Bureaucracy rules Indiana farmers’ roost

INDIANAPOLIS — In the farm-to-fork movement, the Hawkins family are hailed as leaders.

Now in its sixth generation of ownership, the J.L. Hawkins Family Farm has been featured in national publications as a foodie’s dream destination.

In rural Wabash County, it’s a place where gourmands enamored of local food go on Friday nights to dine in the farm restaurant on pizza topped with sausage from the farm’s pigs, which is laid out on crust seasoned with honey from the farm’s bees and covered with sauce made from the farm’s heirloom tomatoes.

Owner Jeff Hawkins, an ordained Lutheran minister who has opened the 99-acre farm as a retreat for weary ministers to tend soil and soul, said the business is supported by sales of produce and livestock.

He now finds himself dealing with less bucolic matters, specifically a complicated, bureaucratic fight over food safety.

Earlier this month, the Indiana State Department of Health issued a cease-and-desist order to Hawkins, telling him to stop selling his farm-raised, grass-fed, chickens to area restaurants that specialize in locally sourced foods.

The department contends his sale of farm-butchered chickens to restaurants is violating a 2014 state law that cleared way for small poultry farmers to process their own birds for sale directly to consumers.

The law was hailed as reducing burdensome regulation on local producers, but it only went so far.

Under the law Hawkins — and poultry farms with less than 20,000 birds — can sell farm-raised, farm-butchered poultry at farm stands and farmers markets and even on the farm to “end consumers.” But it doesn’t cover restaurant sales.

Hawkins isn’t an intentional violator. Working with the national Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which helped write that 2014 law, he’s now turning to federal rules that favor small farmers.

Under those rules, he earned an exemption from the meat- inspection regulations that cover big poultry plants after his farm was inspected and approved by the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.

“I was trying to follow the rules,” he said. “I thought we’d done everything right.”

Hawkins’ poultry and his farm are widely recognized, including on the state’s tourism website. His food has been served at the annual Dig IN a Taste of Indiana food festival, which features the state’s top chefs.

Pete Kennedy, a lawyer with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, says Hawkins is caught in a classic bureaucratic nightmare of regulators interpreting potentially conflicting rules.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Hawkins has complied with the Health Department’s order, and it’s made a dent in business. Thirty percent of his sales are to restaurants. He’s got a few hundred birds frozen in storage and a big flock of live chickens to feed.

Hawkins is appealing the cease-and-desist order, hoping to resolve the situation soon with state regulators by bringing them around to his argument that the federal rules make his operation legal.

Farm-to-fork supporters are watching closely. Indianapolis chef Thom England, a pioneer in the local food movement, said restaurants throughout the state buy and serve poultry from farms just like Hawkins’. He sees the matter as a test case for state regulators.

Meanwhile, the conflict could become even more contentious. State Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, predicts the poultry rules will come under scrutiny in the 2016 session.

Leising, a farm owner and retired nurse, advocates tougher food safety rules. She’d like to see an end to the 2014 law loosening poultry sales at farmers markets, arguing that it opens the door for public health to be compromised by tainted food.

“This is a serious issue,” she said. “We’re in for a big fight over this.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.

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