Hopefully More Than the Choir Will Read This
From Polyface Farms Facebook page - thoughts from Joel. I’m not on Facebook, so you can read this there if you are, or here if not.
More thoughts from Joel…
Why are Americans paranoid of freedom?
Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in the final On-Farm Activities Working group convened by
Virginia’s ag commissioner after the failed Boneta Bill in last year’s General Assembly. Martha Boneta is the
Virginia heroine who was fined $5,000 by Fauquier County for having 8 ten-year-olds at her farm for a birthday
party . . . without a license. Sometimes bureaucrats make huge mistakes by targeting savvy people, and Martha
is savvy. Pretty, female, outspoken, and articulate–whew, baby, that’s a combination. Her treatment created
a hornet’s nest in the state when previously lethargic people realized just how aggressive and elitist and anti-
property many Americans have become. Especially bureaucrats.
For 30 years Virginia’s Right-to-Farm Law has protected stinky farmers from nuisance suits. I’ve always
called it the Right-to-Stink-Up-the-Neighborhood law. Interestingly, it expressly protects production, but not
processing. Increasingly now, through zoning, business licensing, land preservation and other techniques
farmers protected in nuisance production are being shut down when they attempt processing or agri-tourism
type activities on farms.
This was the third and final meeting of the working group and it certainly created some interesting exchanges. On
our side, we had three members of the working group: Martha Boneta, Lois Smith, president of the Virginia
Independent Consumers and Farmers Ass. (VICFA) and yours truly. On the other side sat Virginia Farm Bureau,
Va. Agribusiness Council, Va. Ass. of of Counties, a couple of large-scale farmers and a couple of county planners/
The first epiphany for me was in the first meeting when I learned that Virginia wineries had created special
entertainment and sales privileges for themselves nearly 20 years ago in response to heavy-handed regulation
primarily in Albemarle County. The right to sell, host events, and collaborate with other farmers in sales did not
extend to any farm except wineries. I think this working group, when we’re finally finished, will rectify much of this.
A sticking point is processing. One thing you learn very quickly when dealing with the government regulators
is that for the most part, they have no heart and no appreciation of scale. If I fix a neighbor’s tractor in my shop, and
charge him $100 for the job, I’m a criminal without a special use permit, shop license, building inspection for the
structure, etc. It’s treated the same as a 50-employee (oops, Obamacare–49 part-time employee) repair business. Ditto
for if I sell a neighbor’s pumpkin in my farm store.
Some localities like Rockingham County and to a certain extent Augusta have created scale and administrative
friendliness to these kinds of imbedded small-scale businesses in agriculture zoning. Others have not. Indeed,
York Co. Virginia either has or is in the process of eliminating agricultural zoning. In that case, farms must pay the
same taxes as if the land were being used for residential market value. That drives all the farmers out of business
because the land can’t sustain those high taxes. California, decades ago, passed a law that no property could see
an increase in property taxes more than 1 percent per year, period. That’s a great law. It keeps people from being
driven off their farms and property just because some special group doesn’t respect land owners or farmers.
Local control, local control the other side shouts. Who better to determine what a community should look like
than the people in that community? Okay, let’s let communities opt out of the civil rights act–some would like to.
Let’s let some opt out of the second amendment–right to bear arms–some would like to. How about freedom of
religion?–some communities would love to opt out of that one. You see, our culture has decided that some things
are so inalienable we can’t afford to let enclaves opt out. The right to life, liberty, and property is one of those.
My argument throughout this working group process is that it doesn’t help a farmer to be able to sell a chair if
he’s precluded from building it (manufacturing and therefore illegal in agricultural zoning). A huge gap exists
between a tree and chair; most consumers don’t want to buy the tree, but many would like to buy the chair. This
segregationist stance toward economic commerce and business has turned farmers into colonial serfs for the urban
lords who enjoy the value-added benefits of turning the raw commodity into a salable product.
