Weekly Legislative Update; And a ‘Save-the-Date’

 

Join us on Thursday, May 2, for the Local Foods Awareness Day at the Texas Capitol. This event brings together farmers, consumers, and activists to multiply our impact on agricultural and food policy in our state. If it’s your first time to join us for this event, you’ll discover that visiting legislators’ offices with a group of people is an empowering and fun way to help small farmers!

If you’re looking for ways to take more immediate action, check out the full update on our priority and other significant bills below.

We’ll begin Local Foods Awareness Day with an update on where the bills stand, including the inside scoop on the players and issues, as well as talking about how to have an effective meeting. Then we’ll create teams of people, with a farmer and an experienced citizen lobbyist in each, to go together to visit legislative offices. With a large enough group, we can cover almost every legislator, which gives our bills an incredible boost in the push to get them passed!

Please RSVP here to help us plan ahead. We’ll provide lunch and all the materials — you just bring yourself … or, even better, a friend or two with you!


This Week’s Updates on Priority Bills

Eggs – HB 1284/ SB 1805

SB 1805 would allow farmers to sell “ungraded” eggs to restaurants and retailers, just as they can already sell them direct to consumers. The Health & Human Services Committee will hear the bill on Wednesday, April 10. Grading is based on egg size, so it has nothing to do with food safety. Dropping this restriction would expand the market for small-scale producers to sell their eggs and expand consumers’ options.

Cottage Foods – SB 572/ HB 2108

SB 572 had a great hearing before the Senate Health & Human Services Committee on Tuesday, and we are optimistic that it will be approved by the Committee next week. The committee substitute version of the bill, which unfortunately isn’t available online, looks a lot like HB 2108 — expanding the cottage foods law to allow sales to occur anywhere in the state so long as they are direct-to-consumer, expanding to all non-potentially hazardous foods, adding pickles, acidified canned foods, and fermented produce to the list, as well as frozen fruits & vegetables.

This means lots of new opportunities for small farmers and artisan food producers! After the committee vote, it will need to be voted on by the full Senate, so stay tuned for an alert to call your Senator and the Lieutenant Governor. On the House side, we continue to wait for a committee hearing on HB 2108.

Local Health Department Better Communications – HB 2107

HB 2107 requires local health departments to give straight answers about what is required for food producers to legally sell their food, and then not to fine producers who comply. The House Public Health Committee has approved the bill and sent it to the Local & Consent Calendar, which is great news. Unfortunately, the House hasn’t acted on any of the bills on Local & Consent yet, so we’re just waiting for the vote to be scheduled. And then it’s on to the Senate.
Ombudsman – HB 3115 and SB 776

HB 3115 and SB 776, to establish an ombudsman for small farmers and rural businesses, both received good committee hearings in the last two weeks. The only objection appears to be that the position would be in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, rather than at Texas Department of Agriculture.

But as Senator Zaffirini pointed out, TDA wanted $75,000 to host the position (as proposed in 2015), while the Governor’s office is willing to create it using existing resources for supporting rural communities. We’ll keep working this one … to be continued!

Sampling – HB 1694

HB 1694 was slowed down a bit while we negotiated with the Texas Environmental Health Association (TEHA). We finally reached an agreement with TEHA about changes that clarify the scope of the bill, without losing the intent: allowing farmers and other food vendors to provide samples of their items to customers at farmers’ markets without expensive permits and hassles. The committee substitute version of the bill is being circulated to the House Public Health Committee members, and we are cautiously optimistic that it will be approved next week. Next step: The Calendars committee for scheduling for a vote by the full House.
Permit Fee Cap – SB 932

SB 932 also had a great hearing before the Senate HHS Committee, but there is some push-back on it from several members. We are discussing possible changes to address the concerns that have been raised.

Ag Valuation & Property Taxes – HB 97

The sticking point on HB 97, to create guidelines for when small and diversified farmers qualify for agricultural valuation and reduced property taxes, has been the “fiscal note” — the estimated loss in tax revenues. We were shocked to see an estimate of $60 million in losses over the next five years!

