Rural communities face unique problems. Reliable internet tends to end right outside concentrated population centers. A few big businesses like Walmart hold a disproportionate number of local jobs. Food regulations give unfair advantage to large-scale producers.

Rural broadband. Like electricity, reliable affordable internet is a necessity not a luxury in modern life.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution: in areas with clear lines of site, cell towers work well. In other areas, for example hilly Louisa County, we also need to expand our fiber network. Local communities tend to know their own needs best and be the most invested in the outcome. Ben’s rural broadband solution will consist of grants disbursed to local governments to implement their own best solution, ranging from community-run broadband to public-private partnerships.

Undergrounding power lines. Rural Virginians in Culpeper County recently went without power for 32 hours after a storm downed power lines. Power lines in rural areas are carried above ground, and utility-unfriendly trees with shallow roots are easily toppled during a storm and down power lines. Burying power lines underground (“undergrounding“) protects power lines from storm damage. But undergrounding is expensive, and commercial power suppliers can’t afford to invest in undergrounding in rural areas. So-called intelligent undergrounding prioritizes burying high-reliability power lines in areas more likely to face storm damage. But we need grants and subsidies to encourage rural undergrounding that has less financial incentive for power companies. Underground power lines can be coupled with expanding our fiber network.

Expanding markets and tools for farmers by eliminating unfair regulations and encouraging local investment in community agriculture.

Mobile abattoirs. Small meat producers are stifled by the limited number of USDA slaughterhouses. We need to even the playing field for small farmers. In order to sell USDA-inspected meat and poultry, producers must travel to one of the limited number of stationary slaughterhouses. For example, Virginia has only 13 USDA-approved beef processing facilities. With relatively few stationary facilities, transportation costs for small farmers to transport their poultry and livestock to the facility cuts into their already slim profit margins. Health-related regulations are important but shouldn’t give unfair advantage to large-scale operations. Mobile Slaughter Units (MSUs) are relatively inexpensive, USDA-approved traveling slaughterhouses with an inspector aboard.

Food freedom. Farmers should also be able to sell raw milk on site with the appropriate warning labels. Herd shares should remain legal. Food regulations are out of control: let’s keep Virginia from becoming the next Wisconsin, where the dairy regulations are so excessive that just selling Kerrygold Butter can get you a six-month jail sentence. Ben supports House Bill 619, the Virginia Food Freedom Act which includes reasonable regulations without excessive intrusion.

Fully funding the Agricultural cost-share program. Seemingly simple solutions such as helping farmers build fences along their streams to keep cows out of the water and establish best management practices like rotational grazing will go a long way towards promoting soil health and supporting local farmers.

Industrial hemp. In Virginia it’s now legal to grow and sell hemp-related products for research purposes, which is a step in the right direction. But it’s still illegal to sell many of the most lucrative parts of the plant. Let’s get out of the way of innovative small farmers looking for an extra source of income.

Community food enterprise centers. One of Ben’s priorities as State Senator will be tools such as community commercial kitchens and pasteurization salons in order to open up new markets to small farmers and encourage local food entrepreneurs. The up-front cost of a pasteurization salon is around $50K. Pasteurization and cheese-making facilities must both follow very specific legal requirements. Most cheeses must be made from pasteurized milk, though there are a limited number of cheeses that can be made from unpasteurized milk after being aged for 60 days at temperatures above 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Either way, building and maintaining on-site pasteurization and cheese processing facilities is expensive while milk prices continue to drop, which is why community commercial kitchens that provide up-to-code facilities are an important way to lower the barrier of entry into the market. Small farmers depend on multiple income streams to get by.

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Grants for local communities to invest in tools like these will help farmers with small numbers of cows or goats enter the dairy market without the added stress of maintaining inspection-ready facilities. For example, a $63,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development was able to jumpstart the Carver Agricultural Research Center here in our district. Ben believes that Carver could become a model community project of its kind.