Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement

By Nicole Sugerman

We try to cover a lot of different facets of farming in the newsletter. From the technical to the philosophical, we collectively enjoy using the newsletter to think through a variety of topics, giving you, our shareholders, perspectives on farming from different angles and on different scales. One aspect of farming which has been completely missing from the shareletter this year is the policy associated with farms and food systems, on any level: state, local, national, or global. I’ll admit, I mostly do not write about policy because I do not really understand policy. It seems far away. It seems inaccessible, both literally, taking place mostly in D.C. and not Philadelphia, and figuratively, requiring both a new set of jargon and a good bit of time to understand the bills, rules, and decisions being made, which I do not have.

Still, the policy is really important. Policy affects how the entire farming and food system works, including who is allowed to farm, how and what they are allowed to farm, where they are allowed to farm (not in Philly, for example- the city has no agricultural zoning, making farming technically an illegal activity within the city) how they are allowed to distribute and sell their products, and, consequently, who gets to eat these products, and at what cost. So, I would like to think and act about policy a little more. It being the end of the season, I have a bit more time to do so.

I keep receiving e-mails about the proposed ‘Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement’ through farming listservs and friends, but none of e-mails actually told me what this marketing agreement was, only that its consequences would be very bad for small-scale farmers. Another reason that I steer clear of policy discussions is that I do not feel qualified to comment unless I have read the full text of the document itself. Many different parties and interest groups interpret each piece of legislation in different ways, and, even if the information is coming from a group with whom I usually agree, I do not like to feel like a pawn in someone else’s political game. I want to read and interpret these documents myself. This is sometimes not possible, as the original texts are often hundreds of pages long and very hard to understand.

The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, luckily, is summarized in ten pages in the ‘proposed rules and regulations’ section of the Federal Register. After reading through it, I confirmed (not surprisingly) that the friends and advocacy groups were right. The agreement will hurt small farmers, and already does in California, which has a similar state-wide marketing agreement already in place. The marketing agreement is a response to food safety concerns in light of widespread recalls of supermarket spinach and lettuce due to E. coli contamination. The agreement delineates a series of regulations farmers must follow when growing and handling a number of vegetables, mostly leafy greens. The regulations mean to minimize chances of contamination through stipulations like keeping wildlife away from crops, regular laboratory testing of irrigation water and soil amendments, and increased traceability, including more complex and thorough systems of record keeping.

Efforts to make food safer for consumers should be lauded. Unfortunately, like many federal regulations, this one is geared toward large, industrial-scale producers, and rather misses the mark when it comes to the differences in food safety needs and abilities of small-scale farms. As The Cornucopia Institute, a pro-sustainable-agriculture watchdog group in Wisconsin, points out, small-scale farms are often more diversified by both design and necessity, with multiple crops in each field and closer plantings. This greater complexity makes monitoring of crops more difficult and more costly, per acre, than large-scale, monocropped operations. Economies of scale make compliance with these regulations more feasible for larger farms; while a greens operation on thousands of acres might be able to hire a staff person to monitor fields and do more extensive record keeping, a ten-acre farm probably cannot afford to do so.

The agreement raises further concerns with regard to biodiversity. In California, farmers are already being forced to rip out wildlife habitat and non-food plantings designed to attract beneficial insects and animals; this ‘non-crop vegetation’ is viewed as a food-safety risk. Similarly, farmers are removing holding ponds designed to save water and destroying entire fields of crops if a deer or other animal has walked across the field. Such measures are, to me, nonsensical- agriculture has always been a process that happens in the soil, with bugs and animals and different climactic conditions , and trying to sterilize the act of farming is not only impossible but is ecologically damaging. Moreover, focusing on eliminating wildlife from agricultural fields is a distraction from the real issues most often at stake in food contamination.Most leafy greens are contaminated by manure runoff from industrial animal production facilities, where mountains of animal waste cause leaching into surface and ground water, and subsequently contaminate farms.

At its heart, the agreement fails to recognize the important differences in distribution between large scale farms and small ones. Not only are the regulations too costly for small farmers and do not allow for many small farms’ commitment to environmental protection, but they are ultimately almost unnecessary for small farms. There can never be a large, multiple state, don’t-trust-any-spinach-style food scare from a small, direct-distribution farm. Little attention is paid to the fact that all of the leafy greens pulled from supermarket shelves in response to e. coli-sparked recalls are, in fact, from large, industrial farms. When they market directly to consumers, either at farmers markets or through CSAs, small farms already employ traceability standards; consumers, if sickened, can call up their farmer, tell the farmer that they think their food made them sick, and the farmer can stop selling the product. If the farmer sells to a store or two, those stores can be called and the product can be pulled. In the industrialized food system, product from thousands of fields is mixed together, packaged, and sent out to entire lines of supermarkets, over distances of many, many miles—meaning that when food illness is sparked, tracing that illness to a particular farm is very difficult, and does not happen quickly.

The part of the proposed Leafy Greens Agreement that makes the least sense to me is a USDA seal that farms will get who participate in the agreement. This seal is only available to large-scale farms; farmers selling directly to consumers, through roadside stands, markets, CSAs, or directly to retailers, may not apply this seal to their greens. Although this seal is not a guarantee of food safety, consumers may construe it as such, giving an unfair advantage to large-scale growers whose products may be perceived as more safe, when in fact the opposite is often true. This seal seems to illuminate the unfair advantage often given to large-scale industry by the federal government, neglecting the needs of small business owners.

The agreement is currently in its ‘comment’ period. Comments are being accepted only by oral testimonies, rendering public input difficult. To follow the progress of this regulation or to testify at a hearing, find out more from The Cornucopia Institute: http://www.cornucopia.org/2009/09/fresh-market-vegetable-growers-and-handlers-the-usda-needs-to-hear-from-you/

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