The Art of Inertia
Three years ago I decided to try and open a small dairy and cheese making operation out here on our small farm just a few miles east of downtown Austin. I had fallen deeply in love with dairy: the animals, the lifestyle, and of course, the cheese. The prospect of scaling what had become a beautiful product and process to share with the local community seemed both symbiotic and nostalgic in a way that comforted my cubicle-shriveled soul. There was a time when this is how food worked. We ate close to the source of our food. Farmers toiled on the outskirts of towns and cities to create produce, meat and dairy and then traveled in to offer the fruits of their labor to the nearest community. The economy depended on this relationship and, in this way, the city folks and the country folks actually fed each other.
Our farm is situated on the outskirts of a city that markets its locavore leanings on the national stage. Want the best local food from the most innovative food establishments? Come to Austin. Want to support agriculture in one of the country’s most “agricultural” states – then come to the epicenter of the Texas movement which arguably started in Austin. It seemed like a slam dunk from our perspective: a community hungry for sustainable food that travels mere miles from the farm to someone’s face.
But it wasn’t a slam dunk, not even a poorly aimed shot. To go through the process of designing, building and then licensing a state compliant dairy (not to mention operating one – that is a different diatribe) is a nearly full time endeavor. I spent years, and I am using this time in the literal sense – years – working with the state to finally open the doors of a licensed dairy in the state of Texas. And that is no complaint. Dairy, like many types of food, should be regulated as it enters the larger, public food stream to ensure its safety for consumption. From the beginning I understood what was expected of and required by the state in order to receive and maintain a license. The monthly facility inspections, farm inspections, milk samples – all of which I pay a fee to have conducted. Plus the bi-annual licensing fees. Plus, you know, taxes in general. I understood that in order to legally produce any sort of dairy product and then have the ability to try and make a profit from this production, I must work with the state. So I did so happily, and three years after starting the process, finally earned a license to produce a highly regulated product in a state that closely oversees, inspects, and tests everything associated with that product.
Now I am ready to finally, physically bring my products to market. In Austin. The epicenter of the Texas farm-to-table movement, a community I assumed was ready to embrace us, to help participate in our micro-economy. That’s what I assumed. That’s where I was wrong.
After being accepted into an Austin farmer’s market I have attempted to have the county issue a permit so that I can legally sell our cheese at the market. The same cheese that is produced in a state licensed facility. After completing the paperwork the county required of the farmer’s market, I was jostled between two different county staff, repeatedly given different information. Told I would be contacted. Waited. Proactively made contact again. Waited. Waited. And finally was told today that the information given previously was incorrect and that – actually – my state license doesn’t really matter too much. I have to go through a county licensing process in order to sell at a farmer’s market in Austin. After waiting several years, these additional months of waiting, being misled, waiting some more – should not matter. But they do matter. They matter very much.
Politically, I’m going to stay neutral here regarding my positions about the role of government, the intersections of local, state and federal administrations, etc. But I am not going to remain neutral about efficiency and its cost to small farmers like me. Because if this impacts me then it impacts many countless others with less capacity to sit and articulate the ways in which the process has failed them. This is not a conversation regarding the importance of food safety – it’s important. I have no argument with regulation and submitted to the regulatory process when I stepped onto this hamster wheel three years ago. But I am unable to fathom the necessity of duplicating the work I have already done, and done successfully, to meet the requirements set forth by yet another bureaucracy. Requirements that were neither accessible, straightforward, or provided in an efficient manner.
Why does this matter? Because it means more of my time that should be spent either: raising my children, operating the farm and dairy, and – oh – making sure my taxes are paid on time – that time is now being devoted to hand deliver paperwork (Yes, it’s true. In 2016 the county will only consider and process paperwork if it is hand delivered. This is the same county that contains the “Silicon Valley of the South,” mind you. You know, with Google Fiber and all that).
So I am writing to congratulate you, whichever Powers That Be so brilliantly constructed this sticky web of dense obstruction that not only makes it more difficult to send my products to market, but therefore also keeps local dollars out of my bank account. Off of my farm. Out of this economy. It was ludicrous to expect my state license and monthly inspections to suffice as a measure of our qualification to sell retail within the county. It was also ludicrous to expect that a department operating through tax dollars might work proactively and efficiently to ensure small businesses can quickly enter the local economy and generate taxable income. To, you know, be spent within the county.
It’s hardly revolutionary to state that much of government operation defies logic, but I can say with certainty this is my introduction to how government ineptitude seriously and negatively affects the ability for a small business to operate. Not just any small business, but the sort of business upon which the capitol of the state has built its own economy.
From out here in my mud-slicked field of dreams, I slow-clap-applaud this process. I also refuse to be reticent about an issue that impacts all of us, whether or not we understand how. Food is a freedom that is hardly free. In my few short years becoming a small producer, I have learned the true cost of this endeavor and no longer weigh our fiscal loss in dollars but in gallons: of milk, blood, sweat, tears.
Shame on the process, the bureaucracy, the local government – anyone and anything that creates an undue burden and barrier for legally compliant food producers to gain access to their local markets and economies. Shame on all of us for allowing industrial agriculture to peddle the fiction that food is cheap and easy.
And mostly, shame on me for believing all the hoops had been jumped through. I’m getting far too good at jumping.