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Food restrictions are a bunch of chicken feed

April 17, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND

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In Maryland, it is easier (and way less illegal) to donate a dead deer to a food bank than it is to sell a fresh broiler chicken that's been raised on green grass and sunshine to a customer who is eager to avoid meat produced under the conditions of industrial agriculture.

But a significant step toward correcting this situation is about to occur, thanks to the work of Del. Chris Shank, Sen. David Brinkley, the Maryland Department of Agriculture and a bevy of local farmers and consumer advocates.

The short version is that you will now be able to buy chicken and rabbit at farmers' markets this spring. The long version will make you weep.

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To take one example, at Evensong Farm near Sharpsburg, Julie Stiner raises heritage breeds of chickens that are far tastier and better for you (this is science, not conjecture) than the birds churned out by industry.

Yet to legally sell her broilers in Maryland, Stiner had to: 1. Drive the chickens 60 miles (round trip) to have them inspected for bird flu. 2. Drive the chickens 90 miles (one way) into Virginia at 3 a.m. so they could be processed at an adequately certified abattoir. But proper packing proved problematic at this facility, so they had to, 4., be driven back north, passing Stiner's farm on the way, and up into Pennsylvania (150 miles) for packaging. This could not be done right away, so, 5., she would return home and then retrace her steps (120 miles round trip) to pick them up.

I grow a few broilers myself, mostly for our own use, and ran into the same thing. The chickens need to be killed and dressed under the eye of an inspector. Except there aren't any inspectors available to small farms in Maryland. And hence, no slaughterhouses. So you have to cross state lines to have them butchered. Except that it can be illegal to transport chickens across state lines without jumping through considerable hoops.

By the time I figured it all out, I was so frustrated I was ready to bite the chickens' heads off Ozzy Osbourne style and dress them myself.

Except under Maryland law I couldn't do that either.

No, if I killed a chicken here at Little Farm by the Creek I could sell it here, but I could not transport it to a farmers' market for sale - which I would never do anyway, since I am scared of human interaction.

But to a lot of small producers, and there are 250 of them in Maryland, this was a huge deal. They could raise a flavorful, wholesome product that is in high demand. But their farms, being farms, are off the beaten track, so they had no way to get the product to the consumer - stunting the economic viability of an enterprise that the state should be doing everything it can to encourage.

Federal law allows the farm processing of up to 20,000 chickens, turkeys and rabbits for sale to consumers in their home states each year. It's only been Maryland's added red tape that has separated consumers and producers.

William Morrow of Whitmore Farm in Frederick County said that he was forced to close his chicken and turkey operation (which employed three people).

"Problem was, people had to come to my farm to buy those products," Morrow said. "Those operations failed not because of product quality issues, not because of lack of customer demand, not because of inadequate profit margins. They failed because of a state government farm policy that prevents farms from selling directly to consumers."

Shank and Brinkley considered legislation to change this, but after working with the department of agriculture it became apparent that enacting some long-considered rule changes could make the difference.

As if on cue, just this week ABC News reported that beef sent from the U.S. to Mexico was returned because the Mexicans found our meat to be unfit for human consumption. So instead it was sold to American consumers because, of course, there are no meaningful restrictions in the U.S. on the big boys.

Consumers are starting to realize, and care, about what they're being fed, and it would be a shame if the State of Maryland was the last to know. Other states are actively helping, not hurting, natural producers because they realize the river of benefits to health, open space and economics that sustainable agriculture presents.

For 10 years, Maryland has worried about what would happen if its people crossed into Pennsylvania to play slots. A more lucid concern is that its people will start to cross into Pennsylvania to buy food.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. Check out his Rowland Rant at http://www.herald-mail.com.

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