The bipartisan "farm-to-table" caucus landed a couple of key victories in its first legislative session, laying the groundwork for its effort to help small agricultural businesses crop up across Texas.
“Food and freedom brings people together,” said state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who carried a bill for the caucus to ease regulations on food sampling at farmers markets.
State Reps. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, founded the caucus in 2012 to promote policies that support local agriculture. The group has 28 members — 18 Democrats and 10 Republicans — and successfully delivered two of the seven bills it backed this session to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.
Although members of the caucus have different philosophical reasons for supporting food policy, the common thread, Rodriguez said, is “healthier eating and knowing where your food comes from."
House Bill 970, the "cottage food" bill authored by Rodriguez, the caucus chairman, would expand the list of foods that can be produced in a home kitchen to include roasted nuts, tea and spice mixes, fruit butters, pickles and other low-risk foods that do not require refrigeration or temperature control. It would also allow producers to sell cottage foods — which currently can only be sold out of producers' homes — at farmers markets, fairs and other events.
The food-sampling bill, Simpson's HB 1382, would ease existing regulations on providing product samples or cooking demonstrations at farmers markets. Currently, local laws are inconsistent; some communities allow food sampling at their markets and fairs while others do not.
Andrew Smiley, deputy director of the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, said his group worked with the caucus on the bills to address problems identified by farmers and market organizers, including health regulations that varied depending on government jurisdiction.
“Inconsistent information from regulating agencies is one of the big challenges,” said Smiley. He said another measure that’s headed to the governor — House Bill 1392 authored by a caucus member, state Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene — would ensure consistency by requiring the Department of State Health Services to provide written responses to regulatory inquiries within 30 days.
But local government entities raised concerns during the legislative process that some of the bills could pose safety risks.
“Illness is illness. We really felt like farmers markets — while they’re good, generally speaking — ought to be subject to the same health regulations as restaurants,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. The league opposed the food-sampling bill, he said, because the measure could limit the ability of city health inspectors to regulate food safety.
“You can’t just dilute the regulations because you’re trying to achieve some kind of social good,” he said, adding, “It ought to be the same kind of regulations across the board.”
Smiley countered that HB 1382 still provides guidelines for safe food handling, but that those regulations are more appropriate for the setting and products. Restaurants deal with high-risk foods, such as raw meat and dairy products, and have the infrastructure, such as running water and electricity, to abide by stricter regulations, he said.
The cottage food and food-sampling bills will expand market opportunities for small farms, he added.
“Food sampling is educational. It informs farmers market customers about new products,” he said, which makes them more likely to purchase the product. “This bill really will help inform customers and drive sales.”
Ultimately, Rodriguez said he’s proud of the caucus’s work — “even though it’s hard to look at two out of seven as a huge victory” — because it educated other lawmakers on the problems faced by small farms and food producers across the state. “They know now that farmers markets needed some help and they gave it to them,” he said.
Rodriguez’s top priority for the caucus next session will be tax relief for small farms. Springdale Farm, a five-acre urban farm located in Rodriguez’s East Austin district, saw its property tax rate rise 800 percent in 2012. Glenn and Paula Foore, the owners of Springdale Farm, told the Tribune in September that the taxes consumed all of the profits from their biggest cash crop, summer tomatoes.
A tax measure Rodriguez carried this session — HB 1306, which would have required the state comptroller to establish guidelines for local tax districts to determine agricultural tax exemptions for small farms — died in a House committee.
Although many conservative lawmakers supported the underlying idea of incentivizing small businesses with tax relief, Rodriguez said they were scared by appraisers’ assertion that taxpayers could abuse the exemption by claiming a backyard garden as agricultural land use.
The comptroller estimated the bill would have had a big price tag — nearly $29 million in lost revenue to the Foundation School Fund, school districts, counties and cities beginning in 2018 — because many taxpayers would've attempted to cash in on the changes by claiming agricultural land use.
During the interim, Rodriguez plans to continue working with local tax appraisers and lawmakers to find a viable way to define agricultural land use on small plots of land in order to provide tax relief to urban farms.
“Ultimately, I do think that will drive the cost down so [locally produced food] will be more affordable and more attainable by more low-income people,” he said.
Simpson said he also plans to revive the debate on the sale and distribution of raw — or unprocessed — milk next legislative session. House Bill 46, by state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, which would have allowed farmers to sell raw milk at farmers markets, failed this session.
“Right now you have to drive 20 to 30 miles to a local dairy to get raw milk,” Simpson said. “It’s easier to buy cigarettes than it is raw milk the way God made it.”
Currently, licensed dairy farms are only allowed to distribute raw milk at the location where it’s produced.
The caucus did not officially support HB 46. Rodriguez said that while he personally supports raw milk, he fought the inclusion of raw milk in the food-sampling bill Simpson carried because he feared the political opposition would have defeated the measure.
One of the groups that opposed HB 46, the Texas Medical Association, told lawmakers in written testimony that “no scientifically rigorous studies exist that show health benefits from drinking raw milk over pasteurized milk.” A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “60 percent of dairy-related disease outbreaks were caused by unpasteurized products.”
Although the notion that government should not interfere with food regulation drives Simpson’s interest in the caucus, Rodriguez said his goal is to create healthier food options for low-income communities and promote small businesses.
“We’re coming at it from completely different angles, but it just doesn’t matter,” Rodriguez said, “because the bill still reads the same and the end result is the same. However you get there, you get there.”