The local food ordinance movement that began in a handful of small towns in Maine has found its way to California.  On Jan. 24, 2012, farmer Pattie Chelseth introduced a “Local Food and Community Self-Governance” ordinance to the Board of Supervisors in El Dorado County in the historic Gold Country of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The ordinance, referred to as a “food sovereignty proposal,” was met with support from the five-member Board and those in attendance.

Raw Milk and Cow Shares

Chelseth’s interest in a local food ordinance began last year after she was issued a cease and desist order from the California Department of Food and Agriculture for operating a cow-share that consisted of two cows and 15 owners. Under a cow share arrangement, people pay to become part owners (the purchase of “shares”) of a cow. The shareholders pay the farmer to board and care for the cow, and as part of their ownership, they’re entitled to a share of the raw milk.

California law permits sales of unpasteurized milk from farms and in retail stores, provided that the dairy is licensed and inspected.  Some, including Chelseth, argue that cow shares fall outside of such regulation because the milk isn’t being sold — the shareholders already own the cow.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture disagrees. The agency considers cow shares to be commercial transactions, and subject to the public health regulations that govern dairy production in California.

Introducing the Local Food Ordinance

Like the Local Food and Community Self-Governance ordinances passed in Maine, the El Dorado County ordinance would exempt from state or federal licensure and safety inspection transactions that occur in the Placerville area directly between a producer and a consumer, when the food is for home consumption.

Unlike the ordinances passed in Maine, the El Dorado County version includes five subsections that address the right to own livestock, the right to contract for care and production of such livestock, the right to the products of that livestock, the right to contract for specialty food items (such as baked goods and jams), and the right to participate in private food clubs.

Nearly six months after Chelseth held a meeting on her farm to discuss the creation of a local food ordinance, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors took up the issue.

In Chelseth’s remarks to the board, she quickly reviewed recent court holdings and documents that assert consumers do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice or a fundamental right to own and use a dairy cow or dairy herd, and that a cow-share contract does not fall outside the scope of state regulation (see the Wisconsin decision for the most recent example).

She then cited the county’s history of “noble pioneers and hearty farmers” and asked the board to be a pioneer and beacon for what she called citizens’ “right to choose.”

Support and Concerns

The board members each expressed support for the ordinance as well as some concerns.  While supporting local producers would be beneficial to the area’s economic development, and restore authority around local food production to the producers, board members also noted their desire to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully in drafting and passing this kind of ordinance.

Supervisors Ray Nutting and Ron Briggs shared their personal experiences of watching the agriculture and food system change and dealing with the laws as they stand today. Nutting expressed strong support for the ordinance, saying that the board would do whatever it could, within the limits of the California and U.S. Constitutions, to bring the laws and policies in line with the goals of the ordinance.

The board underscored that it was “on the same page” as Chelseth in wanting to enact the ordinance, but also needed to address some of the legal issues raised in this ordinance.  Briggs noted that the legal issues were not insurmountable and that the board would work with Chelseth to create a better ordinance.

Supervisor Jack Sweeney suggested first creating a unified resolution asking the state and federal governments from interfering in what they consider an entirely local issue.  Sweeney said the board needed to address the potential conflicts with the U.S. and California constitutions in order to prevent the supervisors from violating their oaths of office and from getting the county into significant legal trouble.  “We don’t want to be anarchists,” he said. “We just want to have our home foods.”

In the end, the supervisors passed a motion directing Briggs and Norma Santiago “to prepare a resolution of general support to bring back to the Board of Supervisors for adoption.”

Although El Dorado County did not pass the ordinance that night, it appears from the discussion at the meeting and the momentum these types of ordinances are gaining around the country, that it may not be long before El Dorado County declares its “rights” to local food self-governance.

To see video of the ordinance discussion at El Dorado County Board of Supervisor meeting on Jan. 24, 2012, click here (note: after you click, the link will ask if you want to open the minutes of the meeting before it proceeds to the video page).