Fight for Freedom Focuses on Farms

July 27, 2010

By Anthony Sanders

As most schoolchildren are taught, one of the primary reasons for the Constitution is to protect free trade among the states. Trade wars between the 13 original states threatened our nation under the Articles of Confederation. To prevent these destructive practices, the Framers gave Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce, taking away from states and local government the power to erect interstate barriers to trade. America is a national free-trade zone.

But after 220-plus years, some politicians still don’t get it.

In a case of localism run amok, the city of Lake Elmo, Minn., makes it a crime for a farm to sell agricultural products if the products were grown outside city limits. Businesses on commercially zoned properties can sell out-of-town products, but farms can only sell items grown in the city. That is true even if the farms’ owners grow the items on land they own nearby but outside Lake Elmo’s city limits. The new law is wreaking havoc on the town’s farm economy.

To challenge this unconstitutional restriction on free trade, the Institute for Justice filed suit in federal court in May 2010 on behalf of the Bergmann family of Lake Elmo, which owns a farm there, and farmers in Nebraska, North Carolina and Wisconsin who sell their products to the Bergmanns.

The Bergmanns have sold products grown in other states for decades. This includes pumpkins grown on their own land in nearby Wisconsin and Christmas trees purchased from growers all over the country. Every fall thousands of visitors come to their farm to enjoy hayrides, a petting zoo and a haunted house and to purchase their Halloween pumpkins. A couple months later, many return for Christmas trees. This single farm illustrates the benefits of free trade among the states. The farm enriches not only the local community but also farmers halfway across the country as well. Like many farms that practice “agri-tourism”—the combination of farming, on-site retail sales and entertainment—the farm would go out of business if it could sell only products grown within Lake Elmo city limits.

But now the city government seeks to bar the Bergmanns from selling anything from outside Lake Elmo. In typical bureaucratic logic, the city claims allowing the sale of out-of-town pumpkins and Christmas trees would ruin Lake Elmo’s “rural character.” But this makes no sense—the origin of a pumpkin cannot ruin rural character. In fact, the policy may force farms out of business, damaging rural character far more than any foreign pumpkin could.

Bergmann v. City of Lake Elmo builds upon previous IJ free trade cases. This includes Swedenburg v. Kelly, which IJ won in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, vindicating our clients’ right to sell wine across state lines. The fight in Lake Elmo is particularly interesting because it combines two of our pillars: economic liberty and property rights. Our legal challenge will free farmers in Minnesota and across the nation to sell wares from their own land free from local trade barriers.

Anthony Sanders is an IJ Minnesota Chapter staff attorney.

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