Farmers Sound Off on Rules
Small Producers Say New Food Safety Rules Could Be Crippling
Mike Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, engages in a lively discussion with Pooh Sprague, owner of Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, N.H., on proposed changes to FDA regulations that could prove costly to small scale farmers such as Sprague during a tour at Edgewater Farm on Aug. 20, 2013. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Samir Assar, left, director of produce safety staff at the Food and Drug Administration, answers a question during a farm tour and discussion at Edgewater Farm in Plainfield on Tuesday. The tour, which was attended by local and national representatives from agricultural departments and employees of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, allowed smaller farmers to speak up about their issues with possible legislation that could raise farming costs.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Farmers from both sides of the Connecticut River crowded Alumni Hall Tuesday afternoon to share concerns about proposed federal food safety rules that could end up requiring weekly tests of water used for irrigation and changing the ways farmers spread manure on their crop fields.
The public hearing drew about 150 people, including many local farmers, to downtown Hanover, and included a panel featuring both of the Twin States’ top agriculture officials as well as three representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The federal officials said they were there largely to hear specific scenarios of how the new rules, which stem from the Food Safety Modernization Act passed by Congress in 2010, could adversely affect small New England farms.
They got plenty of what they were looking for.
Upper Valley farmers took exception to various rule changes, but the weekly testing of surface irrigation water and a mandated nine-month period between the introduction of manure to soils and the growing of crops, seemed to ruffle the most feathers on Tuesday.
In general, many farmers took exception with the fact that food safety rules crafted with large-scale operations in mind would also target their smaller farms.
“Local food is not the problem,” said Greg Berger of Spring Ledge Farm in New London after the hearing drew to a close. “I grow this stuff. For dinner, I go out into the fields and pick it. I have my kids go out and pick it.”
Like many other farmers at the hearing on Tuesday, Berger wasn’t sure if he would fall under the regulations or not.
According to FDA officials, farms with total annual food sales of less than $500,000 would be exempt from the rules, but other farm operations could trigger regulatory oversight. Farmers at the hearing said that the cost for a medium sized farm on the edge of that threshold to comply with the regulations could run as high as $15,000 annually.
“If we did meet that threshold ... and we had to implement that, I wouldn’t say it would put us out of business, but we would have no profit for a year,” Berger said. “The margins are so tight in farms.”
Pooh Sprague, of Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, who also heads the New Hampshire Vegetable and Berry Growers Association, said that the new rules could force him to shutter his pick-your-own strawberries operation due to concerns over the cost of irrigation water testing. The water testing would be mandated as a way to provide quality control over agricultural water, which the FDA has identified as a potential “pathway of contamination.”
But Sprague doubted the accuracy of such tests, and added that the cost of compliance with the weekly testing would be about $6,000 a growing season.
While there are exemptions based on certain financial thresholds, Sprague said there are several “tripwires” that could cause farms below that threshold to fall under the proposed rules.
Sprague gave the example of a farmer who runs out of sweet corn and buys a few bags from a nearby grower, which could be considered “aggregation” under the regulations and would force compliance with the preventative control measure. That particular trigger, he said, would be especially difficult for New England farmers to deal with.
“We diversify, because that’s how you make your money, but the more diversified you are under FSMA, the more you fall under the auspices,” he said.
Sprague said the rules could also have unintended consequences upon charitable programs due to requirements to provide written documentation for every food donation.
“We give between eight and 14 tons of food to Willing Hands every year,” Sprague said. “Does that mean I have to file documentation so (Executive Director Heather Bagley) can give it to the church group or the senior citizens?”
Michael Taylor, the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, said that the rules were meant to seek the “dual goals of food safety and a successful, vibrant agricultural food sector of the economy,” and that the administration was still trying to work with farmers to hash out how to best implement the rules.
“You’ve got expertise about how what we’re doing affects what you’re doing, and we need to hear that so that we can get the right balance at the end of the day with these rules,” Taylor said.
Thetford resident Li Shen, who described herself as a “consumer of organic foods,” took aim at the mandated nine-month period between putting manure on soil and growing crops there, which other farmers pointed to as an example of the regulations being unfit for New England agriculture.
“That’s the whole growing season here,” Shen said. “We should be encouraging farmers to recycle these things on the farm nicely rather than stockpile manure somewhere and have it running into the groundwater.”
Taylor responded that while the nine-month period has generated controversy, it is based off the point at which pathogens die off from animal manure to avoid direct contamination if the manure comes into contact with harvested crops.
Chuck Wooster, of Sunrise Farm in White River Junction, said that the financial thresholds would distort the natural growth of small farms into medium-sized farms. He used the example of chickens, explaining that his farm raises 950 chicken to stay below a threshold of 1,000, which would trigger additional existing agriculture regulations. Wooster said that the farm makes about $15,000 to $18,000 off the chickens, but to raise more than 1,000 would require an investment of about $20,000.
“There’s a big limit there, a big river to cross,” Wooster said.
Wooster also said that the cost of compliance is a much smaller share of operations for a large farm, but could be substantial for a smaller one.
“If your gross income is $10 million, implementing the law would be a tiny fraction of that,” Wooster said. “If you’re a farm of $500,000 in gross (income), you could be talking about 6 percent.”
He continued, “Obviously, these limits have to be placed somewhere, and I understand that. But I think that in the context of New England, these lines are going to hit all of us in a way that’s going to be quite distortional to the natural growth of businesses here.”
Howard Prussack, of Westminster, said he started farming in 1971 and was the first Vermont farmer to be certified organic in 1978. He said that his farm is right at the $500,000 threshold of sales, and that he employs about 10 people, “all local.
“We’re one of the few places of employment for local people,” said Prussack. “We have people who ride their bikes to work.”
But Prussack said that there are already enough regulations for agriculture, and warned that the new rules would be “a job killing act.”
“We’re all for food safety, but when you read where the problems come form, they come from these big operations somewhere out west where all this stuff gets centralized,” Prussack said. “I rarely ever hear of anything coming out of a farmer’s market or some outbreak from some farm stand, so I really think if there’s going to be any focus or effort, that’s where the regulations should go.”
Andre Cantelmo, a South Hampton farmer, stressed the thin margins farmers face in their operations. He said that a “good solid year” is 15 percent profit and an “outstanding” year would be about 20 percent profit. To that end, he said that complying with the new rules would threaten dozens of small farms.
“Right now, the cost of compliance has to come out of profit,” Cantelmo said. “I’m not receiving additional income to comply, so the cost of compliance comes out of profit, so then that directly affects our income.”
Will Allen, of Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, questioned the numbers provided by the FDA estimating the number of foodborne illnesses each year.
“The real issue is that you don’t have good numbers to start with and you don’t have any numbers about what the states are really doing or causing in terms of foodborne illness,” Allen said. “What, for example, is the incidence of foodborne illness on small farms in Vermont, or New Hampshire, or Massachusetts? Do you even know that?”
Federal and state officials indicated earlier in the hearing that they did not have accurate numbers of those illness counts.
Ben Conarck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. Edgewater Farm in Plainfield might have to spend as much as $6,000 in a growing season to perform weekly water quality tests on sruface irrigation systems under proposed federal food safety rules. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect time frame.