MRJ: Food Regulation Worries Small Farmers

This morning’s Record Journal features Boulder Knoll Community Farm in an article about food safety.

Food regulation worries small farmers
By: Andrew Perlot , Record-Journal staff

Dave Zajac / Record-Journal
Brenda Caldwell, of Boulder Knoll Community Farm in Cheshire, pauses Wednesday to take in the scenery while preparing a bed for early lettuce and carrots on the two-acre farm. Legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., would create an agency to regulate food production facilities, and small farmers are worried.What goes into your lettuce and tomatoes?

It’s a question the federal government might soon be asking in the name of food safety, and small farmers are worried about the consequences.

Brenda Caldwell, of Boulder Knoll Community Farm in Cheshire, said she’s read House Bill 875, also called the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, and is holding her breath.

“I’m going to hold off being hysterical about it,” she said.

The bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., in February after salmonella-tainted peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of American made its way to 46 states and sickened hundreds of people.

The proposed legislation aims to create a Food Safety Administration under the Department of Health and Human Services. The new agency would have broad powers to set stringent regulations for “food-production facilities,” which include “farms, ranches, orchards, vineyards, aquaculture facilities, confined animal-feeding operations,” and producers of food intended for interstate commerce.

It’s the broadness of this definition that has Caldwell and other farmers worried, she said.

“I think it attempts to sweep in everyone,” she said. “You have to kind of wonder who’s behind this. Is the large-scale agribusiness community trying to craft something that would make small-scale, more local farms less competitive? I don’t know.”

Boulder Knoll, which opened this year and is signing up local residents for a community-supported agriculture program, grows organic p

roduce. It does not have federal organic certification, Caldwell said, which requires detailed record-keeping of all seeds, soils, fertilizers and other items, as well as fees.

The large-scale corporate monoculture farms producing much of the nation’s food can adapt to meet new record-keeping standards, Caldwell said, but small operations like Boulder Knoll, which has just two acres, might be hard-pressed.

“Small-scale growers have an intimate knowledge of their soil and the ecosystem they’re working with,” Caldwell said. “They have a good handle on the inputs, the things coming into the farms and the waste stream, which minimizes (contamination danger). The government should be making it easier for people to grow food on a smaller scale because it’s inherently safer.”

The bill, which has 41 co-sponsors, is not aimed at small farmers, according to Adriana Surfas, a spokeswoman for DeLauro. Surfas added that small farmers would receive technical assistance to help them meet any new requirements.

“This is aimed at making sure that when you walk into the grocery store, you have confidence in the food you purchase,” she said.

DeLauro has said she believes the Food and Drug Administration, which is now responsible for food safety, is doing an inadequate job, as evidenced by dozens of salmonella outbreaks and other food contamination in recent years.

Besides the serious health risk, the outbreaks cost farmers billions because people avoid the contaminated foods even after the threat has passed.

“You have to find the right balance,” Surfas said. “We want to make sure the impact on small farms will be minimal.”

The bill is being reviewed by the Energy and Commerce Committee as well as the Agriculture Committee.

The amount of regulation farmers now have to deal with is minimal, said John Rogers, owner of Rogers Orchards in Southington.

His fruit is tested to ensure that it’s free of pesticide residue, but that’s the only regulation he has to meet.

Rogers is working, however, to adopt a voluntary industry standard for food safety known as Good Agricultural Practices, he said.

He hasn’t read the proposed legislation, so he declined to comment on it.

Because of the vagueness of the bill, farmers across Connecticut could well be affected, said Bill Duesing, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, an organization of farmers and gardeners that advocates good stewardship of the earth.

“It depends on how you interpret it,” Duesing said. “Some of it has to do with if you’re paranoid or not.”

He encouraged more people to get involved with growing and buying their food locally so that small-scale farming is in a better position to resist any problematic regulations.

“The stronger we can make that grassroots network,” Duesing said, “the less likely that it can be (hurt) by the government.”

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