Proposed government regulations a concern for owners of small farms
Organic farmer Don Kretschmann walked around his picturesque but ancient barn and stepped up to a rustic barrel root crop washer.
It's a simple machine, he said, consisting of long, wooden planks that form a cylinder, which he uses to clean freshly harvested produce on his Beaver County farm. Soil-covered carrots and potatoes go in one end, the cylinder rotates, water sprays in and clean vegetables emerge.
“But who knows if I'll be allowed to keep using it?” said Kretschmann, who has farmed about 15 acres since he and his wife, Becky, bought the land in 1978. “Or this barn, it's 150 years old. I don't know if it will pass the new (regulations).”
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday will conclude a 10-month public comment period on wide-ranging regulations proposed under the Food Safety and Modernization Act, which Congress passed in 2011 because of deadly food contaminations.
Small farmers and some consumers contend the regulations are an example of government overreach that could cripple the increasingly popular locally-grown food movement. The rules for storage facilities could force farmers to pay tens of thousands of dollars to replace barns with sterile warehouses, they say.
Farmers say another requirement, to document all wild animals that come in contact with farms, is impractical and that water management proposals and restrictions on composting are burdensome.
“Who would want to deal with all this?” said Kretschmann, who sells produce to 1,385 customers within 30 miles of his Rochester farm. “I tell you, it's scary.”
Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner of food, said he is aware of farmers' concerns. He met last week with a group representing Pennsylvania's small farmers and said the FDA wants only to protect consumers, not make life more difficult for farmers.
“We don't have the mandate, the intent or desire to turn the produce sector on its head,” Taylor said. “There are a lot of genuine issues (farmers) have raised, (and) some of their comments reflect the need for us to clarify what we intended.”
He said the regulations will call for “common sense” steps that many farmers utilize, and the law will allow government inspectors to prevent illnesses rather than respond to them. Most small farmers who sell produce locally could be exempt from the regulations, he said.
Farming is Pennsylvania's largest industry; 63,000 farms yearly contribute $67 billion to the state's economy, officials said.
Brian Snyder, executive director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, who attended last week's meeting with Taylor in Washington, said the government should try to make small farmers' lives easier.
“This law could turn the tide and put a cap on the local food movement,” Snyder said. “We'll stop seeing new farmers coming in, and those who are struggling will drop out. Some are struggling now and don't make much money, but they keep doing it because they believe this is the future.”
Consumers increasingly want to know where their food is grown, how and by whom, small-farming advocates said. Federal statistics support the assertion: The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 8,144 farmers markets this year, a 3.6 percent increase from 2012. Since 2000, the number of farmers markets has nearly tripled from 2,863.
Snyder said “well-meaning legislators” drafted the food safety law, intending to target corporate farms that can afford to make sweeping changes.
“They had good intentions, but beneath the surface, there are consequences” to small farms with thin profit margins, he said. “We will find out after this comment period closes just how serious the FDA is about considering stakeholder input.”
Kretschmann says his wooden root washer symbolizes farmers' concerns.
It works perfectly, he said. Yet the law might ban it in favor of a stainless steel machine that he could more easily sterilize.
“The alternative would be to buy an expensive washer that would need another building just to house it,” he said. That would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Taylor acknowledged the regulations have “complexities” but urged patience. The government will not adopt policies aimed at harming small farmers, he said.
“It's a strong policy of this administration to support local food initiatives,” he said.
Chris Togneri is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.