Chickens in the Statehouse

It’s February, and in Indiana that means our part-time state legislature is in session. There is the usual serious business of education, roads, and taxes, but regardless of your political persuasion there are always a few bills that make you shake your head. This year is no exception. The Indiana State Senate and House of Representatives have joined together with organizations that represent Indiana farmers in an attempt to drive one local family farm out of business.

In August of 2015, Jeff Hawkins of Hawkins Family Farm near North Manchester testified before a state study committee on agriculture and natural resources. Hawkins testified about the success of his small family farm in selling poultry to restaurants. State Senator Jean Liesing, a Republican from Oldenburg took exception to this, assuming incorrectly that Hawkins was in violation of Indiana law regarding the sale of poultry to restaurants.

The Indiana Attorney General’s office, prodded by State Senator Jim Banks of Columbia City, issued an opinion in November 2015 that Hawkins Family Farm was in fact in compliance with state and federal laws, operating under an exemption granted by the Indiana State Board of Health.

This exemption didn’t mean that Hawkins was exempt from inspection. Rather it meant that unlike large commercial poultry processors, Hawkins did not have to have an inspector on-site every time they processed chickens. Hawkins facility is still inspected twice a year by the state, and they have to meet sanitation, recordkeeping, and labeling regulations.

Senator Liesing wasn’t content with the Attorney General’s opinion. Liesing authored Senate Bill 71 that would prevent small farms like Hawkins from selling to restaurants. Representative Don Lehe, a Republican from Brookston authored the same bill as HB 1267 in the Indiana House of Representatives.

These bills are supported by organizations such as the Indiana Farm Bureau, the Indiana State Poultry Association, Indiana Pork, and the Indiana Beef Cattle Association. All organizations that are supposed to have the interests of farmers in mind.

House Bill 1267 has passed the House and been referred to Senate. David Ober who represents most of this area voted against the bill. With his vote he supported small farmers and the farm to fork movement.

It is hard to understand what Senator Liesing and Representative Lehe are hoping to accomplish with this bill. Food safety is usually cited as their motivation. Representative Lehe said, “This bill will hopefully prevent health problems from pathogens within the Indiana poultry industry.” This ignores the fact that Hawkins has never been the source of food-borne illness while large-scale commercial operations, already subject to regulations Lehe wants to impose on small producers, have released millions of pounds of tainted chicken.

While a conspiracy between state legislators and organizations representing large-scale food production seems absurd, it is hard to see this piece of legislation as anything except an attack on small farmers in general and Hawkins Family Farm in particular.

People in Indiana have already spoken on this issue. Farmer’s markets are increasing in number and size. Restaurants everywhere are responding to the demand for locally sourced, responsibly grown food. Local breweries and wineries are thriving. The state legislature should listen to the people of Indiana and work to make it easier for food to get from farm to fork, instead of supporting only the interests of large scale commercial producers.