How marijuana legalization could influence local foods

The recent successful ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana use in Washington and Colorado have interesting, but overlooked, implications for small-scale agriculture and local foods. This attempt by states to circumvent a Federal law seen as unnecessarily restrictive on personal freedom of choice parallels other attempts to increase freedoms for small farmers to process and sell farm products independent of government interference. In both cases, over-regulation suppresses an in-demand consumer product and thus creates a real and potential black market for those products while blocking law-abiding entrepreneurs. It will be very interesting to see whether the attempt to allow more freedom to purchase recreational drugs will influence consumers’ legal ability to purchase fresh food from farmers of their choosing. What will it take to change the FDA’s position that Americans “do not have a fundamental right to obtain any food they wish.”?

For context, here are two (by no means all) ways that Federal/state rules restrict the ability of small farms like ours to meet consumer demands for farm-fresh products:

– Meat (except poultry) can only be legally sold retail if processed in a state- or Federally-inspected processing facility with an expensive independent inspector constantly on staff.  It’s not legal for me to sell meat I’ve processed on-farm, even if I did it in full presence of the customer, or even with the customer’s help, or with a signed contract with the customer stating their comfort with my methods & waiving all liability. The odd exception here is poultry, which for some reason can be sold without inspection up to at least 1,000 birds a year. But not a single goat, lamb, hog, etc. can be butchered on farm for sale to a willing customer. It’s not even logically consistent from a consumer-protection point of view; why would 900 on-farm chickens be safer than one goat? This a main reason we don’t sell meat from our pastured animals despite pastured high-quality meat being in high demand; the expense and hassle of off-farm legal processing is simply too high.

– Dairy products other than raw milk (cheese, butter, pasteurized milk, yogurt, etc.) can only be produced in licensed, inspected dairy facilities, again regardless of customer attendance, approval, or contractual agreement. Again, you could personally watch me milk the goat, process the milk, and make the cheese and it would still be criminal to sell the final product to you, even if you signed a full contract and liability waiver with me. The basic commercial dairy facility needed to do this legally would cost a minimum of $50,000-$100,000 based on our conversations with existing Missouri small dairies, not practical for most part-time/start-up farms or diversified operations like ours where the dairy animals are only part of the business model. Why can you sign away all personal liability to go sky-diving, but not to eat cheese of your choice? This is the major reason we don’t sell cheese, only raw milk, despite cheese generally being safer, more shelf-stable, more lucrative, and in more demand.

In the name of public safety, our society has enacted ever-stricter rules on how, where, and why various ingestible substances can be produced and consumed. The common thread here is an assumption that citizens are incapable of making rational economic and safety decisions for themselves. It’s often a reasonable assumption on the grand scale of modern agribusiness, when consumers have no access to personally inspect the peanut-butter factory thousands of miles away and need the government to do it for them before the product reaches store shelves. It’s not a reasonable assumption during the rebirth of local foods and independent small farms that can build a stronger local customer relationship than government inspection can provide, while providing much-needed jobs & businesses to rural America. Note that all of these products are quite legal to produce for yourself, your family, and any friends/neighbors/strangers you wish to give them away to; you just can’t sell them legally to the same people.

While it’s somewhat fraught to compare our farm’s products to drugs, the underlying situations are similar, including the amount of effort put into suppressing “illicit” local food production (such as the raw-milk entrapment sting carried out in Springfield, MO back in 2009, ironically on the only dairy product that is legal to sell uninspected in Missouri). This approach creates a black market for both drugs and farm products that, if legal, would generate more jobs and tax dollars instead of expensive criminal investigations. I know of multiple regional farms selling meat, dairy products, and other farm goods either in the gray area of the law or wholly illegally because the demand is there; why criminalize these folks for rebuilding rural America’s economy?

Even worse, there are likely far more non-farms which don’t exist because their potential founders know they can’t afford to comply with the regulations needed to be legal; ever notice that the local farmers market here is dominated by vegetable growers with only one dairy and a handful of meat vendors? There’s a reason, and it’s not because of lack of demand or agricultural capability. Yet many of the independent meat/dairy farms that do exist still struggle, in part because of the disproportionate burden (financial & otherwise) that the laws & regulations place on small farms.

Food-based blowback similar to the pot propositions has been bubbling in New England, where various communities and entities have passed versions of “food sovereignty” resolutions that

explicitly allow local farmers and ranchers to sell their food — meat, eggs, unpasteurized milk, honey, veggies — directly to consumers within town borders, without state or federal licenses, permits, or regulations.

This is, in effect, the same argument as the marijuana propositions: that states, local communities, and individuals should have greater rights to make their own informed decisions about what goes into peoples’ bodies (and by extension how and where those products are produced). This is not an anarchist argument that all government regulation should vanish; it’s an attempt to create a more rational continuum between regulation and responsibility that encourages rather than discourages personal rights and entrepreneurial activity, especially at a small scale that doesn’t threaten to cause the massive food contamination outbreaks that regularly occur despite intensive regulation of agribusiness.

