Tag Archives: small farms

Food Movement May Be Torpedoed by FDA

As many who follow food and farming news may have heard, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is formulating rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that could adversely affect small farmers. “Adversely affect” may be an understatement. Read: Destroy small farmers and stop the food movement in its tracks, as far as local, organic and sustainable is concerned.

Here are my thoughts.

For a complete analysis, read the articles on the website of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and then click on the buttons it gives to make a public comment to the FDA. The FDA is accepting public comment until Nov. 15.

For a complete analysis, read the articles on the website of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and then click on the buttons it gives to make a public comment to the FDA. The FDA is accepting public comment until Nov. 15.

For a complete analysis, read the articles on the website of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and then click on the buttons it gives to make a public comment to the FDA. The FDA is accepting public comment until Nov. 15. See:  http://sustainableagriculture.net/fsma/

We all know that our food system needs help. And more oversight. The FSMA is the right step in that direction, but it has some serious flaws that need fixing in order for it to do the job it is supposed to do in protecting public health.

Foremost, FSMA requires regulations that giant agribusinesses must conform to and that’s a plus. Unfortunately, the protections for small farmers that Congress intended have been stripped away by the language of the regulations.

To be blunt, it appears that FDA decided to reinvent the wheel  in agricultural matters and instead of having a round wheel, it created a square one to fit its own purposes and ideas of what agriculture should do.

But as anyone who knows how agriculture works – dependent on seasons, erratic markets, odd federal policies, and a plethora of existing agencies, rules and regulations – a new square wheel won’t help it keep rolling along.

As proposed, the FMSA will regulate small farmers out of business, deter new farmers, beginning farmers, transitioning farmers and especially impact minority, underserved, distressed farmers and women who are only now starting profitable businesses in agriculture through the food movement.

First are the safety rules that FSMA would impose. They make sense when you have a giant industrial farm, but make no sense if it’s small farm where everything is done by hand, customers know the supplier and all facets of the farm are inspected daily by a sole proprietor and/or his family (who also eat the food they grow, drink the water that irrigates it and tend to the poultry and livestock that share their farm).

The rules  — such as extensive and expensive groundwater testing from ponds and wells – may be necessary when you’re a giant conglomerate,  don’t know where the water is coming from and are trying to locate a disease event affecting 2 million people in a handful of states. But if you’re growing for 200 families in your local area, you know what the water is doing, where it came from, and the consumers know it, too. It’s local water that local people share.

Yet, FDA estimates the typical cost for one water test  is $87.30 and, depending on the type of crop, it may have to be tested daily. What small farmer can afford $87 a day for water testing?

By the FDA’s own estimates, some of the most basic rules like water monitoring will put many small farmers out of business; it estimates complying with basic rules for small farmers would cost $12,972 per year.  Now, if you’re only making $40,000 or $50,000 a year, that’s a huge impact.

Moreover, it only exempts farmers from its regulations who make less than $25,000 per year over three years. That has its own problems. For example, where’s the incentive for a new or beginning farmers to take out loans and invest in land and equipment to be repaid over time, if they know that in a couple of years, they’ll hit a $25,000 income ceiling – beyond which they’ll be effectively penalized in profits, if not run out of business by regulatory costs?

That rule in itself dooms local and organic growers to not grow beyond a set point, effectively putting the brakes on organic and small ecofarm operations, and as a disincentive for young, new and beginning farmers from seeing farming as a career choice. It’s a barrier to underserved, distressed and minority farmers looking to make a living and provide healthy nutritious food for themselves, their families and their communities.

Doesn’t the FDA care about food deserts, urban ag and the burgeoning inner city and rural grassroots cooperatives that are changing the face of agriculture? Fresh food fights obesity, the worst effects of poverty and provides self sufficiency and community empowerment.

That $25,000 exemption should be raised to at least $100,000 so that young families can see local food production as a career, and help build communities.

Even for farms with sales up to $500,000 per year, NSAC estimates, they would have to spend between 4 percent and 6 percent of gross income to comply – this for farms that generally only have incomes of 10 percent of sales.

Again, these are not the giant food producers that are causing the food safety problems nationally, but generally are family farms that have been in operation for generations. They often include aunts, uncles, cousins, across generational lines. Two younger cousins, for example, could actually be doing the labor or be managing a farm and sharing the profits as a LLC for elderly family members and their extended families.

