Yesterday afternoon, Dallas Farmers Market Friends hosted the 2nd Annual Chef’s Roundtable to help form a symbiotic relationship between local farmers and small producers and area chefs and restaurants. The meeting was spearheaded by Chad Houser, chef at Parigi, and moderated by Ryan Eason, president of Dallas Farmers Market Friends.
The first session was open only to the media, which consisted of Teresa Gubbins and me. TG and I got a front-row seat to an interesting dialog that took place between chefs Graham Dodd (Bolsa), David Uygur (Lola), Scott Gottlich (Bijoux and Second Floor), Jeffrey Hobbs (Suze), and Houser (Parigi) and a group of local produce, dairy farmers, and ranchers that included Doug and Marguerite Robbins (My Rancher), J.T. Lemley (Canton’s most famous Tomato Man), Deborah Rogers (Deborah’s Farmstead Cheese in Fort Worth), Connie and Stuart Veldhuizen (cheese makers from Dublin), and Rocky and Celeste Tassioni (Tassioni Farms).
First you need to know about the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 (HR 875). In my opinion, it is nothing but bureaucratic bad news for small producers in the U.S. food industry. In short: if passed, the federal government, not the state, would force small family farms to pay for additional federal inspections (about $4,000 a visit), require them to increase insurance coverage of their product to $5 million (an additional $5,000 cost), and a host of other labeling requirements. Marguerite Robbins—who “takes care of the cows” while her husband Doug “does all of the selling”—is not happy. “We are small family farms,” she said. “We have to do a good job with our product or we’re out of business. If I have to pay extra to conform to what the government expects out of big business, then the quality of food everywhere will be diminished.”
Case in point: the recent tomato, pistachio, and jalapeno scares. When local farmers sell to big conglomerates, their product is mixed with like products from all over the world. “Hey, they tell us not to drink the water in Mexico when we go there,” said Rocky Tassioni. “But they [U.S. government] have no problem selling tomatoes that have been watered with the same water.”
So pay attention, folks. We need to get active. We need to encourage the federal government to create exclusions for small, family farmers and manufacturers. Here are links to the House bill and Senate (S. 425) version. Here’s a link to the petition opposing the new guidelines.
Other notes from yesterday’s session:
- Deborah Rogers is a smart cheese-making chick. She would like to help develop a web site that enables farmers to explain what products are available during two-week windows, a tool that will make it easier for chefs to buy directly from farmers.
- J.T. Lemley was the only farmer wearing a hat. Lemley has been selling at the Farmers Market and to area restaurants for more than 30 years. His presence at the table is important to link the new folks, like the burgeoning cheese makers and herb farmers, to the older farmers at the market who probably are burnt out from previous discussions that went nowhere. We need to bring those farmers back to the table and get them involved.
- To run a kitchen that relies on local products, chefs need to be flexible. Farmers, to my knowledge, can’t control the weather. They may think they’re going to have peas next week but until they pick them, they can’t promise them. This may be easier for the chefs who attended yesterday; their menus and kitchens are designed to change with the flow. But if you step up to bigger operations (hello, Mr. Rathbun), there could be a problem.
- Ryan Eason sums up the situation: “We want to make sure that there is an “Exclusion for small family farms and farmers markets” written in there and there isn’t currently. You may wonder, why isn’t there such an uproar that you see and hear everyday? I believe it is because of who this bill is really going to hurt. Not the big companies who have the lobbyist and other means to persuade or get there word out. It is the small family farms that don’t have the money or influence to do a major PR campaign. Some of my members have come to me and said this is not the Friends place to get involved and I say to that that if this bill passes in it’s current form there soon will be no Friends of the Farmers Market.”
- Here’s the letter:
The pending federal legislation you referred to, HR 875 Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, would grant the federal government very broad powers that don’t have a lot of detail defined in the legislation.
Some small farms and organic food growers could be placed under direct supervision of the federal government under new legislation making its way through Congress.”
Since we know from experience the government tends to over-regulate and tends to favor the large producers and agribusiness corporations, there is legitimate cause for concern.
We don’t know for sure that it will put Organic growers or small scale sustainable farms out of business, but it has the potential to do so. I know that Rehoboth Ranch would probably go out of business if either NAIS becomes mandatory OR this legislation becomes the law of the land and it is implemented as I can imagine.
We do know some facts from the words in the bill:
1. The legislation would establish the Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services “to protect the public health by preventing food-borne illness, ensuring the safety of food, improving research on contaminants leading to food-borne illness, and improving security of food from intentional contamination, and for other purposes.” We don’t need any more government agencies.
2. Every place in the country that produces, processes, or distributes food, for public or private consumption, would be subject to strict government regulation. Exactly what those regulations would be has still not been defined. But we know from history that we can anticipate that they would favor large producers and not adequately consider small producers.
3. Government inspectors would be required to visit and examine food production facilities, including small farms, to ensure compliance. We already have enough government inspectors visiting us. We don’t need any more.
4. Farms and food producers would be forced to submit copies of all records to federal inspectors upon request to determine whether food is contaminated, to ensure they are in compliance with food safety laws and to maintain government tracking records. Keeping records does not make small scale sustainable farms safer for anybody.
5. every food producer must have a written food safety plan describing likely hazards and preventative controls they have implemented and must abide by “minimum standards related to fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment, and water.” More paperwork that will not improve our safety or our product.
6. Food Safety Administration will create a “national traceability system” to retrieve history, use and location of each food product through all stages of production, processing and distribution. More burdensome paperwork with no purpose. Most small scale sustainable producers sell locally. People know where they got their beef roast and head of lettuce.
7. “Any person that commits an act that violates the food safety law … may be assessed a civil penalty by the Administrator of not more than $1,000,000 for each such act.”
This is enough for us to know that this legislation would be a bad law. It is too broad and too likely to be used by the largest producers to run their smallest competitors out of business.
This bill is being opposed by Westin A. Price Foundation and their sister organization Farm To Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and others. Action alerts have been sent out by most organizations that monitor this sort of thing asking the general public to call and write their congressman about the legislation. This will only be defeated if the general public rises up in objection to the bill.
I hope this helps.
The Hutchins Family at Rehoboth Ranch – Robert & Nancy, Elizabeth, Sarah, Mark, Samuel, Stephen, Katherine, Caleb, Ruthie and Abigail
Rehoboth Ranch, Grassfed Beef & Lamb, Pastured Poultry & Pork
2238 County Road 1081, Greenville, TX 75401
www.rehobothranch.com [email protected]