Anthony Sanders: Lake Elmo puts farmers in a box

  • Article by: ANTHONY SANDERS
  • May 17, 2010 - 6:01 PM

Is a pumpkin a threat if it was grown in another town?

The city of Lake Elmo thinks so. Farmers in this small town on the eastern edge of the metro area are forbidden from selling produce on their own farms if it wasn't grown inside city limits. If caught selling a pumpkin not grown in Lake Elmo, farmers can face fines of up to $1,000 and even spend 90 days in jail. A federal lawsuit filed today hopes to change that.

On Dec. 1, just after pumpkin season ended and as the Christmas tree season was getting started, the Lake Elmo City Council declared that it would begin enforcing the long-ignored restriction on sales of goods from outside the city. The city's politicians argued that they were protecting Lake Elmo's rural character. In fact, they are destroying that character by hurting their farmers.

This ban would seriously harm small farmers like Richard and Eileen Bergmann. The Bergmanns exemplify Lake Elmo's proud farming heritage; both have farmed in the area for almost four decades. They've been farmers all their lives, and today work side by side with all three of their grown children.

In addition to pumpkins, the Bergmanns sell plants, flowers and Christmas trees. Their farm extends beyond city limits and includes land a few miles away in Wisconsin. They grow much of their produce there. All of this produce is now illegal to sell from farms in Lake Elmo.

In bad years, when their Wisconsin crop is damaged, the Bergmanns purchase pumpkins from small farmers in other states. And they sell Christmas trees grown by other small farmers from across the country. Over the years, this has included farmers in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina.

Lake Elmo's law hurts farmers like the Bergmanns who need to add to their inventories with produce grown outside the city. It also hurts farmers from around the country who sell to farmers in Lake Elmo.

Further, Lake Elmo's trade ban has a negative impact on consumers by inevitably restricting their choices and options. People love to visit Lake Elmo farms to buy Halloween pumpkins and Christmas trees. The Bergmanns attract people from all over Minnesota and beyond by tying their pumpkin sales in with fun services like hay rides, corn mazes, a petting zoo and a haunted house.

Lake Elmo's misguided policy is more than just bad business. It's unconstitutional. One of the overriding goals for writing the U.S. Constitution was to halt ongoing trade wars between the 13 original states. That is, it was crafted to guarantee free trade among the states.

By protecting the right to trade freely, the framers of the Constitution gave us a tremendous gift. We now all enjoy that gift when we purchase products made or grown in other states.

Yet throughout the country, municipalities are stripping away that right by suppressing interstate and even intrastate agricultural sales. The law in Lake Elmo is one of the most brazen examples of local interests seeking to prevent farmers from selling agricultural products, but it is certainly not the only one.

Thankfully, the Bergmanns understand this and are fighting back. They teamed up with farmers in Nebraska, North Carolina and Wisconsin, along with the Institute for Justice, to file a federal lawsuit against the city of Lake Elmo.

The lawsuit asks the court to vindicate a very simple principle: that people have the right to earn an honest living free from unreasonable government restrictions. This includes the ability to freely interact and trade with others.

Simply put, farmers should have the freedom to sell their produce whether it is grown in their town or anywhere else. No city can constitutionally deny this basic right. By standing up to Lake Elmo's misguided politicians, the Bergmanns and their farming partners will protect our founding ideals and affirm important principles of liberty.

Anthony Sanders is a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter. He represents Richard and Eileen Bergmann.

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