Those of you who have been following us or who have read our farm story
know that we pride ourselves in growing and packing the best quality fruit possible. This takes a lot of time, work and energy. So, it is very discouraging to us that people no longer feel they can trust farmers due to the recent food-borne illness outbreaks.
We sell most of our fruit wholesale to retailers who increase the price to suit their profit margin. Our asking price per box is based upon how much it costs to produce a quality box of fruit. This means the cost of production including maintaining and repairing our equipment, organic materials to help prevent pests from ruining our crops, electricity for pumping irrigation water, mortgage payments, labor, packing boxes and supplies, fuel for deliveries, etc. Labor went up $1.00 per hour this year around here due to the labor shortage. Also, the Alta Irrigation District will begin charging farmers for water usage in the near future.
On top of all this, the Obama administration has decided to do something that has never been done before in the United States. Farmers will now be required to have their farms inspected to ensure they are following good agricultural practices (GAPs). The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in 2011 by President Obama to address, in a proactive way, the occurrences of food-borne illness outbreaks to quell consumers’ concerns. Unfortunately, all policies have unintended consequences. Those who drafted FSMA must have had large farms or corporate farms in mind because the paperwork required to comply with the regulations is enormous, at least it seems so for mid- to small-sized independent farmers like us. Also, it costs a great deal to implement the changes required. Large farmers who have accountants or lawyers to do the paperwork are only out the expense. But, as the old saying goes, “time is money,” too.
Some old fart farmers are blessed with sons and/or daughters that are following in their footsteps and can handle some of the paperwork. We are blessed with an awesome crew that works hard and does an amazing job, but the two of us do most all the maintenance, deliveries, agricultural inputs, irrigating, (mostly Mike) and paperwork (mostly Nori) ourselves. The food safety requirements have increased the paperwork exponentially in the past two years. I worked from 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM on our GAPs policy alone yesterday. And FSMA has not even been finalized, yet. The comment period has been extended to September 16th.
There are some food safety advocates that are upset that it is taking so long to get FSMA passed. These same advocates tend to be supporters of local food and small farmers. What they don’t realize is that many mid- to small-sized farmers are finding FSMA a nightmare. FSMA determines the size of farm by the gross income, not amount of land. Since we sell our fruit commercially, the stores who purchase our fruit are requiring us to be 3rd part certified already, regardless. This means that we have to pay a private company or the USDA to audit our food safety plan. The minimum cost is $199.00 per hour and the audit usually takes 3 to 4 hours.
The bottom line is, we have ripe fruit ready to pick and few companies to sell it to unless we are certified ~ even though we are certified organic and have never experienced a food-borne illness outbreak from our farm. For us, this means a huge loss unless the companies will give us more time (and, of course, they will not likely pay us any more for our fruit).
For the consumer, this will mean fewer choices at the market. As I say in my blog post What Do Consumers Want? consumers can’t have it all. Buying local does not help rural farmers like us who are in the agricultural belt of California where Fresno is the largest local market. We depend upon consumers in other cities and states to purchase our fruit in order to make ends meet.
We are seriously considering our choices for the future. If you want to talk social security, our farm is our retirement. We hoped to keep farming for at least ten more years, but, with some stores that usually purchase our fruit refusing to do so this year without proof of GAPs, we may have to make some very difficult choices regarding our ability to keep farming.
This year, the consumer will likely not notice much difference in the stores because there was a good set for stone fruit. Last year there was a shortage due to weather-related issues. The fluctuation in the availability of fruit from year-to-year means the real impact of FSMA may not be felt until several years after its implementation. The FDA and Cornell University are working together to bring farmers and those who advise farmers up to speed on FSMA. They attempt to quell farmers’ concerns by saying they are there to help them negotiate the process. That is all well and good, but for farmers like us, time and money are two commodities that they cannot supply and are what we need the most to implement the regulations and keep farming.
P.S. A neighbor and long-time fellow farmer just stopped by and told us this will be his last year farming. He has done farmer’s markets for years. The increase in wages is the nail in the coffin for him. His son will likely buy his farm, so it will remain in the family which is wonderful, but this is another example of how tough it is for small farmers right now.