These are the endangered types of farms that are disappearing rapidly, being bought up by corporations and investment firms or turned from farmland into residential development and luxury estates or country clubs as elder farmers retire and their children turn to other employment. FSMA would only accelerate the trend of precious arable farmland being converted into real estate, further endangering this nation’s food sovereignty. Rather, government should be promoting the conservation of farmland and encouraging local food producers so we are not dependent on foreign sources for our food.

The act does offer some concessions for farms under $500,000 but above the $25,000 exemption, under the congressional Tester-Hagan Amendment. That includes farms that have “more than half of their sales going directly to consumers, or to a restaurant or retail food establishment in the same state or within 275 miles of the operation.”

But, even there, it has a huge loophole whereby FDA can yank that exemption with no reason and with no way for the farm to either defend itself or get reinstated.

Furthermore, under FSMA, CSAs, farmers markets and roadside stands are left vulnerable.

Here, state agricultural agencies are finally getting around to promoting small farmers having direct sales, and providing them limited legal liability to promote it. And community supported agriculture is starting to include not only young and women farmers but churches, schools, civic clubs and like. Such stands, farmers markets and CSAs are held accountable by being local, direct to consumer without middlemen. They are transparent and have immediate accountability. They should be protected.

In addition, a lot of the regulations that are FDA required under FSMA are already in place: such as General Agricultural Practices and food safety practices required under the USDA certified organic program.

If farms are already training and complying with state regulations and existing USDA programs, why add more and different requirements? Stores and grocery chains themselves are instituting their own food handling requirements and regulations, cooperating with state agricultural departments and the USDA. Why not accept USDA rules and adopt them, and ensure they are enforced, rather than creating new square wheels?

As stated, for a more complete appraisal, see the NSAC website.

As it is, if you care about food safety and the local food movement (Buy Local, Buy Organic!), then you’ll at the very least want to tell FDA to exempt small farmers who make under $100,000 per year, reconfigure restrictions on family farms making under $500,000 per year, and redraft the rules to comply with existing USDA programs to avoid duplication.

FMSA is a good start; and it’s important that the giant conglomerates that are responsible for the lion’s share of the nation’s food safety issues are held accountable for safe practices. The regs just need tinkering.

Without modification of FMSA, the food movement could be stopped in its tracks from the ground up by essentially outlawing — or effectively running out of business — small local farmers selling locally.

As an example of a good recommendation (and one I support) is this offered by the Mississippi Food Policy Council:
Recommendations: 1) creating stronger procedural elements of proof before taking away an exemption, warning letters, and a reinstatement process; 2) raising the exemption for producers and processors from $25,000 to $100,000; and 3) defining, as the Act requires, CSAs, farmers markets, and roadside stands as retail food establishments to allow for exemption, and expanding these to include local, direct sale buying clubs.

Share this with your friends and like minded folk.

Use the hashtag: #fixFMSA

Here’s a step by step on how to comment on the rules: http://sustainableagriculture.net/fsma/speak-out-today/

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Great Talk at Alabama A&M Workshop

August 23, 2013

Just got back from Mobile, Ala., giving a talk for NCAT at the Agricultural Risk Management and Business Development Workshop.

photo

National Center for Appropriate Technology Gulf States Outreach Coordinator Jim Ewing speaks about sustainable agriculture at a workshop in Mobile, Ala., Aug. 22, 2013. The Agricultural Risk Management and Business Development Workshop was sponsored by the Small Farms Research Center of Alabama A&M University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Held at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Jon Archer Agricultural Center, the workshop was sponsored by Alabama A&M University’s Small Farms Research Center and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

I don’t think there could have been a more active, thoughtful, engaging audience. Although I was scheduled to give a PowerPoint presentation, which I did, we ended up having a discussion back and forth about sustainable agriculture, organics, and traditional methods of planting (which many in the audience remembered from their parents’ and grandparents’ times).

The speaking time period actually was extended as we engaged in a dialogue that, I think, was informative and positive for everyone. It was like talking with neighbors across the back fence. There were good questions from the audience and a lot of sharing of personal stories and recollections.

What a wonderful time. What wonderful people. I hope I get to speak there again!

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Great fun at Florida Small Farms Conference

Aug. 5, 2013

OK, let’s get this out front and center: I had a blast at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference this past week.

