February 13, 2018
Food safety is always on farmers’ minds, but this year – with the Farm Bill on the horizon and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implementing its new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations – farmers will be closely following federal food safety policy debates. Last week, farmers and food safety advocates came to Washington D.C. to speak on a panel of experts as part of a congressional briefing hosted by Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME).
Farm Bill programs have long been a primary means of support for producers and processors interested in: accessing new markets (for which new or sometimes complex food safety plans may be required); implementing conservation co-management practices; accessing food safety training and technical assistance; and investing in new on-farm infrastructure. These resources are crucial for all farmers and processors, but especially for those facing additional regulatory requirements under FSMA. In order to ensure producers and processors are able to comply with the new regulations and keep their businesses going strong, is critical that the 2018 Farm Bill expand its investment in farmer support and outreach.
Representatives Fortenberry and Pingree, along with Representative Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), are committed to supporting food safety outreach, training, and assistance for farmers in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Local Food and Regional Markets Act (or the Local FARMS Act), which the Representatives introduced in October 2017, includes funding for several of the food safety programs highlighted during last week’s briefing, including the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) and a new Food Safety Certification Cost Share program. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) was deeply involved in the creation of the Local FARMS Act, and strongly supports efforts to move these proposals forward in the next farm bill.
Highlights from the panel, which included two NSAC member organizations as well as representatives from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the United Fresh Produce Association, are detailed below.
Organic farmer and President of the New England Farmers Union, Roger Noonan, moderated the panel, and also provided a farmer’s perspective on food safety challenges and solutions. Noonan emphasized that conservation practices provide myriad benefits, including decreasing a farm’s level of risk. Through practices commonly referred to as “co-management” (e.g., strategically developing wildlife habitat in certain areas of the farm to draw animals away from produce fields, or developing riparian buffers to improve water quality) help to make farms more resilient and better able to weather natural disasters, market fluctuations, and other unexpected obstacles.
Haile Johnston, Co-Founder and Chief Development Officer of The Common Market, made a strong case for increased investment in helping farmers attain food safety certification through direct technical as well as financial assistance. The Common Market is a distribution center (also known as a “food hub”) serving locations in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and now Houston. The organization has done extensive work over the last few years to help the farmers supplying the food hub to attain the food safety certifications required by wholesale and institutional markets. By working closely with their farmer and technical assistance partners, The Common Market was able to grow the number of farmer partners with food safety certifications from 10% to 100% in just four years. To facilitate this process, The Common Market relied on on a series of tools provided by farm bill programs, including: mock audits; GroupGAP trainings; financial assistance to cover audit costs; and support for on-farm improvements that may be required to meet GAP facilities requirements.
Roland McReynolds, Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), spent his time focusing on the value of developing training programs tailored to the needs of diversified farms. Utilizing the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, Local Food Promotion Program, Risk Management Education Grants Program, and FSOP, CFSA has been able to develop and implement a food safety training program that has reached 500 farms across North and South Carolina. CFSA has assisted 130 farms in writing food safety plans and attaining GAP certification to date, and has seen firsthand the impact of this type of support. According to feedback from farmer participants, 72 percent of farms who received direct technical assistance from CFSA saw at least a $5,000 increase in income in the following year; 27 percent gained more than $30,000. Given the slim profit margins farmers face, this is a significant gain. However, McReynolds also cautioned that the costs associated with FSMA compliance have the potential to seriously dampen farmers’ profit margins. The impact of these costs on the longevity and sustainability of farm businesses was listed as one of several reasons why expanding support for training programs is so important in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Food safety is a top priority for all farmers, but for smaller-scale farmers and producers it can be particularly challenging to meet the demands of customers and regulators. With the American farm economy experiencing a multi-year downturn, family farms nationwide have increasingly found that connections to local and regional food opportunities can help them to create lasting economic success close to home. In order to connect with these new markets, however, proper food safety certifications are often required. The Local FARMS Act helps family farmers to better understand and comply with FDA’s new requirements by:
For more information on the Local FARMS Act, check out our 2018 Farm Bill resources page here.