The signing of a bill last Thursday by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is being hailed as a victory for small farmers against burdensome regulations. But while it began as a struggle between a farmer and local authorities in Fauquier County, the Boneta Act is also producing some head-scratching about what it means to local governments and all farmers in the state.
In 2012, farmer Martha Boneta was accused by Fauquier County zoning officials of committing multiple permit violations for activities on her Liberty Farm, including pumpkin carvings, yoga classes and a child’s birthday party. Boneta faced fines. She is a member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which according to its website defends “the rights of farmers to direct market products from the farm” and the right of consumers to have access to raw milk.
What became known as the Boneta Bill was introduced in the General Assembly and eventually passed after being defeated by a Senate committee before being reintroduced. Under the new law, on-the-farm stores selling foods produced by other farms won’t be required to have either a state or local permit. It also frees farmers to sell more non-food products in their farm stores by eliminating state and local permit requirements, according to a press release sent out this week by the defense fund.
“After all my family and I have been through, it is a blessing that the rights of farmers as entrepreneurs can be upheld,” it quoted Boneta as saying.
Advocates noted that wine growers in the state previously won the same concessions and that now farmers have those same freedoms.
The new law applies to farming operations — defined as producing crops, animals or fowl — located on land zoned agricultural. The law also covers farms that produce fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat, poultry and dairy products. Farm forestry, nursery and floral operations are also covered.
Virginia’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) formed a “working group” to look at the issue raised by the Boneta controversy. Group members included representatives from the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Agribusiness Council. The group made recommendations that led to the bill’s reintroduction in January.
Rappahannock County Administrator John W. McCarthy noted that the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s announcement was rather “broadly put” and painted an expansive picture of what Boneta and other farmers can now do.
“It rests on the definition of agri-business and agri-tourism,” he said. The legal definition is “spelled out in some detail. Does it really include yoga or hosting birthday parties for kids if you do it on a farm and call it agriculture?”
He also noted the use of the word “substantial” and in the passage that says “localities can no longer prohibit agri-tourism activities unless they have a substantial impact on the public’s health, safety and welfare,” and how that is open to interpretation.
“It kind of puts the burden on the definition of what is substantial,” he said.
“One of the things that bothers us with wineries is that we have no problems with tastings but if they’re hosting a wedding for 200 people they should have the building and parking for it and the ingress and egress. It blurs the line of, ‘Are we regulating the winery or the activities?’
“I hate bills that say ‘substantial impact’ and don’t define what they are,” McCarthy said.
He said there haven’t been any such problems with the wineries in the county.
“We really haven’t. When there have been weddings at wineries we’ve advised them that they have to come in and get a permit. To the best of my knowledge they are complying.”
Though it hasn’t happened in Rappahannock, he noted that the playing of amplified music and hot air balloon rides at a winery have been an issue for neighbors.
“We don’t allow amplified music without a special exception,” McCarthy said.
Regarding the selling of goods on farms, McCarthy said farmers in Rappahannock have a right to do so without a permit. The sale of items like raw milk and cheese is still “regulated by the feds. Nothing the Virginia General Assembly can do can trump the Food and Drug Administration.”