Tea Party Libertarians and Small Organic Farmers Make Strange Political Bedfellows – The Unlikely Coalition Between Tea Party Libertarians and Small Organic Farmers By SIMON OWENS January 24, 2013
Laura Bledsoe didn’t set out to join a political movement, she merely wanted to serve what she considered a sustainable meal.
“We advertised it as a zero mile footprint,” she recalls. “It’s been shown that the bulk of our food travels 1,500 miles to get to our plate and we were advertising the fact that this was, for the most part, food prepared directly on our farm.”
The Bledsoes placed advertisements in local newspapers and sent the announcement out to their E-mail list, and within the first day they sold all 100 of their tickets, some at $100 a plate.
Trouble began two days before the event was to take place. They received a call from the Southern Nevada Health District Office, who wanted to know if the farmers had secured a health permit for the event. “We didn’t know we needed to,” Laura says.
They did, she was told.
The Bledsoes didn’t panic. Monte immediately dropped what he was doing and traveled 40 miles to Mesquite to apply for a permit. It was here he learned the process required an inspection to take place the day of the event.
“It made us a little nervous, but we talked to our chef who’s used to working with the health district, and he didn’t think there would be any problem. He was very familiar with what [the health inspector] was looking for and didn’t give it another thought,” says Laura
But it soon became apparent that her nervousness wasn’t unfounded.
The health inspector arrived simultaneously with several of the event’s guests. The Bledsoes led her to where the food was being prepared while the guests were guided on a chaperoned tour of the farm by interns.
“She literally came in and started looking for things she could find fault with,” Laura recalls. “That just became apparent in her attitude and demeanor with how she handled things.”
The health inspector raised several concerns, but chief among them was the meat the Bledsoes were preparing to serve. Because the event was advertised as a “zero mile footprint,” the meat hadn’t been sent through a USDA processing plant, as is required for any meat purchased at a grocery store or restaurant, so the inspector deemed it illegal to serve.
“She immediately demanded that we send our guests home and cease the event, and if we didn’t she would call the police and have them personally escorted off the property.”
Increasingly panicked, flustered, and “having a nervous breakdown,” Laura attempted to reason with the inspector without success. In addition to being ordered to send their guests home, the farmers were also told they needed to pour bleach over all the meat to ensure it would never be served.
“It’s one thing when you throw out a piece of food that you have no relationship to,” Laura says. “But we raised these animals. When you raise animals and slaughter them and then prepare them, it’s with great reverence that you eat this food. The total disregard for any of that was just appalling to me.”
In the middle of this disruption, the Bledsoes recalled they had a number for the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization that protects the legal rights of family farms and artisan food producers. Though it was a Friday evening, the organization’s lead counsel Gary Cox called them back within 15 minutes. He instructed them to ask if the inspector if she had a search warrant, if she didn’t, Cox told them to tell her to leave the property.
The tactic worked. Though the health inspector threatened to come back with the police, she left, leaving the Bledsoes to explain what had happened to their guests. They had already poured bleach on the meat, but they were still able to serve their vegetable dishes without further disturbance, and of the 100 who signed up for the event, only a handful left because of time constraints, Laura says.
While the Bledsoes didn’t immediately hear back from the health department, they decided to send out an E-mail recounting the experience to shareholders of their local food delivery service, known as a CSA. Soon, the story went viral, traveling the globe and leading to hundreds of E-mails from farmers and activists. Eventually, Laura was contacted by Nevada lawmakers, many of whom were sympathetic to her cause and wanted to reform state laws so that such a fiasco wouldn’t happen again.
Without even meaning to, the Bledsoes found themselves swept up in a political movement that has only accrued momentum in recent years, one in which owners of small local farms and gardens are pitted against government agencies, both local and federal, over the rights of property owners and private citizens in terms of how and where they can prepare their food.
But what is perhaps even more peculiar about this movement is its bipartisan interest. Among its most vocal proponents you’ll find an amalgamation of ardent Tea Party libertarians—concerned over property rights and the over-extended reach of government—and liberal environmentalists who believe the local, organic farm is the ecologically-friendly solution to the nation’s health woes.
“If I had to guess, I would say we were fifty-fifty in terms of extreme liberals and extreme conservatives,” says Laura. But though the fight extends across party lines, little has been done so far to bridge the political gap in pursuance of bipartisan activism for farmer rights.
Lynn Hamilton, a professor of agribusiness at the California Polytechnic State University, argues that this tension between government and farmers stems from structural changes within the industry over the last decade. She points to a U.S. Census of Agriculture report finding that while the number of farms increased between 2002 and 2007, “nearly all that increase came from the smallest segment that produce less than $10,000 in sales.”
“The statistics show that basically that middle ground of what people think of as a traditional farm in America, that’s shrinking,” she says. “The largest segment of commercial farms is growing and the segment of very small lifestyle rural hobby farms is growing. But it’s that middle ground, that traditional agrarian, bucolic vision that a lot of people have of what farming is, that’s shrinking. It seems like you either get small and go niche to a high end market, or you go big.”
The report found that the number of farms with sales of less than $1,000 had increased by 118,000, and those with sales of more than $500,000 grew by 46,000. The only contraction occurred for farms generating between $1,000 and $250,000 in sales.
