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New law protects rights of farmers

Tuesday a law went into effect that will help protect the rights of those in the agriculture business, and even though Scottsburg farmer Don Reese says he never faced any type of restriction, his mind is now at ease. 

The bill, HB 268, became a Virginia law protecting certain activities at agricultural operations from local regulation. One of the first bills signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the non-partisan legislation became statewide law at the urging of grassroots organizations and individuals.

The idea for the bill came about after a controversy began in 2012 when the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors forced family farmer Martha Boneta to cease selling produce from her own 64-acre farm. Not allowed to sell the vegetables she harvested, Boneta donated the food to local charities rather than let it go to waste. 

Boneta also was faced with a threat of a $15,000 per-day fine for hosting a birthday party for eight 10-year-old girls without a permit and for advertising pumpkin carvings. 

Seeing the county’s action against Boneta as a brazen effort to drive her off her land, Virginians from all walks of life rallied to her defense.  

Supporters gathered in Warrenton, the county seat, for a peaceful “pitchfork protest” to vent their anger over what an out-of-control local government had done to a law-abiding citizen.

In the 2013 session of the General Assembly, Rep. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) led an effort to undo the injustice inflicted on Boneta and to protect other farmers from similar abuse, by strengthening Virginia’s Right to Farm Act.  

What became known as the “Boneta Bill” passed the House by an overwhelming margin, but it was killed by a Senate committee. 

Undeterred, Boneta and her supporters came back to the General Assembly in 2014 winning wide bipartisan approval for legislation protecting the rights of family farmers.

The bill signed by Gov. McAuliffe grew out of legislation developed by Rep. Bobby Orrick (R-Thornburg) and Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Montross) and supported by, among others, Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). 

Backed by the Virginia Farm Bureau, the new law protects customary activities at agricultural operations from local bans in the absence of substantial impacts on public welfare.  It also prohibits localities from requiring a special-use permit for a host of farm-related activities that are specified in the bill.

“I am grateful to all the Virginians and legislators from across the commonwealth who rallied for non-partisan legislation that provides economic opportunity for small family farmers, access to consumers and allows the great traditions of farming in Virginia to flourish,” said Boneta.  “It is gratifying to see Virginians, working together across party lines, rewarded by a law that enables family farms to prosper as our Founding Fathers intended.”

Unlike Boneta, Reese said he hasn’t faced any type of restriction from the Halifax County Board of Supervisors in the 30 plus years he has helped run his family’s farm, Reese’s Farm. 

Reese’s Farm sells a “little bit of everything” with their most popular produce being 40 acres of cantaloupe and 35 acres of sweet corn. 

People also can find 15 acres of watermelon, tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers and pumpkins in the fall and strawberries in the spring. 

In the spring, Reese’s Farm becomes a destination for school children to come pick strawberries, and in the fall they’re back again for fresh pumpkins. 

Reese also said they host hayrides in the fall. 

“It’s never been an issue,” said Reese. 

Recognizing the issue could have arisen, Reese said he is in support of the new law. 

“Even though it has not been an issue for us to host our events or sell our produce, I realize the potential was there if they wanted to restrict us,” said Reese.  

“This just kind of gives us a peace of mind knowing that they no longer have the ability to restrict us.”