Farms,FSMA and Fall

Its been a busy summer and here it is already September. They say time flies when you are having  fun; this past summer has been a mixed bag, to say the least. The arrival of our grandaughter has been the best hoot, and she has reduced her grandfather to behavior patterns he once denied he would ever ascribe to.  The arrival of Labor Day always draws the comment from customers that we must enjoy the winding down of the season. On the contrary, the “September Sprint” begins in late  August, when the collegians within the crew depart to go back to school. Fall root crops have yet to be harvested; we still have another month and a half of picking tomatoes, corn, and all the other vegetables.  There is much to harvest and pack out between now and Thanksgiving, and the shortening days remind you that there are myriad non-income-producing chores that also need attention before winter’s arrival.

Gramps:''I wonder if I can persuade her to be the first femal Red Sox  centerfielder?" Haddie:  "I wonder if I can get this sucker top spring me oouttat here for some maple soft serve?"
Gramps:”I wonder if I can persuade her to be the first female Red Sox centerfielder?”
                   Haddie: “I wonder if I can get this sucker to spring me outta here for some maple soft serve?”

Recently you may have noticed that the FDA sent a panel of bureaucrats and scientists into New England at the behest of the northeastern Congressional  delegation,  for the stated purpose of hearing the concerns and complaints of farmers, food producers and  other concerned stakeholders in the Northeast.  This was in response to final rule-making of the 2013 Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA).   On the morning of August 20 I attended the hearing in Hanover,  and then we hosted a farm visit with the FDA panelists  in the  afternoon.  There was ample press coverage, and the turnout for the morning hearing was a full house (about 300 people), predominantly  farmers from New Hampshire and Vermont who generally are fearful of the onerous documentation and cost that the Act will bring to their operations. Conservationists, consumers and other stakeholders were concerned with the Act’s potentially negative impact on development of a sustainable local food web, our diversified family-farm-based agriculture, as well as on the environment  here in the Northeast.

The FDA panel was polite, but by the afternoon it was apparent to me that they were, at best,  only mildly interested in hearing what we had to say, and were more interested in defending their own position.  They clearly didn’t grasp the diversity or complexity of small-scale agriculture, but how could they? None came from a farming background (unless you count being a Vice President of Monsanto a “farming background”). In the end, having been in the room with the panel in Hanover and then having had them visit my farm left a hollow feeling in my gut.  I felt that they were here  because someone told them they had to come; so they came and got some photo ops and went back to DC.  Net result, in my opinion?  They may just as well not have come.

There is one huge point lost amid all the minutiae that surrounds FSMA. We spent a boatload of time discussing the impact of poor science in the  AG Water Regs, the huge amount of documentation that will be required for traceability, the enforcement components, the  proposed “exemptions”(which have more tripwires than a minefield) and on and on.  The big point that doesn’t get enough attention is that our food system is pretty safe.  People get sick from food poisoning, some may die, and that is no small tradgedy.  But the on morning of the hearing in Hanover, the first person to rise to the microphone was Jake Guest of Killdeer Farm of Norwich ,Vt.  He quoted  a report from the Center for Disease Control (based in Atlanta and a branch of the government)  stating that from 1996-2010 less than 1% of the total of all foodborne illnesses were attributable to fresh produce,  and most of that small fraction could be traced to large, vertically-integrated packer-shippers from out west (already supposedly under the auspices of food safety management).  He surmised that perhaps there wasn’t a problem, and if there was, it probably wasn’t  from small Northeastern family farms. To the average citizen it is pretty apparent that 2 (maybe 3 now) Mid-Eastern conflicts , the daily operation of motorized vehicles, the right for Americans to purchase automatic military-style weapons for their personal amusement, and  ball pein hammers (see my Jan 2013 blog)  constitute much greater risk to Americans  than eating strawberries from Edgewater Farm irrigated with Connecticut River water.

Immediately the panelists went into defensive posture and trotted out some of George Bush’s “Fuzzy Math, ”   going on at length for 10 minutes  about  how  “the figures don’t accurately reflect…. “  and  “if you look at how that 1% breaks down….”  Their response, in hypnotic  Washington-speak,  had the expected effect ;  eyes  glazed over and  we almost forgot why we were in the room.  It may cloud the issue, but it doesn’t erase the fact that a tiny fraction of illness  food borne illnesses are attributable to fresh produce. It’s a fact that Jake  has been railing about ever since we first heard about mandatory food safety  and the 2007 California Leafy Greens Amendment .

Your food is pretty safe, and it’s already heavily regulated.  If you feel that processed food,  shipped  from afar in shrink wrap or poly bags with government stamps on it has less risk or is better food for you, then you already  currently have  plenty of choice and access to that.  But don’t deny others the right to have another choice from their local farmers by choking those farmers with government regulations and economic burdens.

Many farmers today belonged to an agricultural youth organization when they were growing  up. I belonged to a 4-H Club when I grew up on a dairy farm. Their  club motto is: “To Make the Best BETTER.” That’s a noble endeavor in life, whether you are milking cows, engineering bridges, educating young people ,driving a dumptruck  or playing in a blues band.  All the small farmers I come in contact with have worked very hard at being better farmers and taking better  better care of their natural resources. They certainly work hard to minimize food risks on their farms. By arguing against FSMA, they are not arguing against food safety, or trivializing its importance.  But FSMA as currently written is destructive to diversified and small-scale agriculture. Education, not regulation is needed, if anything is needed at all. “To make the best better” should be  an individual’s  outlook  into approaching a life, not  not a federally mandated  and regulated program.