On Monday, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that proposes additional economic rights to farmers throughout the state.
On Feb. 4, the House voted 77-22 in favor of House Bill (HB) 1430S, also known as the Boneta Bill. The proposed law, sponsored by Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Woodbridge) will move to the Virginia Senate for consideration.
As introduced, HB 1430 intended to expand the Right to Farm Act to include the commerce of farming in agricultural operations.
The proposal also aimed to declare null and void any county ordinance that infringed on farmers’ constitutional rights, particularly their freedom of speech and right to assemble.
On Jan. 30, a substitute of the bill, 1430S, passed the House’s Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee with a vote of 21-1.
The substitute included the commerce of farming in its definition, preventing counties from classifying activities such as the sale of art, literature and antiques on the farm as non-agricultural without providing sufficient proof of their irrelevance to farming operations.
The revised bill also incorporated a reenactment clause, which would keep 1430S from taking effect until approved by the 2014 General Assembly.
Trey Davis of the Virginia Farm Bureau said the reenactment clause gave his agency “a little bit of comfort.”
“It will give us essentially [a year] to bring local government and the agricultural community together to see if there are legitimate misuses of the Right to Farm Act, what the best way to move forward with that is and whether it would be with a mild ordinance or legislation,” Davis said.
But according to Mark Fitzgibbons, a constitutional lawyer who helped draft the Boneta Bill, the substitute did not include remedies that would require counties to pay attorney fees in legal disputes with farmers. Fitzgibbons called the move an “unfair advantage” for counties.
“The subcommittee doesn’t seem to be in favor of constitutional rights for farmers,” Fitzgibbons said Tuesday, Jan. 29.
James D. Campbell, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), however, was not convinced that it was time for the state government to make changes to the Right to Farm Act, which VACo helped redraft in 1994.
“We spent a lot of time focusing with the Farm Bureau and the Agribusiness Council to hammer out what we thought was a pretty darn good compromise,” said Campbell.
“We think it’s working well,” Campbell added. “From what we’ve observed the Farm Bureau thinks it’s worked very well for many, many years and the Agribusiness Council has felt it’s been working well.”
“I’m not aware of any infractions of the Right to Farm where local governments were really impeding folks that were doing local agriculture,” he said.
Davis also took issue with the language of the bill’s definition.
“For any local government that has worked with farmers to put out some ordinances and have public hearings, this is going to undo the work those local governments have done,” said Davis, adding the expansion to the Right to Farm Act had the potential to hurt small farmers.
“By doing a one-size-fits-all without collecting the information, and essentially allowing anything that is grown on a farm or a factory to be on agricultural land, I think it’s going to come back and bite farmers of all sizes,” Davis continued.
He also said that the broadness of the bill’s language could allow for the sale of food products that were not grown on the farm from which they are being sold.
Davis added that it was “hard to say” whether or not the bill will pass the senate.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion on whether this is the vehicle that we want to impact the production of agriculture over the next 20 or 30 years just based on how long the last one has lasted.”