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"Food Freedom" Comes Together in Staunton

What do you find at your local farmer’s market?

Friendly faces?  Fresh food, of course.  There also may be a hidden, or not-so-hidden, political agenda.  Some local farmers are part of a movement to fight back against what they see as government interference in their freedom to farm and trade what they grow, from selling raw milk across state lines, to fighting zoning laws.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner has the story of the Food Freedom movement.

On Friday and Saturday, Sept. 5-6, 2014, about 100 people gathered in Staunton to celebrate and advance the cause of “food freedom” at the inaugural Food Freedom Festival.

JOEL SALATIN: The term “food freedom,” if I were to define it, would be every citizen being able to procure the food of their choice from the source of their choice.

Joel Salatin is the well-known owner of Polyface Farm in Augusta County and a leader in the growing movement to keep government out of the farm and out of the kitchen.

SALATIN: It’s been getting worse ever since the Food Safety and Inspection Service was started by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. It has become much more acute lately.

That’s Salatin talking about the growing threat to food freedom posed by government regulations. In Staunton, he was a keynote speaker at the festival, put on by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a national nonprofit that battles what it sees as food oppression in the courts.

KIMBERLY HARTKE: The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund was set up to defend the rights of farmers and consumers to do direct trade unregulated by the government. It is a Constitutional right that’s being abridged by a lot of regulations on the local, state and federal level.

But doesn’t government regulation protect consumers from unsafe food?

HARTKE: In an anonymous situation where you don’t know the source of the food, I think that’s the important role that regulations play.

Kimberly Hartke is the publicist for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.

HARTKE: But what we’re talking about are direct, transparent human relationships where we are looking the farmer in the eye.

Many at the conference don’t just stop at calling government regulation unnecessary. They say that it’s been manipulated to serve the interests of industrial-scale food producers.

BERNADETTE BARBER: The standards that they purport to be for the health and safety of the populace is, honestly, for the health and safety of the profits of the big corporations.

That’s Bernadette Barber from Lancaster, Virginia, who says the costs of compliance with food safety regulations are prohibitive for small farmers like herself.

BARBER: Oh, it stifles the small family farm to be able to get their product to their market. And we all know this country was built on the small family farm.

And check out Joel Salatin’s term of endearment for the United States Department of Agriculture, usually referred to by the acronym U-S-D-A.


It’s hard now to find a town around here that doesn’t have a farmers market, and big ones are often crowded shoulder to shoulder on Saturday mornings. But this isn’t, Salatin says, quite the local food victory that it might seem – it’s only the merest suggestion of local food’s true potential.

SALATIN: It’s a latent movement that could explode tomorrow, were it not for these repressive, capricious, malicious regulatory constraints.

Malicious and capricious aren’t the sort of warm, fuzzy words you’ll often encounter at the farmers market. But out on the food freedom fringes, these freedom fighters are gearing up to dismantle what they see as a very malicious and very capricious system. Another speaker at the conference was Tennessee State Senator Frank Niceley, who talked about his efforts to make food freer from inside the belly of the government beast:

NICELEY: Sometimes people ask me, they say, “What have y’all done in the Senate?” I say, “Well, we haven’t done anything. We’ve been undoing things.” [Applause.]

The crowd in Staunton breaks into applause for one of their own, out there battling for the right to grow, sell and eat fresh, local food - no artificial hormones, no antibiotics and no red tape.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.
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