Farmers take issues to lawmakers

The West Virginia Capitol is seen on Jan. 1, 2015. KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail

Small farmers and farming organizations are meeting with state lawmakers today on various bills that could jump-start local farming businesses, ranging from processing more rabbit meat to tax credits for food bank donations.

The third annual Local Food and Farms Day, beginning at 9 a.m. at the State Capitol’s Upper House Rotunda, is set to start the conversation between the farming industry and the Legislature on how to strengthen the state’s agriculture sector. The event is open to the public.

“I can talk about these issues all day, but it really makes pushing for these bills a lot more powerful if you get the farmers talking directly with legislators,” said Parween Mascari, executive director of the West Virginia Farmers Market Association.

The event will hold meetings between farmers and legislators throughout the day, along with a celebratory luncheon and rally at Bluegrass Kitchen on Washington Street East.

The West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, one of the organizations hosting the event, has three specific policy changes it is prioritizing in its meetings, according to executive director Spencer Moss. The organization is looking to tweak current rules on cottage food products, rabbit farm processing and surface and mineral owner rights.

Cottage foods are foods considered to be nonhazardous, like jams, jellies and some baked goods, allowing them to be produced in a home kitchen and sold directly at farmers’ markets. Other foods have to go through a licensed kitchen in order to be directly sold.

In hopes of expanding the allowed list, the Food and Farms Coalition and the Farmers Market Association is pushing for the passage of the Cottage Foods Bill (SB 27) in the upcoming session. The bill would allow low-acid foods such as green beans, ramps and tomatoes to be canned or preserved and sold at farmers’ markets and similar events.

“The idea behind the bill is to allow [farmers] to use products that they maybe didn’t sell initially in the farmers market to bring it back home and can it themselves and resell it,” Moss said, noting Kentucky and Virginia have their own versions of the bill.

Moss said the bill would encourage food preservation, along with giving small farmers another way to make a profit.

The bill includes various methods to make sure farmers canning or preserving their foods are following safe and recommended practices. These include obtaining a food handler’s permit, an inspection of the producer’s facilities and registration with the local health department.

One rule change is being supported by small farmers because of the growing popularity of a nontraditional livestock animal: the rabbit.

A legislative code change in 2015 allowed farmers to process up to 1,000 rabbits per year on their own farms instead of a licensed facility.

The Food and Farm Coalition is representing several rabbit producers to try and bump that number up to 5,000, if not more. Moss said rabbit producers are selling every one they raise and an increase of the 1,000 per year figure is necessary.

“As rabbits become popular in upscale restaurants and in bigger cities, we need space to allow for more production,” she said.

Farmers are also vying for the passage of a bill (SB 369) that would allow surface owners the opportunity to purchase back their mineral rights if available at a tax sale, according to Moss.

“The No. 1 most essential piece to any sort of farm operation is the land,” she said. “It’s risky for a lot of beginning farmers to start their farms if you don’t have any mineral rights.”

Three other bills are also on the schedule for discussion:

n The Farm to Food Bank Bill (SB 26), which would give farmers up to a $2,500 tax credit for donating their products to food banks.

n The Farm to Institution Bill (SB 25), which would expand preferential bidding to include resident farm vendors and other vendor groups.

n The Industrial Hemp Development Act (HB 2453), which would expand the number of people who may be licensed to grow or cultivate hemp.

Reach Max Garland at max.garland@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.

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