Pennsylvania State Representative Mindy Fee is wrapping up her first term in the General Assembly. In those two years she has tattooed her dynamic presence on the hearts and minds of her constituents. Born with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy and ideas, Fee fittingly was assigned at the beginning of her term to the House Agriculture Committee and came up with the notion of periodic Farmer’s Breakfasts at a restaurant in Manheim, PA. The breakfasts are sponsored by Penn-Ag Industries.
“I didn’t grow up on a farm, so what I do is surround myself with people in the district who are farmers, so when there is a piece of legislation, I can reach out and can ask, ‘How will this affect you directly — how we work, how we live in the 37th district?’” she said.
Fee’s guest speaker on this second event of the year was Representative John Maher, chairman of the Pennsylvania House Agriculture Committee, who said, “In Pennsylvania, there’s no doubt that it’s the few feeding the many. Folks who go to the grocery store don’t seem to necessarily understand where all that good stuff comes from. And they may not understand what is important legislatively. There are various threats to agriculture that we’ve seen in other states.”
In Maryland, he said, agriculture is considered the enemy of the people. “And when you look at what’s happened in Vermont with the GMO Labeling Law, where people have gone from a slogan that has no scientific support to compromising the supply chain for food for the entire state, in a state which has a greater preponderance of active agricultural families than we have in Pennsylvania, you need to be aware that these [ideological] diseases are contagious.”
Maher went on to say the ag community had great success this year with high tunnels. “We had certain counties that were going out and assessing them as though they were brick and mortar buildings,” he said. “Millions of dollars in evaluations were slapped on these high tunnels. Some property tax bills were $100,000! If you get a $100,000 tax bill for your high tunnels, you’d best not have the high tunnel.”
Fortunately, the law was changed to make it clear that high tunnels are not assessable for property taxes. But the common sense errancy didn’t stop with that. Building code representatives made on-site inspections of the high tunnels and wondered where the fire exits were. Where were the handicapped ramps? No accessible bathrooms? Huh? “We finally got state law changed this past week,” Maher stated, “to do away with that, showing that high tunnels are ag structures that are equivalent to storage bins. Nobody asks where the emergency exit is in a storage bin.”
A group called Food and Water Watch popped up in Pennsylvania about a year ago. Their IRS 990 forms, filings that non-profit organizations have to use, show that six sources contributed $12-million to FWW. Those sources are not revealed and are not required to be revealed. But $12-million is not exactly grassroots. So, what’s the story? They are against fracking. And they’re against GMO. “If you were to poll the average person and ask ‘Do you want GMO in your food?’ the answer is overwhelmingly no,” Maher said. “We need very much to get about educating our friends and neighbors.” He went on to explain that FWW has spent the better part of the last year targeting various House and Senate districts, asking people ‘Do you support using GMOs in your food?’
The people reply no, and they keep track of those people. That is followed by an e-mail campaign aimed at legislators. Following this softening up process, in-person visits of reasonable people to lawmakers offers the reassurance that all they are asking for is that GMOs be labeled, and they are not against them. “This is how labeling has been creeping across America,” Maher said. But it doesn’t end there. “Ninety percent of all soybeans that are planted now are GMO; 90 percent of corn; 80 to 90 percent of just about every crop. And it goes further. If you have livestock that have digested GMO crops, that also needs to be labeled. I think this is a terrible threat. Frankly, I think it’s nonsense, but we have to deal with it.”
Maher concluded by saying that so few people are connected to the land anymore, and suggesting that farmers must always be in the mode of educating and expanding understanding. It is up to agriculture to take the initiative, to get out their message. “If we are always playing defense, we will lose sooner or later. We have got to play deeper offense.”