By Michael Siebert/UM Legislative News Service
HELENA – Montana farmers may soon face fewer regulations when it comes to diversifying their farm’s income if three bills in the Montana Legislature find enough support.
One bill, House Bill 325 would legalize the direct sale of raw milk. Another, House Bill 352, would allow farmers to sell food from their own kitchens and a third bill would give them less liability when their farmland is used for tourism purposes.
“The farm economy has been up and down,” said Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Fairfield. “We need to put another spoke on the revenue wheel.”
Fitzgerald is carrying House Bill 342, which passed second reading 79-21 last week. The bill would add “agritourism” to a list of activities in which guests are liable for their risk. Agritourism encompasses a wide variety of recreation, including everything from corn mazes to pumpkin patches.
“I would like to remind you that again there’s such a thing called personal responsibility, and that has a major part in this,” Fitzgerald said.
But some lawmakers have reservations about just where personal responsibility begins and ends. Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, argued because agritourism encompasses so many different activities, it would be difficult to determine what reasonable risk looks like in each case. He said this would make the likelihood of lawsuits increase significantly.
“It’s going to increase your insurance rates,” McConnell said. “What’s that going to do? It’s going to make it harder for the farmer or the landowner to get insurance.”
Other bills proved similarly contentious.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, introduced House Bill 325 last week. The bill would allow farmers and ranchers to sell unpasteurized, or “raw” milk, exclusively from their farms and direct to consumers, and would allow for herds of up to 10 cows and 20 sheep or goats for production.
“This is the ultimate freedom bill,” Ballance said. “What could be more natural and more healthy?”
HB 325 also requires raw milk producers to label their products indicating the product has not been inspected by the state, and that it is for personal use only.
Ballance said the inspiration for the bill partially came from seeing her mother overcook vegetables as a child, eliminating much of their nutritional value.
“When you apply that to milk it’s exactly the same issue,” Ballance said.
During the bill’s first reading last week, the committee room was filled to capacity with both supporters and opponents. The bill attracted so many supporters that there wasn’t enough time for many of them to testify. More than a dozen people also came prepared to testify against HB 325, largely because of what they say are health risks.
“It does not provide adequate disease, drug or antibiotic testing,” said Krista Lee Evans, representing the Montana Milk Producers Association.
Evans’ concerns stem from the lack of clarity provided by the bill for who performs those tests, as well as the fact that results would be self-reported. She said that creates a self-regulating industry.
“The tests are collected by the permittee, the lab is selected by the permittee, and most importantly there’s no reporting requirement,” Evans said. “There’s no way to know.”
Jeanne Rankin, a veterinarian based in Judith Basin County, also expressed concern about the spread of brucellosis due to many cows coexisting with elk, a risk of which she says is mitigated by the pasteurization process.
Ballance, however, said there are plenty of other foods that carry similar risks, and the pushback from health organizations is because “it just makes their life easier not to have to worry about it.”
Echoing Fitzgerald’s comments about agritourism, she said the issue comes down to personal responsibility.
“Your responsibility as a buyer is to know who you’re buying from, look at the farm, see if it’s clean, see if the conditions are right … and know the person you’re buying from,” Ballance said. “It’s a totally different buying experience than you would have if you were in the store.”
Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, wants to see farmers be able to sell more than just raw milk. House Bill 352 is Hertz’s attempt to allow farmers to sell any food product from their homes.
“We’ve always bought and sold product, bartered with our neighbors,” Hertz said. “The local sanitarians primarily seem to think that the kitchen in my house isn’t as clean, or doesn’t have the proper equipment that the restaurant down the street does.”
Hertz’s bill, called the Food Choice Act, would allow for the sale of homemade food products for home consumption. Producers of these products would not be susceptible to the regulations that traditional retailers or cottage food producers are.
The Food Choice Act would be an expansion of the deregulations put in place by last session’s cottage food laws changes. That law allows producers of low risk items like jam or baked goods to sell food they produced in their kitchens.
HB 352 would allow for the sale of any food product.
Levi Ostberg and Eric Bergman of the Montana Farmers Union said the Food Choice Act may be contradictory to federal livestock regulation, and have specific concerns with the sale of meat under the law.
“Our current meat processing inspection laws are good,” Bergman said.
That bill is slated for debate Tuesday, Feb. 14.
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.