So we’ll be watching with great interest how the Justice Department reacts to the developments in Colorado and Washington, and possibly how the Supreme Court reacts. Oddly enough, while marijuana and organic farming are probably connected in some peoples’ minds as manifestations of a liberal agenda, in both cases it’s really a conservative/libertarian issue of states’ and personal rights versus over-reaching Federal intrusion. Too bad the ossified culture wars mean farmers like us are stuck in the middle with no party that supports us.

Our suggested solution would be simple: either make direct sales of farm-produced products to the final customer exempt from regulation, and/or give personal contracts between farmer and customer priority over other regulation. This would endanger no one who did not choose this route, as customers would have to go out of their way to make an informed choice to buy uninspected food products (which should not show up in grocery stores or other 3rd-party venues), and would empower farmers and consumers to build economic activity and healthy choices. If desired, caps could be put in place such that a farm or business that grew past a certain point would start to need inspection; in either case this would allow small start-up farms to test the waters of their business model without expensive investments, grow their businesses naturally, then if successful enough join the mainstream regulated food supply when there’s enough cashflow and business to justify that.

It’s a winning situation for everyone (except our competitors in Big Ag, who already get plenty of government favoritism), but requires a serious rethink on how our culture and government handles personal responsibility and regulation. Is that something we can achieve? Surely, if we can legalize recreational pot, we can legalize customers’ right to buy fresh food direct from farmers.

One thought on “How marijuana legalization could influence local foods

  1. I think you hit on the primary frustrating factor for most small farmers in your last paragraph “It’s a winning situation for everyone (except our competitors in Big Ag, who already get plenty of government favoritism)”.

    “Food Safety” regulations have been formed by disproportionate input from Big Agra lobby and therefore are thinly disguised regulations to prevent market entry by small, local upstarts regardless of how much sense it makes from an actual food safety viewpoint.

    The initial impetus for “Food Safety” regulations may be some horrible event that happened to some individual who ingested a tainted product and was harmed by it. Regulators and politicians seek to gain public support (for re-election) by crusading that “this SHOULD never happen again.” This is a nice sentiment, but it always does happen again. I wonder why? The problem occurs when the bureaucrats impose rules that favor larger operations (usually through requiring facilities/capital that is not feasible or necessary on a small scale).

    Why are large operations inherently unsafe? The more food there is around for longer, the more organisms are going to be around to eat it. Bigger operations have more food around for longer so the disease organisms grow faster there and reach higher populations. Not only is it common sense, it is the fundamental law of population ecology embodied in the logistic function.

    But we don’t have to stop at theory to argue this hypothesis, we can test it. If we have learned anything about food-borne illness related outbreaks investigated by the CDC, it is that they occur mainly in big operations.

    A case in point is the recent “Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Live Poultry in Backyard Flocks” http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/live-poultry-05-12/index.html

    Any person looking at the title of the report would assume that the problem children are those rascally granola head hippies that keep chickens in their quarter acre backyard. However, when you READ the report (as opposed to the soundbyte), the cases are linked to Mt. Healthy Hatcheries in Ohio which is a Big operation to be supplying chicks to 27 states (that’s over half the country!). When you read Mt. Healthy Hatcheries’ statement, they eschew responsibility by stating they “are and will continue to work with suppliers of hatching eggs and chicks purchased by Mt. Healthy Hatcheries to ensure we can provide safe, healthy chicks for our customers. We also will continue to educate consumers on proper care and handling of those animals.” Who are their suppliers anyhow? No one wants you to know. But anyone SUPPLYING a hatchery with eggs that distributes to 27 states is a huge company.

    So in the face of this evidence and common sense, why do Regulators favor large Ag businesses?
    1) Big distribution networks with point of sale documentation enable back-tracking to source of outbreaks by the CDC.
    2) Bureaucrats watching their bottom line are trying to maximize inspected product per inspector day which favors large high-throughput operations.
    3) Big Ag companies are more politically organized than small farmers and have more money to shove down the shirts of politicians.

    We can raise awareness about all of this but at the end of the day if we want change, we (the small upstart farmers) are going to have to become more politically organized to
    A) clearly articulate our critique of current regulation to the powers that can change it and convince them that it will create more jobs (like with studies from economists, not just rhetoric)
    B) mobilize voters to ratify a proposition to “make direct sales of farm-produced products to the final customer exempt from regulation, and/or give personal contracts between farmer and customer priority over other regulation”

    What are existing organizations that would align with these two goals?
    And can we create/promote a cross-organization campaign to get both A & B done?