Home > Transparency Posts > FDA Tells Farmers: We need to learn from you

FDA Tells Farmers: We need to learn from you

Michael R. Taylor, FDA and Bob Nolan, Deer Run FarmsMichael R. Taylor, FDA and Bob Nolan, Deer Run Farms
Photo taken by Erica Pomeroy

Last week, farmers from across the North and South forks of Suffolk county Long Island showed a group of us from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets the incredible diversity of their farms and the challenges FDA faces in writing a “produce safety” rule.

Bob Nolan, who farms 30 acres with his son and uncle, invited us because he heard that we had walked the rows of other fresh fruit and vegetable farms across the country.  In fact, this was the 14th state we visited in the last year or so.  We have seen the orchards of Oregon, the vast vegetable fields of California, Amish farms in Ohio, irrigation-dependent produce operations in Texas, vegetable farms in Delaware, North Carolina family farms, and Florida tomato fields to name just a few.

And each time, we have come away with new insights from the farmers and their families about how they are already addressing produce safety concerns, what they expect from an FDA rule, and the challenges of maintaining their way of life.

Our Long Island tour was a microcosm of the diversity we have seen across the country.  Organized by Cornell extension agent Sandy Menasha and Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela, the tour of seven farms ranged from small to large, conventional to organic, first-generation farmer to twelfth generation.

Let’s face it, the first question a federal official gets asked on a farm is as blunt as the summer day is long: Why are you here?  Mike Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods, has a pretty good answer: If we’re going to get this produce safety rule right, we need to learn from you.

That’s it in a nutshell.  While FDA and its colleagues at USDA bring to the table scientific and public health expertise, we all know that farms are very much the real world of soil, air and water open to the elements 24/7 and worked by humans and animals.  Farmers can inform us from their experience and practices.

Just see the different perspectives shared with us last week: the first-generation organic farm of the Garden of Eve; the 225-acre Ed Zilnicki and Sons’ potato farm; Nolan’s 30-acre Deer Farms devoted to leafy greens; the “agritainment” and “u-pick” farms like Hank’s Pumpkin Town, Harbes’ Family Farm, and the Milk Pail; and the farm stand run by Jim and Jennifer Pike.

And we got to hear loud and clear what the farmers expect from the FDA.  “I can’t hire a food safety guy. I am the food safety guy,” Bob Nolan said.  Hank Kraszewski wants the produce safety rule to be “crystal clear.”  Tell farmers straight out, “What do I have to do,” he said.  Record-keeping can’t become burdensome for small farmers like themselves, Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht and Jim Pike told us.

Farmers are also thirsty to learn more.  Horse manure is a time-honored soil amendment for the sandy fields of Long Island.  How can they apply it safely, they want to know.

And, while we heard that while farmers get it about food safety, they also want us to get it about the economic realities they face.  Several had struggled in the ‘90s when wholesale potato farming became less profitable and they moved to other commodities and on-farm retail sales.

Successful produce safety is possible if farmers and food safety officials work together, listening to each other and learning from each other.

Sharon Natanblut, Senior Advisor to the Deputy Commissioner for Foods, FDA

  1. T.J.
    August 22, 2011 at 1:10 pm | #1

    Couldnt agree more with what the farmers are saying here, smaller businesses and farms cannot survive if the rules are not crystal clear and if they are so difficult to manage that they have to hire more employees to interpret them and keep records. If the government imposes rules that are too dificult to follow, the days of the family farm and family business will be over.

  2. Charlie Lester
    August 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm | #2

    Small farms are vital to our food supply and are also important ot the local economy. The FDA is correct in telling the farmers that “we need to learn from you”. This action will support the foundation of the food safety process by engaging the people that plan, plant and harvest our food.

  3. August 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm | #3

    I think this is an excellent start. Working together is always the best approach. I will be curious to see this unfold.

  4. Anonymous
    August 23, 2011 at 12:59 am | #4

    that is the lesson for other organization. So far food safety officials only instruct Famers and they do not know to learn from Farmers.

