Small farmers ask how food-safety rules affect them


Issue Date: September 11, 2013
By Ching Lee
Despite his small-scale operation, Fresno County farmer Kevin Yang says he must follow food safety practices required by the packinghouse to which he sells his produce. Many packinghouses have implemented food safety programs as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rolls out proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
Fresno County farmer Kevin Yang must adhere to specific food safety protocols of the packinghouse to which he sells tomatoes and other produce.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Small farms, in general, are exempt from rules proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act, but exceptions to the rules and other nuances in the law continue to create confusion about which farms are actually covered.

Farms with less than $25,000 in annual food sales are exempt from the rule outright, while partial exemptions cover farms with sales of less than $500,000 and which mostly sell directly to consumers, restaurants and stores in the same state or within 275 miles of their farm.

Shermain Hardesty, leader of the Small Farm Program at the University of California, Davis, said farmers of small operations generally believe they don't pose a high risk and feel they should be exempt from the FDA rule.

"They think they are exempt, and they probably are, but not always," she said.

Growers who are under the $500,000 threshold are "not totally off the hook because they still have to meet the traceability requirement," she said. FDA requires those farms to provide some form of identification and contact information to the consumers who buy their produce.

For example, if they sell at a farmers market, a sign disclosing the identification information should be sufficient, Hardesty said. Certified farmers markets already require this, she noted. Farm stands could provide this information on a receipt, and community-supported agriculture programs could include a newsletter with this information in their produce boxes so customers know how to contact their supplier.

Dave Runsten, policy director of Davis-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers, said $500,000 of total food sales "is not all that much in California," especially when FDA counts all food crops toward a farm's sales—a detail some farmers may not be aware of. For example, he said, if a farm grows a field crop such as wheat but also has a small vegetable patch and wants to sell those vegetables at a farm stand, the wheat crop is considered part of the farm's total food sales.

Some small farms may sell less than $500,000 in crops annually, but if most of their sales are not through direct marketing, they would also not be exempt from the rule, Hardesty noted.

Michael Yang, a UC small farms and specialty crops agricultural assistant who works with Hmong growers in Fresno County, said some of those farmers are already feeling the impact of FSMA, because they sell their produce to packinghouses that have implemented food safety programs that require intense recordkeeping and documentation on the farms' food safety practices.

"That's difficult for them because for a lot of them, English is their second language," he said. "Some of them don't read, don't write, but they're being required to do this."

He said some of the Hmong farmers have become so discouraged by the process that they're opting to sell to different packinghouses that don't yet have specific requirements.

"But eventually, everybody is going to be required to do that," he said. "Even if you sell at a farmers market, some market managers may require that too. I don't know the future, but I feel like anywhere you go, you cannot get away from it. You have to learn and start doing it."

Kevin Yang, a Hmong farmer in Fresno County who sells his produce to a packinghouse in Selma, said he's had to comply with the packinghouse's food safety rules since 2010. He said even though there is a lot of paperwork involved that he never had to do before, he supports the new policy because he feels more secure about his operation and the crops he's selling.

"When I move my crop, I know for sure it is not damaging people," he said. "Then I don't lose money."

Brise Tencer, policy director of California Certified Organic Farmers, an organic certifier based in Santa Cruz, said the FSMA rule has created "a lot of uncertainty" for organic farmers, many of whom are smaller in scale but may not necessarily meet all FDA exemption criteria—or they may be an exception to the exemptions.

Of the state's 2,693 registered organic growers, 17 percent grossed more than $500,000 in 2012, but those growers produced 88 percent of the state's organic sales, according to data from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. About 26 percent grossed less than $10,000, and 50 percent grossed less than $50,000 in 2012.

"There are a lot of very small growers, but they don't represent much of the total production because they're small," said Karen Klonsky, a UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist who is aggregating the CDFA data for an upcoming study on California organic agriculture.

Tencer said one area of concern in the FSMA rule has to do with FDA classification of a farm as a farm-mixed-type facility if it also manufactures, processes, packs or holds food that's not grown on that farm. Some small growers may fall into this category even though they are exempt from the produce safety rule.

"If you bring one apple onto your farm from somebody else's farm, you're suddenly a facility and you're subject to that whole rule and inspection by the FDA," Runsten said. "I think that's going to be a shock to a lot of small farmers who are used to selling crops from their neighbor's farm."

As a raisin grower, Jon Marthedal of Fresno County said he also has a problem with that part of the rule because it essentially makes him a processor, even though he does not stem, clean or package the raisins.

"To pass processor requirements down to a raisin farmer just because we cut the grape and dry it in the sun is not a reasonable process," said Marthedal, who also grows conventional table grapes and organic blueberries.

Tencer and Runsten said small and organic growers are also concerned about the potential costs associated with FSMA requirements on irrigation water testing.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Read previous installments in the Regulating Food Safety series at www.agalert.com.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.