Testifying For the Future of Maryland FarmersOne of the great things I love about Maryland is the HUGE community of local organic farmers! I've been taking my daughter to Clark's Elioak Farm in Howard County for years, she plays with the chickens, rides their ponies (Flashlight is her favorite) and we go on hayrides in the fall. Their blackberry preserves are amazing, by the way. The Anne Arundel county Farmers Co-op is right down the street from me and they work with local farmers to supply seedlings and growing supplies, even chicks in the spring. The Sunday Farmer's Market under the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore is extremely popular and a great place to find just about any kind of food you'd want (I hear the Takoma Park market is great too).
The Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association is a great group of farmers, businesses and consumers spreading awareness about local organic foods. The Univ. of MD's Cooperative Extension has a campaign called 'Grow It, Eat It' which now has over a million Maryland growers in their network.
I take pride in supporting local farmers and natural markets, I know these business owners are putting their heart into their products, they're growing and operating in harmony with nature and providing a whole, nutritious food source that you just can't get anywhere else. That's why I get concerned when this last "real food" source is threatened in any way.
These farmers work with their county governments to develop the regulations to best suit the local economies and markets and to keep the public safe. These are not factory operations and really need a different set regulatory procedures in place than those imposed on factories. The local county governments have done a great job of working with their farmers and the public to develop standards which promote their economies and the health and well being of organic eaters.
Today, we're facing two seemingly harmless bills (HB166, HB167 in the House AND SB198, SB199 in the Senate) which are being pushed through without any opposition. These bills will take the regulatory and licensing procedures out of the democratic arena of the county governments and consolidate them in the UNelected official's hands at the Department of Health. This bill is being sold as an easier way for local farmers to get their products to market, they'll only have one licensing procedure to go to and as long as they follow the standards and regulations set in place by the Dept. of Health, everything will work out just fine.
I want to know; Who is developing these standards and regulations? Who is going to have the power to change these regulations in the future? Are these people going to have any vested interest in big agriculture, grocery stores, fast food, govt. subsidies, etc.? Would these connections prevent them from making the most ethical choices when dictating what local farmers and consumers are going to be allowed to do in the market place and the privacy of their own farms and homes?
There are a million ways that the local farmer, who is already at a disadvantage in the market place, could be further handicapped. They could be regulated to use certain kinds of costly harvesting or processing equipment or charged excessive fines or violations or even licensing fees eventually. There could be excessive sanitary standards put in place that would prohibit these farmers from operating in an economic way. There could labeling standards requiring paid inspections of all products before going to market. I could list all of the potential weapons that could be used against the farmer, but I think you're starting to get the point.
Something told me that I just had to go and voice my opinion on this matter, but I didn't have much time to prepare a speech or get my facts ready, etc.. I made a few notes, grabbed some old research, an apple and out the door I went. The hearing was by the MD House Health and Government Operations Committee at the Lowe House Office Bldg. in Annapolis.
The second bill, HB167 supposedly sets up a licensing process to be able to provide customers with samples of your product. It was explained to me that it is currently illegal to cut up an apple and give a potential customer a slice to try, but this new legislation would make the opportunity available to the farmer once they registered to give out samples. This would make the public safe from the fly by night, wild west mentality of today's farmer's markets. Thank god someone's going to regulate this sampling process, I wouldn't want my child to sample real, raw organic food without the government watching over everything.
I made it to Annapolis, found the building and made my way to the hearing. I entered the hearing room which was very nice, wearing my "give peace a chance" t-shirt, jeans and boots. The committee were seated at the horseshoe shaped formation of desks. A couple of other bills were being discussed before HB166 & HB167 and I took this opportunity to make bulletin points on what I wanted to discuss. After listening to testimonies for these other bills by doctors, scientists, teachers, nurses, department heads, delegates, etc.. I realized that not one person in the room that day was there to OPPOSE any of the bills being proposed. I thought that was odd, maybe not unexpected, but a little off you could say.