  5. Anonymous
    August 23, 2011 at 6:30 pm | #5

    Healthy Soils = Healthy Plants = Healthy People

  6. Laura Behenna
    August 24, 2011 at 2:48 pm | #6

    Here in western Montana in the resort areas, a few acres is all that beginning farmers an afford to buy or lease. We need these young farmers to meet the demand for local food that’s burgeoning here, as the predominantly older farmers retire or pass away. Small holdings are the future of food in areas like this. Clarity of rules and a cooperative attitude from FDA will help us greatly.

  7. August 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm | #7

    I agree, there needs to be basic rules that are generic enough that any and all types of farms, big or small can follow. The GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) manual is an excellent example already in place. We also have an excellent system of disseminating information and help for farmers through the Federal Cooperative Extension Services. Instead of increasing the layers of FDA bureacracy in Washington DC, to come up with more rules and regulations to follow, it makes more sense to increase the staffing of the local Extension Offices who know their areas, the problems, and the solutions. Presently, those budgets are being cut.

    How is adding more rules and regulations helpful? The existing laws for food safety are excellent and have given us one of the best food systems in the world. There have been a number of food problems in the last few years that could have been avoided if the existing laws had been followed.

    My tax dollars are a precious commodity. I’m paying for your visits to all these farms to educate you. Please consider using the systems already in place.

    Marianne Schweers

    • August 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm | #8

      Ms. Schweers:

      We could not agree with you more about the excellent system already in place for disseminating information to farmers – the cooperative extension service. We believe it is a fantastic resource, and know that farmers rely on it for answers/guidance on a wide range of issues. Because of this, we work with the cooperative extension service and individual agents whenever possible.

      One initiative we are working with them on is the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) – a project to develop a uniform educational curriculum and outreach strategy for farmers and regulators, alike. Cooperative extension educators and agents are on the PSA. A link to the website is attached here http://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu/psa.html. When you have the time we welcome you to navigate through the website to learn about some of the topics. The primary focus is to develop standardized curricula in GAPs that track the current manual you referenced, and once the regulation is finalized, to track it so farmers know what they will need to do to comply and so regulators will have the same basic understanding of the farming community.

      We recognize that our job in developing the congressionally-mandated regulation is made much easier because of the hard work and dedication of these folks. Simply put, we could not do this without them. Thank you for your comment.

      Leanne L. Skelton
      Senior Policy Analyst, Produce Safety Staff, Office of Food Safety, CFSAN, FDA on loan from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Fruit & Vegetable Programs

  8. August 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm | #9

    Small farmers are the heart of our healthy food — I think FDA and the farmers can learn from each other.

  9. August 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm | #10

    small farms sustain the economy and health of small towns, if you join all these small farms throughout the country would provide much needs of the country should attach great importance to these small farms

  10. August 27, 2011 at 9:39 pm | #11

    More great and healthy food for peopel and we will live longer, win win situatation!

  11. August 28, 2011 at 2:06 am | #12

    thanks for your post… :)

  12. September 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm | #13

    Collaboration between regulators and the growers is essential. The learnings on both sides are invaluable — and that’s why we at the Produce Marketing Association hosted the first of these “field trips” a couple of years ago to family produce farms in Delaware. Congratulations!

    • Anonymous
      September 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm | #14

      The produce field trip to Delaware really ignited our interest in visiting farms across the country. It also showed the remarkable role that Extension plays and how much they are trusted and counted on by farmers. As I recall on that first trip farmers were somewhat hesitant to have FDA visit their farms but agreed to do so thanks to Gordon Johnson with University of Delaware Extension. Since that time we always reach out to the Extension agents when we’re thinking of meeting with farmers and it’s always made a difference.

  13. September 3, 2011 at 7:35 am | #15

    When we support small farmers, we don’t have to worry about produce that is gas ripened or finished with wax. These chemicals are dangerous and used to make the fruits and veggies look appealing. I don’t buy for the look of the fruit, it is what it is.

  14. September 12, 2011 at 6:40 pm | #16

    I think this is an excellent start. Working together is always the best approach.

