Fauquier County Farmer Helps Pass Agricultural Deregulation Bill

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Liberty Farm

Martha Boneta’s farm sits on over 60 scenic acres in the historic town of Paris, Va.

The Virginia Free Citizen spoke to Martha Boneta of Paris Barns at Historic Liberty Farm about the important role she played in the recent passage of Senate Bill 51, a bill that restricts Virginia localities’ ability to regulate certain activities at agricultural operations, including the management of agritourism events and the sale of agricultural products and foods otherwise compliant with state law.

The bill prohibits Virginia localities from regulating or requiring a special-use permit for any of these activities without a “substantial impact on the health, safety or general welfare of the public.” The law goes into effect on July 1. 

Legislative Compromise and the “Boneta Bill”

Liberty Farm Sign

What animals are here? Happy ones! Ducks, chickens, lamb, alpacas, emus, and more

According tothe Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Acting Commissioner Sandy Adams, SB51 was developed as a compromise after the meeting of the On-Farm Activities Working Group. The OFAWG, developed after the 2013 General Assembly session, brings together individuals representing agricultural and local interest to discuss policy initiatives.

The new legislation emerged as a compromise that OFAWG members developed after the defeat of Delegate Scott Lingamfelter’s House Bill 1430, also known as the “Boneta Bill,” during the 2013 General Assembly session.

Boneta inspired the legislation when she faced the threat of thousands of dollars in county fines for selling farm products and crafts as well as hosting farm activities, including a children’s birthday party, on her 64-acre Paris farm.

HB1430 would have amended the Right to Farm Act. Both HB1430 and SB51 expand the definition of agricultural operations to include farm-to-consumer sales in addition to the ability to sell other related items.

Although the 2013 bill failed, Boneta said it created a nonpartisan farm-freedom movement with thousands of supporters across the state and even garnered national attention and support.

Contribution to Food and Farm Freedom

Feed My Sheep

Farmer Martha Boneta said people now want to connect with the land from which their food comes from.

The new law, SB51, will allow consumers to more conveniently support Virginia’s small farmers as they attempt to increase public access to their properties, according to Boneta.

“There has never been a greater demand than right now for small-family, farm-produced goods,” she said. “Consumers want to see where their food is grown. They want to interact with the farmer. They want access.”

Boneta said the new law creates a “baseline of fairness” for farmers across the commonwealth.

You’re all given an equal playing field to be successful,” she said. “This bill is the ultimate opportunity for the American dream. (It) allows small family farmers … to achieve what they can without the hammer of local county governments.

The new law “has no political affiliation,” she said. “It is the freedom to choose healthier food for you and your family, and to have access to the land.”

Constitutional attorney and property rights advocate Mark Fitzgibbons, who drafted last year’s “Boneta Bill,” said the passage of SB51 is a key achievement in the fight to help Virginia’s small farmers, but he says he recognizes that the fight is not over.

“More needs to be done to correct a very flawed and discriminatory system that allows local governments to violate due process rights of not just farms, but also property owners,” he said.

On-Farm Activities Working Group

The legislation also calls for VDACS to continue the On-Farm Activities Working Group.

Boneta Farm Alpaca 2 copy-X3

Alpacas Look On

“The reason that the working group was put together was so that farmers and localities could come together — and try to work together — to implement some changes that were needed to make it better for the farmers,” Adams said. “It allows the localities just a chance to sit down and just talk across the table instead of doing it in a committee meeting during General Assembly.”

Fitzgibbons said he is concerned that SB51 does not create any standards for the continued OFAWG.

“Whenever legislation establishes a commission without providing any standards or guidelines,” Fitzgibbons said, “that commission, however well-intentioned it may be, ultimately becomes something that may not have been intended by the legislature.”

Emus chatting

Emus chatting

Fitzgibbons said small farmers are not represented by OFAWG, and he said members promoting large agriculture could use the working group to further promote special interests even by introducing legislation that seeks overregulation of small farmers.

“It (no standards for the OFAWG) is damaging to the rights of small farmers because small farmers are the competition for the large special interests,” he said.

Some localities are beginning to develop ordinances to implement SB51, and the OFAWG will meet after the law goes into effect in order to address any issues that may arise as localities adjust to the new law, Adams said.

As member of the OFAWG, Boneta said she is thankful that various stakeholders could join forces to develop a compromise after HB1430’s defeat.

“By compromising, it doesn’t mean giving up our values,” she said. “It means reaching an understanding from which we hope to grow and expand.”

Boneta said it is important that the OFAWG represents diverse perspectives and differences in opinion.

“It’s so important to have members, stakeholders from every facet of the issue,” she said, “because, if a group is heavily stacked with only one position on an issue, then everybody’s voice isn’t heard.”

Martha Boneta Ducs

Happy Ducks

Katie Frazier, the president of the Virginia Agribusiness Council, an agricultural and forestry advocacy organization, is also a member of the OFAWG.

Frazier said the Virginia Agribusiness Council supports SB51 as legislation that promotes more diversification of agricultural operations.

“It will provide a useful guideline for producers and localities to work together to craft ordinances specific to agriculture and agricultural activities across the commonwealth,” Frazier said, “while ensuring that local regulations do not become so overly burdensome that some agricultural operations cannot continue their on-farm activities.”

The Fauquier County Board of Supervisors did not respond to an email request seeking comment on this matter.

All in a Row Coming in


Kate Miller

About Kate Miller

Kate Miller is a multimedia journalist and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. She received a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications with a broadcast journalism concentration. She attended Smith College in Massachusetts before attending VCU. This semester, she is reporting on the General Assembly for the VCU Capital News Service.