On a mission to advance the local food movement, a Democrat from Austin is finding common ground with Republicans and rural Texans.
When Republicans hear a Democrat saying there’s “too much regulation, their ears perk up,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, that Democrat, said with a smile. He founded the Farm to Table Caucus, the nation’s first bipartisan legislative caucus focused on advancing the local production of healthy food. Ultimately, Rodriguez says, the caucus could help address health issues in Texas like obesity and the scarcity of healthy food options in poor urban neighborhoods.
While their large-scale counterparts receive agricultural tax relief, urban and small-scale family farms do not qualify under many county appraisal districts’ definitions of agricultural land use. And a lack of consistency in local health regulations makes it difficult for farmers and chefs to know what is permitted, what requires a permit and what is off-limits when selling or distributing locally produced foods.
“I can’t have someone try one of my cherry tomatoes, that’s a violation,” said Glenn Foore, owner of Springdale Farm, a nearly five-acre urban farm in Rodriguez’s district. “All we’d like is to get some scrutiny on the old established laws."
When the recession hit in 2009, Foore and his wife, Paula, started a garden on the site of their landscaping business to keep their crew busy and their families well fed. Now, Springdale Farm is a full-fledged small business, producing more than 5,000 pounds of tomatoes in the summer, stocking produce for farm-to-table restaurants and hosting an onsite farmers' market twice a week.
Springdale Farm is in one of the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in the country, and because the property does not qualify for agricultural tax exemptions, Foore said, his property tax rate went up 800 percent this year.
Local health regulations also often prevent the farm from selling more locally produced foods. For example, a friend of Foore's who operates a bakery out of her home tweeted one day that she would be selling pies at Springdale Farm. “Five minutes after we opened we had a city truck in here shutting us down, ‘Do you have a permit to sell those pies?’” Foore said. Although the pies were made in a permitted kitchen, the city health department said they could not be sold at Springdale Farm because they were not made there.
“We have to look at the balance of the concern about food safety versus food freedom,” said state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who co-chairs the Farm to Table Caucus. Although she usually favors local government control, Kolkhorst said the state should provide consistent definitions on what type of food production is allowable.
She authored the Cottage Food Law, which was passed in 2011 and allows Texans to sell baked and canned goods from home as long as they meet certain requirements.
Rodriguez has drafted a variety of ideas for the caucus to consider, such as reducing barriers to tax exemptions for urban farms, allowing onsite processing of feral hog and deer meat that could be prepared at soup kitchens, and expanding the Cottage Food Law.
“Right now, it’s easier to get cigarettes than to get milk the way God made it,” state Rep. David Simpson, a Longview Republican and caucus member, said of restrictions on the sale of unpasteurized milk.
To ensure freshness and safety, farmers can only sell unpasteurized milk to customers at the location where it is produced. But farmers say that makes it difficult for customers to access unpasteurized milk.
Simpson and Rodriguez backed an unsuccessful bill last session to allow licensed farmers to sell unpasteurized milk at farmers' markets or approved locations.
“I just support freedom, and it’s a shame that government is often in the way of farmers,” Simpson said.