It was supposed to be business for me, and it was, in that I had a booth there for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and was informing people about ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) info. But, to be honest, I had so much fun talking with people who were small farmers and interested ecofarming that it was hardly “work.”

Here’s a photo essay of the conference, which ran Aug. 2-4 in Kissimmee, Fla.

It was a matter of pride to see fellow NCAT worker Dave Ryan, an energy engineer, fill up one of the conference rooms with his talk “Powering Your Greenhouse with Renewable Energy.” Solar, compost and geothermal options were explored. For more, see ncat.org

Then, there were awards given….

Margie and Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Margie and Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Margie and Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead, Fla., won the Innovative Farmers Award (third place). They are longtime friends and it was a delight to see them! An organic farmer of many years, Margie is an encyclopedia of wisdom in ways to grow abundantly organically even in the demanding conditions of South Florida. Their farm is located near the Everglades in an area that has lost much of its farmland to residential growth. (See American Farmland Trust for more about that! http://www.farmland.org/)

Bee Heaven Farm, in my opinion, should be a national model for organic growing. The soil conditions there are only about 8 inches of “topsoil” consisting of sand, some vegetative matter, and porous limestone rock is a challenge for consistent growing. Conventional growers essentially are depleting the few nutrients in the soil and collapsing the structure so that it only hold what’s put into it.

Organic growers, like Margie, however, are building up the soil structure, building soil nutrients in the soil, encouraging microbial life and thereby actually adding to the soil medium as they grow, rather than depleting it.

The result is that organic growers like Margie and Nick are seeing positive yields and tasty crops while conventional growers are seeing ever worsening and more expensive growing conditions.

Farmers who are not taking the extra effort to rotate crops, build structure that helps hold moisture that otherwise would pass through the porous sand and limestone are seeing more expensive inputs and having to add biological agents and fight desertification (salt build up and nutrient loss through over use of irrigation).

The Bee Heaven model is one that should be seen as meaningful for sustainable farming as climate change intensifies, in my opinion.

CNG members Joseph Ballard and Paul Speros with SB Farms of Malone, Fla., also won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farmers and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

CNG members Joseph Ballard and Paul Speros with SB Farms of Malone, Fla., also won the Innovative Farmers Award at the Florida Small Farmers and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla., Aug. 3, 2013. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Since I’m a former board member of Certified Naturally Grown (and still an advisor on fruit and vegetable growing using organic methods), I was delighted to see CNG member SB Farms of Malone, Fla., also win the Innovative Farmers Award (second place). Joseph Ballard and Paul Speros offered good advice, as well, for beginning farmers. Congratulations!

Natalie Parkell and Kevin Osburn of Vertical Horizon Farm won the award (first place), also. Parkell gave an excellent talk on hyroponics for backyard or small or beginning farmers. They started out growing in their parents’ backyard, since they lived in a condo with no ground for growing — that is, until their parents told them to move, since they had dug up all the grass! So, they found a local business that would let them operate on a corner of their property. It became a big hit, especially marketing to the neighborhood. A small scale truly local success story!

I was intrigued by the prospects of hydroponics and aquaponics  as potential sustainable growing methods (especially since both are considered “iffy” when it comes to being certified organic – see earlier blog: “Organic Hydroponics: The Future of Farming?”). So, the bulk of my time when not manning the NCAT booth was attending seminars on these topics.

In pursuit of that, I went on the farm tour that included The Land exhibit at Disney World’s Epcot Center. Here are some photos:

When you enter The Land exhibit at Epcot Center, the first thing you see are gigantic fruit grown hydroponically. The growing medium is sand, infused with a fertilizer mixture. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

When you enter The Land exhibit at Epcot Center, the first thing you see are gigantic fruit grown hydroponically. The growing medium is sand, infused with a fertilizer mixture. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

As a demonstration of hydroponics as a growing method, The Land exhibit at Epcot grows small plots of grains, sugar cane and cotton. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

