Since its inception in 2008, the Tahlequah Farmers’ Market has grown by leaps and bounds. But proposed Food and Drug Administration regulations in the Food Safety Modernization Act may affect local growers.
The FSMA was signed by President Barack Obama over two years ago, and the rule-making process is nearing the end. The rules would exempt farm operations with sales of less than $500,000 per year, which on its surface would appear to include many Tahlequah area farmers.
But the rules are misleading, said Coleen Thornton, owner of Heaven Sent Food and Fiber. Thornton, a contributing vendor at the Tahlequah Farmers’ Market, is also a member of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. The co-op generates more than $500,000 per year, and as such, each member - or small farmer - would be compelled to comply with the new FDA regulations.
“We’ve done an evaluation on our farm,” said Thornton. “Just to get started, it would require a $10,000 capital improvement. The current FDA explanation for the inspections and water would amount to $4,000 to $5,000 per year in annual costs. For small farms, if we move to a growing season extension, it would cost us $18,000 to $20,000.”
Thornton said water testing would be an additional expense.
“If you use groundwater to irrigate, under the new rules you would have to have it tested weekly, at $50 per test,” said Thornton. “If you use well water, like we do, it’s a monthly test, at $50 per test. Here’s the thing, the actual law states that if you generate under $500,000 per year, your farm is exempt, but the regulations, as they’re written, are actually in opposition to that. It requires regulations of small farms in years three and four of its implementation.”
Thornton said the regulations don’t provide farmers any redress if a FDA inspector deems a farm unsuitable.
“Regulation will come from an FDA inspector with no farming experience who can shut you down with no notice,” said Thornton. “And if you’re shut down, that’s it. You’re shut down for good. There’s no grievance process.”
Like most small farmers, Thornton uses composted animal waste from her livestock to fertilize her crops. Under the new regulations, no animals will be allowed on the farms, which also creates an issue for an entire group of people who use animals rather than machinery to work their acreages.
“Some people – the Amish, for instance – have a religious opposition to using machinery, and this imposes on their religious freedoms,” said Thornton. “In the FSMA, it also states the regulations cannot interfere with the national organic regulations. In fact, they do state opposition, because composted manures in the organic program are allowed up to 120 days before harvest. In the FSMA, you can’t apply composted manures under 270 days before planting.”
Thornton said the 270-day rule defeats the entire purpose of using composted manure, as all the beneficial nutrients and probiotics will be gone by the time its applied.
“All the good microbial properties are gone,” said Thornton. “We humans require a balance of bacteria in our systems. It’s all about probiotics. They’re saying probiotics will no longer be available for our plants. This, then, creates a manure problem and a problem with the Environmental Protection Agency because we can’t get rid of our manure. So, we have no nutrient levels for our plants and a manure problem.”
Kathy Tibbits, area resident, Oklahoma Food Co-op member, and proponent of the sustainable food movement, pointed out the Grocery Manufacturers Association strongly supports the new regulations.
“GMA is a lobby group for manufacturers, and factories are different than farms,” said Tibbits. “There’s an important reason to keep small farms in business: food security. We want our kids to have access to the freshest foods, because research shows that fresh foods have the most vitamins.”
Tibbits believes Americans should have a policy to keep local foods, not make them illegal.
“It’s good for the economy and we raise smarter, healthier children,” said Tibbits. “So, food factories should be able to use political lobbying to hold back small farms. There’s a term for it when cities don’t have local food available: food deserts.”
Bob Waldrop, president of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, submitted comments to the FDA, saying the proposed threshold definitions for small farms and enterprises is too low at $25,000 in total sales over three years, or $500,000 in total agricultural sales.
“A farm may have $25,000 a year in vegetable sales, and then also produce cattle, pigs and commodity crops that could raise its gross revenue above $500,000,” wrote Waldrop. “Five hundred thousand dollars sounds like a lot to people who have never farmed, but it isn’t.”
Waldrop also mentioned the fact that organic farms do not operate in a vacuum.
“Organic farms do not operate in sterile isolation from their environment,” he wrote. “A truly organic farm is part of a living ecosystem. The farm operations cannot be isolated from their environments. No organic farmer would want to do this. Yet, the FDA is proposing non-science-based regulations that will actively discourage the use of ecological conservation practices and the incorporation of animals in local farm systems. The regulations on this subject are vague, broadly written and subject to local inspector interpretation with no due process recourse for adverse decisions that may be made for corrupt and non-science reasons.”
Waldrop, like Tibbits, believes the regulations are a “power grab” by big corporations.
“These proposed regulations are a political power grab and an economic attack on our way of life that is being waged by big agribusiness interests [that] are worried about losing business to small-farm competition,” wrote Waldrop.
“The political and economic goal is to shut down and destroy local organic and sustainable agricultural systems, because our food is demonstrably healthier, safer and better-tasting than their products. Since they can’t compete, they are making it even more difficult, confusing and expensive for us to grow and distribute our safe and nutritious products.”
Voting on the regulations occurs today, and those interested in voicing an opinion are encouraged to call federal legislators, including Rep. Markwayne Mullin, and Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe.
To learn more about the Tahlequah Farmers’ Market and its vendors, go to www.tahlequahTDP.com