Let a Farm Be a Farm

{blogger’s note: Please make sure to read the action alert at the end of this post!}

With the dust still settling from the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law a piece of legislation widely known as the Bioterrorism Act (BTA) in early 2002.  From one perspective this action was a necessary response to one of our greatest vulnerabilities as a nation, a potential attack on our people through the food supply chain. From another, it was an overreach of federal power intended and abetted by corporate America to extend their control over our food system. The actual reality of the situation probably falls between these two perspectives, and in many ways is still very much in play today.

No matter the effects of the BTA, one of the most significant things it did was to draw a distinction between two major categories of activity within any food system by defining a “farm” as a producer of raw agricultural commodities as distinct from a “facility” that transforms those commodities into the variety of processed foods that can readily be observed in any modern supermarket.  The distinction was critical, especially since the stated intent was to exempt all farms from the new regulations facilities would face, beginning with the requirement to register under the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), establishing the agency’s authority to regulate the activity of all such facilities.

Enter the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 (FSMA), which was intended as an elaboration and extension of the BTA, now with added intent to authorize direct FDA regulation of farms producing raw agricultural commodities consumed by humans or animals with very little or no processing by a regulated facility along the way. The immediate effect of FSMA was to blur the lines between farms and facilities, such that even FDA personnel visiting farms – some of them for the very first time – were apt to see facilities wherever they looked. It was a dramatic representation of the old adage “Give a boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail.”  Even those of us working to improve draft regulations written to implement FSMA were wondering if anything such as a farm, pure and simple, could ever exist, at least according the definition being used in the new regulations. Continue reading

Food Safety Back On the Agenda

If you thought we were done with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), you can think again. It has been most of a year since the process of responding to newly proposed food safety rules seemed to be smothering every waking moment of our lives, and late December since we heard the good news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had “heard” our concerns loud enough to force serious reconsideration of those first drafts of the Produce and Preventive Controls rules.

Fact is, the past eight months have been anything but quiet for those of us following the situation closely. There have been myriad other, lesser known proposed rules to respond to along the way, and several high level meetings behind the scenes aimed at helping FDA to “get it right” in a second go-round of rulemaking as well as the later implementation phase.  For most people, the process simply went below the water’s surface, but now it is poised to make a big splash back out in the open. As of this writing, we expect to see new proposals any day, perhaps within the next week or two.

As a reminder, this whole process really started in the spring of 2009 when FSMA first appeared in various forms of proposed federal legislation.  So some of us have been at it over 5 years now, making sure at every turn that the needs and interests of family farmers of all sizes, as well as the preferences of an increasingly engaged community of sustainably minded consumers, are taken into account both in the legislative and regulatory phases. Implementation will take several years of diligence too, but right now we may be facing the most crucial point of the whole process, as a second draft of rules takes us closer to a point of no return. Continue reading

When Farming and Civil Rights Intersect

In June of this year I had the privilege of attending a portion of the 50th anniversary celebration of Freedom Summer in Jackson, Mississippi. The experience was profound and a bit haunting to me. I was just six years old in 1964 when the original events took place, including occurrences of murder and general mayhem, leading up to the Civil Rights Act of that same summer and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Growing up in a totally white rural community outside Chicago meant that the interpretation offered to me of the Civil Rights Movement was sometimes less than charitable, and I have worked hard to replace my first impressions ever since. The black and white images from television, showing both unimaginable brutality and equally surprising solidarity among “Freedom Riders” and other activists, were stunning then and have stayed with me all these years. So it was poignant and humbling, to say the least, to be in Jackson with some of the people who had appeared in those news reports so long ago.

My principal reason for attending the event this year was to help moderate a discussion between civil rights leaders, old and new, and several of my colleagues who are leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement of today, to see what we could learn from those who had been on the frontlines of social change.  Imagine the sense of awe we felt when the youngest Freedom Rider from the early sixties introduced himself and participated in our meeting. We had scheduled two hours for this exchange, but could easily have filled two days . . . our challenge now is to never let this conversation end. Continue reading

Denial, Avoidance & System Failure

Those of us who have toiled much of our adult lives in the world of alternative and sustainable agriculture sometimes feel like we’ve been dressed up for years to attend a party that has never arrived.  We get closer and closer, it seems, though the main event just doesn’t materialize. But even without the culminating experience we hope for and expect – a complete revolution in farming and food systems – we also know that its achievement is no less critical.

Problem is, there is no amount of empirical evidence or scientific analysis that can make a true revolution happen. Such input just piles up, as though behind some kind of socio-political dam until desperate situations can unleash the change that will flow down like rushing waters. The science itself can sometimes become part of that obstruction, preventing necessary change more than pushing it ahead as we’d like to believe.

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating – there has never been a time in human history when we’ve known so much about what must happen, yet remain so incapable of taking constructive steps toward a better future.  We see the tragic loss of topsoil and biodiversity around the globe, the rise of super-pests of all kinds, driven by technology unfettered with ethics, and the increasingly failed economic systems that enrich the barons of Big Food while leaving farmers quite literally “in the dust.” We see the rise of chronic illness corresponding to the nutritional diminishment of our food, and rural communities choosing to install prisons and landfills as “hopeful” strategies to achieve economic development. We see the condition of the natural environment changing right before our eyes, as we continue to invent increasingly efficient methods for extracting fossil fuels and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.  However, we can’t seem to muster the necessary determination to do anything broadly effective about any of this. Continue reading

The Regenerative Power of Restraint

If we were lacking an adequate appreciation for the concept of power and the ways it can be used in both constructive and destructive ways, the world has certainly given us an abundance of opportunities in the past several years to remedy that situation. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Arab Spring, leadership transitions in North Korea and the Catholic Church, and right up to the current Ukrainian crisis, we’ve had a chance to examine and contemplate the alternative expressions of power on an international stage numerous times.

In addition, there has been much attention to the exercise of power on a smaller scale between groups of people who think differently, act differently, or are just plain different.  And the power that sometimes comes between individuals in the form of bullying or other types of abuse is something we seem to care much more about these days, at least in theory. It’s laudable that our society is doing more to address bullying in schools, though equally notable that it goes unchecked sometimes in communities, civic organizations, politics or even the U.S. Congress.

We have also experienced big power moves within the realm of farming and food systems during this time – ongoing situations that are far from conclusive at this writing. New approvals of genetically modified seed varieties coming at a quickening pace, a Farm Bill process that took years and was more contentious than ever, the Food Safety Modernization Act (‘nuff said), and a stealthy move by USDA to substitute the vague idea of “coexistence” for a blessing of the status quo, have all complicated the lives of those of us dreaming of a more sustainable future for our people and the planet.

Continue reading

Letter to USDA on Coexistence

The Honorable Thomas Vilsack, Secretary
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250

March 4, 2014

Re: Docket No. APHIS-2013-0047

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is one of our nation’s largest member-based, sustainable farming organizations, with about 6,000 mostly farmer members located primarily throughout Pennsylvania and across the Mid-Atlantic region. Our mission is to promote profitable farms that produce healthy food for all people while respecting the natural environment. In keeping with this mission, we wish to express our grave concerns regarding the issue of “Enhancing Coexistence” as framed by the Report of the AC21 Committee in 2012. Continue reading

Following Nature’s Lead, Together

Every year I try to use my chance to speak at our annual conference to raise some of the most important issues facing us in the sustainable farming community. And with each succeeding year the urgency of these issues seems to increase.  This is partly because some of the negative situations we face are actually getting worse, and partly because the positive solutions our movement offers are increasingly met with resistance and denial by those who represent the status quo.

Let’s back up just a bit and review some of the challenges we have encountered over the past year.  First and foremost, 2013 will always in my mind be the year of proposed rules coming from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aimed at implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  What a long slog it was! At conference time last year we were still reviewing about 1,200 pages of material – with hundreds more to come – and were just starting to think about some of the implications involved should the proposed rules go into effect.

At the beginning, we were very much outnumbered and outspent in terms of being able to influence the final outcome, but what we had going for us was beyond the ability of any other group to purchase with mere dollars.  We had a devoted coalition of dozens of groups from across the country working feverishly together, with meetings every week throughout most of the year, and many of us in smaller groups attending FDA listening sessions held across the country.  We also found some new partnerships that we hadn’t really expected, including with faculty and students at the Law Schools of Harvard, Georgetown and Emory Universities, the leadership of the United Fresh Produce Association – a powerful group that had fought us hard in the legislative phase of FSMA, and even the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA).  At one point NASDA even shared a post I had written on my Write to Farm blog with the Departments of Agriculture in all fifty states. Continue reading