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Local Food, meet Local Legislation

While Congress Cooks Up a Secret Farm Bill, Some Towns Get Creative in Supporting Small-Scale Agriculture

Our Congress – that cherished body of lawmakers which recently caved to lobbying pressure to call pizza a vegetable, and now has a single-digit approval rating lower than that of BP during its oil spill – may be on the brink of passing a disastrously short-sighted agricultural plan. The good news is that some small towns and small farmers aren’t waiting around to find out, but first, we’ll go to the Capitol for some doom-and-gloom.

Photo by Flick user zenguinoftheseaAlemany urban farm, San Francisco. The new farm bill will reinforce our government’s
fine tradition of leaving small, organic, and non-conventional farmers out in the cold.

Congress’s “Supercommittee” has less than a week remaining to make its deficit reduction proposal, and obfuscated reports of their progress range from neutral to worrisome. Especially worrisome is word of the so-called “Secret Farm Bill.”

The farm bill comes up for review by Congress every 5 years or so, and this has been going on since it was first enacted in 1973. The bill determines priorities, subsidies, and marching orders for commercial agriculture in the United States, and the most recent bill, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, allocated $288 billion. Those are no small potatoes. Each farm bill has the potential to totally re-shape our agricultural economy – for better or worse – and historically, the passing of each bill is preceded by a year or more of research, debate, and (of course) lobbying.

This time, even the lobbyists might not get their say. As part of the Supercommittee proceedings, the leaders of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees are attempting what has been called an “end-run around the democratic process.”  The four congressmen have been tasked with preparing a recommendation on agricultural budget cuts, but word has leaked out that they are, in fact, preparing the next five-year farm bill. “All big legislation is written behind closed doors, but they are doing this in such a compressed way,” an agricultural lobbyist told The Hill. “I am having trouble finding out what’s going on.”

There is widespread speculation that the new bill will grant additional entitlements to industrial producers of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton, and expand revenue insurance programs. Not only could this push the plan billions over budget, it would also reinforce our government’s fine tradition of leaving small, organic, and nonconventional farmers out in the cold.

The timing is tragic. In the last two months, at least four bills have been introduced which support small farms, markets, and community agriculture, most prominently among them The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (S. 1773, H.R. 3286). Senator Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who introduced the bill along with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), told the New York Times she “was looking forward to a public hearing on those things that should be eliminated or encouraged, and re-evaluating how we treat food and agriculture in this country.”  Her bill would make it easier for small farmers to get loans, grants, and crop insurance, and get more local food into school lunches.

But if the Supercommittee accepts the recommendation of the Agricultural Committees, we will see nary a debate before the new legislation is written into law, and all the local food acts will be as good as dead. This is one more reason to hope that the Supercommittee will fail to draft a complete deficit reduction proposal, in which case it’s back to square one.

It is therefore inspiring, while not altogether surprising, to see several recent stories of townships passing local ordinances that supersede state and federal agricultural guidelines. Maine is leading the charge: five towns this year have passed local ordinances exempting farmers from state and federal regulations as long as they sell directly to consumers. This makes it much easier for neighbors to sell each other their fruit, vegetables, and—you guessed it—raw milk.

It makes sense: paving the way for local economies through local action and local legislation. In Los Angeles, a brand-new city ordinance allows small farmer’s markets in suburban areas. Residents can now grow food in their back yard, and sell it in their front yard, and this has the potential to turn suburban “food deserts” into oases of organic vegetables – and new interactions between neighbors.

In Brattleboro, Vermont, an advocacy group has been pushing hard for a food sovereignty resolution that would stimulate the local economy and give consumers more choice. “We want to get people talking about the restrictions that are in place right now, that prevent consumers from buying more local food,” said organizer Robb Kidd. He says that too many federal laws restrict farmers from selling products directly to consumers.

Of course, this kind of local lawmaking opens up a legal grey area, similar to California’s battle with federal agencies over the legalization of medical marijuana. Dan Brown, owner of Gravelwood Farm in Blue Hill, Maine, now has a lawsuit on his hands. His crime: selling his home-grown foods and dairy products at a farm stand and farmer’s markets without the required licenses. A local ordinance exempted him from the licensing requirements, but the Maine Department of Agriculture isn’t buying that excuse. The state issued multiple warnings, which Brown failed to heed, and is now taking him to court.

Brown is the first farmer in the area to be cited, says Bob St. Peter, head of the group Food for Maine’s Future. St. Peter says that Brown’s case will likely set a legal precedent for ordinances such as the one in Blue Hill. The Department of Agriculture has already been flooded with emails asking for the case to be dropped.

In York, Virginia, I was amused to find an example of a city ordinance headed in the opposite direction. Local lawmakers are trying to restrict backyard chicken-keeping, and pre-empt some measures in the state’s pending Right to Farm Act. But at the Board of Supervisors meeting this week, a large crowd of protestors showed up to fight for their agricultural rights. Over 80 citizens spoke, and realtor Greg Garrett said “I hope the Board of Supervisors realizes that they are out of sync with the people they represent.”  When the meeting concluded at 1 a.m., the supervisors decided to postpone their vote on the changes until March.

Score one for the little guy.

Brian Scoles, Intern, Earth Island JournalBrian Scoles photo
When not writing for the Journal, Brian pursues all sorts of interests not at all related to his degree. He is passionate about intentional community living, wilderness exploration and leadership, and most recently, activism. He also works with Applied Mindfulness and is a contributor at Sustainablog.

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