restaurant lobby, or the legislators who create the regulatory arms, in any danger of my litigation? Nope, the overworked restaurant owner who has had to deal with all these regulations and inspections, and still somehow failed, he gets to deal with my ire, too.
Why do agribusiness trade guilds fear freedom? They will tell you that it is because they want to protect agriculture from black eyes and bad raps. Hogwash! Thanks to our design, we will always need to eat. The worst tainted food scares have never caused more than a momentary blip in sales of the particular product that caused the problem. Americans have very short memories, and agribusiness takes advantage of it. They don’t fear lost sales due to food borne illness. When was the last time a big processor was truly held accountable for tainted food anyway? What they fear is the fact that when these outbreaks occur in their products, more people start to seek safer food from local sources, and they don’t want you to have more freedom to do so.
Legislators and lobbyists will do what they do, as predictably as the sun rising and setting. But my biggest question is, why do regular Americans fear freedom? If a regular consumer fears the consequences of procuring food from an uninspected farmer, well, there is the one place you do have some freedom- then don’t buy it there. If you do, and get sick, the producer is still the one holding the legal liability. And the local producer has a much greater incentive to produce clean, safe food, because unlike the big guys, he won’t get off with a lecture thanks to a squadron of lawyers and a big war chest. Thus we have a system that prohibits buying a steak or a glass of milk from a neighbor you know, while bringing you irradiated meat and chemically grown produce, dead milk, and foods that aren’t even made from what’s pictured on the label, all in the name of protecting us from dangers that, for the lion’s share, are only present in the large scale production models. Apparently, Americans fear the freedom of a farmer to sell products, which we are free to not buy, so much that we support a system that has failed to give us freedom from tainted food, and refuses to give us freedom to choose the foods we want.
So why do Americans thump their chests on the fourth of July and talk about the freest nation on earth while accepting a government that is so far into our personal choices? Why did our parents and grandparents ask for this system in the first place? Why do we allow this to continue? How does a country that rescued the world from Hitler, et al, get weak kneed about personal freedom because of personal safety? How do a people that fought to set civil rights straight for all races, accept stifling of individual enterprise and choice in favor of big centralized corporations and government bureaucracies? This is a freedom issue. Even those who don’t care a whit about what kind of food they put in their body should be offended at this kind of strangling regulation of individual freedom. If anyone reading is offended because I’ve insinuated that we are not free, we’ll I’m saying it outright, and I hope you’ll see through the smoke and mirrors soon. For those who already do, this is not a diatribe of discouragement, this is a call to get angry, get involved, and force a change!