Raw deal: Group advocates freedom to eat what you want without government interference

Laura Brown
Wednesday, February 8, 2012

With a groundswell of enthusiasm behind them, members of the group called Local Food Freedom-Nevada County (LFF-NC) has amped up its efforts to reach out to the community and shed a light on threats to small farms and the age-old tradition of food sharing.

Last summer, a group of locals from diverse political and social backgrounds organized in response to government SWAT-team style raids and crackdowns occurring at small farms all across the U.S.

A core group of about 12 with a food commonality —from tea party activists to progressive liberals —meet regularly to discuss ways to protect farmers in Nevada County from heavy-handed regulation while preserving
consumers' access to healthy, locally grown food.

“It's our Nevada County heritage to have a bunch of small farms …Really this is about taking back Nevada County and allowing us to do what we have done for a 100 years,”said Gregg Lien, a lawyer and member of LFF- NC.

Preserving the county's farming culture boosts the local economy, the health of the local population and maintains aesthetically pleasing working landscapes, group members say.

Members of Local Food Freedom attended the recent sustainable farm conference where they set up an information table and gathered signatures of support. Already, 400 people have signed up for the LFF-NC e-mail list and in recent weeks, the groups website has seen an increase in traffic, with responses coming from as far away as India.

“This issue is really broad,”said member Tom Van Wagner whose son and daughter are both active in the local food scene. The group has drawn up a resolution, is debating an ordinance to bring to local city and county governments and is considering a ballot initiative.

In the month ahead, the group will hold private screenings of the film “Farmageddon”and gatherings with community opinion leaders, teachers and business professionals.

In March, members hope to organize an educational outreach meeting for the public. “A lot of this grass roots stuff is snapping. We are coming together to take charge of our community. It's exciting,”said Lien.

Nationwide, both rural and urban communities are spearheading similar fights to keep small agrarian lifestyles alive in the face of large and powerful government-backed corporate agriculture.

“It's not just us. There's little brushfires igniting all over the country,”said Van Wagner.

Black market

Meanwhile, a food black market is flourishing in Nevada County, as consumers fed up with supermarkets that no longer meet their needs, go underground in search of direct relationships with local farmers who can provide
food like grandma ate.

“A lot of people are seeking local food. I think it's a lot bigger than people realize,”Van Wagner said. Coming under fire in recent years is the growing herd share movement, a system where consumers partner with
small dairy producers who own one or two cows or maybe a half dozen goats in exchange for raw milk products.

According to state law, it is illegal to give away milk from an unlicensed dairy. Even one cow is considered a dairy if milk leaves the premises.
Raw milk is legal in California if the dairy producer meets standards and regulations set by the state. But meeting those standards is an expense most small farmers can't afford.

“It's a big Ag model for a small community and they don't apply to each other. It's scale inappropriate,”Van Wagner said.

Meat production in the county is also onerous for the small producer, with the nearest USDA approved processing plants as far away as Nevada and Dixon.
As popularity for raw, unprocessed food straight from the source grows, so, too, does government attempts to squelch what they consider illegal and dangerous activities.

YouTube videos showing officers armed with guns during a raid of Rawesome, a raw food club in Venice last summer and similar footage from the film, Farmageddon has unnerved many local foodies.

“Now it seemingly is more criminal for someone to grow healthy food than marijuana,”Lien said. One local farmer was “freaked out”after receiving a call from a USDA official who knew a lot of personal information about he and his family, said Lien.

Armed raids that occur on farms without notice or due process are disturbing from a legal perspective, said Lien. “They come in as judge, jury and prosecution …It seems the Constitution has gone out the window,”Lien said.

Last week, raw milk made headlines when 38 cases of campylobacter in four states were linked to a raw milk dairy in Pennsylvania. Unpasteurized raw milk can contain a host of serious pathogens such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli that can be fatal, warns the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet raw milk loyalists contend cows that get plenty of fresh air, sunshine and feed on green pasture produce healthy, nutrient dense milk. Danger arises when sick cows living in large, crowded unsanitary farms produce milk that is then co-mingled, they say.

“There's a whole body of factual evidence that's being ignored,”said Lien citing raw milk's benefits such as a cure for childhood asthma. Several local physicians recommend raw milk products to patients unable to digest pasteurized milk.

Unshaken by the recent campylobacter “outbreak,”one local producer who asked not to be identified says he will continue to drink raw milk from his cow just as he has for a decade. He claims he and his family are free of sickness and disease and has never heard of anyone locally becoming ill from drinking raw milk.

In an effort to put a halt to underground herd sharing, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has issued a number of Cease and Desist orders on unlicensed farms throughout the state including nearby El Dorado County.

So far, farmers have not received such orders in Nevada County.
“I watched “Farmaggedon.”There's nothing like that here,”said county Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Pylman. Nevertheless, several local producers have stopped supplying milk for fear of being shut down in SWAT-team

“There is a silencing. It is insidious,”said one local producer. “The precedent has been clearly set. This is about a message folks: ‘We can come after you.' It's legal but it's also intimidation. Intimidation —it's a wonderful regulator,”he said.

Tastes better

Though not a member of Local Food Freedom, farmer Chris Bierwagen, owner of Donner Trail Fruit in Chicago Park agrees communities need to take charge of their food source.

He believes safeguards need to be in place to ensure public safety but would like to see oversight come from ethical farmers and locally-based governing agencies rather than mandates from Sacramento or Washington.

“The further away it gets from home the more costly and burdensome it is,”he said. In order to sell his product at a new farm stand located on Highway 174 adjacent to his family's café, Happy Apple Kitchen, he was required to make thousands of dollars in upgrades to his unpasteurized apple cider business to meet a USDA quality assurance program.

Changes included bigger and bolder warning labels on the juice his family has been selling for 30 years. Bierwagen would like to see changes to regulations that better support direct sales between farmer and consumer.

“It gets back to going out to the farm, getting to know the farmer and having a relationship,”Bierwagen said.

Local Food Freedom members worry about the future of community food sharing. They wonder what will become of the traditional bake sale fundraisers for schools, community potluck dinners, the child's lemonade stand on the corner and potentially the neighborhood backyard garden.

Raised on foods like raw milk and butter made from it, Bierwagen wants to see pasteurization rules for raw milk removed and for government agencies to back off from enforcing strict rules for home-style cooking and processed foods of all kinds. To him, unpasteurized food simply tastes better. “A lot of it to me is getting back to good tasting food,” he said.


Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at (530) 402-4877 or laurabrown323@gmail.com.

For more information, visit the following links:
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Local Food Freedom Nevada County blog:

  • http://localfoodfreedom-nevadacounty.org/blog/


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