SR 29

Joint Subcommittee Studying On-Farm Sales of Agricultural Products

July 29, 1997, Richmond

SR 29 (1997) established a select Senate subcommittee to "consider whether exemptions from agricultural laws should be provided for operators of small farms who wish to sell food or other agricultural products directly from their farms to consumers." Because the Speaker of the House of Delegates requested that a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee be appointed to study the same issue, two members of the House Agriculture Committee were appointed to the SR 29 subcommittee to form a joint subcommittee.

The resolution states that small, family-operated farms are in particular need of assistance because economic pressures, agricultural marketing practices, and regulations and other factors have led to a decline in their numbers in the Commonwealth. The resolution directs the subcommittee, in addition to looking at the possibility of providing exemptions to small farmers, to "examine other marketing issues that are of concern to operators of small family farms." The focus of the subcommittee's first meeting was to collect information about the economic and other conditions that affect small farmers in Virginia. The subcommittee heard testimony from the United States Department of Agriculture's state statistician for Virginia, several members of the staff of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the president of the National Black Farmers Association, and a farmer who is an advocate of exemptions for on-farm sales of agricultural products.

Statistical Overview

The state statistician had been asked to discuss trends related to small farms with the subcommittee. He explained that while no universally accepted definition of a "small farm" exists, most USDA data are available for three categories of farms: those that produce between $1,000 and $10,000 per year in sales, those that produce between $10,000 and $100,000 per year in sales, and those that produce over $100,000 per year in sales. The first category provides a convenient definition for "small farm." Two thirds of Virginia's farms fall within this definition. In addition to operations that raise crops and livestock, common examples of small operations include vineyards, herb farms, organic farms, pick-your-own operations, Christmas tree farms, and nursery/greenhouse operations. Operators of small farms are often retirees or have full- or part-time jobs in addition to operating the farm: 66.4 percent of small farmers have a primary occupation other than farming.

The total number of farms in Virginia was over 75,000 in 1970. Currently, Virginia has approximately 48,000 farms. Since 1964, small farms have consistently represented a large portion of Virginia's farms. While the total acreage of Virginia's farms has decreased since 1970, the average size of each farm has increased, reaching its peak in 1991. The crops most commonly found on small farms in Virginia are hay and tobacco, while the livestock most prominent is beef cattle.

Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Because a large number of the farms in Virginia are small farms, and because large operations do not need the marketing and regulatory support available from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, most of the department's programs primarily benefit small farmers.

The department provides marketing assistance in a number of ways, including developing promotions for Virginia products; responding to marketing requests from small producers pertaining to sales opportunities, marketing plans, and packaging requirements; soliciting small producers to be listed in brochures published by the department; and seeking and distributing sales leads. The department provides administrative, operational and program support to the Virginia Farmers Market System and Virginia Farmers Market Board and provides guidance and information to locally operated retail farmers markets. Virginia's 17 commodity boards, which assist producers with marketing, education and research, are staffed by department personnel.

The department collects and distributes daily market prices and analyses and other commodity market information to producers and processors. It assists producers in locating and selecting breeding stocks for their herds and flocks, organizing cooperative marketing associations, and implementing new marketing technology. In cooperation with the Virginia Extension Service, the department assists farmers with developing and promoting new products and diversifying their production. Examples include the production of Shiitake mushrooms, Belgian endive, ginseng, elephant garlic, ratites and aquaculture products. The department also provides processing and labeling compliance assistance to small producers of dairy products and meat and poultry.

National Black Farmers Association

The National Black Farmers Association, a Virginia-based group, has been active in trying to save farms from foreclosure and prodding the USDA to settle discrimination complaints filed by black farmers. There are 800 discrimination complaints back-logged at USDA. The association president told the subcommittee that although less than one percent of farmers in the United States are black, 53 percent of the farms on the federal foreclosure inventory are owned by blacks. Between 1982 and 1992, 14 percent of U.S. farms disappeared. In the same period, 43 per cent of black-run farms, most of which were small farms, vanished. The association has recently released a proposal to reinvent small family farms. With $44 million from the USDA and private donations and foundation grants, the program would provide marketing assistance, technical and outreach support, and small grants for operating money to small farmers, especially beginning farmers and minority farmers.

On-Farm Sales

A farmer and advocate of the need to provide regulatory exemptions for on-farm sales of agricultural products told the subcommittee that the real issue is one of consumer choice and entrepreneurial creativity. Some consumers want to buy meat, milk, or other products that have been produced on a small farm or by someone they know. Some consumers prefer food that has been produced using particular environmental protection, worker safety, or animal welfare practices. He criticized the argument that food sold under regulatory exemptions would not be safe. Operations taking advantage of such an exemption would have to sell safe products to be successful. Meat, butter, and cheese that is not subject to inspection and labeling requirements can be given away but not sold. He questioned whether it is desirable or possible for government to ensure that any food consumed by any person is safe. He also pointed out that exemptions for small businesses are common in law.

The Honorable Emmett W. Hanger, Jr., Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Nicole R. Beyer