It’s infuriating that a farmer who wants to produce on a small scale is put through the same rigors and financial fleecing that the corporate farmers are. In order to milk a few dairy animals and sell some cheese, a farmer is required to communicate with three branches of local government, all wanting a piece of the pie and inflicting their own regulations. This process makes it nearly impossible for the little farms to get started and prosper.
First up, the township requires adherence to land use regulations and leaps through re-zoning hoops to have land returned to agricultural uses. The hearings, permits, and land use requirements are exactly the same for a small farmer on a couple of acres, putting in a shed-sized building, as someone constructing a corporate center on hundreds of acres, with the resources of numerous lawyers. Another point here is that nearly all the land in Chester County, Pennsylvania was agricultural land for several centuries. It was fields as far as the eye could see, until about 25 years ago. This once fertile area has been plowed over for developments, shopping malls, and corporate centers, and someone who actually wants to use the greatest farmland in the world to make food has to go through at least a $500 re-zoning hearing to return the use to what it was just a few decades ago. And that’s just the beginning.
Then comes the county, who will oversee the commercial kitchen that will be used for processing dairy products. They treat the small-scale producer like someone putting in a restaurant for several hundred guests a night. Specifications like the brightness of the lights and flooring materials must be strictly followed; these regulations are only possible to implement after first submitting a plan review with fee, followed by a yearly permit fee. There is no flexibility in the fee, only a flat rate, no matter what type of owner you are or establishment you are setting up.
And finally, there is the Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture who oversees the milking parlor and milk room facilities. They have their own plan reviews, mandates for pasteurization equipment in the thousands of dollars, yearly permit fees, lab test requirements, and scheduled inspections. This is the same process that a dairy corporation like Kraft or a producer with thousands of cows adheres to. There is no leniency or individuality about the system.
Regulation is necessary, especially for those large producers, but for the small timer, it makes it nearly impossible to start, let alone compete. There should be some flexibility and humanization in the process that encourages the family farmer to succeed. Small farming promotes less opportunity for contaminated products or sick animals. A small farmer knows each and every one of her animals personally and works alone or with one or two other people, not several hundred employees, each doing a different step along the way. Quality control is pretty easy under those circumstances. The facilities are smaller with less maintenance needed and resources used. Disruption to the land is minimal with fewer animals. Smaller is better, and this is what should be the norm, and was the norm for hundreds of years.
Under the current system, the small farmer doesn’t stand a chance to flourish. You have to be crazy to even attempt to navigate this oppressive bureaucratic process. If you ever get all the licenses, a small-scale farmer is forced to charge exorbitant fees in order to make ends meet, because she is paying the same as someone with 1,000 goats, but making a fraction of the product. Those of us who try to buy locally, from small, organic operations are in turn confronted with the dilemma of purchasing expensive, quality food. We want to consume responsibly, from those who treat their animals and land with respect, but it costs an arm and a leg. This is why most people can’t afford to eat this way, support the large-scale producers, and the cycle never changes. We are supposed to be a country that supports the individual’s dream to own a business and become successful. But that’s not happening. In this particular instance, this is a country that supports large-scale businesses and forgets everyone else.