As a demonstration of hydroponics as a growing method, The Land exhibit at Epcot grows small plots of grains, sugar cane and cotton. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Within The Land pavilion at Epcot, actual plant research is being done to find ways to combat devastating diseases for commercial crops. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Within The Land pavilion at Epcot, actual plant research is being done to find ways to combat devastating diseases for commercial crops. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Much of the facility at The Land at Epcot has plants suspended from an automated growing system, whereby plants grown vertically are sprayed with fertilizers and the dripped overspray grows plants in the sand medium below. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Much of the facility at The Land at Epcot has plants suspended from an automated growing system, whereby plants grown vertically are sprayed with fertilizers and the dripped overspray grows plants in the sand medium below. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The sunward climb of plants on the spray conveyor allows fruit to be grown vertically rather than horizontally at The Land exhibit at Epcot. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The sunward climb of plants on the spray conveyor allows fruit to be grown vertically rather than horizontally at The Land exhibit at Epcot. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The Epcot demonstration is fascinating, but I’m not sure it’s very “sustainable,” at least not commercially as a farming method. The cost of the facilities and mechanical devices seems out of kilter with the potential sales of crops. But that may not be the point of the exhibit. Rather, the center shows how it can be done, and that it can be done. I’m going to have to think more about it before I’m convinced it’s a sustainable growing method. It certainly offers possibilities.

One of the concerns I have with hydroponics is that what you get from the produce is limited to what you give. By that, it’s like so-called “conventional” agriculture, in that the major nutrients are supplied. In such industrial agriculture models, NPK or the ingredients for synthetic fertilizer are present; but missing are the trace elements that a healthy organic soil provides. Better fertilizers would remedy that; ensuring it, of course, is the goal of organic certification. It’s an issue consumers should be aware of in making hydroponic purchases.

Regarding aquaponics, a key issue preventing organic certification, according to the farmers I talked to in Florida who practice it, is that the effluent from the fish is considered a “manure” by the National Organic Program. But, as Orange County Extension Director Richard Tyson explained, that is an inappropriate designation. First, regarding health concerns, neither E coli nor salmonella are — or even can be — present in such effluent because those only occur in warm-blooded animals; secondly, beneficial bacteria convert the ammonia waste into nitrates which are only then absorbed by the plants; so, a more appropriate designation would be classifying the effluent as nutrients, rather than manure.

In my opinion, especially when coupled with other energy saving methods such as using solar and wind for electrical needs, raising fish for animal protein and using the byproduct of that for fruit and vegetable food production in hydroponic vats is the type of sustainable methods that organic supporters should embrace.

We’ll consider more of this later.

But not all of the conference was “work.”

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4.

Rachel (right), daughter of longtime friends Nick and Margie Pikarsky, and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori, were great to be around at the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, Fla, Aug. 2-4.

No, I wasn’t looking for beautiful young women to hang out with while in Florida, but I found them! It was most enjoyable visiting with Nick and Margie’s daughter Rachel Pikarsky (right) and her friend (and now my friend) Nicole Fiori. They were a total delight!

The fifth annual event was hosted by the University of Florida and Florida A&M.

I can’t wait to attend again next year!

For a good example of a successful, local hydroponics operation, see the Farmweek episode on St. Bethany Fresh Tomatoes on Pontotoc, MS:

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @edibleprayers or visit blueskywaters.com.

