One of the many striking commercials that aired during Sunday’s Super Bowl was a celebration of the American farmer, although it was also a plug for a certain truck. The commercial featured images of the rugged men and women who grow our produce and raise our livestock, with audio from the “God Made a Farmer” paean given by the late broadcaster Paul Harvey. A farmer is this remarkable type of human being, Harvey said, who was created to do an almost miraculous array of tasks – “somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board…” The farmer had to be tough enough to work in all manner of weather but soft enough to help birth a calf. Harvey’s speech and the ad it inspired was a touching and very true piece, and maybe it caused a lot of viewers to ponder, just how do farmers do it? How do they work so hard over so many endless hours in a job that is so seemingly thankless?
In today’s world, there aren’t that many farmers who have the option of being the sort of fiercely independent, full-time servants of the land depicted in the commercial. The farm itself just doesn’t pay the bills, so many farmers lead a double life in some other profession and somehow still find time to breathe. Part of the reason farming doesn’t pay is that farmers can’t sell what they make in their own communities, so they have to sell it at a cut rate to agribusiness interests typically located out of state.
What if farmers want to develop a business model to sell what they make, or some by-product of it, to their own neighbors and townspeople? Wouldn’t this be a goal shared by many who support local economic development? One would think, but it isn’t so simple. People love the idyllic image of the stouthearted farmer and her lovely acres, but they don’t necessarily want the farmer to have the right to invite people to their farms where they can buy goods directly from the source.
Planners point out that traffic created on side roads by farm enterprises can damage the rural character that makes a community what it is. Local officials also worry that a farm's business might start out as primarily about the farm, but it could grow into something that scarcely resembles that. From a planning perspective, blurring the lines between the two is the definition of a slippery slope. Planners often prefer to help farmers by encouraging farmer's markets and other local market opportunities, while restricting sales on the farms themselves.
But some farmers’ response is that farm sales are the only way to make agriculture a viable source of income and employment.
A Virginia state legislator recently introduced a bill to give farmers more freedom to do sell from the farm, by curbing zoning restrictions on farms’ selling both their products and others that are at least tangentially related to agriculture. The bill would define products such as art, literature, furniture, beverages, and other items that are incidental to the farm’s operations as agriculture, as long as they constitute less than a majority of the farm’s production. The bill was a response to zoning officials who tell farmers they can’t have pumpkin carvings and charge admission, or let people come and pet the alpacas and then buy an alpaca sweater, because their zoning district is designed to protect agriculture but to discourage commerce.
You’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “No Farms, No Food.” It might also say, “No Farm Sales, No Farms.”
(Photo credit: Flickr user elemsee. CC BY-NC-SA.)