By Layne Lynch
Photography by Jenna Noel
When Judith McGeary founded the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) six and a half years ago, she intended to take a short leave of absence from practicing law to get the grassroots activist group off the ground and eventually hand over the reins to another passionate activist. But McGeary did no such thing. Did she stay on to see a number of vital projects through to fruition? Sure. But the real reason was a little more romantic.
“I can’t claim I had some grand vision in the beginning,” says McGeary. “But it was just one of those things where you realize: ‘Wow, this is what I’m meant to do.’”
During her formative years in North Dallas, McGeary thought her passion for riding horses and debating her way through mock trials foreshadowed a future in veterinary science or environmental law. “I was a bit of a geek,” she admits. “I went to school, rode horses and read books. That was my world.”
After graduating from high school, she moved away to Stanford University to study biology—with full intent to leave Texas for good. When it came time to choose a professional path in college, McGeary attempted the veterinarian route. But after a stagnant summer on the job, she realized she lacked a propensity for the field.
A few years later, when the University of Texas offered her a full merit scholarship to law school, McGeary assumed her backup plan of pursuing environmental law would satisfy the hunger that veterinary work had failed to sate. But after a year of handling endangered-species and wetland issues, that unsettled feeling reared its ugly head once more. “I was, frankly, bored,” she says. “It wasn’t an intellectual challenge and I wasn’t intrigued by my work.”
But passion had a way of finding McGeary even when she seemed most lost, and that passion was born from a conversation that took place in 2000—before the local or sustainable food movements had picked up any steam.
“[Professor] Dick Richardson said that if I really cared about the environment, I needed to understand where my food came from,” says McGeary. “I remember looking at him and saying, ‘I buy organic all the time; of course I care.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t know the first thing you’re talking about.’”
Following their eye-opening discussion, McGeary took Richardson’s advice and started honing a profound interest in farming—eventually deciding to become a consultant in sustainable agriculture. “It was a life-changing moment,” she says. “I realized you could have this ecosystem of restoring agriculture that was good for the environment, good for animals, good for people and good for human health. I started to appreciate and understand the roots of my food.”
Just as McGeary was about to enter the field of consulting, a disturbing rumor caught her attention: a program called the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) was being proposed by a branch of the USDA that would require all farmers—both industrial and small—to tag their livestock and poultry and report their movements to the government. McGeary—who owns a farm of her own—couldn’t imagine a legitimate reason small farmers would need to adhere to such drastic regulations.
She adopted a booming voice on behalf of small farmers and attempted to reason with officials with the argument that the program was unnecessary for small-scale production. “I got told in so many words that they were the experts and that I should just go home, be quiet and comply,” she says. “As you can imagine, therein lie the origins of FARFA.”
From the beginning, FARFA fought against the potentially devastating effects of NAIS and aided with a number of other issues, including spreading the word about genetically modified foods and the potential risks involved, amending the Food Safety Modernization Act to protect local producers from federal regulations, protecting the rights of raw-milk producers and fighting for a cottage-food law. The plans for NAIS were halted in 2010, no doubt as a direct result of FARFA’s and other activist groups’ efforts.
Today, when she isn’t at home on her 165-acre farm in Cameron, McGeary continues to work toward FARFA’s goal of equalizing a playing field where bigwig industrial agriculture is commonly king. “I hear people asking, ‘How do we play well with industry folks,’ but I don’t get why we have to,” she says. “It’s a competing system, and I’m not asking for an advantage over them. I’m just looking for a system that doesn’t give them an advantage over us.”
McGeary’s work continues to mount as established precedents tend to aid industrial giants like Tyson Foods, but FARFA is a fertile seed in a powerful grassroots revolution. “We’re at a turning point,” she says. “The sustainable agriculture and local food movement has gotten too big to be ignored. We’re either going to have to become a respectable movement with some power behind it, or we’re going to get crushed by the status quo. That’s why FARFA’s work never stops.”
To learn more about FARFA and the upcoming Farm and Food
Leadership Conference, visit farmandranchfreedom.org