Virginia lawmakers shocked at farm bills split decision
The Virginia House of Delegates introduced two bills that aimed to strengthen and protect the rights of small farmers throughout the state.
But on Monday evening, the Agricultural Subcommittee passed one bill with a substitute while the other was defeated on the floor.
On Jan. 19, the proposed laws, House Bills (HB) 1430 and 1839, or “The Boneta Bill” and “The Virginia Food Freedom Act respectively,” were endorsed unanimously by the Republican Committee of Virginia’s First District, which includes the Northern Neck and Essex County.
In an interview held Saturday, Jan. 26, Eric Herr, chairman of the Republican Committee, said he anticipated “substantial support from the public for both of these bills.”
“My view is that combined, [these bills] really open the door for our small farmers to generate revenue and jobs in rural Virginia,” said Herr.
But his mood darkened substantially when discussing the fate of the Virginia Food Freedom Act late Monday evening, after the Food Freedom Act was killed on the floor.
“Before we could present the bill, it was clear they already made their decision,” Herr said of the officials who voted. “They didn’t want to hear what we had to say.”
“I now see it’s the farm lobby that runs agriculture, not the small farmers,” Herr added.
Mark Fitzgibbons, a constitutional attorney who helped draft the Boneta Bill, which was passed with a substitute, described the committee room as being “jam-packed with 150 people that didn’t see what was going on.”
Fitzgibbons said that members of the subcommittee had copies of the substitute bill in front of them, while he and members of the audience did not.
As of presstime, what those changes were to the bill remain unclear.
“They voted on something that the people were not expecting,” he added.
The original Boneta Bill, which expands the Right to Farm Act, included provisions that protect the commerce of farming, declare any county ordinances that threaten farmers’ rights to be null and void and provide farmers with legal protection.
In addition, the bill would have allowed farmers to sell non-agricultural items such as books, art, furniture and artifacts from their farms to consumers.
Fitzgibbons called The Boneta Bill “the most important piece of farming and property rights legislation in memory.”
“People want to talk about the freedom to farm without fear, and the fear is of government interference,” said the attorney. “I think this will ensure that counties think twice before taking actions that violate the rights of farmers.”
But Kelly Liddington, an agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said the proposed expansion to include non-agricultural products in the original “Right to Farm Act” risked watering down its legislative intent.
“The Right to Farm Act is there to protect the production of agriculture and the folks who are putting food on the table, not the sale of antiques,” he said.
Martha Boneta inspired the drafting of House Bill 1430 when Fauquier County attempted to impose a $5000 fine on her for holding a birthday party for her daughter at her farm without obtaining a permit from the county.
Fitzgibbons said the county was in violation of Boneta’s constitutional rights.
“We have a first amendment called the Freedom of Assembly,” Fitzgibbons noted with a laugh.
“I have a feeling [the substitute bill] is not going to be as good as the [original],” Fitzgibbons said. “It could be the worst thing imaginable…but I would have to sit down and read it.”
The tabled Virginia Food Freedom Act would have enabled small farmers to sell homemade food products to their neighbors without having to adhere to regulations set by the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“If a small farmer raises chickens, there’s some provisions already that allows them to sell eggs and chicken meat, but it wouldn’t allow them to sell a chicken pot pie,” Herr said of the current legislation.
“The theory behind (HB 1839) is our small farmers and home owners, especially in rural Virginia, are extremely challenged in the current economic climate,” he added.
“This would allow them to generate some cash from the sales of what they produce on their farms by selling it directly…to the public without the expense of establishing all the inspection regimes which state law requires.”
Liddington argued that the sale of non-inspected meats and dairy products allowed by the bill would have raised health and safety concerns.
“The inspections are there to protect public health and the producer as well,” said Liddington. “If they’re being periodically inspected, then that serves as a foundation for their defense should problems arise.”
Bernadette Barber of Tall Trees Farm in Lancaster County agreed with Herr, arguing that prepared foods sold directly from the home and farm were safer and more trustworthy than products found in stores.
Barber recalled her grandmother’s sweet potato pie and the feelings they evoked in her.
“Before you even got into grandma’s house, you could smell [the pie] and you can’t trade off that sense of security because you know grandma’s going to make the best for her family,” she said.
“Her main intent is something good, wholesome and nutritious,” Barber continued. “Maybe grandma needs to make a little extra money to buy dance lessons for her granddaughter…and maybe that’s all she wants to do to make a few bucks every week.
“It’s America, we should have that freedom.”
Barber, whom Herr credited with advancing the idea of the Virginia Food Farming Act to legislator, said she felt that certain economic rights were long overdue for farmers and homeowners.
“Some local families have been selling their products for centuries,” said Barber. “They don’t realize that it’s illegal to sell home-cooked sausages or an apple pie that they made.”
After the Food Freedom Act was tabled, Herr balked at his own confidence in the bill passing.
“I apologize for being optimistic about believing that the government cares what we think,” he said.