New regs worry small farmers
Bob Fitz, owner of Small Ones Farm in Amherst, picks raspberries. Some local farmers are concerned about proposed rules, released in January as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act President Barack Obama signed into law Jan. 4, 2011.
Asian Pears that are waiting to be thinned at Small Ones Farm in Amherst.
SOUTH DEERFIELD — New federal food safety rules can be a good thing for consumers but also could drive some small farmers out of business, local farmers say.
“Food safety is a good thing but the economic impact of these new rules means New England farmers are bearing a disproportionate burden,” said Roger Noonan, head of the New England Farmers Union.
The proposed rules, released in January as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act President Barack Obama signed into law Jan. 4, 2011, among other things, would require farmers who produce food generally eaten raw to test groundwater or river water used for irrigation and keep all animals out of fields. Farmers or facilities that process and pack produce or buy and sell it from other farms will also create a food safety plan that identifies potential hazards and procedures to prevent contamination.
Proponents say they will be a huge step toward preventing contamination of the country’s food. Opponents fear the new regulations may drive some farms out of business.
Russell Braen of Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton said that while the rules as proposed seem onerous and unenforceable, farmers will have to live with whatever the FDA decides. And as a man who came to farming later in life, he said he is constantly impressed by how farmers seem to get by, no matter what Mother Nature, the market or the government throws at them.
“It’s another seemingly insurmountable challenge,” he said.
The Food and Drug Administration, which proposed the rules, has acknowledged that the added cost for farmers to implement the changes will drive some small, higher-cost producers out of business, said Noonan, a New Hampshire farmer. The majority of farms in this part of the country fit that bill — they are small or mid-sized and face higher production costs because real estate costs, labor costs and taxes are higher here.
Rich Bonanno, a Methuen farmer, UMass Amherst Extension specialist and president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, said that none of the high-profile instances of food contamination have come from the Northeast. He said the risk of contaminated produce is much greater in the western part of the country because produce from many different farms is often commingled before it is shipped to hundreds of stores.
The comments came during a recent gathering of about 50 area farmers.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture convened the meeting for area farmers at the Polish American Citizens Club in South Deerfield so experts could answer farmers’ questions on the thousands of pages of proposed rules.
Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm in Granby and Montague, said finding the time and money to comply with the rules won’t be easy.
“I’m worried about the cost of it,” he said. Many area farmers are living on an increasingly tight budget, he said. “Every time you turn around one more expense is going up. Something like this could make it impossible for us to stay in business, depending on how it’s interpreted.”
The FDA estimated that the cost to comply with the rules would be $4,697 for small farmers who make between $25,000 and $250,000 and about $13,000 for mid-sized farms who make between $250,000 to $500,000. But Noonan thinks the real cost will be double that. He said it will cost him $7,000 just to comply with one of the rules that requires farmers who irrigate crops with river or lake water to test the water once a week.
Another rule states that farmers cannot apply manure to their fields any less than nine months before harvest.
Bonanno said the rule is untenable for a working farm. The time period is overly cautious, he said, noting it is five months longer than is required under the USDA’s certified organic standards. “The nutrients from the manure will be gone by the time you plant,” he said.
Ashfield farmers Daniel Greene and Kyla Allon of Good Bunch Farm said that provision would likely mean they wouldn’t be able to use a field for a whole growing season. “We’re so small, we can’t take a field out of production,” Greene said.
The regulations exempt farms that make under $25,000 annually from food for humans or animals. For now, that includes Good Bunch Farm, which is still getting off the ground, Greene said.
“I guess we’ll try not to make too much money,” he said with a laugh.
Some of the proposed changes could also hurt the environment, Noonan said. Farmers may have to stockpile manure they can’t spread, which could create more run-off into bodies of water, he said, and the provision requiring them to keep domestic and wild animals off the fields will lead to farmers clearing vegetation and other animal habitats from around their fields.
The pages of proposed rules still contain a lot of unanswered questions, he said, from who will be inspecting to ensure compliance to whether farmers can wash vegetables by dipping them in water.
“This is like (Mad Libs). There are a lot of blanks to fill in,” he said.
The public comment period on the rules ends Sept. 16, and Bonanno and Noonan encouraged farmers to write letters to the FDA and local legislators in the hopes that the pressure will cause the FDA to reconsider certain provisions that would be burdensome to farmers. Bonanno said it would be ideal if the FDA could be convinced to exempt farms that get food safety certified under the state’s voluntary Commonwealth Quality Program.
The timeline for when the rules will be finalized and implemented is still unclear, but Bonanno said the FDA has signaled that it plans to make the rules official about a year after the comment period ends Sept. 16. The Center for Food Safety sued the FDA to speed up implementation, while the House of Representatives amended the farm bill it passed July 11 to delay the food safety rules until the FDA conducts a study on their economic impacts. The Senate has yet to vote on it.
Voiland, who will be penning letters to the FDA, said food safety is already a high priority at his farm and others in the area. “I’m confident our existing systems are good,” he said.