As Big-Ag continues to put the squeeze on local farmers, the General Assembly tries to help Kentucky’s fight back
In a world where big business interests can trump local concerns, and a state where the last legislative session left many big issues unresolved, Kentucky’s farmers have figured out how to navigate this rough terrain and, much as they work their land, devised how to make it fertile.
They emerged from the session with two bills that tell a lot about the way farming is going in Kentucky. Among other things, Senate Bill 25 created a Farmers Market Nutrition Program to get local food to low-income seniors and women and children who receive certain government assistance. The bill also helps farmers get their products into public schools — a huge market long ago tapped by the likes of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola.
The passing of House Bill 120 was one small but important battle in the struggle to keep small farms profitable in this state. It allows farmers a season-long permit to prepare food onsite at farmer’s markets two days a week for six months.
Farmer Ivor Chodkowski said at first he didn’t think he needed a permit to make his omelets. “
were working out of a certified kitchen, and we thought this was an extended catering effort,” he said. “We had done it that way for two years.”
But the Metro Health Department got wind of their onsite cooking last year and directed them to the permit office after an inspection. At the time, the only permits available were the same as those given to people who fry funnel cakes at the state fair: They could cook for 14 days, but then had to wait 30 days before applying for another permit. That’s fine for vendors who do most of their business every day for two consecutive weeks, but terribly inconvenient for farmers who prepare cooked food once or twice a week during a growing season that lasts several months.
Chodkowski and his two partners were able to get around the stipulation for a while by taking turns applying for the permit, but eventually stopped, shifting their focus to fixing the problem. In the meantime, customers who expected the regular food were “really disappointed” and “incredulous” about the laws.
Pushing for the bill was about more than just convenience, however. It was a strategic business move. Testifying before the House Agricultural and Small Business Committee, farmers stressed their reliance on “value-added” products, words most people might identify more easily with investment packages and taxes. But the term has become part of the farmer lexicon.
“It’s gone from being just jams and jellies — which is the most common understanding of what people think farmers do when they value-add — to a whole range of things,” Chodkowski said. Those include specialty meats (and special cuts), aged cheeses and organic products.
These additions also give farmers room to make more money when they’ve maxed out their labor or growing capacity, said Mac Stone, director of Value-Added Plant Production at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Office of Agricultural Marketing and Product Promotion. “If
is selling omelets at the market versus selling them in a carton, he can make more money that way. But he can’t necessarily sell more kinds of eggs.”
The past decade has seen farmers rethinking their operations, ultimately making what they see as a necessary shift to a more business-like approach to getting their products to the public. They take a cue from big business’s trend toward vertical integration — just as Sony owns the production, marketing and distribution of its products, modern agribusiness has a similar hold on food production in America.
Chodkowski said the mega distributors, for example, have the power to offer farmers rigid contracts that make it difficult to profit. The farmer assumes a great deal of risk under production restrictions, such as when a major vendor accepts only a few choice chickens. Such practices, along with using poorly paid, sometimes even undocumented workers, allow Big-Ag to keep its prices low.
The combination of these realities has created an impetus for people who run small farms to act a little less backroads, a little more Wall Street.
“The farmer is marketer, distributor, producer and all the other elements of a business rolled into one,” Chodkowski said. “That’s an incredible responsibility, and it takes a particular kind of person to pull things off with a decent capacity.”
He speaks from experience: running a farm, showing up at farmers markets, selling season-long “subscriptions” to individual households, opening a restaurant, all while trying to get a separate food distribution service off the ground. All of these measures are ways to secure a market for his farm goods, and legislation seems to be giving small farmers a leg up. A bill last year mandated that state agencies purchase their products locally whenever possible, and the Community Farm Alliance — of which Chodkowski is a board member and former president — continues to work on changing the business of food production in Kentucky.
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