To begin farming, one must acquire the assumed equipment: shovels and hoes, seeders and rakes. On a larger scale farm: a combine or baler, grain trucks and great, big tractors. What may not initially occur to the beginning market farmer, is the amount of paper, licensing and legalities that will be required. For a small diversified farm, the process of legalizing what the farm produces can be daunting at first. The philosophy of having integrated enterprises that work together is both practical and romantic, but it does add to the amount of t’s to cross, i’s to dot, and phone calls to your local health department. Though cumbersome, it’s advantageous to look at it as a learning process, and to view your local licensing gatekeepers as partners in the process. Whether as a producer (Farmer) or a consumer (eater), knowing food policy can lead to a better understanding of our food system, the protections that have been put in place, and where we might need to go to better serve the needs of our communities in the future.
To unpack just a taste of this system, let’s explore the web of licenses the Groundworks Farm holds. First, examine vegetables. Selling raw, unprocessed, whole vegetables is actually a rather simple process. According to a Cascade County Sanitarian, ‘As long as you’re not adding value or processing in any way, you’re good.’ The reason for this is that food “processed” and served to the public must be handled in an inspected facility, whereby the processor has obtained a license to process and distribute. In the case of vegetables, processing might include freezing, chopping or drying of a product. At the Farmer’s Market & to local restaurants, Groundworks Farm sells only whole, unprocessed produce, so this is an easy one: No license. HOWEVER, since the farm sells over a certain amount of this product annually, we carry a license from the State of MT that helps them track how much and what kind of food is produced in the state. (We also have a catering license to sell prepared, processed food, but we’ll get to that.)
Now, let’s take a look at the pork, which is more complicated. In order to sell meat by individual cut- the way we do at the market and to restaurants- a producer must have the animal processed at a special facility. These facilities are referred to as either “State inspected” or “USDA (U.S. Dept of Agriculture) inspected”. For meat being sold within state lines, a simple State inspection will suffice. If that meat will travel out of state, the USDA must inspect it. We use a Certified Organic, State inspected butcher in Big Timber (Pioneer Meats) not because they make the best bacon (and they do), it’s because we want BOTH the Organic process and NEED the State inspected to sell to, for instance, Electric City Coffee and Faster Basset in Great Falls. Oh, and by the way, in order to store this meat at the farm until it is sold, we must have a Meat Depot License. And, in order to take the meat to the Farmer’s Market, we must have a Mobile Retail Food License. (: Now you see the complexity building…
So you want to sell farm fresh eggs? First, WHO are you selling them to? If the answer is directly to an eater, go ahead. Just make sure that they’re in NEW cartons and that you have labeling on them that advises the eater that they have not been graded and candled. (Candling is just a way of looking at the egg through a light to make sure there isn’t an impurity in there with the creamy, pasture-raised egg yolk!) Selling eggs to a restaurant or grocery store? Now there’s a license involved. To sell eggs wholesale to a processor or distributor, they must be graded and candled. This is a protection of sorts for the consumer, since they wouldn’t be able to know what they are eating if the just order eggs off the menu in a restaurant. Now, one might argue that- in this day and age- the actual dangers involved here are slim, but this is the world we live in. (Groundworks USED to have a Grading and Candling License, but simplified to only direct sales.)
Now let’s talk processing. Last year, Groundworks Farm began our “Kitchen” project to be able to cook and the SELL our homegrown food to people: Catering. All restaurants, caterers and food manufacturers need a license to process food beyond it’s whole state, and this must be done in an approved facility. Fortunately, such a facility exists as a Community Kitchen inside the Times Square building, now owned by the Montana Farmer’s Union. We can take our homegrown produce and our State inspected meat into the kitchen, cook it, then serve it- with a license. Whew! It would seem that all our bases are covered, right?!?
Maybe not. In 2011, a Congressionally approved bill was signed into law called the Food Safety and Modernization Act. Okay, sounds good; let’s prevent food-borne illness. Well, this bill would have been a game-ender for many small farmers had it not been for Senator John Tester, who was one of the champions of what has been referred to as “The Tester Amendment”. Without going into too much detail about this law or the amendment, the amendment basically acknowledges that small farms are rarely the source of food-borne illness outbreaks (because they don’t centralize their distribution and just sell raw product), and thus exempts farms producing under $500,000 in gross sales annually from cumbersome regulation that would be financially-prohibitive. It remains to be seen what the long-term implications of this bill might be, but for now, small farmers have some protection.
This is, by no means, comprehensive report, nor does it include ALL regulation for farmers and ranchers. There are many layers of complexity in the food system relating to production, distribution, processing, and 3rd party certifications. But this does give a glimpse into the complexity of farming, and also the complexity of eating. As an informed eater, one can not only source the best food for themselves, but also advocate on behalf of their local farmers and their community for the food they want available to feed their family in the future.