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The Future of Local Agriculture as I See it, Part 2

Here is a continuation of Brooks' personal opinions on Governor Tom Wolf's Agricultural plan. Check out part 1 if you missed it.

Ooohhhh man, that third point is so close to my heart!

  • Removing unnecessary regulatory burdens and strengthening the state’s business climate.

Yikes! I can feel the power-hungry folks sitting on zoning hearing boards shifting in their heavily regulated seats.

I could address this one for weeks - first, it is apparent by the changing food trends towards awareness and demand for local, artisanal, organic, allergen-free, niche food products that being able to direct market high quality products is a boon to a small farmer. Being able to receive a premium price for a value-added product makes the difference between being able to farm for a living and not. Unfortunately, the natural creativity and resourcefulness of a farmer in finding a direct market for their goods (instead of selling raw commodities as in the old model of agriculture) is often thwarted by unnecessary regulations of all kinds.

Our zoning in Pennsylvania is actually a blessing compared to fascist (I said it) states like New York and New Jersey. A former employee who just bought a farm in Oregon told me he can’t get a permit to sell pastured eggs until he installs a candling room!

That said, zoning hearing boards are, by their nature, inherently unfair. Boards are appointed (wonder how they get considered $$??), and board members are not required to have any legal training or background whatsoever. Yet their rulings are legally binding, and notoriously difficult to challenge.

So we give people who have not been elected into positions of power, who have never received legal training, the power to legally rule over anyone interested in doing business in the commonwealth.

As you can imagine, this significantly favors large corporations who have a legal department to research the board members, pay a lawyer to formulate an argument, pay for traffic research, etc. and then present a case before a zoning board. Farmers aren’t so lucky, especially young farmers starting out. So if you are interested in any land-use not explicitly allowed in your municipality’s zoning book - good luck convincing folks who have no understanding of agricultural practices why you need an exemption!

I was once told by a friend in a more urban, wealthier part of the state that they had success by going golfing with their zoning board members. Well, sorry golfers, but I’m not into your sport. If this is really what it takes to get change to happen, then let's talk politics while I do my hobby - jiu jitsu. I can whisper sweet nothings about my need to be less regulated and make an honest living on the land in an ecologically sound way while I rag doll board members around the mat. This is a joke of course, but to me that image is as absurd as dressing up like I’m going to church to hit a ball on an absurdly manicured lawn? we need to perpetuate the “old guy golfing” yields power thing?

Why can’t small farmers operate without exemptions? Typically, ag land use in zoning terms doesn’t ever include processing or packing - these are considered “industrial” land uses. So, in order to differentiate oneself in the market by not selling fresh tomatoes, but making salsa, or pasta sauce, or anything, would need an exemption to be permitted. And trying to have an on-farm butcher shop?!? Good luck - zoning board members will assume you are trying to start the next Smithfield Meats or Tyson Chicken in your backyard regardless of how much data and research you bring to the table….ask me how I know.

Beyond zoning, there are regulatory burdens for bringing product to various markets. In meat production, the federal government has jurisdiction over meat inspection with similar results to local zoning regulations. Big companies can afford in-house labs, have less inspection personnel per pound of meat (by an order of magnitude or two), and have legal departments for dealing with issues. This is a moot point, however, as the governor doesn’t have the power to remove federal regulations in meat...although he could initiate a state inspection program that would work with the Cooperative Interstate Shipment program under USDA, opening up lots of markets for small meat producers, but I’ll address that in a separate newsletter.

Pennsylvania is already a “Right to Farm” state, which essentially prohibits neighbors from suing farmers over smell, noise, or anything else perceived as a nuisance in agriculture. But this doesn’t typically include processing, because the laws were adopted when farmers weren’t trying to capture more of the retail market - food processors bought raw goods dirt cheap and were rightfully industrial operations. As it stands, a farmer would have to get shut down by her zoning hearing board, and then make an appeal to begin the process.

Enough complaining - again, WWBD (what would Brooks do)? Well, I’m not a lawyer, nor a politician, so I don’t understand fully how the state and municipalities have relationships (not that I think those guys do either ;).

My wont would be to eliminate restrictions on ag-zoned operations altogether, though I know that’s dependent on each municipality.

I can hear some of you saying “but then the big guys will abuse that power!” Don’t worry, they’ll find a way anyway. Realistically, I imagine the change would have to come at the state level. I would begin writing legislation overriding municipal zoning regulations of land-use on existing and proposed agricultural operations. Make some restrictions to prevent gross abuse of the regs (i.e. liquid manure disposal, etc. on CAFOS), but make them reflect the current ag climate and be responsive to the future climate.

Additionally, and I will dive much deeper into this one in a later post on the processing capabilities of our protein sector, I would create a State Meat Inspection Program. That’s right, I’m a meat farmer asking for a meat inspection program! If the Commonwealth had a SMIP (say it), we could then be enrolled in the Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program. We could enroll our SMIP in the CISP. Simply put, the regulations are the same as at the federal level, but your inspectors are state employees, and typically much more local and invested in your success.

I visited ten slaughter and processing facilities in the last year throughout New England. There was a marked difference speaking with plant owners and managers in Vermont (enrolled in CISP) and Massachusetts (not enrolled). Maybe it's just that casual Vermont attitude, but none of the shops in Vermont had a bad word to say about their inspectors, and the others were literally looking over their shoulders while they talked to me about how much frustration comes with working with their inspectors.

I understand regulatory compliance. Be clean. Be safe, produce healthy food. We do this when we start our chicks in the brooder, wean our piglets, move our animals on pasture, and process them on the kill floor.

I’d love for the USDA to acknowledge that healthy food starts waaaaay before the processing line.

I think that might be a bit more than we can hope for, but maybe Pennsylvania could be the first state to begin to officially recognize that fact. Imagine that - a department of agriculture that was for food production that could literally nourish soils, people, and communities.

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