Uncertainty in Washington means uncertainty for farmers, say agriculture leaders, and 2014 will likely bring more of the same as Congress and federal regulators continue to grapple with key issues that affect agriculture.


Food and farm safety

The proposed rules under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) dominated much of the farm policy discussion in 2013, with hearings around the Northeast and thousands of comments submitted by farmers and advocacy groups. The FDA is now taking that feedback and deciding what changes, if any, to make to the proposed rules.

The agency has tremendous leeway in what it can do, is under no obligation to solicit more input, and could simply release a final version of the rule any time in 2014. They could also issue an interim rule instead, which would have the full force of law but still be a work in progress, or they could issue a second draft proposed rule.

Many farmers and farming organizations are hoping for another draft, says Roger Noonan, a New Hampshire farmer and president of New England Farmers Union (NEFU). “Given that there has been so much new information brought to the FDA’s attention, they should develop another draft and have a second comment period,” he says. If enacted, many of the proposed regulations could work against much of what Northeast states have been developing in terms of food systems and local food growth, he adds, so farmers and consumers need to be watchful of what happens next.

Members of the FDA panel that held hearings throughout the Northeast indicated that they hadn’t understood the type of agriculture prevalent in this region before listening to what farmers here had to say, says Dr. Richard Bonanno, a farmer in Methuen, Mass., and president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation.

“The way the preventive controls rule was written would make almost every fruit and vegetable farm in the Northeast a mixed-use facility,” Bonanno says, which would trigger extensive regulatory oversight for farms of any size simply because they handle even a small amount of products from another farm. He’s hopeful that the FDA heard farmers’ concerns and will rewrite those sections of the rule, but adds that farmers should communicate their concerns about FSMA to their local Congress members, because, he says, “If the final product is as problematic as the initial rule, it’s likely we’ll need Congress to step in.”

In the meantime, farmers shouldn’t just wait for the next version of the regulations to be released, says Bonanno. They should be improving their understanding of on-farm food safety, because food safety is going to be a significant issue for many years to come. “Regardless of how FSMA turns out, farmers may find they need to be certified through third parties like GAP or Harmonized GAP,” he explains.

Along with food safety, the federal government is showing new interest in monitoring worker safety on farms. Jeff Williams, director of public policy for the New York Farm Bureau (NYFB), says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is making its way east to New York soon, after a flurry of activity in Wisconsin inspecting dairy farms for worker safety issues. Penalties for violations have been very stiff, he notes, and it has been challenging for farmers to decipher which of the regulations apply to them, since in some cases there are not clear lines between rules for industrial and agricultural operations. “We’re going through a major educational effort with farms to make sure they’re in compliance,” he says.

Labor issues

Just as farmers are working to educate the FDA about the realities of modern farming, Bonanno says the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) needs a lesson on how farms have changed, and laws need to reflect those changes. Many farms are exempt from certain labor laws for seasonal workers, such as having to pay overtime during busy planting and harvesting seasons, but have recently been threatened with the loss of those exemptions if they handle any product at all from other farms, or if they conduct any activity that the DOL calls processing.

Recent examples include a farm that was washing, cutting and bagging salad mixes, and another where an orchard was making cider. Even though both of these instances involved farmers using products solely from their own farms, the DOL considered them to be outside of the definition of farming, so they both lost all of the agricultural exemptions under federal labor laws.

“That shows a lack of understanding of the development of agriculture over the past several decades,” says Bonanno. “There’s more to agriculture than planting, caring for and harvesting crops. Farmers need to be able to work together, produce value-added products and market them, and still be recognized as farms.”

For example, a farm growing butternut squash in the Northeast likely isn’t large enough to be able to afford to build a facility to peel the squash. However, if they offer the peeling facility or services to neighboring farms, it could become cost-effective – but not if the DOL says that doing so means they’re not classified as a farm anymore.

“The Department of Labor’s definition of farming is very limiting,” says Noonan. “It says that you’re a farm only if you’re just growing and preparing for commerce your own agricultural commodities. If you’re aggregating for a food hub, participating in a farm-to-school program, selling supplies, or have any other sort of side business, you’re no longer an agriculturally exempt business. That’s not really in keeping with the current model of farming in New England.”