Organic, urban, backyard farming can turn ‘Big Ag’ around

Nov. 18, 2011
Organic, urban, backyard farmers can turn ‘big ag’ around
Why I support organic backyard gardening, urban farming and community-supported agriculture: There’s a huge knowledge gap in farm country today.
People like my father, who grew up in the 1930s Depression, knew how to grow and prepare their own food on the farm self-sufficiently.
People today think rural areas are filled with the farms of that time, and the marketing on television seeks to perpetuate that myth, even down to only picturing 1950s-era tractors in their photos of lush farm fields.
But agriculture today is all about industrialization, for plants and animals.
Many farmers today don’t know how to grow food. They grow commodities – corn, soy, rice, etc. – that’s planted by machines mile after mile and hauled off and processed into semi-synthetic “food products.”
Many farmers today, even owning thousands of acres, don’t – and don’t know how to – grow their own food, much less for anyone else, or even want to do it. That knowledge is fast disappearing, or gone in big farm areas. Rural people are as dependent on grocery stores, fast food, junk food and reprocessed commodities
(fake food in a fancy package) as anyone else.
Our rural state is filled with “food deserts,” areas where there is no fresh produce for sale, anywhere. Our state is also a food importer; we no longer provide our own communities with food.
I’m pushing 60 and live out in the country, but few people here grow their own food. I do know how to grow a turnip. A lot of rural folks, young and old, wouldn’t know what one looks like, much less how to plant it, grow it, prepare it and eat it.
Some young people are taking to backyard farming and urban farming, both of which are growing as a nationwide trend, which may be the salvation of American (and rural) self-reliance.
Robert Rodale, a founder of the organic movement, wrote prophetically shortly before his death in 1990 in his book Our Next Frontier: “The highly productive home gardens of tomorrow will, I think, be the sprouts from which many new small farms will grow. The small-scale farmers of the future can hardly learn their craft in the land-grant colleges, which preach bigness in almost every way. These new farmers will start as gardeners and grow from there. I think that we will see the size of gardens increase, so that the distinction between a large
garden and a small farm will become blurred. The new wave of small farms will fill in the chinks of land made available as some of the old-style farmers are driven out of business by ever-bigger farming conglomerates.”
His prediction of bigness driving out small farmers has proven true; enough so, that much or most of that wisdom is gone. (Look to your elders! They are a fast-disappearing resource!)
But there’s still hope that young people will reject the agri-biz juggernaut and learn to provide for themselves and their families, friends, and neighbors, and return some food independence to the people, and food sovereignty to the nation.
Why should we willingly be hungry beggars to the multinational corporations that hold no allegiance to any nation or people but their own profit?
Feeding ourselves and our families and sharing our abundance can indeed feed the world, or at least add substantially to it.
Food: I noticed that Rainbow Natural Foods in Jackson has been selling (Organic Valley) raw milk cheeses in the dairy case. I bought some. Pretty good! Wish we had some local cheeses.
Online: Here’s a great place to order artisan raw milk cheeses online: www.artisanalcheese.com
Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

‘Face’ of Agriculture Increasingly Female, Small Farm, Organic

Sept. 23, 2011
 ‘Face’ of agriculture increasingly female, small farm, organicIn case you missed it, there’s a new organization (started in April) called Mississippi Women for Agriculture. Its a “professional association for women interested in giving voice to agriculture.”
It’s based on Annie’s Project, an educational program “dedicated to strengthening the roles of women in the modern farm enterprise.”
The story of Annie’s Project is an interesting one, and perhaps helpful to women in Mississippi, too. It’s based on the life of a farm woman in Illinois.
According to the organization, Annie grew up in a small town and had a goal to marry a farmer. She spent a lifetime learning how to be an involved business partner, and faced the challenges of three generations living under one roof, low profitability, changing farm enterprises and raising a family. Her daughter, Ruth Hambleton, founded Annie’s Project out of needs she observed in farm women she knew.
That project – which resulted in the Mississippi Women for Agriculture – is now established in 22 states. (seewww.msucares.com/ womenforag or writewomenforag@ext.msstate.edu, or call (662) 325-3207).
The face of agriculture is changing, here and across America.
Not only has the median age of farmers (58.6 years in Mississippi) been going up, but so are the numbers of women. According the USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of men listed as farmers is 35,829 (and falling); but the number of women farmers in Mississippi has grown from 4,608 in 1997 to 6,130 in 2007 (the
latest numbers available).
Since most of the men are probably married, there are far more women in agriculture than men, and that number is growing.
Young people are entering farming, as well, and many of them are women; often heading up small acreages, such as organic backyard farming and specialty crops.
Not so coincidentally, today in Mississippi, 88.4 percent of farms are “small,” or less than 500 acres, with nearly half (48.8 percent) under 100 acres (the smallest amount measured in the survey).
Some 71 percent of Mississippi farms earn less than $10,000 and 86.6 percent
make less than $49,999. Only 2.4 percent have 2,000 acres or more and only 6.3 percent make more than $500,000.
So, when politicians brag how they support farmers via subsidies or commodities, what they are telling you is that they are tied to Big Ag, not the average farmer – or majority of farmers – today.
The face of agriculture increasingly is female, or married to a small farmer, who also works off the farm to make ends meet. That’s the “family farm” today.
That’s who our politicians ought to be addressing. If average farmers ever realized they were in the majority, the Farm Bill would be an entirely different document, focused on nutritious food (organic!), with clear labels (warning of genetically modified ingredients) and not tailored for corporations.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.