by Pamela Walker
Reforming farm-and-food policy isn’t everyone’s cup of kombucha. In fact, most people find policy work downright unappetizing, much as they do sausage making, to which the legislative process is proverbially compared. But if we like our local kombucha and sausages and want local food production to grow, we must press for policy and regulatory reform beneficial to independent family farmers and their customers. Fortunately, we have Judith McGeary, founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), doing much of the dirty work and opening ways for us to provide effective support. Joining FARFA is a good place to start.
Judith, a central Texas rancher with a biology degree from Stanford and a law degree from the University of Texas, has made FARFA a real force in influencing policy and regulations at the state and national levels. From 2006–2010, FARFA led a national coalition to stop the USDA from implementing a National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which would have required owners of even a single livestock or poultry animal to register their property, digitally tag each animal and report animal movements to the USDA. NAIS would have been costly for small meat, dairy, and egg producers and forced many out of business, affecting thousands of customers of local animal products.
FARFA also helped lead the fight to amend the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act in order to protect small-scale farmers with local markets from potentially crushing federal regulations designed for large conventional producers. FARFA continues to monitor the thicket of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations related to this act, and during the 2015 Texas legislative session helped pass a bill requiring the Texas Department of State Health Services to post on its website any cooperative agreements with the FDA regarding the food safety act and to solicit public comments and respond to them. This bill gives Texas producers and their customers a view of the regulatory process and a say in it that we otherwise would not have.
Another 2015 legislative success was defeating a bill that would have funded a study for a statewide water marketing and conveyance grid, facilitating water transfers from rural to urban areas without regard to conservation or impacts on rural communities and farmers. Additional achievements were a bill to make more land available for community gardens, by limiting the liability of garden plot owners, and one to help promote on-farm educational and recreational activities, by limiting the liability of farmers who take certain precautions.
Another victory is a bill helping beekeepers and their honey customers by exempting beekeepers managing their own hives from having to have a commercial kitchen, an expensive facility, and allowing them to sell up to 2500 pounds of honey from home and at farmers markets and public festivals. This bill builds on FARFA’s success with a 2013 bill making it easier for producers of prepared foods—sometimes called cottage foods—to market a wider range of products from home and at farmers markets, exempting those selling under $50,000 annually from the requirement of a commercial kitchen.
Most people want genetically engineered (GE) foods labeled, and FARFA works on labeling issues and on stopping federal approval of more GE crops and foods. And because many people prefer raw milk to pasteurized, FARFA advocates legislation to allow licensed dairy farmers to sell at farmers markets and to deliver their milk to customers, instead of requiring customers to travel to farms for milk, the current Texas law. In the 2015 session, raw milk reforms received strong bipartisan support for the first time yet failed passage.
So did a bill that would have provided small farmers, including urban ones, greater opportunity to qualify for the agricultural property tax valuations available to large-scale farmers. Nonetheless, the momentum for change is growing, and Judith has hope for the 2017 session.
FARFA’s scope and effectiveness are most visible at its annual Farm and Food Leadership Conference and during the biennial meeting of the Texas Legislature. The conference draws people from throughout Texas and the nation and includes training by professional lobbyists and legislative staff in the tactics of citizen activism.
Judith herself offers tactical workshops in the Texas capitol when committee hearings on farm and food bills take place, and FARFA members from various areas of Texas come to visit with legislators in person. She also calls for action throughout the year with newsletters and email and Facebook alerts that analyze the issues and include guides on how best to communicate with elected officials.
Love kombucha? Love sausages and other good things our local farmers bring us? Then let’s not be lulled into the thought that it’s sufficient to create an alternative food system merely by buying directly from farmers, by voting with our dollars—a concept Judith rejects. “There’s no such thing,” she says. “Either you vote or you don’t vote. You can spend your money consistent with your values and help build a social and economic base for political change, and we’ve got to do this, but this is not a political act. We need to look at policies causing the problems and vote with our votes.” Thanks to Judith’s work through FARFA, we can stay informed and engaged and do just that.
To learn more: farmandranchfreedom.org