Sustainable farmers urge lawmakers to rethink ‘burdensome’ rules

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Beth Simmons, who co-owns Nature’s Gourmet Farm in Petal with her husband, said she believes agriculture regulations in Mississippi tend to favor industrial farms over smaller, sustainable farms like hers.

“We do pastured chicken,” Simmons said. “The current law only allows us to (process) 1,000 chickens (a year.) Anything over that you have to take them to a USDA facility, of which we are sorely lacking in the state. I don’t think any of them do chicken. Some people are driving them up to Tennessee, or way over to Alabama. Even if they just raise the limit. One thousand chickens is not very much. We do about 125 (each month) eight months out of the year.”

Simmons’ farm specializes in grass-fed beef and pastured chicken and pork. She said small farmers in the state need a lot of help since some regulations can be burdensome for smaller farms like theirs.

Farmer Jonathan Picarsic (right) of Amorphous Gardens in Canton speaks with Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison (center), and Josh Green, fellow with Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network (left).

So, for the second year in a row, sustainable farmers from across the state drove to the Mississippi Capitol Thursday to meet legislators face-to-face and promote public education when it comes to their sustainable practices.

The Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network, nonprofits and seven sustainable farmers set up exhibits in the Capitol rotunda Thursday and stood nearby to help legislators and the public learn more about sustainable farming methods and the people that run them.

The goal of the event, the Mississippi Farmer Drive-in, was to put a face to a farming practice legislators may not know a lot about, and point out which state regulations can make it difficult for these businesses to bring their products to market.

Sustainable agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, involves plant and animal production practices that aim to enhance environmental quality, integrate natural biological cycles and controls and are meant to enhance the quality of food for consumers, among other things.

Meanwhile, the USDA says the prevailing agricultural system in the country is called “conventional farming,” “modern agriculture,” or “industrial farming.” These farms focus on tremendous gains in productivity and efficiency. Practices include rapid technological innovation, large-scale farms and single and row crops grown continuously over many seasons. Other common features include extensive use of pesticides, fertilizers, and external energy inputs; high labor efficiency; and dependency on agribusiness.

When it comes to livestock, industrial farming production tends to involve confined, concentrated systems.

“We want to help people see that there’s a market for all of us,” Simmons said. “There’s a market for the row croppers, there’s a market for us small farmers, because it gives people choice. Our country is based on choice. When you only have one choice, it’s not a choice.”

Gil Ford PHotography

Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune

Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, who supports sustainable farm practices, this year drafted Senate Bill 2033, which would prohibit state poultry products inspections from being subjected more stringent regulations than federal rules require. The bill died in committee in January.

Hill said she has filed the bill for the last three years.

“That bill has been killed by big agriculture every year,” Hill said. “All the states around us allow their people to have small poultry farms and move their birds into commerce off the farm, but Mississippi basically stifles the development of small poultry farms.”

Hill said surrounding states have not had issues with their small poultry farms, but critics of the bill want to see a higher standard for these small sustainable farms in Mississippi.

“The most misunderstood aspect, and what I hear the most, is fear of illness,” Hill said. “What people need to understand is, this is the safest food that you can get. It’s the big processors where all your recalls come from, and all these are supposedly inspected.”

Another local farmer, Jonathan Picarsic of Amorphous Gardens in Canton, said critics may also brush off the practice as having a liberal agenda.

“Some people think it’s this hippie, left thing or environmental thing,” Picarsic said. “There’s no face to it. It’s just people who are concerned with what they’re putting into their body, how farming is damaging the environment the way it is structured now or giving people jobs and opportunities.”

Picarsic said it’s an ongoing process to teach legislators and the public about sustainable farming.

“This process is going to take generations,” Picarsic said. “It’s a long-term game. Whether you want to talk about the farm industry or the plight of people in rural Mississippi, the solution isn’t going to be within five years or 10 years or 30 years. This is a long time, that you just have to do piece by piece.”

Thankfully, people seem to be more receptive than last year, he said.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Lester Carpenter, R-Burnsville

One of the legislators engaged in the exhibits was Rep. Bubba Carpenter, R-Burnsville, who is also a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

He said he supports sustainable agriculture because he and his son are small farmers. Carpenter said he is also against government regulations, but wants consumers to remain healthy.

“I don’t want us to have a big outbreak of something we can’t control,” Carpenter said. “But I’m for relaxing some regulations because I’m a conservative Republican. I’m not for a bunch of government oversight. I support to them to the point where we are going to remain healthy. I don’t want an outbreak of something because someone hadn’t vaccinated their cattle.”