Finding common ground
Event brings together small farmers and farm-to-consumer advocates with California food-safety regulators
“We’ve got to change the dialogue from ‘us versus them’ to ‘us,’” said Justin Malan, executive director of the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health. “We’re not going to point any more fingers. The only finger we’re going to point is at the solution.”
Malan was one of more than 50 environmental-health specialists from around California among a crowd of 200 at the Local Food Summit held on April 16 at Lundberg Family Farms’ headquarters in Richvale. The message he brought—to reach for collaboration—was a common thread among the presenters at the summit, which focused on local food production, distribution and regulation.
Self-proclaimed “lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin, famous for his long history of regulation-related woes at his Polyface Farms in Virginia, and author of books like Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, was brought in as the keynote speaker. (Salatin drew upward of 1,000 people during his appearance at Neighborhood Church that evening.)
The summit was organized by Brad Banner, director of the Butte County Public Health Department’s Environmental Health Division, with help from Oroville’s Chaffin Family Orchards. It had been declared long overdue by both sides in attendance—small-scale farmers and government agencies such as Environmental Health that are tasked to regulate them. The event also brought together representatives from at least 19 agriculture-related entities such as the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as local-food advocates, academics and farmers from 31 farms throughout California.
Bringing the feuding sides together is “unique,” offered Salatin, adding that there are very few similar attempts at dialogue happening elsewhere in the country.
Farmers selling food directly to the consumer is “good for the environment, it’s good for health, it’s good for the economy,” said Chris Kerston, speaking ahead of the conference at Chaffin Family Orchards, where he farms. Yet small farmers feel they’ve been held back by regulations written for large, industrial-sized farm operations, Salatin said.
Salatin’s wide-ranging 21¼2-hour talk touched on everything from pot pies and chicken stock to Ben Franklin and the Old Testament. His speech covered the road Salatin has traveled at his own Virginia farm, dodging regulatory mines in hopes of getting his farm-fresh “beyond organic” food to the customers who demand it.
“Is this really about food safety, or is this really about who gets access to the market?” he loudly queried at one point, to applause from the farmers.
Salatin proposed alternatives to enable small-scale producers to avoid the onerous regulations with which they must currently comply—including a mechanism in which inspections would be triggered only by complaints that that the farm was out of compliance; exemptions for certain types of small farmers; and a waiver that could be signed between farmer and customer, making them just “two consenting adults,” as Salatin put it, thus putting the onus on consumers and farmers, rather than regulators, to assure food quality and safety.
Banner noted that Butte County Public Health’s Environmental Health Division —which also carries responsibility for wastewater, hazardous materials and even tattoo artists—has paid attention to a number of food-related issues in Northern California that hadn’t been issues just a few years ago.
“There was a food-swap issue”—an unregulated event in which people traded food—“in Nevada County… Then there was that chicken thing in Lassen County,” recalled Banner, referring to a small family chicken operation that wanted to sell at a farmers’ market and received federal exemption from oversight due to its small size. Lassen County’s environmental-health department halted sales, saying it ran against state health-department guidelines, which were themselves at odds with a state law that would permit such a sale, according to the Lassen County Times.
“And there was an issue in El Dorado County where people wanted a law that would pre-empt state regulation,” said Banner, referring to the Food Sovereignty law that county supervisors considered at their January meeting—similar to laws in the works or in effect in Maine, New Hampshire, Utah and Vermont—that would exempt local small farmers from government regulations entirely.
Regulators, said Malan, “have recognized that one size doesn’t fit all,” when it comes to regulation. California’s Homemade Food Act, AB 1616, which would allow the sale of homemade goods like breads and jams, was referenced several times as evidence that the government by and large is active in supporting local food. Banner, for Butte County, has instituted a number of changes including cutting fees across the board, and streamlining permit processes for businesses like food trucks and event food vendors, to reduce the burden on small farmers and small food businesses.
Several of the 20 presenters pointed to the direct farm-to-consumer model as a way to help combat the country’s rise in diabetes and obesity by ensuring a supply of fresh, healthful food, as well as to increase food security, a worry expressed by farmers and government officials alike.
Many farmers in attendance, such as raw-milk advocate Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures Dairy, were pleasantly surprised at the holistic, positive views many of the regulators held toward the still-nascent local-food movement. McAfee has had his fair share of interaction with regulators about his raw milk, which is shipped all over California from his dairy in Fresno, and is available locally at Chico Natural Foods.
His dairy’s milk production was briefly halted last year after five children fell ill with E. coli and regulators connected the outbreak with Organic Pastures raw milk. Despite such struggles (“I’m completely unconvinced that it’s our milk,” said McAfee), he has found regulators in the past year to be more accepting of the need for consumer choice on such matters as raw milk.
“There has been an evolution. They’re acknowledging the emergence of a local market, and the nutritional differences [in local food],” said McAfee, adding that, although few regulators are vocalizing it directly, “they’re saying, yes, there is a connection between food and health.”