Farmers leery of food bills in D.C.

Posted March 29, 2009, at 7:49 p.m.

UNITY, Maine — Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, had three key bits of advice for farmers gathered in Unity on Saturday:

1. The information being circulated, mainly through the Internet, about food security bills being proposed in Washington is not accurate.

2. New food safety regulations could be both a blessing and a curse for Maine’s small farmers.

3. Plant melons.

Libby had just returned from several days in Washington where he lobbied Maine’s congressional delegation, as well as members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which is reviewing a laundry list of new food security bills, on national food policy legislation.Those in the audience Saturday had a vested interest — they were all farmers attending the fourth annual Local & Sustainable Foods Conference, sponsored by Food For Maine’s Future, WERU radio, Unity Barn Raisers and MOFGA.

Libby tried to reassure farmers that much of the information bombarding their inboxes is not true.

The following e-mail, received over the weekend, is typical of what is swirling on the Internet: “These bills will mean NO MORE ORGANIC FOOD OR FARMERS MARKETS! If you think you can just grow your own vegetables or have community gardens, NATURAL SEEDS ARE INCREASINGLY BEING MADE ILLEGAL!”

Libby — who received hundreds of e-mails like this on Saturday — said it’s not so. “They are trying to say the end of the world is near and you can’t plant a garden,” he said.

There are a lot of revisions to be made to the proposed bills, he said, and what needs to be at the forefront is an effort to create a system that is not one-size-fits-all.

“A large, large model just doesn’t work in the Maine landscape,” he said. One farm in California has nine barns with 10,000 cows in each barn — more cows than in all of Maine. The rules for that farm may not work on a Maine farm with 50 animals.

Along with the push over the past two decades toward industrial agriculture came the push for national food safety reform, built on consumers’ fears that the food in the nation’s grocery carts is unsafe. Deaths from contaminated peanuts, dirty spinach, unsafe hamburger and tainted milk products have frightened buyers.

In just the past five days, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced three recalls: chicken sausage from California; cheese franks from Sara Lee; and beef, chicken, goat and lamb products from an uninspected plant in South Carolina.

“How much certainty do consumers have about what they are eating?” Libby said. “People are dying.”

He said Congress rightly realized that the national food supply has some problems and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are operating under laws created in 1910.

“Unfortunately, the solution seems to be, ‘Let’s pass the responsibility further down the pipeline,’” he said.

At least four major food bills are proposed, Libby said. Their text and MOFGA’s summary may be found at www.mofga.org.

“The focus so far has been on increasing FDA’s capacity,” he said, referring in part to proposed legislation that would allow the USDA and FDA to order recalls of tainted food, which neither can do now.

Rumors that farmers can’t save seeds, that organic gardening will be outlawed and that there will be no farmers markets are “extreme dramatizations of what the bills will actually say.”

“It is clear that nobody in Congress has any particular interest in local, small producers,” he said. “They realize the major problems are elsewhere.”

He said lobbyists from hundreds of farming organizations are working hard to shape the bills to reflect regulations that are appropriate to farm size.

“We need multiple pathways to get to solutions,” he said. “We need to be sensitive to scale.”

Libby said the bills are moving fast and the national network of farming groups are pushing the message that “small farms can produce safe food.”

Libby maintained that Maine’s farmers are positioned well to serve consumers who choose to buy local from a farmer they know or will get to know.

He predicted shortages of some products — particularly melons and avocados — as California, which produces half of the U.S. supply of fruits and vegetables, suffers through the fourth year of drought and cuts back water allocations to more than 1 million acres of farmland.

“The supply may just not be there,” he said.

Maine has a robust local food industry today, Libby said. There are 85 farmers markets, 65 independent natural food stores and 50 licensed cheese makers.

“In 1972, MOFGA certified the first 14 organic farms in Maine,” Libby said. “Last year, we certified 361. That’s 5 percent of all Maine farms, 5 percent of all farm sales, 5 percent of all Maine acreage.

“And then, there are so many people who are growing food for themselves. There is a lot of dynamic stuff happening here.”

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