Monday, December 07, 2009

Farm Bulletin: Asking for Help

On a sunny November morning, the (deep breath…) Oregon House Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Communities (whew!) met in Salem to hear from the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture and several representatives from Oregon farmers' markets and small farmers involved in direct sales to consumers. One of those was contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm. His testimony outlines the issues the working group, formed that day, will be addressing.

Our farm is small, but well diversified. We produce grains, legumes, vegetables, cane fruit, table grapes, nuts and stone fruit. We are also one of a handful of market farms that grow vegetables all through the winter.

As market farmers, we are often asked why it is so hard to find traditional local foods such as fresh hominy, locally grown and ground grains, brined pickles, or prunes and raisins. We reply that Oregon Department of Agriculture’s rules discourage small farms from on-farm processing with requirements created for industrial type standards, a daunting process and steep fees. The last session of the legislature passed a law allowing ODA to fine violators of food processing laws, big and small, $10,000, further stifling any experimentation.

Oregon’s strict land use laws are predicated upon the productive use of the state’s farm and forest lands. The underlying justification for protecting the land is the flow of economic and social benefits that land preservation brings. Family farms such as ours should be preserved for our day-to-day contribution to our state’s economy, and not merely as quaint footnotes from the past or horse pasture.

It is not enough for the state to restrict development on farm and forestland, if our ability to generate income from our land is curtailed. Traditionally, farmers have bolstered farm income by processing some of their crops. [Some of Ayers Creek's products are shown at top. - KAB] Walnut and prune driers were a common part of Willamette Valley farms. Decades ago, dozens of roadside stands sold prunes, pies, pickles and preserves prepared by farm families. As licensing fees and other requirements have put a chill on modern farmers’ ability to add value to their crops, these farm-based foods have disappeared. Sadly, it is hard to find a true Oregon prune anywhere in the state today.

An artifact of the last three decades when almost every Oregon farm sold the majority of their crops to large processors, the food laws were written to regulate large industrial processors. Consequently, few farmers paid much heed to the laws. As processors have folded or abandoned Oregon, farm income is being pinched. We need to draft laws that give farms greater flexibility in value-added production and encourage a healthy rural economy.

Good models for change exist. Many states have adopted a light regulatory touch when it comes to on-farm processing of low hazard foods such as pies, pickles, preserves, dried fruits, lacto-fermented vegetables, hominy and grinding grains. New York and Iowa have a long tradition of encouraging farmers to offer these foods directly to the public without costly inspections and licensing fees. Minnesota’s “pickle law” permits farmers to produce various value added foods without running afoul of the state food processing laws. This spring, Indiana followed suit with its “Pie Law,” freeing pickles, preserves and baked goods from heavy regulation when sold directly to the consumer.

These laws are carefully limited to direct sales to the consumer, not third-party sales. It is not a free-for-all and all products have labeling requirements, including a list of ingredients and a statement that the goods are not produced in an inspected and licensed facility. They simply remove a substantial barrier to expanding food options.

Progressive states treat on-farm value-added products as one would a bicycle versus a Mack truck. It does not make sense to require bicyclists to wear seat belts and pass a commercial drivers license (CDL) exam. Likewise, a farm family that bakes a few pies, grinds some cornmeal or ferments a few batches of sauerkraut to sell to regular customers should not be subject to the same laws as a mill grinding tons of corn per day or a processor producing thousands of jars of sauerkraut per hour. These are foods that have been safely prepared by farmers for generations. We need to reinvigorate the tradition rather than stifle it with pointless regulation.

Along with other farmers and consumers, we hope the legislature makes changes in the laws in the next session.

If you'd like to support the changes in the laws that Anthony outlines, you can locate your legislator here and tell them how important it is to support Oregon's small farmers and farmers' markets.


Molly Newman said...

Thank you for this information. I found it via a comment on Mark Bittman's blog and am passing it on to other Oregonians concerned about supporting local food and local farmers.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Thanks, Molly!