While it would be great if we had thousands of small farmers using their land primarily for agricultural purposes, that simply isn’t the reality. Our bill sponsor, Eddie Rodriguez, has been working with the Comptroller’s office, and we are working on amendments that we think will address the issue and allow the bill to move forward soon.

Raw Milk – HB 503 and SB 80

The Big Dairy industry and the Harris County Health Department have so far been successful in blocking us from getting committee hearings on the raw milk bill. They know that we can get the votes on the floor of the House and Senate, so their hope is to keep the bill from even seeing the light of day. As we alerted you earlier this week, please call your State Representative and State Senator and urge them to co-author HB 503 and SB 80. We need that public show of support to pressure the committees into hearing the bills!
Poultry – HB 3083/ SB 1341

The Big Ag groups are also blocking us from getting a hearing on our bill to help poultry producers. Apparently, allowing small farmers to process 1,000 birds a year on their farm without having to build a $40,000 facility is a threat to the companies who process millions of birds a week!

So, while you’re calling your Representative and Senator, also urge them to co-author HB 3083/ SB 1341 (making it easier for small farmers to process poultry on their farms).

Micro-Florists – HB 3280

This bill was filed very late in the process, so it’s not surprising that it hasn’t moved yet. We’re hoping for a hearing the week of April 15th.


A New Bill to Watch & Updates on Other Bills

Country of Origin Labeling, HB 2761, is a new bill that would reinstate Country of Origin Labeling on beef & pork at the state level. Many groups, including FARFA, fought for consumers to be able to know what country their food is coming from, and we won that in the 2014 Farm Bill … only to lose it on pork & beef because of a World Trade Organization ruling. An estimated 75% of the grassfed beef on the grocery store shelves comes from Australia, New Zealand, and Uruguay! HB 2761 would enable consumers to choose to support U.S. livestock producers.

Beekeeper Regulation. HB 2670, the bill to amend the regulations on beekeepers, had a very contentious hearing on Monday. You can read FARFA’s written testimony, explaining why we oppose the bill. The bill proponents, though, speak for the large commercial producers. The Texas Beekeeper Association’s President testified that “A lot of the beekeepers, the smaller beekeepers and even the mid-size beekeepers, don’t understand the industry or Chapter 131 or regulators” … encouraging the committee members to disregard their voices. You can watch the hearing here. (HB 2670 starts at 3:53.)

Pollinator Protection: The committee also heard testimony on three bills for protecting bees and pollinators (starting at 3:08 at that same link). You can check out our action alert about all four bee bills and call your Representative if any of them, good or bad, matter to you.

Backyard chickens: SB 86/ HB 2596 would prevent local governments from prohibiting people from owning up to six hens in their backyards. The Senate version of the bill has been amended to also prevent HOAs from prohibiting backyard chickens. Both have been approved by committee and are headed to the floor of the chambers.

Water: HB 1066, which will allow water exporters to renew their permits without a public hearing, was approved by the Texas House this week. Only one Representative — Terry Wilson — voted against it. Thank you, Representative Wilson, for standing up for your constituents! The bill now heads to the Senate, where we will continue to fight it.

Eminent Domain: An amended version of SB421 was approved by the Senate yesterday, and it will now move to the House. Senator Kolkhorst had to make significant concessions to get the bill past the objections of the oil & pipeline industry, but it is still an improvement over the current law.

Rabbit Processing: HB 409, to allow farmers to process & sell up to 500 rabbits per year without being regulated by the state, has been scheduled for a vote by the full House on Tuesday.

Hemp: FARFA signed up in support of HB 1325, Chairman King’s bill to legalize the production of hemp in Texas. You can read the bill here. The bill has a very good chance of passing this session, finally allowing Texas farmers to grow this valuable crop!

If you’ve read this far, thank you! The future of our farms and food is deeply impacted by the laws and policies adopted by the Texas legislature, both for good and for ill. Thank you for becoming informed and taking action to support small farms and local food producers!

As always, if you don’t know who represents you, you can go to our Elected Officials Lookup or call the Capitol Switchboard at 512-463-4630.