In late September, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my favorite farms in rural Maryland. This family farm, in organic production since 1983, was teaming with life, fertility and biodiversity. Rows of lush broccoli, colorful chard and hearty blood red beets flourished despite the autumn chill.
As we walked near hooped raspberry bushes and succulent Roma tomatoes vines, we discussed modern life on the farm. The local farm to restaurant trend is flourishing in upscale Baltimore restaurants that literally purchase tons of in-season produce from the farm to grace their menus. Several nearby farmers markets sell the bounty from these rolling fields each week. The community supported agriculture (CSA) program allows hundreds of families to receive weekly cartons of gorgeous homegrown vegetables with a community connection. In this idyllic setting what could possibly go wrong?
Everything seemed to be quite peachy until the conversation turned to Food Safety, specifically the new food safety rules based on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed by Congress. I learned that in these proposed rules the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing changes that could threaten sustainable and organic agriculture, local food and farm conservation efforts.
As we strolled I was aware of several natural ponds where native ducks made their moist homes. Located well away from the verdant rows of vegetables, these ponds are sometimes used for irrigation. The new food safety regulations would require weekly testing and record keeping, adding substantial costs and overhead all because of the natural water sources located on this small farm.
We rounded the bend and a long line of steaming compost rows lay fermenting in the distance. These piles of living, breathing matter were constructed from organic farm waste and manure from a neighbor’s livestock. This compost is the living construct that provides the foundation of the farms fertility and productivity. I learned that the new proposed FDA regulations would be so strict that they would make these compost piles non-compliant.
The barn that housed the flourishing CSA was abuzz with year-round workers packaging potatoes and weighing tomatoes for the community boxes. A delivery of eggs and flowers from a neighboring certified farm was being offloaded as welcome additions to the CSA offering. Once again I was informed the new regulations would classify this type of CSA as “distributor” because of the neighbor’s additions. This classification would thrust many additional cumbersome and onerous steps on the farm, all but wiping out the profitability of the CSA.
I questioned what would happen if any of these came under scrutiny. I learned there was no clear proposed protocol for the withdrawal of a farmer’s status, nor a clear way back to Food Safety recertification. The law is ambiguous about who has the authority and how small farmers comply.
Over lunch I realized that many aspects of this farm and its ability to feed thousands of nearby consumers with nutritious local organic food was in grave danger. After 30 years of progress this farmer could see this erased with the pen of the FDA.
Serendipitously, later that week, I had lunch with my friends from the National Sustainable Ag Coalition (NSAC) in Baltimore. They have a website dedicated to learning more and taking action on this issue. The comments on this rule are due November 15th, and NSAC provides great instructions on how to make a comment.
Tell the FDA they must:
ü Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs.
ü Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled.
ü Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs.
Let me know if you have a modern farm story and if you have made a comment to the FDA. The future of local food and farming may depend on your comments.