After the discussions of the first few bills, Delegate Hubbard, who proposed this bill, was then called to testify on the basics of HB166 & HB167. He said that he didn't know much as he was asked by some Senators to propose it to the House and that he probably wouldn't be able to answer any questions. One of the delegates on the board made the comment that he knew the bill was being supported by a large meat company, but Delegate Hubbard wasn't sure of who it was or why they supported it. There was a brief discussion between the committee and Delegate Hubbard about some e-mails they had received opposing the bill, but they were downplayed as being only about raw milk, which is not what they were there to discuss.
The proponents came up to testify next, who were all members of various state departments, including the Dept. of Health as well as a man named John Sullivan who works for Howard county I believe. Their explanation was that the bill was being proposed to make it easier for farmers to get their products to market because they currently had to abide by the different regulations imposed by the counties and this bill would consolidate these regulations into one simple and efficient licensing process for them.
Sounds pretty good huh?
After all these people praised this bill over and over, I finally had my chance and was called to testify. I was the sole opposition to the bill. I apologized for my appearance, I had just left a garden this morning and that I must have left my razor and suit in my other Maserati! This got a big laugh! Well I informed them that I was not a scientist or doctor or head of any big important company, but I had been eating since I was born. Another big laugh! I must be on the right track here.
I informed them that I was the kind of person this bill would effect since I get almost all of my food from local growers or my own backyard. I haven't heard any complaints about the regulation process from any of the farmers I deal with NOR from any of the consumers I've spoken with. In fact, the local, organic, sustainable movement has gained a lot of speed recently and I believe WE now outnumber those who don't care what's in their food or where it comes from. I went over the effects of government regulation in the food industry which has set very strict standards to be able to label your product "organic" (I held up my apple which had an organic sticker, bought at David's Natural Market in Millersville) but there were currently no requirements to label genetically modified food, fertilized food, pesticides used, artificially ripened, etc..
One of the other bills discussed that day was about banning products with bisphenol-a. I explained to the committee that I supported the banning of BPA (I held up my Nalgene water bottle which contained BPA) but I was MORE concerned about the fact that government regulated water treatment facilities allowed Viagra, Prozac, birth control and fluoride in treated water but didn't have to report it.
I explained how pesticides were discovered in WWII when scientists found that Nerve Gas worked just as well on crop-eating insects as it does on Nazis. I'm sure they had not yet heard of back-hauling, a practice truckers use to transport, oh say, asphalt from New Jersey and bring broccoli or milk back from California in the same container. I also made them aware of big agriculture's process of shipping unripened fruit, and spraying with an artificial ripening agent right before they got to their destination. Back in the day, this was done manually, now it's done with automated sprayers built into the trucks. How else are you going to get produce to look good when you're transporting across the country?
I told them how local farmers already had a hard time competing in the marketplace because the government subsidizes big agriculture's production of corn and grain meaning the Monsantos of the world can sell their pesticide laden, genetically modified "food" for less then it actually costs to produce it! I wondered why local food was so expensive for so long and that was the missing puzzle piece. I held up a copy of 'Harvest for Hope' by Jane Goodall and explained that THIS was where they should be getting their information from if they were really trying to help the local farmer.
I continued with how I spoke to over 200 people, one on one, at the Home Show convention in Baltimore this past weekend and that only 3 people didn't grow their own food or weren't interested in growing their own food. I made them aware that the only reason e. coli exists is because cattle is fattened up with corn and that creates the perfect environment for breeding e. coli and that the bacteria wasn't found on local organic, sustainable farms feeding their cows grass.
These proposed fees and regulations were only going to severely handicap the already burdened plight of the small local farmer and I questioned who actually stood to benefit from the legislation? What kind of support were these people getting and from whom? I challenged them to bring a single local farmer or consumer forward who supported this legislation and proposed an inquiry into the health and economic effects related to the new regulations going to be put in place by the Dept. of Health if this bill were to pass. I wanted to know who "watches the watchers". It seemed to me that this consolidation of power would mean that ALL MD farmers were now going to be subject to the will of a few, without the benefit of taking place in a democratic process to establish the regulations effecting their livelihood and OUR food.
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