Another key labor issue for farmers in Congress is immigration reform, which seemed headed for resolution in 2013, but was derailed early in the year. “[Farmers] need to be able to match available labor with production,” says Williams. Some farmers were forced to leave some of 2013’s bumper crop of apples on the trees because there weren’t enough laborers on hand.

He says that without comprehensive immigration reform, workers from other countries will continue to be fearful of deportation and other punishments, and farmers will be unable to count on reliable seasonal employees.

“People need to have the opportunity to gain legal citizenship and the right to travel between here and their native country when they want,” adds Bonanno.

Farm bill

After a delay of more than a year, the farm bill was finally taken up by a conference committee in Congress late in 2013. At press time, passage seemed likely, with a new insurance program funded by the government and farmers together to protect farmers against catastrophic loss, as well as a major overhaul of the direct payment program to support commodity crops. Bonanno says, “This is a real move forward for farmers, who are, in general, looking for less reliance on subsidies.”

An effort by the House of Representatives to separate the nutrition title – which funds SNAP, the nation’s food stamp program – from the rest of the farm bill was opposed by nearly all farm organizations, largely because the broad appeal of supporting SNAP helps ensure the farm bill’s passage. “A bill that is solely about agriculture has less meaning to a legislature that has many members who only represent urban districts,” says Bonanno.

According to Noonan, even with passage of the farm bill, appropriations to fund programs remain a concern. “If NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] doesn’t have money to maintain staffing, they won’t be able to complete cooperative agreements, it will be hard to get EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program] and other projects going, and there will be a significant impact on the end users of those programs,” Noonan says.

Providing funding to programs that support farmers’ markets, local foods and beginning farmers is also critical, particularly to direct-market, short-supply-chain farmers and their consumers, says Steve Gilman, policy coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Organic farmers in particular are hoping for ongoing congressional support for programs like the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program.

The overarching uncertainty that connects all of these issues at the federal level is the ongoing concern that Congress continues to get bogged down in fights over the debt ceiling and budgets, and rather than resolving these issues, instead it kicks the can down the road to be fought over again in a few months.

“The climate in Washington hurts the morale of farmers and makes them hesitant to invest and grow,” says Williams. Cuts that have happened as a result of the sequester have already resulted in a loss of services for some farmers, with some Farm Service Agency offices closing or consolidating. “It’s hard to make plans for the future when we don’t know what we’re working with,” Williams adds.

GMO labeling

There’s less consensus among advocacy groups on the issue of whether food producers should be required to label products containing genetically modified ingredients. NOFA supports state efforts to implement such measures, says Gilman, and Connecticut and Maine have passed laws that are contingent on nearby states passing similar legislation. NEFU also supports the labeling initiatives, while still supporting the use of biotechnology in food production. “Transparency is critical in agriculture,” says Noonan.

Williams notes that the NYFB opposes such requirements. “We are firmly committed to the science done by the USDA and the FDA to make sure the food we grow is safe, and they say that the level of safety is the same whether crops are grown conventionally or using biotechnology,” he says.

Local foods

The market for local food continues to be robust, says Noonan, citing a report from Rabobank that projects 20 percent annual growth in local food sales in each of the next five years. Noonan says he expects to see growth in the number of small farms structuring cooperatives as a vehicle toward shortening the value chain of their products, enabling farmers to capture more of the margin as they try to meet the increasing demand for local foods.

Consumers are driving that success, says Bonanno, as they express an interest in understanding where their food comes from, a desire to limit their carbon footprint, and an awareness of the nutritive and taste benefits of fresher foods. “But people still expect fresh fruits and vegetables all year round,” he adds, so the need for large-scale production in warmer climates and transportation to bring foods to Northeast markets will also remain strong.

There is still room for growth in direct sales, says Williams, particularly in cities. “There is a clear need for fresh, healthy foods in lower-income urban areas,” he says. The growth in the number of young farmers with creative ideas and a commitment to issues that farmers can have an impact on (like the environment, obesity, and educating youth about where food comes from) is helping to connect consumers to farms and strengthening those farms for the long term, he says.

The growth of local and direct-to-consumer sales is not without its challenges for farmers, says Noonan, particularly as farms expand and need new, modern buildings, or attract more traffic and neighbors complain. “There’s resistance at the local level, and farmers need to focus on making sure that we’re telling the story of agriculture and its benefits to the community,” he says. “People have to appreciate that the way farms are successful sometimes is through expansion.”