Virginia small farmers push back on ‘regulation nation’


SLOW GROWN: Brian and Kimberley Criley are fighting for greater farm and food freedom in Virginia.

By Kenric Ward | Virginia Bureau

RICHMOND, Va. — Would you rather eat a pie made in your grandmother’s kitchen, or one churned out by an industrial bakery? That question constitutes the basic ingredient of the “Food Freedom” debate in Virginia.

Brian Criley, a Caroline County farmer, has strong opinions on consumer choice and the perilous position of small agricultural enterprises in the commonwealth.

“Virginia was built by small farmers and tradesmen who had the freedom to unleash their creativity and market their products to their neighbors and peers, who took responsibility for their own discerning purchases,” Criley said.

But along the way, government regulation and corporate consolidation took hold — producing what another Virginia farmer, Joel Salatin, calls an “opaque industrial system.”

Criley rues the day. In support of a bill that would lift restrictions on small farmers to independently market their products, he said, “Americans should never have abdicated their responsibility for ensuring a healthy and safe food supply to the government.”

House Bill 135, by Delegate Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, would remove the shackles and advance the “farm-to-table” movement, as has been done by communities in Massachusetts, Maine and other states.

But the House Agriculture subcommittee ditched the measure under an onslaught of institutional warnings about public health, legal liability and even tax evasion.

The rejection of Bell’s bill left its advocates sad, and fighting mad.

“The Spirit of ’76 is dead. Why do legislators fear my freedom to sell what I make to others, who (should) have the freedom to choose?” asked Criley, who helps operate Slow Grown organic foods with his wife, Kimberley.

The retired Marine runs this scenario: “If I go to a state-inspected restaurant and become ill from tainted food, who do I sue? Is the state inspection service, or the restaurant lobby or the legislators who create the regulatory arms in any danger of my litigation? Nope.”

Despite multiple layers of regulations and inspections, food-borne illnesses do break out. Criley said those are of little concern to the perpetrators.

“The worst tainted food scares have never caused more than a blip in sales of the product that caused the problem. When was the last time a big processor was truly held accountable for tainted food?” he asked.

“What (processors) fear is that when these outbreaks occur, more people start to seek safer food from local sources. They don’t want you to have the freedom to do so.”

Today’s regulated food chain “prohibits buying a steak or a glass of milk from a neighbor you know, while bringing you irradiated meat and chemically grown produce, dead milk and foods that aren’t even made from what’s pictured on the label,” Criley asserted.

“Food freedom enables those who want to be responsible for their own food supply to seek out producers and products without government inserting itself into a private economic choice between consenting adults,” he said.

That freedom can yield far-ranging economic benefits, too.

Expanding and diversifying local food product lines “may even allow some cottage-level producers to grow into small-farm status,” Criley predicted.

“It’s time to push back on the regulation nation,” fellow grower Randall Anderson of Frederick County said.

Small farmers are waging a coordinated fight for their rights at the General Assembly, and bipartisan support is building for HB 268 and SB 51 — bills that would free small producers from onerous local zoning restrictions.

Ultimately, Virginia Food Freedom leader Bernadette Barber said, “We want our health back by deciding for ourselves what kinds of food we want. We want our livelihoods back by profiting from our own kitchens, our own labor and our own land.”

Kenric Ward is chief of’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

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