Comments before the Virginia Senate Subcommittee Hearings
July 29 , 1997
I turned 40 this spring and in my lifetime I have gone from selling uninspected fresh beef, pork, rabbit, chicken, yogurt, butter and cottage cheese at the local curb market to being unable to sell any milk products, and pork and beef only after they are exported from our county and reimported.
I’ve watched as dozens of small neighborhood meat and poultry processing facilities have closed down. At the same time, I’ve watched thousands of farmers go out of business as the farmer’s share of the food dollar has dropped from 35 cents per retail dollar just a couple of decades ago to less than nine cents today.
I’ve seen centralization in the poultry, beef and pork industries increase environmental problems and shove the issue of food-borne illnesses and death to the front pages of magazines and news programs. A strong consumer backlash is creating a huge opportunity for creative alternatives that produce stronger rural economies, more nutritious food and more environmentally friendly modeling.
Our farm, Polyface, Inc., is a multigenerational farm, producing salad bar beef, pastured poultry and eggs, range rabbits, pigerator pork, vegetables and forestry products, marketing everything to abut 400 patrons we like to call “cheerleaders.” We use no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and do not administer vaccines, medications or growth stimulants to our livestock. Our patrons enjoy purchasing meat and poultry from a nonindustrial, humane production model while we enjoy producing food that is superior to supermarket fare.
But even now, as we speak, government agents are trying to find out the names and addresses of our patrons. Why? Our patrons have sought us out, exercising informed freedom of choice and they are happy. We have seen the conventional approach and followed an exhilaratingly different path. Why can’t farmers and their friends who choose to build a relationship over their food purchases do so without government agents denying these freedoms?
What we want is legislation that will allow all agricultural products processed and marketed on the producing farm to be exempt from government inspection.
The current prohibition against being able to sell a pound of sausage to a neighbor or fellow church member after a Thanksgiving hog killing has nothing to do with food safety, but with denial of market access. If food safety is the real issue, why is it perfectly fine to give this harmful food away?
We can give away anything, including milk, butter and cheese. If these things are so harmful, shouldn’t it be illegal to even give them away? After all, would we allow someone to give away drugs? On other harmful substance prohibitions exist equally for both buyer and seller. In this case, it’s perfectly fine to buy it and feed it to your children and their friends—it’s just illegal to sell it. Isn’t that ridiculous?
In fact, we can even go shoot a deer on a 70-degree November day, drag it through the dirt and leaves for two hours, throw it on the hood of a pickup and drive, in the blazing sun, to a neighborhood abattoir, then give the meat to all the neighborhood children, but we can’t take a prime, coddled beef to the same abattoir and sell it to our mother-in-law. Folks, we are insane if we think this issue is a matter of food safety.
The entire food safety issue is a smokescreen invented by bureaucrats and academic eggheads, not to mention corporate executives, who fear a little competition or a little loss of power.
A friend of mine near Richmond, tired of stockyard prices for his calves, tried to put in a little facility to sell to his neighbors and friends. He finally gave up after two years. It would have cost nearly $300,000 in order to sell one pound of hamburger to his pastor. Folks, that is ridiculous.
Many of you senators have told me, with a twinkling wink of the eye, that you purchase some sausage from fellow Ruritan or church membership, or you buy butter from a neighbor who milks a family Jersey cow. That’s nice for you, but try being the farmer who answers the door to a badge-waving, accusing government agent and see how funny it is.
As our food production system moves farther and farther away from natural, size-appropriate models and embraces the mega-factory industrial concept, problems of humane animal treatment, smells, environmental degradation, petroleum use and packaging become greater. As strange as it may sound, some folks want something else besides irradiated, genetically-engineered, amalgamated, extruded pseudo-food from Archer Daniels Midland and they should be able to access that type of product.
The current food giants started a couple of decades ago from the tailgate of a pickup in the backyard of the farm, offering a creative alternative. As they grew and shipped all across the country, we made regulations to keep them in line. Today, many new creative alternative producers stand poised and ready to meet the new demand for something better than factory food, but the new products must go through a regulatory gauntlet that precludes 99 percent of them from ever reaching consumers. We have not had a free market now for a very long time and it’s time to unleash the entrepreneurial creatively of the countryside on our neighborhoods.
Eliminating the risk of a wrong choice inherently eliminates the ability to make a creatively positive choice, but if we attempt to protect everyone from ever making an incorrect decision, we must eliminate decision-making ability from everyone. Hand-in-hand with liberty is the ability to make decisions, and if all our decisions are proscribed by the government, what kind of choices will we have?
I for one do not believe that government officials, wined and dined by lobbyists and corporate giants, will attempt to preserve diversity in the market place. Diversity is hard to regulate. It drives bureaucrats nuts. And yet that is the very essence of freedom.
We have the freedom to smoke, to drink, to kill unborn babies, but not the freedom to buy a glass of raw milk from a neighbor whose Jersey cow just freshened and is giving extra milk. In more than 30 states you can do this but not in Virginia. Are people keeling over dead from milk-borne diseases in these states? I think not.
If trends continue, your children and mine will eventually be doomed to buying only packaged, irradiated, chlorinated, extruded materials from multinational conglomerates. Is that the legacy you want to leave them?
Consider regulations regarding day care and elderly care that are waived for just two to five clients in a home. Shouldn’t this privilege to extended to small farms? Currently, we enjoy, as do about 32 other states, an extension of the federal PI 90-492 Producer-Grower exemption for poultry farmers, allowing us to produce, process and sell up to 20,000 birds annually. The cap keeps the operation small and the producer-grower dimension keeps it close.
My question is this: Why is one pound of sausage or a T-bone steak, or one glass of milk, more dangerous than 20,000 chickens? Ponder that awhile. You see, no one is being harmed by backyard poultry producers. The 1000 people killed annually by salmonella from poultry are buying their chickens from inspected mega-plants, not home-sized operators. It is much easier to keep things sanitary when the processing is small, local and infrequent as opposed to around-the-clock and a thousand miles away.
What do we really want? We want clean, affordable food. We want creativity coming to the marketplace, with a means of expression that is not eliminated by government policy. We want freedom to make decisions. Small farmers should be exempt from all food safety laws.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2000.