Editorial: Farm Rules

The Recorder
September 10, 2013

Food safety is an issue that resonates with most people, regardless of where they are in the food chain — from the offices of the federal Food and Drug Administration to the farms in Franklin County to the consumer.

All undoubtedly understand that any sort of lack of attention to unsafe conditions can endanger the well-being of the citizenry as well as spell the end to someone’s livelihood. Farmers in the county would be especially aware of what some kind of mistake could mean to their reputation and business.

It’s that local stake in farms and what they produce that the FDA should rely on when formulating new regulations.

This is also why the FDA should listen to what they heard while making the rounds of New England when it comes to proposed regulations. Herb Marsh, who owns The Bars Farm in Deerfield, put it bluntly, “ I think you should take action based on science, not screwball ideas from Congress, from people writing to Congress complaining that they’re worried about their food …”

Marsh and others are reacting to, among other things, proposals regarding the use of manure, as well as proposals calling for keeping animals off fields that are used for food production. This would mean regular monitoring of those fields to ensure wild or domestic animals haven’t been trespassing — and farmers would also be expected to clear out animal habitats near their fields.

In the view of Washington bureaucrats, these are reasonable attempts to reduce the chances of contaminated produce reaching the consumer market.

But is there scientific data that demonstrates that such an all-encompassing approach is necessary, let alone wise, when it came to farms like those found in Massachusetts and the rest of New England?

Take the proposed requirements on manure use. One of the stipulations is that there be a nine-month waiting period between putting manure on a field and harvesting a crop from it. Given the short growing cycle in New England, that kind of schedule would essentially put that field out of production for an entire year. as John Payne of Shelburne said, “The idea of waiting nine months for that manure to lie on the field before you can harvest your crop — that just doesn’t work. That reflects a lack of understanding of farming.”

On the wildlife issue, Payne commented, “We work 10-, 12-, 14-hour days, and if you think that other than the hunting season, we’re going to sit out there and see what deer or squirrels or chipmunks come to visit, you’ve got another think coming. The point that gets me furious … is that you guys are the problem, not all of these hardworking farmers here.”

The wildlife habitat issue also goes against the grain for much of Massachusetts and New England, where citizens, wildlife groups and state government have worked hard to protect habitats as part of measures to see native species grow. Such wildlife and their habitats are also key components as part of the region’s tourist trade, to say nothing of its rural character.

Again, no one is questioning the need to make sure that what our farms produce is safe to eat. But there has to be a better understanding that there are distinctions between farms, just as there are between regions — and that broad regulations don’t always provide a good fit.

The FDA should heed what Jonathan Healy of Charlemont, a former state agriculture commissioner and legislator, said. “Our customers are going to put us out of business long before FDA does if we do something wrong. I hate to see a regulation that could undermine all of the good things that we’re trying to do here in Massachusetts.”

That says it all.