Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Farm Bulletin: Call to Action

It's not often that I ask readers to take action on an issue, but in this case the issue is the continued economic survival of many small Oregon farmers, the ones who depend on direct sales to customers at farmers' markets. And who better to speak to those issues than contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek, who was on the bipartisan agriculture committee that helped draft HB 2336 (link to full text at bottom). Please consider contacting your state legislators about this important bill.

The “Direct Farm Marketing Bill” has passed out of committee February 7th and is going to the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives for critical vote. We need people to call their representatives and urge a ‘yes’ vote on HB 2336. Click on the link for the phone number and email for your representative.

Here is why this bill is important:

Over the last two decades, agriculture in Oregon has seen a marked increase in venues for selling agricultural products directly to the consumer. Farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and buying clubs have increased without a clear place in the regulatory structure. Historically, roadside stands selling produce, eggs and honey have been treated as exempt from licensing, but these new venues stretch that definition. HB 2336 provides necessary statutory guidance on this issue with a balanced and sensible regulatory approach to direct marketing. The provisions of the bill are the result of a year’s worth of meetings between the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Farmers’ Market Association, farmers and legislators. This working group was chaired by Representative Matt Wingard.

The bill identifies foods that, from a food safety perspective, are regarded as either non-hazardous, or minimally hazardous, and that can be safely produced by the farmer and sold directly to the consumer without licenses or inspection. I want to emphasize that, with the help of ODA staff, these definitions are tightly drawn. Foods that pose a greater hazard, such as sprouts, low-acid canned vegetables and fruits, and baked goods, are not included and must be processed in a licensed facility. The bill includes labeling requirements so the food can be traced to its source. It must be stressed that farmers’ market rules still prevail, regardless of licensing requirements. These organizations will still determine who can participate in the market, and what they can sell.

With its provisions regarding preserves and pickles, this bill provides room for innovation at a small-scale. New ideas invariably start at this level whether it is in someone’s kitchen or garage. Allowing farmers to try out new products at a small, manageable scale is an important step in fostering innovation. HB 2336 also includes a provision that allows the ODA to expand the list of foods that can be prepared at the farm, consistent with food safety. With the $20,000 annual limit on sales of these foods, the bill set up a clear threshold where the farmer must shift into a licensed facility. Finally, the ODA can withdraw the exemption in cases where the public health is deemed in jeopardy.

At the public hearing for HB 2336, the NW Food Processors and the Farm Bureau came out in opposition to the bill. Their testimony undermined the support of some members of the committee who were not part of the earlier process. In the work session, Representative Wingard and the staff from the Oregon Department of Agriculture did a great job clarifying what the bill does and doesn't do. It was a long session for them, but they answered all the questions carefully and thoroughly. Their measured presentations eased the concerns of many members.

HB 2336 passed its first legislative hurdle Monday (2/7) evening when it passed out of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources on a bipartisan 6 to 2 vote with a "do pass" recommendation. The "nay" votes were also bipartisan, one Democrat and one Republican, for what it is worth.

The bill now goes to the House floor. The lobbyists for the NW Food Processors and the Farm Bureau will likely try to stop this bill on the House floor. It is critical that citizens express their confidence in the farmers' markets by calling or emailing their representative. The floor vote will likely be on Wednesday (2/16), so the contact needs to be made quickly. All that is needed is a statement in support of HB 2336, and a nice word or two about farmers’ markets and buying directly from a farmer to underscore the bill’s purpose. If you can relay a positive story or experience, even better. Legislators like to hear they are doing something positive, especially this session when they being called upon to cut services.

Update: The Direct Farm Marketing Bill passed in the Oregon House 45-13. Thank you all for your calls and messages to your House reps!

For a pdf of the complete text of HB2336, click here.

No comments: