Safety Rules Cloud Beginning Farmers’ Futures

Blogger’s Note: I haven’t posted anything for a few weeks, being tied up with new initiatives at PASA and family events at home.  But I wanted to share this guest posting, written by my good friend and colleague Roland McReynolds, who is executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.  Roland has been active with we me and several others on food safety issues ever since the Food Safety Modernization Act began to take shape in Congress during the summer of 2009. He is a strong advocate for farmers and small, food-related businesses, as this piece, written for the CFSA newsletter, will demonstrate.  For more information about FSMA, please consult other posts in this blog and  the NSAC tab above.  ~Brian S. 

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At its core, the movement for local, organic food and farming is about aspiring to make lives better: Prosperous for farmers and farmworkers, healthy for all humankind, happy for the animals we depend on, and sustainable for the earth’s ecosystem.  And the influx of beginning farmers pursuing agriculture as a career over the last several years has been one of the signal achievements of our movement.  After forty years of slow and steady work to re-envision how we produce and consume food, young people, veterans and second-career-seekers are able to see the potential for making a rewarding, meaningful living in farming.

After a century that has industrialized the landscape and our diets, this hopeful trend of new farmers is a manifestation of the transformative power of local, organic agriculture, bringing people back to land with a mission to care for it and preserve it for future generations.  And it is a trend that would be choked off by pending federal food safety rules, suffocating our chances for a better, healthier world along with it.

The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is as direct and real a threat to local, organic food as any other issue we face, including the corporate ownership of genes, taxpayer subsidies for industrialized production, and even global climate change.  Indeed, because the catastrophic negative impacts of the FSMA rules for beginning farmers and new food distribution models would happen within a decade, the food safety challenge is arguably of more immediate concern; if we halt the growth of local food and opportunities for beginning farmers, we lose a critical means to fix those other longer-term problems.

But you don’t have to take my word for it that FSMA will make it impossible to succeed as a new farmer.  FDA’s own data tells the story.

Beginning farmers almost always start small.  Ninety-six percent of farms run by beginning farmers (i.e. farm principal operators with 10 years or less farming experience) have annual gross revenues less than $250,000.[1]  Beginning farms are more likely than established farms to grow fruits and vegetables, to have direct-to-consumer sales, and to be located in metropolitan counties, where land values are higher.[2]  Beginning farmers are less likely than established farms to inherit land or buy it from a relative; less likely than established farms to receive government payments; and more likely to have difficulty obtaining credit and financing for land purchases.[3]  The average achieved net income for US farms is 10% of sales, and so is less than $25,000 for almost all beginning farms.[4]

And according to the FDA, the average annual cost to comply with FSMA’s produce rules for farms grossing less than $250,000 per year will be 6% of revenue.[5]  Do the math, and then ask yourself why anyone would choose to start farming—to endure 12+ hour days, have an extra job off the farm, face crop loss risk—when the federal government is promising to take half the profits.  It may be the understatement of the year when FDA, in an economic impact analysis, says that “the rate of entry of very small and small [farm] businesses will decrease” as a result of the produce rules.

The proposed FSMA produce rules govern every element of growing and harvesting crops, from worker hygiene and training, to the fertilizers farmers use, to expensive water tests and treatments, to integrating livestock and produce crops.  Just as overwhelming is the companion proposed rule on preventive controls for fresh produce handling and other food processing.  This rule treats local food hubs the same as 499-employee manufacturing plants, with disproportionate requirements for record-keeping and sanitization.  Even though firms with 20 or fewer employees produce just 4% of the food sold in the US, firms of that size would bear 73% of the cost implementing FSMA’s preventive controls.[6]

In other words, the food hub movement will also be shut down as a result of FSMA, cutting off a critical market channel that allows farmers to scale-up while retaining a significant share of the value of their crops.  And beginning farmers are especially vulnerable to the loss of this sales outlet.

As former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan stated in a recent speech, the FSMA rules have the potential to “destroy some operations.”  We must speak out if we expect to stop this.  We must tell the stories of the young and beginning farmers who will bear the brunt of these regulatory abuses.


[1] 2011 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey

[2] Hunt, Alan and Gary Matteson, The Emergence of Retail Agriculture:  Its Outlook, Capital Needs, and Role in Supporting Young, Beginning, and Small Farmers

[3] 2011 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey

[4] USDA: ERS Farm Balance Sheet data

[5] FDA Produce Standards Rule Regulatory Impact Analysis, p. 314

[6] FDA Preventive Controls Rule Regulatory Impact Analysis, p. 181, Table 65a

3 thoughts on “Safety Rules Cloud Beginning Farmers’ Futures

  1. Really great work Brian and those who are working with you to spread the message. As one of those new farmers who would be run out of business before I even got off the ground, i’m very concerned about all of this and only wish that I’d know about it sooner:(

  2. This is an excellent article, thank you. We have been following closely the FSMA for awhile now. Besides this being an inept and misguided attempt to improve food safety, we feel more that is a blatant attempt to control and slow the momentum of the local food movement and the desire of young people to take up farming. Farmers’ markets, CSA, farm stands, and general support for local produce is cutting big time into the profits of larger, corporate businesses.

  3. I couldn’r agree more with this article. I have sent many years sitting at farmers markets for hours on end to make less than $100 selling produce raised without the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides. And that doesn’t count the hours spent in the gardens and fields weeding, harvesting, etc.
    Whatever happened to the customers right to choose how their food is grown. We have given awards to people in the Big “M” company for engineering seeds with no proven benefit long term to civilization, but we expect people who make good wholesome safe food with ever increasing fees for the “priveledge” of selling to the public. Here in Pennsylvania, apparently you need to buy a $80 certificate to make it safe to sell eggs to the public.
    I am not aware of any food borne illness outbreaks from small farmers, all the ones I know of have come from BIG ag. What are small producers to do??

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