Monday, February 06, 2012

Food Sovereignty Movement Spawns Struggle for Local Control

Recent events in El Dorado County, California highlight emerging tensions between state and local laws related to agriculture. These tensions arise in the context of a burgeoning food sovereignty movement, as consumers seek more choices about what they eat and its provenance. The Sacramento Bee reported a few weeks ago that the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted to support "the grass-roots (and grass-fed) agriculture revolution," and--in particular--local farmers who are bucking state regulations by selling directly to consumers. At their January 24, 2012, meeting, the Board of Supervisors lent verbal support to a "Local Food and Community Self-Governance" ordinance.

The ordinance is being pushed by Patty Chelseth, a smalltime dairy woman (we're talking two cows) who wants to provide raw milk to customers. Chelseth started selling shares in her cows because California law permits a cow's owner to drink the cow's milk filtered, but unpasteurized. It's her attempt to workaround the prohibition on selling raw milk.
This July, 2011, Sac Bee story provides some background for the Supervisors' decision. It tells of Chelseth's initial dust up with the state over a cease-and-desist letter the California Department of Agriculture sent her regarding her sales of shares of her cows. That July story included the language of Chelseth's proposed ordinance. As journalist Carlos Alcala observes, it reads something like a Declaration of Independence:
We the People of the County of El Dorado, California, have the right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods, thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of family farms and local food traditions.
Indeed, "freedom v. oppression" was a theme among the 20 or so pro-ordinance speakers at the meeting. According to the Bee, another hundred or so supporters overflowed from the meeting room.
While El Dorado County Supervisors did not adopt that ordinance at their January meeting, they did appoint two members to draft a resolution in support of local food governance. This watered-down action came in spite of highly supportive comments one supervisor made about local agriculture and his own family's involvement in it. Supervisor Ray Nutting is quoted:

I am personally appalled that they will come onto my ranch and tell me I can't share my cow or I can't share my chickens.
After some references to his own "homesteading, cow-milking ... and chicken-decapitating grandmother," Nutting concluded: "Whatever we need to do, I'm in full support." El Dorado County Sheriff John D'Agostini commented that his office is "not going to be the milk police" and voiced support for the ordinance.
Despite widespread sentiment in favor of small farmers and direct sales, the Board of Supervisors was surely influenced to take only tepid action by the county's lawyer, who advised that Chelseth's proposed ordinance runs afoul of the California Constitution, which reserves for the state the prerogative to regulate food for public safety.
Indeed, state regulators say they "won't kowtow to the movement when it comes to changing policy." A California Dept. of Agriculture spokesperson said the Department would be guided by the state legislature. He added that the only proposed changes in the pipeline are aimed at achieving greater clarity regarding the regulation of very small dairy herds. The spokesperson did not indicate whether such changes would affect producers like Chelseth, who seek to sell raw mailk directly to consumers.
Lest this state-local power struggle appear to be an isolated event, I note that both Bee stories indicate that similar tensions are playing out elsewhere, both within California and across the nation. An official from the Sonoma Valley (California) Grange who attended the El Dorado County meeting commented that the California State Grange supports such ordinances and is "searching for an alpha dog to lead the way, and we're encouraging your county to be the leader."
The earlier Bee story compares what is happening in El Dorado County to a similar movement in Maine. There, the state agriculture agency has told municipalities that their food-related ordinances do not supplant state laws.
Shermain Hardesty of the UC Davis Small Farms program thinks some middle ground may be possible. She is researching different standards that would ensure the safety of food that is not widely distributed and sees small meat-processing plants as one solution. But even Hardesty says "raw milk is a different question," presumably because of serious concerns about its safety. Get more information here, from Real Raw Milk Facts.
El Dorado County lies due east of Sacramento County, and it stretches many miles from exurban El Dorado Hills, a posh planned community abutting Sacramento County, though the Mother Lode and historic gold rush towns and thousands of acres of El Dorado National Forest, to Lake Tahoe. It is part of the Sacramento-Roseville Metropolitan Area, but it is relatively sparsely populated as metro counties go, at just 106 persons per square mile.
I travel to El Dorado County frequently, in part because I particularly enjoy its viticultural offerings. More on that, perhaps, in another post. Photos are of some farm scenes in El Dorado County, including my favorite farm stand, run by a Hmong family, on Pleasant Valley Road. Of course, regulations around selling vegetables are far less strict than those regarding meat and milk products. The sign proclaiming availability of eggs was taken yesterday, also on Pleasant Valley Road, which is south of Placerville (a/k/a Hangtown), the county seat. The top photo, from a farm on Bucks Bar Road, illustrates a work-around for selling directly to the consumer--selling the entire live cow! (This practice, too, may run afoul of the law, as Bee journalist Carlos Alcala reported here). El Dorado County Farm Trails signs are numerous, with many of them designating the county's dozens of wineries and hundreds (maybe thousands?) of acres of wine grapes. Read more here.
Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

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Anonymous farmland investment said...

I am British but temporarily working in the States. I have found this whole area of Federal-State-Local sovereignty quite facinating, especially in light of certain people in Scotland wishing to leave the UK to become an independent country. I recall reading somewhere about a situation in California where a farmer was hosting a picnic or dinner of some sort and the guests were drinking I guess raw milk. Some local authority actually came onto the property and demanded that everyone stop drinking this and that thje milk be destroyed. The guests basically told this chap to bugger off, and the owner said without a warrant he could not come onto his property. It seems the anti-government, local sovereignty movement in the US even extends to the quite local level, and food + agriculture seems to be a major flash point. All in all, for a foreigner, quite fascinating to observe.

2/07/2012 3:52 PM  
Blogger Dan Rejto said...


"the county's lawyer...advised that Chelseth's proposed ordinance runs afoul of the California Constitution, which reserves for the state the prerogative to regulate food for public safety"

It is absolutely sensible for the state to regulate food production, processing, cleaning etc. when it is mass marketed. Consumers don't generally know what Growers and Processors they are buying food from, and therefore can't even visualize the conditions of where the food is produced. Are the cows healthy? Was the food properly inspected? Are there poorly treated child laborers on the farm? There are countless health, environment and human rights questions that should be asked of food producers, but can't easily when consumers purchase food indirectly.

However, if a grower or processor ONLY sells directly to consumers , the answers to these questions can at least be pursued. As has been said, the growers and processors feel an increased level of accountability to the consumer and the local community he directly markets to because his livelihood depends on it. This increased accountability, which accompanies direct marketing within a specified geographical space (a town, county, region, "foodshed", what have you) reduces the need for higher order (state, federal) political regulation.

Yet it does not eliminate the need. History is full of examples of local food producers harming their customers. For example, urban "swill" milk producers in the mid 1800s were responsible for poisoning and killing thousands of local city children.

The federal and state governments, which have the resources to research what constitutes safe food should still set some restrictions. There are simply some foods and agricultural products (ie. tobacco) whose safety and health effects require vast resources and long time periods to study. Consumers can't intuitively know that these products will be healthy because they're local or directly marketed, and small government lacks the resources to study them. So regulation is necessary, but less of it should be applied to producers who only market directly to consumers.

2/13/2012 10:31 PM  

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