Farmers market producers across Montana fear proposed U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations could put them under the same scrutiny as big corporate farms, and drive many of them out of business in the process.
“It would be pretty disastrous for a lot of small producers in Montana,” said Stephanie Potts, of Grow Montana, a nonprofit food policy organization. “It looks like it was put together by somebody who’s never seen Montana or agriculture in the West.”
The FDA standards for “Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption” and related rules have comment deadlines of Nov. 15. After that, they go to a second round of revision, but the chance to change them grows slimmer.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., passed an amendment last year exempting farmers with operations smaller than $500,000 from many of the rules. But Tester spokeswoman Andrea Helling said Friday the current proposals don’t meet his intent.
“Jon’s amendment was passed by Congress to protect the livelihood and jobs of small growers and producers who supply farmers markets and local stores with quality food,” Helling said in an email. “Unfortunately, FDA’s first draft of the proposed rules would significantly harm small growers and producers by forcing them to comply with burdensome and unnecessary regulations. Small farmers do not pose the kind of risks to consumers that large processors do, and FDA needs to fit the regulations to the risk.”
Helling said Tester will meet with the FDA deputy commissioner for foods this week to align the regulations with his amendment. Meanwhile, local growers are mounting their own campaign to raise awareness of the problem.
“For example, the water testing rule goes above and beyond what’s necessary and doesn’t test for the right things,” said Dave Prather, general manager of the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, which represents about 40 small farmers. The proposed rule mandates weekly testing for generic strains of E. coli bacteria contamination, and requires the irrigation system be shut down if any problem is detected.
That may work for farms using well water, but most Montana farmers use ditches and canals that can’t be locally controlled or monitored. The rule also uses U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recreational water quality standards, which don’t match the kind of bacterial threats food producers face.
The rules also complicate farmers’ ability to work together in community-supported agricultural share programs that many Missoulians use for weekly vegetable deliveries. Those distribution networks get treated like large farms, even though they don’t do much more than deliver and market the food, Potts said.
The rules could also damage small farmers’ ability to qualify their food for sale with food stamps or other low-income subsidy programs. They might also affect local growers’ ability to sell to Missoula County Public Schools or the University of Montana’s farm-to-table program.
“A super-large corporate farm does need a lot of food safety regulations,” said Bonnie Buckingham, director of the Community Food Agriculture Coalition, which represents about 200 growers in Missoula. “But a local farmer selling at a farmers market has a lot less ability to meet the standards they’re asking for, or afford to put in place things that are way beyond what ensures safety for the general public.”