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New law affords farms ‘a greater degree of flexibility’ with activities

farm-droughtJust before spring came to Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation that could mean a new beginning for many Virginia farmers and local food operations.

Beginning July 1, the bill will grant all farmers the same protections from local government controls as those given to Virginia farm wineries. It’s a protection that some have sought as interest in buying food directly from local farms has grown.

“What it should mean to you as a farmer, regardless of the size of your operation, is that you’re going to have a greater degree of flexibility in regards to local government on the types of activities that you’re going to be able to hold at your farm,” said Trey Davis, assistant director of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “That includes agritourism activities, pick-your-own farms, roadside stands, corn mazes, as well as the sale of products that you may want to have on your farm, and the sale of items incidental to your farm.”

Sponsored by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, and Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Thornburg, the on-farm activities bill was the product of more than a year of discussion by a working group assembled by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore. Farm Bureau was one of the interest groups participating in discussions. The working group was assembled after an attempt to amend Virginia’s Right to Farm law failed in the 2013 General Assembly.

“Our members felt the current Right to Farm law was serving the needs of production agriculture well, and there was no need to amend it,” Davis said. “But there was a consensus among the majority of participants of the working group to go forward with legislation to bring the rest of the industry up to the same protections that farm wineries already have, with the rationale being that if it’s good enough for one aspect of the agriculture industry, … then it would be good enough for producers. And that’s whether you’re farming on 10 acres or 10,000 acres.

“This bill was heavily amended to address the concerns of localities and others, and really does strike the appropriate balance between private property rights on your farm and local government regulation,” Davis said.

The new law is not a full exemption from local control of on-farm sales, Davis added. Local governments still will be able to require permits and regulate on-farm activities if there is a “substantial impact” on the health, safety or general welfare of the public. And the law applies to legitimate agricultural operations only, meaning someone cannot set up a farm stand and claim exemption unless the property is devoted to bona fide production of crops or livestock.

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