Farm-to-Consumer Movement Ought to be Promoted by State, Not Stifled

The farm-to-consumer movement is gaining ground in Tennessee, from the Market Square Farmers' Market to natural food dinners to the availability of organic, drug-free beef and pork and of free-range chickens.

As the agribusiness factory farms have taken over the mass production of supermarket food, small family farms in Tennessee have been creating a niche for themselves among people who want healthy food that tastes good.

You would think it would be a goal for state government in Tennessee to encourage a movement that saves family farms, helps transition tobacco farmers to producing healthful products, creates jobs, and improves public health.

You would be wrong.

As the recent recall of 400 million eggs demonstrates, the federal government is doing a lousy job of enforcing basic health and safety rules at factory farms. The Iowa factory farm in question was found to be contaminated with insects, feces, and rodents that led to salmonella poisoning of 1,500 people. Factory chicken farms routinely feed chickens arsenic to increase growth. They use antibiotics because it is cheaper than cleanliness. You wouldn't believe some of the things cattle are fed in feed lots away from natural grass, disrupting their digestive process and allowing E. coli to develop.

I recommend that you Google a study of factory farms by the Pew Trust and Johns Hopkins that concludes "economies of scale" in factory farms are an illusion when you consider the costs to society of antibiotic-resistant infections, the stockpiling of animal waste damaging to the environment, not to mention the cruelty to confined animals free of movement. I would add that the economies of scale work for Tyson and Perdue; the associated costs wind up as our problem.

The state and federal governments seem to be really concerned about shutting down family farms with the temerity to sell milk to consumers. It has led to elaborate "cow shares" in which consumers "buy" part ownership on a cow in order to buy milk.

I didn't realize that my grandparents were outlaws. When I was a young boy, I took my grandmother's eggs up to Mr. Collie's store and traded them for bubble gum and ice cream. We drank the whole milk from her Jersey cow straight from the barn. She could grab a chicken out of the yard, pluck it on the back porch, and have it on the table for supper within the hour. Little did I know I was taking my life in my hands. I just thought it was good eatin'.

Ask your East Tennessee grandmother if she and her family drank "raw" milk. How did they survive?

Why the government antipathy toward the "Slow Foods" movement? There are legitimate concerns about unregulated foods going directly to market. But who is more likely to make sure the food is pure? A family farm concerned for its reputation and potential lawsuits? Or a factory farm that pays fines periodically as a cost of doing business?

But the biggest barrier to the farm-to-consumer market is the fact that agribusiness has a lot of lobbyists and they control the farm organizations that traditionally advise the legislatures on farm issues.

When state Rep. Frank Niceley, himself a farmer, introduced a bill a few years ago to ban the use of arsenic in the big chicken houses, the bill was killed at the behest of the big chicken producers. He did get a bill passed allowing the branding and marketing of Tennessee milk, allowing companies access to milk co-op products that could be sold at a premium to people who want them and putting more money into the hands of hard-pressed dairy farmers.

But more and more consumers are demanding choices, and desperate family farms are trying to fight the bureaucracy to satisfy the demand. It is time the political leaders of Tennessee, in the governor's office and in the Legislature, realized the value of the state's farming community. It should be the mission statement of the University of Tennessee Ag School and the number one priority of the Farm Bureau.

Let's reverse course and figure out how to help the movement, not stifle it.