I just sent this letter to Lane McConnell at the Missouri Department of Agriculture, after learning from the local grapevine that MDA is potentially interested in moving more aggressively to support small farms and sustainable agriculture in Missouri. Below are my thoughts, which haven taken the time to write up, I might as well post here as well. Comments?
Ermin Call, my local hardware guru and farm advocate, informs me that you all are interested in generating some new proposals for ways MDA can help support small farms and sustainable agriculture. I’d like to be involved in that discussion if possible, and want to pass along a few ideas for you to consider.
The biggest barriers I see to small farms in Missouri are not marketing or consumer awareness, but regulatory. Vegetable producers are in pretty good shape, but meat and dairy is very difficult to achieve, especially for small, young, or startup farmers. So here’s some ideas:
1) Find ways to increase access to, or support existence of, smaller local meat processors that can handle small batches of animals from small farmers. Every small meat person I know bemoans the lack of processors who can handle a few animals at a time, and the distances they have to drive to achieve them. This could be achieved through regulatory changes or other initiatives (see below).
2) Consider implementing a mobile slaughterhouse system, similar to ones the USDA has been using on the West Coast. This involves a dedicated sanitary trailer with a dedicated inspector and butcher, which travels to any farm requesting service. With the widespread nature of Missouri farming, this sort of system would be far more efficient than many farmers making two round trips to faraway packers. It’s something MDA could run itself, or that it could support a coop or private business person in establishing. You can read more about this type of system at:
3) Consider changing dairy rules to allow more leeway for small or part-time direct-market dairies to operate. Right now I can’t sell any milk or cheese from my goats without investing in full-scale Grade A facilities that are beyond my means, and those of anyone else who is beginning or just wants to dairy part-time. It’s crazy that I can’t sell milk or cheese to my neighbors across the road without complying with the same regulations governing large-scale dairies supplying faraway bulk plants.
It’s true that raw milk has some leeway, but that just shows how backward the system is. Making yogurt and many cheeses raises milk past the pasteurization point, rendering it “safer” (to many folks), yet those are illegal for me to make or sell without a full commercial setup. Yet I can apparently market “risky” raw milk without concern. That’s crazy. Why can’t I make basic farmstead dairy products on-farm for direct sale to customers as long as the labeling clearly states that it’s not a fully state-inspected process and the customer ought to beware?
4) Related to all of the above, consider regulatory changes to allow more leeway for direct sales of farm products on-farm. Most food safety regulations are aimed at food products entering the national food chain, where the long shelf life and many middlemen make those regulations necessary. That’s not the case for small farms selling directly to the final consumer, especially if customers visit the farm to pick up their products.
There’s no reason meat can’t be butchered on-farm in a reasonably clean setting as long as customers come to the farm to pick it up, thus inspecting the facilities for themselves. This is already true for poultry by US & Missouri law and has not caused any problems; why can’t it be true for lamb, pork, goat, and others?
There’s no reason meat can’t be sold from customer processors if it’s clearly labeled “uninspected” with the name of the farm and the processor, and is sold from the farm of origin. We already distribute such meat under Share the Harvest, clearly considering such processors clean enough to give meat to poor people. Why can’t consumers have access to the same right? Read more about this proposal at:
There’s no reason dairy can’t be sold right off the farm, fresh within a day or so, to customers who prefer that choice. My cheese making process is clean and careful, and I would have every reason to be vigilant, as one mistake and I’m out of business.
5) So in general, my argument is that we don’t just need new marketing initiatives or grant programs, we also just need to be able to produce and sell products that people want. This country grants free markets to customers in so many ways, but takes an incredibly strict “nanny-state” approach to food that really isn’t warranted at the small farm, direct-market scale. Why not give us, and our customers, some freedom to make responsible choices about our farms and food, and see what happens?
Many of the changes described above would also act as small-business incubators in the long run. If I get the chance to practice producing and selling dairy products part-time while still running my vegetable operation, maybe I’ll gain the confidence and experience to expand into a larger business. How many potential small dairies never get off the ground because they can’t make the leap from home-scale production to fully commercialized full-scale businesses with the massive expenses and regulations those entail? If I can butcher and sell a few animals on-farm, maybe I’ll learn there’s a bigger market for them and expand to a business that does need a processor. But I’ll never get to practice those skills or explore those markets if the laws make it an all-or-nothing proposition.
If we want to encourage small farms and local foods, let’s give them the freedom to actually go into business and learn. That, to me, would support farming in Missouri far more than many of the well-meaning proposals already on the table. The market is already there; just let us actually serve it.
Thanks for reading my long-winded thoughts. I would greatly enjoy a chance to discuss these and other ideas about helping Missouri farms with you.
Chert Hollow Farm