As fall begins, the many local and regional deals start winding down but industry debate heats up on how these smaller growers should adapt food safety practices.
On the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, east of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, J. Allen Swann, co-owner of Swann Farms, Owings, Md., sells strawberries, sweet corn and peaches to small grocery stores and roadside stands within 50 miles.
He plans to pick corn through early October and finish peaches on Labor Day weekend, a week earlier than normal because of this summer’s abnormally high temperatures.
A member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, Swann said one set of food safety standards for all growers actually builds a wall between small and large growers.
“Some of these bigger packers don’t like the word ‘local,’” Swann said.
“They see it as a threat. Some of the big shippers and packers view the local producers as competition. Everyone needs competition, which makes you better, so it shouldn’t be feared.”
Because smaller growers talk with consumers — some who they know by name — Swann said many consider themselves public relations agents for large national shippers on the other side of the country.
Consumers who hold negative opinions of large corporations including banks and insurance companies could harbor similar views against “big ag” if regulations drive many small farmers out of business, he said.
“What would happen if we got rid of all small growers and all of our food comes from big operations far removed from where they are sold?” Swann said.
“We would be looked at as the big banks that were too big to fail. We wouldn’t be very popular and would be just another mega-business the consumer would have to deal with and would feel they’re getting beat up by.”
Swann said he and other small growers understand the need for safe practices but they feel threatened by industry consensus for one set of standards.
Standard sanitation practices such as testing irrigation water are easier to cost rationalize over four- to five-acre growing operations than installing expensive bar code labeling systems.
Not a threat
Jamie Graiff, partner with Daniel Graiff Farms LLC, Newfield, N.J., said growers shouldn’t consider the coming rules as threatening.
“It’s like anything,” he said.
“Someone once told me the only thing that changes faster than computers is agriculture. The market is changing and everything changes rapidly. If you want to stay in business, you have to adapt to whatever rules and regulations are out there and try to do it in the most efficient way so you can survive.”
Graiff said most growers invest in common sense-type food safety practices and that recordkeeping remains the biggest issue.
Though he knows the coming rules will likely require large investments, Graiff said there are less expensive ways to invest in traceability, such as using label guns for carton traceback.
Graiff said he expects to sell his 250 acres of baby arugula and baby spinach to East Coast chefs through late November.
The Produce Marketing Association’s efforts to help small growers adopt safety practices is a needed step, because the industry cannot afford to have another commodity portrayed in a bad light after being improperly handled by any grower or packer.
The USDA could consider providing grants to help small growing operations adopt food safety practices.
Federal regulators developing the new rules should consider this segment that can closely connect with consumers.
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