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Regs limit farmers’ access to their best customers

Our country is blessed with a wide variety of food sources. The Hoosier State is particularly gifted with a rich agriculture industry. We’re the 10th-largest farm state, the fourth-largest producer of corn and soybeans, and a steady supplier of hogs, dairy products and eggs.

Surprisingly, a recent study presented to the Indiana State Department of Health showed that much of Indiana’s food doesn’t directly come from our plentiful crops and livestock. Crossroads Resource Center’s research revealed that our state currently imports 90 percent of its food, and we spend more than $14.5 billion each year buying food sourced outside the state and even the country. That money could instead be invested in our economy.

If Indiana residents purchased 15 percent of their food directly from local farmers – only $4.50 per week – this would generate $1.5 billion of new farm income for the state. So what can we do to make it easier for Hoosiers to buy local?

To start, we can lessen the regulatory roadblocks farmers often encounter and give consumers more freedom in choosing and purchasing their food.

In 2007, 6 percent of Indiana’s farms sold $22 million of food directly to consumers. This represented a 5 percent increase per year from 2002 to 2007. But Indiana still lagged the national direct sales growth rate of 10 percent per year.

This isn’t much of a surprise when you consider that farmers markets are often the setting for these transactions. Currently, Indiana restricts the sale of certain meat, poultry, dairy and egg products at farmers markets, limiting how much and what types of merchandise producers are allowed to sell.

For example, red meat sold at farmers markets must be processed in one of only a few facilities in the state, which small producers may not be able to easily access. This burdensome regulation makes it difficult and expensive for many livestock farmers to sell locally.

Both farmers and farmers markets could profit from new common-sense regulations.

If it’s easier for consumers to find the groceries they need at a store, then it’s likely they will skip going to the farmers market.

This idea is further demonstrated by statewide consumption patterns. While many of local farmers sell to national and global markets, consumers purchase food from these same major markets, rather than going directly to farmers themselves.

Between 1978 and 2002, cattle sales fell dramatically despite the high rate of beef consumption.

Part of that was because animal production shifted to large facilities in western states, which were able to produce beef at a lower price. In turn, many Hoosier farmers chose to stop raising cattle.

So instead of purchasing from local producers, consumers took advantage of low prices at supermarkets.

If we allowed a variety of goods at farmers markets, we’d create a stable avenue through which farmers could more easily sell their products locally, rather than choosing national and global markets.

This will keep money in our economy and meet consumer demand.

The steps we have taken toward food freedom have already helped many vendors sell directly to consumers, creating the potential for long-term networks between buyers and sellers. But there is still much work to be done.

As the new legislative session approaches, I plan to introduce legislation that continues to open new markets and opportunities for Indiana agriculture.

Jim Banks is a state senator from Columbia City. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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