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While working as an environmental attorney, Judith McGeary, founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), became interested in sustainable agriculture. She learned how this rehabilitative approach to food and farming systems could regenerate topsoil, promote pasture grazing and increase biodiversity, thus healing land contaminated by industrialization while providing healthier food for consumers.


When McGeary’s husband retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, the couple started an organic farm. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) came out with a plan that required electronic tagging and tracing of all livestock. “It was designed by and for the big agribusinesses to protect their profits in the export industry markets,” McGeary explains. “It was structured in a way that was too expensive and overly burdensome for most sustainable livestock farmers.”


McGeary reached out to several farming organizations and found that no one was fighting the new proposal. That was when she left her law practice and founded FARFA to advocate for farmers. Although FARFA’s mission initially started in response to livestock tagging requirements, it’s grown to promote commonsense policies at the state and federal level for small-scale sustainable farmers and ranchers typically hindered by one-size-fits-all policies designed by and for big agribusiness.


FARFA succeeded in stopping the electronic animal ID program. A key issue they are working on now is passage of the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act (PRIME) which would allow small-scale custom operations to process meat for sale. Current federal law requires farmers that raise and sell meat livestock to use either a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse facility or a state-inspected facility that meets the USDA standards. 


“Small scale, regenerative livestock production has immense potential to help our environment, to sequester carbon and improve water quality, but the biggest barrier has been for many years now, a lack of small-scale processing facilities because of the consolidation of the industry,” McGeary explains. “We just don’t have many small-scale processors. This has been exacerbated by the COVID crisis. Large-scale meat processing operations are designed as a ‘just in time system’ that maximizes profits by making things move very fast in very unsafe conditions, so they have been disrupted by thousands of worker illnesses that have led to meat shortages.”


On the state level, FARFA has gotten 10 bills passed—five of those just within the last legislative session—to create right-sized regulations for small farmers. Those include a cottage foods bill that allows home bakers throughout Texas to sell their baked goods directly to customers. Another achievement allows on-farm poultry processing options for local producers, as well as reducing permitting requirements and fees for farmers’ market vendors. 


McGeary emphasizes that FARFA does not take a blanket approach to reducing regulations. “It’s about looking at what regulations are actually appropriate when dealing with small-scale, local distribution and local sourcing, which carry lower risks. It’s a different system than the conventional system, and there’s no reason to regulate it the same way.”


FARFA also teaches advocacy among its 1,000-plus member farmers and ranchers, and to consumers. Their website contains sample letters and tips for people to take action. McGeary notes that clicking a button to sign an online petition isn’t as effective as taking a few minutes to call or write a personal letter to representatives in the legislature. “If someone calls or takes a few minutes to write a personal letter or goes to meet with legislative staffers, they know that constituent is watching and truly paying attention,” she says.


Fighting the get-big-or-get-out system of laws favoring big agribusinesses will be a long-haul fight, McGeary acknowledges. But as more consumers recognize how local regenerative agriculture leads to improved soil health, more nutrient-dense crops and robust wildlife habitats, they’ll reap the benefits of more pasture-raised meat and healthier, fresher fruits and vegetables.


“This is not a left-wing or a right-wing issue, it’s not a libertarian or socialist issue. There are so many things that divide us as people, but our bills end up with fun people working together—liberal, left-wing urban Dems pairing up with libertarian, right wing constitutionalists from rural communities,” McGeary concludes. “It’s the outgrowth about what’s so great about this movement. We need to find real solutions instead of drawing battle lines in the sand.”


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