Tea Party Libertarians and Small Organic Farmers Make Strange Political Bedfellows

As tension grows between small farms and government regulators, progressive environmentalists find themselves in agreement with anti-government libertarians.

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While the Bledsoes didn't immediately hear back from the health department, they decided to send out an E-mail recounting the experience to shareholders of their local food delivery service, known as a CSA. Soon, the story went viral, traveling the globe and leading to hundreds of E-mails from farmers and activists. Eventually, Laura was contacted by Nevada lawmakers, many of whom were sympathetic to her cause and wanted to reform state laws so that such a fiasco wouldn't happen again.

Without even meaning to, the Bledsoes found themselves swept up in a political movement that has only accrued momentum in recent years, one in which owners of small local farms and gardens are pitted against government agencies, both local and federal, over the rights of property owners and private citizens in terms of how and where they can prepare their food.

But what is perhaps even more peculiar about this movement is its bipartisan interest. Among its most vocal proponents you'll find an amalgamation of ardent Tea Party libertarians—concerned over property rights and the over-extended reach of government—and liberal environmentalists who believe the local, organic farm is the ecologically-friendly solution to the nation's health woes.

"If I had to guess, I would say we were fifty-fifty in terms of extreme liberals and extreme conservatives," says Laura. But though the fight extends across party lines, little has been done so far to bridge the political gap in pursuance of bipartisan activism for farmer rights.

Lynn Hamilton, a professor of agribusiness at the California Polytechnic State University, argues that this tension between government and farmers stems from structural changes within the industry over the last decade. She points to a U.S. Census of Agriculture report finding that while the number of farms increased between 2002 and 2007, "nearly all that increase came from the smallest segment that produce less than $10,000 in sales."

"The statistics show that basically that middle ground of what people think of as a traditional farm in America, that's shrinking," she says. "The largest segment of commercial farms is growing and the segment of very small lifestyle rural hobby farms is growing. But it's that middle ground, that traditional agrarian, bucolic vision that a lot of people have of what farming is, that's shrinking. It seems like you either get small and go niche to a high end market, or you go big."

The report found that the number of farms with sales of less than $1,000 had increased by 118,000, and those with sales of more than $500,000 grew by 46,000. The only contraction occurred for farms generating between $1,000 and $250,000 in sales.

Jeff Rowes, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm based in Arlington, Virginia has sought out and represents many of these cases. Like Hamilton, he traces the roots of this movement to a decades-long shift in the agricultural industry toward large, commercially-viable institutions built for the mass-production of food. As government regulations have coalesced around this new normal during the past few generations, small farmers have found themselves caught within the confines of laws that weren't designed for them.

"What that means is that when there's a grassroots movement like there is now, back toward simplicity, back toward raising your own food in a manner that people have done for thousands of years, including the people who founded this country, suddenly the methods that they want to use on a micro level are all illegal," said Rowes.

Or, as Hamilton put it: "It's like hitting a fly with a B-2 bomber."

Often times, Rowes said, his clients are surprised to find themselves pulled into the movement.

Recently, the New York Times profiled several individuals who had planted vegetable gardens in their front yards, only to be confronted by local authorities who were enforcing county or city zoning codes that forbid such actions. One sustainability director in Orlando ascribed these codes to an era when "the aesthetic was more of a formalized thing. Organic, natural planting was out of vogue." Many local officials admit that the codes merely protect the property values of homeowners, rather than having any real public utility.