The Farm Freedom Solution
by Angela Eckhardt of Lostine, OR
Imagine a world where farming was illegal: No person would be free to sow seeds or raise animals. All production would be done under totalitarian control, nearly divorced from nature.
Could there be a worse fate for humanity? Instead of self-sufficient entrepreneurs, the country would grow workers and consumers. An entire way of life would vanish. How would such dependent, vulnerable, malnourished people overthrow such tyranny?
Now imagine a world where farming was illegal, but the people didn’t know it. “It’s a free country!” they would all say on their way to the store, school and work. The people would see very real problems in their world – rural ghost towns, scattered families, poverty, disease and corruption – but they would be at a loss for a fix.
Of course there is no outright ban on farming in America, but there might as well be. Tax and regulatory policy can have nearly the same result.
In 1937, the most valuable crop in history – hemp – was banned, not through an outright prohibition, but through tax law. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 included such onerous regulations and extreme penalties that it was too risky for farmers to cultivate any variety of cannabis.
Hemp was once lauded by America’s Founding Fathers. It was considered such a vital resource that mandatory cultivation laws were enacted in the colonies. It had been used for thousands of years to make rope, canvas, clothes, textiles, paper, medicine, paint, lighting oil, food and more.
During the Industrial Revolution, hemp lost ground due to the lack of mechanized harvesting technology. But the 1916 USDA Bulletin 404: Hemp Hurds As Paper Making Material predicted a major comeback with new technological developments, citing a four to one production advantage of hemp over timber for paper-making. Those invested in timber, petrochemicals and other competing industries stood to lose billions of dollars.
Over the next two decades William Randolf Hearst paved the way for hemp prohibition by waging an aggressive smear campaign in his sensationalist newspapers. But Hearst always used the obscure Mexican slang term “marijuana” to play on prejudice and disassociate the drug from the well-accepted cannabis plant.
Doctors and farmers were blind-sided, not realizing the true target of Hearst’s campaign until it was too late. Just after the Marihuana Tax Act took effect, the February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics introduced the new hemp harvesting and decorticating machines and declared hemp “The New Billion Dollar Crop” – the first crop to achieve such lofty financial predictions.
The federal government temporarily lifted its hemp ban during World War II when it formed War Hemp Industries, compelled farmers to watch the USDA film “Hemp for Victory,” and subsidized cultivation. After the war, the hemp processing plants were shut down and later legislation further solidified the ban.
Hemp prohibition dealt a heavy blow to American agriculture, severely limiting the number of industries farmers can compete in. Other regulations prevent small-scale, independent farmers from competing in the remaining agricultural industries.
Federal and state food safety regulations require such expensive facilities investments that many small-scale producers can’t get their products into grocery stores and restaurants. Farmers must either plug into the industrial distribution system – taking pennies on the dollar of retail sales and giving up control of important management decisions – or take their chances in the alternative venues of direct from farm sales, farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture. Even there, they are often constrained by zoning laws, value-added sales regulations, as well as meat and dairy regulations and prohibitions.
The industrial food system has generated its own severe safety concerns, but each regulatory response pushes us farther down that same path. Livestock and poultry diseases have flourished in the overcrowded conditions of Confined Animal Feeding Operations. But the policy responses – mass exterminations, indoor production and mandatory tracking – uphold the industrial system while punishing small farmers. The National Animal Identification System threatens to bury small farmers under ridiculous tracking and reporting rules, while ushering in an entirely new paradigm where farm families must actually register with the government.
Meanwhile, factory farms enjoy special privileges and protections. Besides receiving hefty farm subsidies, the industrial food system is favored by mandatory checkoff advertising campaigns and by the USDA’s flawed Food Pyramid. Large-scale operations are now able to externalize the true costs of their production through “Right to Farm” nuisance protections.
Fueling a Revolution
Biofuels present an important opportunity for small farm revival. Unlike petroleum fuels, anyone can make biofuels, which makes them a powerful force for freedom. They can literally put power into the hands of every American – and strip power from Big Oil. But the biofuel opportunity has been effectively suppressed for over a century and not surprisingly, there are significant regulatory obstacles.
In order to sell biodiesel or ethanol, farmers must obtain a fuel distributor’s permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. Biodiesel retailers must prove it meets the EPA’s Tier 1 health safety requirements even though the National Biodiesel Board (NBB) has already proven that fact through two and a half year’s worth of testing at a cost of about $2.5 million, paid for primarily through soy checkoff dollars. Instead of repeating the tests, retailers may pay $2,500 to the NBB to fall under the umbrella of that organization’s Tier 1 results. The NBB represents Midwestern agribusiness and explicitly opposes small-scale, unregulated production.
Ethanol producers face their own hurdles. They are required to obtain a fuel distiller’s permit from the Internal Revenue Service’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
What person independent-minded enough to stick with farming in this day and age wants to invite these federal bureaucracies into their lives? Not many. And so most farmers are waiting to see just how little of the retail fuel dollar they might get if they plug into the industrial production and distribution system for biofuels.
This country can’t afford to keep suppressing biofuel production. If a small farmer were to sell biodiesel without the EPA’s fuel distributor’s permit, the government would have a very hard time applying its $25,000 daily fines without public outcry.
Then we might turn national attention on to ethanol controls and begin seriously discussing how drug and alcohol policies hurt farmers. America has the most drug addicted society in history. Why should Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco continue to be protected from competition from small-scale, conscientious farmers? Indeed, why shouldn’t we put the “farm” back in pharmaceuticals?
Outside the Box
By all rights, independent farmers should be thriving in multiple industries, including food, fuel, building materials, paper, and medicinal and recreational drugs. Instead they barely have a stake in food sales, and rarely get anything to market without their product changing hands multiple times and traveling hundreds or thousands of miles in transit.
A real revival of independent farming is going to take some thinking outside the box, both in terms of products and marketing. Not only do we need to think more expansively about the full range of agricultural industries, we need to think more creatively about how farm products reach consumers and cut out the middlemen.
Virginia farmer Joel Salatin offers good advice in his latest book, “Holy Cows & Hog Heaven: A Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food.” Salatin seeks to empower consumers to improve the world through their purchasing decisions. He makes a strong case for stepping out of the supermarket and buying local products as a way of naturally injecting accountability back into agricultural industries.
A local food system encourages diversified farms with sound practices – farms and farm products you can raise a family on. But getting consumers to step out of the supermarket is easier said than done, and still there are real limits on farmers’ freedom to produce.
Rather than trying to roll small farm regulations back one by one, we might have good success with a “buy local” regulatory exemption for farm products sold within 100-miles of their origin.
Consumers should be able to make informed decisions about the items produced in their own backyard, and farmers are likely to be very quality conscious when marketing to their own community. A buy local regulatory exemption would effectively only apply to small-scale operations, limiting the potential for harm.
Finding Freedom on the Farm
In a world where independent farming was entirely illegal, the collateral damage would be widespread. So too, in our world where independent farming is all but illegal, the harm extends far beyond our remaining farms.
But our government school system has so successfully convinced Americans that they live in a free country, that the first response to problems is always a quest for more regulations, more government – never more freedom.
Our challenge is in convincing the rest of the country that the extreme and varied problems they see stem from a fundamental lack of freedom at the roots of America: on our farms.