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Farmers and Foodies Look to Texas’ Next Legislative Session

KUT News

Local farm and food enthusiasts already have sown some seeds at the Texas Capitol, and they’re pressing for more legislation in 2013 that could help their industries grow.

Proposals likely to come before lawmakers once they convene in January will address food sampling at farmers’ markets, expanding last session’s “cottage foods” law and reducing barriers for small farms seeking the agricultural property tax exemption.

As bill filing began Nov. 12 for the upcoming session, Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, proposed legislation easing restrictions on the sale of raw milk, a measure some small farmers backed unsuccessfully in 2011.

Though it’s often recognized that small businesses need different regulations than large industries, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance said it is working to win that distinction for food production.

“There’s this incredible resurgence of interest in local foods, and that’s filtering up to the legislators,” said Judith McGeary, executive director of the alliance.

Lawmakers passed a bill last year eliminating some restrictions on how food must be chilled during transportation to farmers’ markets and opening up sales of certain “cottage foods,” or baked and canned goods, made in people’s homes.

“We’re definitely trying to build on some of what passed last session,” McGeary said.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are combining efforts in a new Farm-to-Table Caucus championing many of those same causes. The bipartisan House caucus includes rural lawmakers who represent small farms and ranches and urban legislators whose constituents include restaurants serving local foods and advocates for Texans trying to get better access to healthier foods.

“It’s a pretty dynamic range of interests,” said Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who chairs the caucus and worked on local food legislation last session. “It’s one of those issues that doesn’t scare people off. It brings people together.”

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who pressed for last year’s cottage foods legislation, is vice chair of the caucus.

The group, currently numbering 15 lawmakers, plans to make recommendations on some proposals affecting family farms, ranches and coastal fishing operations as well as consumers and distributors of the food products. The caucus will only provide information – not recommendations – on more controversial issues such as the sales of raw milk or beer, wine or distilled spirits.

Membership is expected to grow as the legislative session approaches, said caucus executive director Mike Lavigne, noting that caucus members hail from across the state.

“Conservatives and liberals come at it from a different starting point, but they get to the same place,” Lavigne said.

The phrase “local food” typically refers to sustainable, organic and natural foods grown in the state and aimed at regional markets. Though Texas has a long history in agriculture, urbanization has led to a decline in family farms, according to the Farm-to-Table Caucus.

Some local food and farm bills expected in 2013 would:

  • Allow sampling of produce and prepared foods at all farmers’ markets, not just at municipally owned markets.
  • Expand the types of foods allowed under the cottage foods law and allow them to be sold at farmers’ markets and farm stands in addition to homes.
  • Remove barriers to the agricultural property tax exemptions so that small urban farms of less than five acres don’t run into local roadblocks.
  • Provide financial incentives for turning unused land into community gardens.
  • Protect and expand oyster reef production and address sustainable fishing practices in the Gulf.
  • Increase access to healthy, fresh foods in urban “food deserts” and work with school breakfast and lunch programs to offer fresh foods.
  • An anticipated resolution will urge the federal government to allow on-site processing of feral hogs and deer and allow those meats to go to food banks, soup kitchens and other markets.

The raw milk legislation is expected to be contentious again. In the 2011 legislative session, similar legislation ran into opposition from the large dairy industry and the Texas Medical Association.
Today there are 48 licensed retail raw milk dairies in the state, according to Texas Department of State Health Services. Raw milk advocates say the product is safe and that they want the ability to sell unpasteurized cow and goat milk beyond their own premises at farmers’ markets and through home delivery. The proposed legislation would ban sales at grocery stores.

Veteran Texas journalist Kelley Shannon is the founder and owner of Shannon has worked for multiple news organizations and spent 22 years with the Associated Press based in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. Among the major news stories she covered for the AP were the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco and the ensuing federal trial of surviving sect members; the massacre at a Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen; the Democratic boycott over congressional redistricting in the 2003 Texas Legislature; and the presidential election of then-Gov. George W. Bush.