Welcome to 2017, and another year of Athens Locally Grown! This will be our sixteenth year in operation (I can’t believe I’ve been doing this this long!) and we are looking forward to many more. Many of our growers are have slowed down for the winter, delivering every other week or otherwise reducing their availability. Many others, however, are still going strong thanks to greenhouses and other season-extending methods. Now that the holiday season is behind us, we’ll be going every single week from now until our next week off — Thanksgiving.
I ran across an article today that wonderfully illustrated why I run ALG, and why I started my own little vegetable farm back in 2002. It uses the simple dish that’s traditionally served today, Hoppin’ John, to show how much our food supply has changed in the last several decades, and how much flavor, nutrition, and diversity we nearly lost forever along the way. Small farms like those who sell through ALG, with the support of people like you who are wanting locally grown, fresh, flavorful foods, have started to turn the tide and have just barely managed to keep some of the old foods around. Many people eat Hoppin’ John and wonder why the bland mix of mushy beans and rice because a tradition and the truth is that’s not what became a tradition, it’s just what we were stuck with when the food system changed around us. Have a read of the full article — I think you’ll enjoy it: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/12/southern-hoppin-john-new-years-tradition.html.
Each January, I devote the first few mailings of the year to the behind the scenes operation of ALG. This week, I’m going to talk about the many legal issues surrounding our market. Even though many people call us “the co-op”, ALG is legally a market owned and operated by me, so I can have a place to sell items I occasionally offer from my own gardens. There’s no board of directors, no shield corporation, no pot of grant money. It’s just me, and while that keeps things very simple, it also exposes me and my family to a ton of potential liability. It’s never really been an issue (except when the whole raw milk thing erupted several years ago) and there are several things I do specifically to minimize that risk:
- The growers list their own items and set their own prices. When you buy from them, it is from them, not from me, and not from Athens Locally Grown.
- Athens Locally Grown never takes ownership or possession of the food. The growers drop it off, and you pick it up.
- Everything at the market has a customer’s name attached to it when it arrives. ALG does not repackage any items, or buy in bulk for redistribution.
- When you pay, you’re paying into a shared cash box for all of the growers. This lets you write a single check or swipe your card once for convenience, but you are really paying all of the growers directly and individually. Your money goes in, and the software I wrote to keep everything going spits out checks for each of the growers you buy from.
- The growers give a small percentage of their sales, generally 10%, back to the market to cover the many expenses of keeping the market going. I’ll cover the details of finances another week.
ALG never buys from a grower and resells the items to you. Never.
- When a grower sells items that need licenses from either the state or the federal government, ALG verifies that the proper licenses have been obtained.
The ownership issue is key. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t offer delivery, and why we usually can’t hold items for you if you aren’t able to pick up your orders. Delivery might be a good business for someone (if they could figure out all the legal requirements), but it’s not at all what I personally want to be into. I think it would be a valuable service for you, and I’m hoping someday someone will be able to partner with me for this. Many food co-ops and even some farmers markets aren’t as careful with keeping ownership as straight as I try to be, and that has gotten other groups similar to us into serious legal trouble (deserved or not) over the years. There are so many grey areas in all this, and the written regulations still don’t even consider that something like Athens Locally Grown might exist. We’re so firmly in the grey areas with most everything we do that it’s just too risky for me to bring us into the areas that are clearly black.
So, these are the sorts of things that guide my thinking as Athens Locally Grown has grown over the years. Everything we do has legal ramifications, and the state of Georgia has a reputation for being no nonsense when it comes to enforcement — with the little guy, anyway. That has became extra obvious in recent years, and the FDA is also putting pressure on groups like us too. I’m not a lawyer, but every time we enter those grey areas, I make sure we follow the intent of the laws, don’t flaunt anything, and have a good defense and a paper trail should we need it. And when that doesn’t work, the good folks at the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund are behind us. They have consumer memberships, too, and I do encourage everyone who is able to become a member of the FtCLDF.
The FtCLDF was my legal counsel in the federal lawsuit against the FDA I (and one of our members) was a plaintiff on. The lawsuit was in response to the seizure and destruction of 110 gallons of South Carolina milk purchased by ALG members in October 2009. During the pre-trial phase, the FDA moved to dismiss the suit, and went so far as to claim that the milk dumping, filmed and placed on YouTube, with an FDA agent clearly identified, never happened. The judge refused to dismiss, and gave the FDA six months to give a yes or no answer to whether what we did is really considered illegal. Exactly six months later, they responded that it was illegal, but also claimed that even though an FDA agent was at my house giving direction, they had no hand in the dumping. They also went on record stating that individuals were legally free to cross state lines and buy raw milk to take home with them (something that the FDA agent at my house said, on camera, was completely illegal under all circumstances). After that, the judge dismissed the suit without fully ruling whether ALG was also free to facilitate our members collectively ordering and picking up milk across state lines. In any case, the state of Georgia still says what we were doing was illegal and even tightened the rules right afterward, so raw milk is still rather hard to come by.
And there in a nutshell is the legalities behind ALG. In the following weeks, I’ll get more into the nuts and bolts of finances and other aspects of how we work.
Thank you so much for your support of Athens Locally Grown, all of our growers, local food, and our rights to eat it. You all are part of what makes Athens such a great area in which to live. We’ll see you on Thursday at Ben’s Bikes at the corner of Pope and Broad Streets from 4:30 to 8pm!