frank_talk (2006-11)

A Niche Market

We could be the leader in organic and safe food

by Frank Cagle

More and more of us, especially the young, are becoming concerned about the quality of the food we eat as agri-business and factory farms grow ever larger and family farms disappear. Mad cow disease and avian flu are worrisome. The family dairy farm in Tennessee is an endangered species. We are searching about for crops to replace East Tennessee’s farmers’ reliance on tobacco.

Large Midwest farms and agri-businesses are taking a bigger and bigger share of the agriculture industry. How can Tennessee compete? What Tennessee has is a lot of grass, small family farms and the nucleus for a niche market for our times. Organic beef, free-range chickens and specialty dairy farms are a start. We have an opportunity to create a national “brand” in the food industry that could rival our primacy in making good sippin’ whiskey.

There is a package of bills in the state House Agriculture Committee that could go a long way to help us have safer food, create new markets for small farmers, and single Tennessee out as a leader in the emerging market for safer, natural foods. Those bills are sponsored by state Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. (Full disclosure, he is a good friend of mine who has a farm just down the road, and we have discussed these issues extensively.)

The first bill would ban feeding arsenic to chickens. I leave it to the people who sell chicken to explain why they do it. (I think it makes them get fat quicker.) Not all of them do it, but many of them do. We need to make Tennessee a place where chickens are not fed arsenic and market our products accordingly. The EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found alarming levels in chicken samples, though the National Chicken Council says the levels are “much ado about nothing.”

Elevated arsenic levels have been linked to childhood obesity and a host of other diseases, especially diabetes and cancer.

We have the potential to not only outlaw arsenic in factory chicken houses, we can also promote free-range chicken production on small family farms and make these chickens as much a brand name as Grainger County tomatoes.

Another one of Niceley’s bills would prevent watered-down milk. There is no requirement within the state that the gallon of milk you buy in the grocery story actually contains milk. The amount of milk solids determines whether it is real milk or milk that is mostly water. We need to be sure that milk produced by Tennessee dairy farms gets to the supermarket with the milk still in it and not diluted.

There is also a bill that allows a small dairy to sell raw milk. This is a growing niche market in California and other places, but it is not allowed in Tennessee. The bill would require that the dairy cows be pasture-fed, not locked in a milking factory, thus ensuring small, niche operations in which the milk can be safely handled and kept free of harmful bacteria. It would be tested, as is other milk, to ensure quality, though it would not be pasteurized and processed.

The market for raw milk cheese is also growing and provides an outlet for small farms to make a good living in a niche market.

Finally, there is the issue of mad cow disease, which is a threat to public health as well as the beef industry. Who thought that turning cows into cannibals would have a good outcome? It is the practice of putting cow parts into cattle feed that transmits the prion that causes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a nerve disorder that turns the brain of a cow or a human into the consistency of Swiss cheese.

The feds have outlawed the practice in cattle feeds. But cattle feed is mixed in the same mills, hauled on the same trucks and winds up on the same farms with other feed. We need to outlaw cow parts in all feed sold in Tennessee, no matter the kind, and we need an inspection program to make sure it isn’t happening.

If we could market Tennessee as the home of the most stringent agriculture regulations, with organic beef, free-range chickens and raw milk, cheese and cream, we can have better and safer food, and our farmers could market these niche products all over the United States. Not surprisingly, Niceley isn’t getting a lot of support from big agriculture and farming interests. They are upset that he is talking about arsenic in chicken, cow parts in feed and water in the milk. It’s time somebody did.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .