Local-food movement gets verbal support from El Dorado County officials

From the Sacramento Bee, January 25, 2012


Published: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1B

The grass-roots (and grass-fed) agriculture revolution that Patty Chelseth started last summer is picking up steam.

Chelseth, of My Sisters’ Farm in Shingle Springs, has launched a campaign to get a “Local Food and Community Self-Governance” ordinance. Her effort got a warm reception Tuesday from the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors.

Although supervisors did not pass anything with teeth, they gave strong verbal support to Chelseth and others who believe they are starting a revolution against onerous state regulations that hurt small farmers.

“I am personally appalled that they will come onto my ranch and tell me I can’t share my cow or I can’t share my chickens,” said Supervisor Ray Nutting, after speaking of his homesteading, cow-milking, (and chicken-decapitating) grandmother. “Whatever we need to do, I’m in full support.”

Chelseth was backed by more than 20 speakers and more than 100 onlookers who overflowed the board’s meeting room.

Her cause began last year when the California Department of Food and Agriculture issued a cease and desist order against Chelseth. She was selling shares of cows on her farm in an attempt to deal with rules that prohibited her from selling raw milk directly to consumers.

She only keeps two cows.

Sheriff John D’Agostini told supervisors he consulted with the district attorney about Chelseth.

“I made the decision that the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office was not going to be the milk police,” he said. “So I support this ordinance.”

State officials portray it as a food safety matter, protecting the public from possible food poisoning from uninspected foods.

Speakers at the hearing – unanimously in support of an ordinance to allow the direct sales – portrayed it as a matter of freedom vs. oppression.

“Protect us and our rights,” Chelseth asked the board. “The choice of the food we eat and the water we drink is the most basic of our rights.”

Mark McAfee, operator of Organic Pastures near Fresno, said he was the closest producer of legal raw milk and said inspectors are out to get him. “They don’t look for real things,” he said. “They look for stumbling blocks to put me out of business.”

However, the state said it found real things in November, after five children in four counties fell ill with E. coli poisoning. McAfee’s milk was recalled after the illnesses.

Chelseth tacitly acknowledged the issue. “We cannot completely eliminate risk,” she said. “Life is risky.”

The local food advocates, however, said the real risks were from the corporate food producers whose products have generated increasing rates of obesity, heart disease and cancers.

Certain kinds of low-risk foods — like fresh vegetables – are often sold directly to consumers by small producers.

Chelseth’s ordinance would expand it to “any food or food product that is grown, produced or processed by individuals within El Dorado County, who sell directly to their patrons through farm-based sales, private agreement, or private food buying clubs.”

But sections of the ordinance appear to run afoul of the state’s constitutional prerogative to regulate food for public safety.

The county counsel advised supervisors it wouldn’t work as is.

Though calls for local autonomy appear to be getting louder, state regulators won’t kowtow to the movement when it comes to changing policy.

“We would look to the state Legislature,” said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the Food and Agriculture Department. “To my knowledge, there is nothing imminent.”

The one exception is the Small Dairy Herd Working Group, which Lyle said is working to establish more regulatory clarity and determine appropriate ways to regulate “very small providers.”

In the interim, Chelseth says she has approached a few state legislators and is in communication with other activists trying to establish county food sovereignty.

Among them are Yannick Phillips, who came to the hearing representing the Sonoma Valley Grange.

The California State Grange supports county ordinances, she said. “We are searching for an alpha dog to lead the way, and we’re encouraging your county to be the one.”

The supervisors’ only action was to appoint two members to develop a resolution in support of local food self-governance, and explore the possibilities of an ordinance.

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