Can’t avoid how food safety law affects farmers

By Jim Suber

It’s probably human nature to avoid certain topics as long as one can because we know those subjects will irk or annoy or anger either ourselves or others.

So here are some bothersome things going on in agriculture right now I know I would rather avoid, but feel bound to mention in this role of columnist who tries to inform.

Start with a fine retail grocery outlet, Wegmans, based in Rochester, N.Y. This company was one of the first to launch a program to buy fresh produce from local growers, many of them very small ones in terms of acreage and manpower.

A few years ago the grocer decided to tune that program by auditing the growers to ensure that they were applying Good Agricultural Practices on their produce farms which are designed to help safeguard produce from contamination and/or bad germs.

Realizing that this would be anathema to most growers for reasons of: intrusion; invasion of privacy; costs of compliance; more paperwork; fear and resentments; more potential for dispute and confrontation (which some growers prefer to avoid); resistance to any change (that’s me) and probably a dozen others, the company helped out a bunch by underwriting some of the costs of training seminars put on in the off-season, study materials, audits, working with the farmers and with nearby Cornell University to develop the audit. The store recently announced all its suppliers will have to have a GAP audit on record by September of this year to sell them produce.

Right now the federal government’s Food and Drug Administration exempts small growers from some of the new food safety law. With lots of financial help and guidance coming from such good companies as Wegmans, bringing everyone into the regulatory fold can be done without killing off very many growers.

Wegmans, in an industry-wide seminar, said it works with more than 540 growers who supply their stores and only one has been lost because of the audit required for the most susceptible produce since 2008.

While nearly everyone eats produce, the vast bulk of it is shipped in from you-name-the-country-or-state. Unless that stuff is really inspected (ha-ha) as it comes in or is in compliance with food safety standards for field workers and further handling (another ha-ha) in the backwaters of South America or wherever, it sort of makes a big joke of domestic efforts and puts our own produce at a big disadvantage. But that’s another story.

Turning to more conventional or commodities farming, the bad news from the sector’s marketing gurus is that this harvest could signal the end of the golden era of good prices that began a few years ago. Because corn prices were still pretty much upbeat in February, the base period for crop revenue insurance purchased then, some growers could have a modest profit.

Otherwise, growers should brace themselves for some below-profit prices. Don’t worry yet, they say. Several financial ratios indicate that farmers today are in much better position, generally, to withstand a depressed period. Plus, many of them have new paid off machinery under five years old and enough of it to handle more land than they do now.

One expert noted that nearly no farmer under 50 years old has experienced a really hard time on the farm as an adult. That time might be on us.

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