By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2007
WINGINA, Va. -- To some, Richard Bean is a folk hero: the small farmer who dared to sell local, naturally raised pork chops, ribs, sausages and bacon. To the government, Bean looks like a felon.
Since 2001, Bean has sold his pork to restaurants and at farmers markets in the Charlottesville area, where he also offers chicken, vegetables and homemade bread. In many ways, his Double H Farm is exactly what the burgeoning eat-local movement wants: a diversified, family-run farm that sells to nearby customers.
But to make farming sustainable, Bean said, he has evaded government requirements that producers have animals slaughtered and processed in inspected facilities. His defiance led to his arrest Sept. 21 when state police officers, armed and dressed in flak jackets, arrived at the Double H with a search warrant and arrested Bean and his partner, Jean Rinaldi.
The officers handcuffed Bean, confiscated the couple's computer and charged them with felony intent to defraud, which carries the possibility of three years in jail for a conviction. The couple are accused of selling meat improperly labeled "certified organic." They also face seven misdemeanor charges. No hearing date has been set.
"We were trying to skirt the system. A small farm, making it work," Bean, 62, said over sandwiches of home-produced ham at his kitchen table. "We were able to earn a significant amount more per animal, and that's how we are able to compete with corporate agriculture."
Eat-local proponents, or locavores, say foods grown by nearby, small farms are fresher and better for the environment and local communities than government-certified organic foods, which can come from as far away as New Zealand. Bean is one of a number of small farmers whose stand against state and federal regulations has landed him in legal trouble.
This month, a county sheriff served Michigan cattle farmer Greg Niewendorp with a warrant before he would allow state agriculture officials to test his herd as part of a program to eradicate tuberculosis. In Pennsylvania, dairy farmer Mark Nolt refused to obtain a permit to sell unpasteurized milk, prompting officials to raid his farm and confiscate raw milk, cheese and yogurt as well as equipment and sales records.
And in Charlottesville, John Coles and Christine Solem of Satyrfield Farms have dodged state regulations for nearly three years by giving away their raw-milk goat cheese, which is illegal to sell in Virginia. They have been soliciting donations for, a sign in front of their market stand says, "legislative and court efforts to allow the sales of raw milk, cheese and other farm products."
Federal and state rules are designed to protect consumers from unsafe foods and provide a level playing field for producers. The Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association declined to comment on Bean and Rinaldi's case. But spokeswoman Elaine Lidholm said: "Our goal is to bring people into compliance, not to punish them. It is in the best interest of everyone if we can bring these farmers and animal owners into compliance because the law is designed to create a safe food supply."
For the past three years, no illnesses from meat or poultry in state-inspected plants have been reported. Outbreaks of food-borne illness, however, are difficult to track because most go unreported, she said.
The growing defiance from small farmers illustrates their increasing frustration with rules that they say penalize them and favor industrial producers, who were the source of headline-grabbing disease outbreaks such as the E.coli-infected spinach that killed three people last year and last month's recall of 21.7 million pounds of E.coli-infected ground beef.
"People are dying of recalled spinach," Bean said. "It's not happening here, because you know what happens when it's a small sale with interaction between farmer and customer? You're face to face. You have to be a really bad guy to screw your customer."
Bean and other farmers advocate unregulated direct sales of locally grown foods. "What we would like to see is an exemption from government intrusion in direct farmer-to-consumer food transactions," said Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in nearby Swoope, a pioneer of the local food movement and author of "Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories From the Local Food Front." "In other words, if you want to come to my farm, look and smell around, and make an informed decision to opt out of Wal-Mart, you should have the freedom to do so."
Bean and Rinaldi founded the Double H Farm in 2000. They grew vegetables that were certified organic -- a federal designation that requires foods to be grown without chemicals and pesticides -- until last year, when Bean decided to let the designation lapse because of cost and hassle and "because local was more important."