What struck me during the final meeting yesterday was how paranoid Americans are about liberty. I was
reminded of the dire prophecies adorning the front pages of all newspapers 30 years ago during the early days
of the home schooling movement. Not enough jails for the the academically neglected miscreants. Kids doomed
to a life of street crime and homelessness. Bankrupt society building insane asylums for the socially maladjusted.
The headlines, parroting the best prognostications of the educational elite, predicted cultural doomsday if such a
freedom like home schooling were allowed to persist. None of this has materialized. The aberrant cases do indeed
make the news, as if public schools create no aberrant cases.
During this working group tenure, I’ve been accused of wanting Wal-Marts on farms, strip-tease clubs in the
pasture (is this really worse than a Tyson chicken house in a pasture?), and that I’d go to Wal-Mart to buy chairs to
resell in my farm store. I was accused of wanting 10,000 people-per weekend Woodstocks on our farm, along with
Smithfield slaughter plants and a host of other hyperbolic possibilities. Trust me, Polyface customers don’t want
chairs from Wal-Mart, and certainly not from our farm store.
It smacks of the same hyperbole leveled at me for wanting consumer freedom of food choice. If you want to
come to my farm, ask around, smell around, and make an informed opt-out choice from government-sanctioned
food, as consenting adults with the right to freedom of contract we should be able to do business without a food
police bureaucrat coming in between our transaction. Our government-industrial food complex orthodoxy that
promotes drugs for health, grains for diet, and chlorine for sanitation views such a choice policy as heresy. But
how does our culture handle the unorthodox, the non-conformist, the innovator?
I find it fascinating that we universally love rebels in foreign countries, but rebels in our own country get
visits from the SWAT team to confiscate their food and livelihood. Seldom in the course of human history has
granting liberty resulted in terrible things. Usually creating more government control–called tyranny before these
dependency days–resulted in terrible things.
Most people don’t realize the battles wineries fought just for the freedom to sell their own wine on their own
farms. Their regulations are still onerous and tyrannous. But they won some freedom. It’s time to extend that to
a lot of other things. We haven’t seen the dire things that the naysayers predicted when wineries were given the
freedom to sell their wines. We wouldn’t see it if farmers received the freedom to host birthday parties and fix
Indeed, if our farm did figure out a way to attract 10,000 people per weekend, imagine how many jobs that
would create. Why can’t we encourage each other in liberty, instead of looking at everything from a fearful and
distrusting standpoint, a liberty-paranoid paradigm? In the minds of the status quo, a farmer being able to plop down
two confinement hog factories next to my farm is a wonderfully benevolent thing. But butchering a pig is an assault
on the entire community. Really?
This weekend Daniel and Sheri and I spoke at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania
and Daniel and Travis (my 10-year-old grandson) rode up the ski lift to come down on the luge track. Here was
my grandson sitting in a bench up in the air, no seat belt, dangling along, and our society thinks that’s great. But
a glass of raw milk–too much risk. Just a couple of weeks ago down near Richmond, Virginia hosted the first U.S.
running of the bulls–12,000 people crammed into an arena with a bunch of bulls. Risk? No problem. But Aunt
Matilda’s home made pickles? Hazardous.
Every year we know 50 children will drown in back yard swimming pools. Risk? No problem. That’s more
deaths than even government experts have attributed to raw milk . . . ever. But no, we can’t let people drink raw
milk. Too risky. Bungee jumping? No problem. Homemade cheese or charcuterie–far too risky. A culture that
denies risk denies innovation. Denying innovation denies culture of tomorrow’s answers to today’s problems.
Risk and innovation demand freedom. You can’t have a no-risk policy and preserve an innovation climate.
The two are mutually exclusive. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. When Jefferson penned the Declaration of
Independence, he envisioned an innovative civilization the likes of which had never been tried. It was risky. The
only way to try was to demand liberty. Why are so many Americans now scared to death of liberty?