  15. September 13, 2011 at 8:41 am | #17

    If the government imposes rules that are too dificult to follow, the days of the family farm and family business will be over.This action will support the foundation of the food safety process by engaging the people that plan

  16. September 13, 2011 at 3:38 pm | #18

    Our ancestors never used the chemicals to grow the plants in the past. “Back to the basic”, it is the best way for our food safety program.

  17. September 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm | #19

    Supporting farmers is something we definitely need to do, they rely on us and not only is freshly grown, local food healthier and better for us but it actually tastes better too!

  18. September 14, 2011 at 7:16 pm | #20

    As long as the farmers and government can logically find a middle ground, I think this is a great idea!

  19. September 25, 2011 at 9:08 am | #21

    I think this is an excellent start. Working together is always the best approach. I will be curious to see this unfold.

  20. October 4, 2011 at 11:48 am | #22

    Thanks for the helpful post.

  21. sapuluh
    November 10, 2011 at 6:05 pm | #23

    thanks for great post, maybe i must back here again

  22. isabel
    November 13, 2011 at 11:46 pm | #24

    Small farmers are crucial for US economy and society. That´s why it is so important to be near them and support and help them in their needs.

  23. andrew
    November 13, 2011 at 11:49 pm | #25

    Basic and simple food is what we should eat. Remember one is what he eats.

  24. Kelly
    November 17, 2011 at 2:03 pm | #26

    As a consumer at the end of the food supply chain, I rarely take the time to find out about the people who produce the food.

    Hence, it is interesting to hear about the diversity of the farms and farmers you have visited.

    What intrigued me was your mention of a farm that is now into its 12th generation.

    Could you tell us a little more about this farm and what they produce?

  25. Flood Damage Restoration
    December 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm | #27

    Farms were essential to our survival as a society 100 years ago and they are still just as relevant. Anything that can be done to preserve the safety of the foods produced and at the same time not clutter the process with additional paperwork, regulations and other “red-tape” related issues is a must.

    On another note, it is very important that our young people want to grow up and own and operate farms. It is a respectful profession and one that has to keep thriving from this generation to the next.

  26. Gypsy Horses
    December 31, 2011 at 3:15 am | #28

    Open communication between the FDA and farmers in many states can only help that relationship. I’m sure sides learned a lot from one another. Good job.

  27. Guy myers
    January 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm | #29

    Hi Fdatransparencyblog,
    Thanks for that, Cooperative Learning is actually having the students work in groups or a group setting. Instead of the traditional style of teaching, the students interact with each other and build upon their school relations. In Week 4’s class lecture it states, “Cooperative learning teaches students to be a functional member of a team, with not only individual responsibilities, but group responsibilities as well” (Week 4, 2005). This is an importance learning style to incorporate in the lessons because it builds communication skills in the classroom. These skills will become the basis of their adult relations. In order to better understand cooperative learning, the main theorists and basis of this subject need to be explored.
    Cheers

  28. hotel
    February 7, 2012 at 8:08 am | #30

    i agree with this comment “If the government imposes rules that are too difficult to follow, the days of the family farm and family business will be over.This action will support the foundation of the food safety process by engaging the people that plan”

    for adding
    Basic and simple food is what we should eat. Remember one is what he eats.

  29. سئو
    February 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm | #32

    As long as the farmers and government can logically find a middle ground, I think this is a great idea!

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  40. Mit
    January 14, 2013 at 10:54 am | #43

    In the recent times with global resources taking a huge strain, farmers need to be supported as much as possible. We rely on them so much.

  41. techmadblog99
    March 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm | #44

    I’m not sure I get this. Whilst food safety is paramount, comments like “Horse manure is a time-honored soil amendment for the sandy fields of Long Island. How can they apply it safely, they want to know.” simply serve to confuse. If, after generations applying manure to the soil, farmers still don’t know how to apply it safely then they shouldn’t be farming. They don’t need an official from the FDA with a clipboard measuring manure spreading ratios and they don’t need any more paperwork either.

  42. Sally Marsh
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    The farmers should follow the safety requirements, but I can understand that this may seem like an unnecessary burned to them.

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