The Double H also followed organic principles when raising pigs, giving them a diet of non-genetically modified grain, soybeans and corn, an outdoor pen, and no antibiotics or hormones. But Bean never obtained federal certification that would have required him to submit a plan that, among other things, documents practices and substances used in production and allows annual on-site inspections. The cost of certification for a small farm is about $500 a year.
In the beginning, Bean had his hogs slaughtered in a federally inspected plant in Lynchburg, a 40-minute drive away. But in 2002, he began killing the pigs in his barn. "We were set up to do it, and I knew how, so it just made sense," Bean said.
In May 2006, Bean and Rinaldi were visited at a Charlottesville market by F.C. Lamneck, a state meat and poultry compliance officer. Bean said Lamneck told him that his meat should be slaughtered in a federally inspected facility. That June, Bean received a letter from state agriculture officials saying that he was in violation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act but that legal action would not be taken based on his desire to comply with the statute.
Still, Bean said, he did not immediately begin taking his pigs to an inspected slaughterhouse. The Lynchburg facility had closed, and Bean's only other option was more than two hours away, which he said adds $300 per hog. He complied for a short time in the spring, but, Bean said, the expense and effort made it "easy to fall back into our old ways. We had pigs ready, customers ready, and it's a very busy time of year."
Lamneck next visited the couple in July at the Charlottesville market. Bean said Lamneck asked for documentation that Bean was following the rules. Bean showed him an invoice for two pigs that were killed at the inspected facility. But, Bean said, he had gone there only once.
Then the legal action started: On Aug. 18, Bean and Rinaldi were charged with two misdemeanors in both Nelson and Albemarle counties in the alleged sale of meat that was not killed in a federally inspected facility. On Sept. 6, officials visited a Charlottesville restaurant and requested that staff pour bleach on a roasting pig that Bean had delivered that day, to render it inedible, Bean said.
On Sept. 8, inspectors arrived at the Charlottesville market and put a "detain" sticker on Bean's meat, preventing him from legally selling it. Some of that pork -- about 10 percent, Rinaldi said -- had "certified organic" stickers even though it was not certified.
"Had I known it was a criminal offense to put that sticker on those packages, they would have been in the fire barrel the next day. But he never told us that," Rinaldi said of Lamneck. "They have this thing for us. They are going to raise the notch every time we comply with something."
Lamneck declined to comment, referring questions to the state agriculture department.
On Sept. 21, Bean and Rinaldi were arrested and charged with intent to defraud their customers.
Bean is resigned to the charges, saying he's "pretty much ready" to go to jail. He said the Double H is complying with regulations and selling at farmers markets until the season ends next Saturday.
Bean and Rinaldi's case has divided Charlottesville's farmers markets. Lynne Bair had never bought from the Double H until she heard about the case. The next week, she purchased pork chops, spareribs and sausages.
"It infuriates me that I can go buy a factory-farmed pound of hamburger that's been trucked all over and I can't buy a steak that I know was raised well 10 miles away," she said.
Others disagreed, saying that Bean and Rinaldi's alleged actions gave them an unfair advantage. "I encourage Richard Bean to challenge the law. . . . But until it changes, he and all the vendors must comply," said Amy Childs, manager of the Nelson Farmers Market, who has been called to testify in the case. "When someone comes in and doesn't comply, he is cheating."
Some farmers are trying to change the rules. The Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, of which Bean and Rinaldi are members, is working to loosen -- if not end -- regulation of direct farmer-to-consumer sales. The group is working with state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) on a bill that would permit growers to sell to individuals for personal consumption, provided the product is labeled "not for resale, processed and prepared without state inspection."
The group's work has also led to new state chapters, including one in Maryland that has 50 members.
But most are pessimistic about their chances of changing the law. "I've been at the General Assembly. You don't have a chance down there," said Satyrfield Farm's Solem. "Jean called us and said: 'I've never been in trouble with the law. I'm going to be a criminal.' And I said: 'Well, join the club. We're all criminals.' "