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Va. panel kills bill aimed at small farmers

Larry o'Dell, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Legislation intended to strengthen the rights of small farmers to sell their products directly to the public died Thursday in the Virginia General Assembly.

The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee voted 11-4 Thursday to kill the legislation, which was prompted by a dispute between Fauquier County farmer Martha Boneta and the county government.

Fauquier zoning officials cited Boneta for selling handmade items like sheep yarn and boat milk soap at her 70-acre farm, and for hosting a birthday party for a group of 10-year-old girls without obtaining a permit. She had a business license to operate a small farm store, where she also sold fresh vegetables and other products.

Boneta's supporters protested by carrying pitchforks to local government offices, and Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter introduced legislation to make it clear that farmers can sell items that are incidental to their farm operations on their own property without government interference.

The bill cleared the House of Delegates but was rejected by the Senate committee after opponents argued that land-use decisions are best left to localities.

"If you don't like what's going on locally, you ought to be sitting at your Board of Supervisors meeting," said Sen. Philllip P. Puckett, D-Tazewell.

Boneta, who testified at the committee hearing, fought back tears as she embraced supporters after the vote.

"I'm kind of upset," she said. "It's very sad for small family farmers. I can only hope something good comes of this."

Lingamfelter, R-Prince William and a candidate for his party's nomination for lieutenant governor, said he will try again next year to amend the state's 1981 Right to Farm Act to strengthen farmers' property rights.

Boneta has closed her farm to visitors because of the skirmish with the county. She told the committee that one of her greatest joys was once showing families how a small farm operates and "now that dream has been taken from me."

Representatives of several agriculture and government organizations urged defeat of the bill. Trey Davis of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation said the Right to Farm Act encourages localities to work with farmers and recognizes that needs vary from area to area.

The Virginia Agribusiness Council, the Virginia Poultry Federation, the Virginia State Dairymen's Association and the Virginia Association of Counties also opposed the bill. The opposition seemed to mystify Sen. Richard H. Stuart.

"All this bill does is say if I raise something on my farm and make it into something, I can sell it," said Stuart, R-Stafford.

Nobody from Fauquier County government testified at the hearing.