Jeff Rowes, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm based in Arlington, Virginia has sought out and represents many of these cases. Like Hamilton, he traces the roots of this movement to a decades-long shift in the agricultural industry toward large, commercially-viable institutions built for the mass-production of food. As government regulations have coalesced around this new normal during the past few generations, small farmers have found themselves caught within the confines of laws that weren’t designed for them.
“What that means is that when there’s a grassroots movement like there is now, back toward simplicity, back toward raising your own food in a manner that people have done for thousands of years, including the people who founded this country, suddenly the methods that they want to use on a micro level are all illegal,” said Rowes.
Or, as Hamilton put it: “It’s like hitting a fly with a B-2 bomber.”
Often times, Rowes said, his clients are surprised to find themselves pulled into the movement.
Recently, the New York Times profiled several individuals who had planted vegetable gardens in their front yards, only to be confronted by local authorities who were enforcing county or city zoning codes that forbid such actions. One sustainability director in Orlando ascribed these codes to an era when “the aesthetic was more of a formalized thing. Organic, natural planting was out of vogue.” Many local officials admit that the codes merely protect the property values of homeowners, rather than having any real public utility.
Admissions like these are what make such issues fodder for public outrage, as many can sympathize with the David versus Goliath archetype that’s formed when you see a gardener seemingly bullied by a larger institution.
“Generally what we’re looking for in a case is it has to have simple facts,” says Rowes. “The fact has to be outrageous. There has to be an evil villain, and there has to be a sympathetic plaintiff.”
But perhaps because many who find themselves battling state and local governments aren’t seasoned political activists, they haven’t always done a spectacular job organizing grassroots opposition, at least not across party lines.
“The one thing that I have not found is a lot of bipartisan cooperation, even though it’s a bipartisan issue,” Rowes says. So while the Tea Party libertarians and liberal environmentalists may be on the same side, each isn’t necessarily aware the other exists.
In some cases, attempts to organize these farmers can be met with resistance. Such has been the case for Mark Baker, a 52-year-old Michigan farmer who has been engaged in a year-long battle with his state’s Department of Natural Resources, which recently issued a declaratory rulingplacing wild Russian boars on its invasive species list.
For years, Baker has been raising and slaughtering a hybrid breed of Mangalitsa pig -a European breed with a hairy fleece that has been gradually replaced by domestic breeds. Under Michigan law, an animal only has to meet one of nine characteristics to be labeled invasive (including an incredibly vague catch-all: “Other characteristics not currently known to the MDNR that are identified by the scientific community”). As a result authorities informed him last year that the pigs raised on his farm were illegal and must be put down.
What followed was a vituperative legal war in which Baker not only sued the state (the case is still ongoing), but has also appeared before a Michigan state senate committee to argue his cause. But the more immersed the recalcitrant farmer has become in the political process, the more he has distanced himself from both parties.
“They put on the show for the people, but they never really do what the people want—either side,” he says.
And so when his story began to spread and various political groups approached him, Baker rebuffed their advances.
“We had the Tea Party wanting to come alongside of us and make us their little darling. I didn’t like the spirit of the people I was talking to on the phone. They were going to use our situation and our hardship to prop up whatever their agenda is,” says Baker. Similar inquiries from liberal groups were also rejected.
Not all relationships between these small, local farmers and government agencies are entirely antagonistic, however.
Amy Stewart, one of the writers for Garden Rant, a group blog of “highly opinionated gardeners,” says while many horticulturists get frustrated with the red tape that has accumulated over the past decade, they also maintain a symbiotic rapport with government scientists and researchers.
“You can call your representative at the USDA when you’re having this problem with apple codling moths and say, ‘We’ve tried to get rid of them and it’s not working anymore. Are you guys doing any research?’ And they’ll come and set up a research station on your farm and figure it out,” she says.
And in some instances, both sides can reach a happy agreement.
For the past year, the Bledsoes have worked directly with Nevada lawmakers while the legislature has been out of session to carve out exemptions for farmers like them. Under proposed legislation, the Nevada Department of Agriculture would inspect their facilities and designate them “self inspectors,” which would permit them to sell meat on their own farm without sending it 400 miles to a USDA processing plant. The bill will be introduced to the legislature during the 2013 session that begins in February, and Laura says she’s optimistic it’ll pass.
Hamilton, the agribusiness professor, says there have been several recent cases in which the government has carved out some regulatory room for smaller niche producers.
“For example, the big E. coli outbreak that happened in 2006 was really the catalyst to get the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement put into place,” she explains. “Because the cost of these regulations are so onerous, there are exceptions that are made for producers below a certain size.” The whole purpose of the agreement, after all, was to deal with greens that flow through a large food chain—from the fields in California to the packing and cooling sheds to the grocery store; the more marketing channels there are, the greater risk of a food safety problem. If you’re a small grower, that chain merely extends from the farm to a local farmer’s market, thereby limiting the risk.
But lest one be lured into a false sense of amicability between farmer and government, the self inspections weren’t the only changes the Bledsoes hoped for when lobbying Nevada representatives.
“The first thing I wanted to include was the option to purchase raw milk,” Laura says. “We were told right off the bat don’t even go there.”