Monday, August 03, 2009

Farewell to Frikeh, Part III: Fixing the Problem

In this final installment of the series, contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm outlines how the ODA and state legislators can help small scale farmers increase the value of their crops. (What is he talking about? Read Part I and Part II.)

The movies Food, Inc., King Corn, Michael Pollan's book Omnivore's Dilemma and a host of other films and books have identified the substantial flaws in our food supply. These problems seem remote and insurmountable, and the best we can do as individuals is to shift our buying habits. When the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) uses its rules to say frikeh (parched green wheat) and other traditional farm products cannot be sold in a farmers' market, it brings a local dimension to the problem. Fortunately, we have the ability to initiate constructive changes at the local level.

Farmers' markets have been operating in Oregon for almost 30 years. The oldest still operates in Grants Pass. The Portland Farmers' Market started in 1993 and was originally located in the Albers Mills parking area. These markets allowed nonconventional, small scale farmers to survive. For the first decade or so, the markets were ignored by the ODA. In the mid 1990s, the bureaucracy started to get itchy as markets started to sprout up in urban areas. To address the situation, a couple of market managers sat down with ODA staff and crafted a set of guidelines for vendors. Earlier this year, the agency started an aggressive campaign to increase regulation of farmers' markets. The agency has decided to draft rules later in the autumn and possibly require licenses for farmers' market vendors.

Was there an incident that gave rise their concerns? No. For three decades, Oregon's farmers' markets have operated safely, and without any reported food borne illness incidents. In fact, this exemplary safety record is reflected nationwide. It is clear that factors other than straightforward food safety concerns are behind the move to further regulate farmers' markets. After all, the food safety challenges are arising from the complexities of the food industry that is already regulated by ODA and other agencies, not the simple open air farmers' market. Data and science tell us ODA is moving in exactly the wrong direction.

The Oregon Legislature has never grappled with the question of whether and how to regulate farmers' markets. There is no policy or set of laws that relate to farmers' markets. The basic statutes governing food safety were drafted long before farmers' markets and other direct sales venues became institutions. Leaving ODA to regulate direct sales without an open and public discussion will be disastrous. We believe it is time for the legislature to take a look at how other states regulate farmers' markets and food production from small scale farms, and come up with a coherent approach for Oregon. We provided several examples of states with more progressive approaches than Oregon.

The reality is, Oregon makes it very difficult for small scale farms to increase the value of their crops. For example, there is a domestic kitchen license, but it requires no pets in the building where the kitchen is located. In our case, we cannot get a domestic kitchen license as long as our beloved dog Tito still lives. Other licenses are expensive and the requirements so burdensome that few farms even explore the option.

There is a land use dimension. Our farm is zoned Exclusive Farm Use, 80 acres, High Value Farmland. This means we cannot divide the land and have few options for the land other than agriculture. We support those laws. That said, because the land use laws are predicated upon the farmer's ability to manage the land profitably, the state should be circumspect about depriving a farmer of the ability to produce a food like frikeh on the land without good cause. Unless there is a clear safety or environmental rationale, farmers should be able to extract as much benefit from their labor on the land as possible.

The interim between sessions is a good time to contact legislators. Senator Jackie Dingfelder and Representative Brian Clem, who chair the legislative committees that oversee agriculture, along with your own legislators, should be contacted. Various groups concerned about food supply and quality also need to initiate the discussion with Sen. Dingfelder and Rep. Clem. If we are going to have a healthy market farm sector, we need to establish separate policies and laws governing the sector. Picking up on the bicycle analogy, it does not make sense to force bicyclists to wear seat belts when a helmets are what is needed.

This is where we need your help. We need as many people as possible to encourage Sen. Dingfelder and Rep. Clem to have their committees to discuss small scale farming and its reliance direct sales venues such as farmers' markets and community supported agriculture (CSA). We need tiered rules that are grounded in good science and hazard analysis. We need profitable small farms if we want to preserve farmland. We need the state to recognize the fundamental safety of a direct sale between producer and consumer.

There is great concern among farmers and market managers regarding ODA's push for greater regulation. For most of us, this is time when we are the busiest, and so we need the other leg of the three-legged market stool, our customers, to help us. As things progress, we will keep you updated.

You can e-mail Sen. Jackie Dingfelder and Rep. Brian Clem to express your concerns about this issue, and you can click on the link to find your legislator's contact information (including their e-mail addresses).

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