When Dole Foods closed its final Hawaiian sugar plantation in 1996, Jeanne Vana took her former employer up on the offer they made her: 10 acres of a sugar plantation.
Today, Vana primarily grows heirloom tomatoes on the land located on the north shore of Oahu. She sells her produce at three farmers’ markets a week and employs one full-time employee. Keeping her tomatoes free of dangerous bacteria is important to Vana. She knows her customers and values their health. And if customers become ill because of her tomatoes, they will eventually stop buying.
In 2009, Vana decided to complete a voluntary certification through Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture. She thought it would increase her credibility as a farmer and ensure she was observing the latest food-safety practices in anticipation of increased national regulations. When the required certification audit was completed, Vana was exasperated and out $20,000.
“You work hard for your money, and we’re wasting it to comply,” Vana said when explaining why she didn’t renew her certification. “From my perspective, we were trying to have a sterile farm, and that’s not reality.”
As part of the program, Vana installed an on-farm portable restroom and cleaned it two times per day. She cut grass around the perimeter of the food processing station to prevent animals from settling, and she kept the area above the fields free of tree branches to deter birds from flying over and dropping their feces on the fields.
New paperwork designed to help consumers trace the source of their produce required time, a scarce resource for farmers like Vana who manage their own operations. She installed field signage and logged each row’s harvest by quantity and date, documenting that information on her customers’ shipping containers.
But that’s not enough. The 2011 federal Food Safety Modernization Act granted the FDA new authority over produce farms and regulated minuscule details of farming operations in the hope of minimizing pathogens. The FDA estimates that 48 million people each year become ill from food-borne disease. Although animal products are the usual suspects, events like the 2011 listeria outbreak caused by tainted cantaloupes have drawn attention to the risk fresh produce poses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than one-third of all food-related illnesses come from tainted fresh produce.
Scott Monroe grew up on a melon farm in southwest Indiana and currently co-chairs Purdue Extension’s statewide produce food safety team, teaching about the topic across Indiana. Monroe believes that a “codified baseline” for agricultural producers could be a good idea, but fears that the law expects too much and doesn’t take into account that “the produce industry is a very broad and diverse industry with multiple products, multiple production systems, and multiple production locations. … Accommodating all the diversity found in the produce industry will take a massive amount of resources.”
Although farmers seek to keep their produce safe, some believe the laws place too much of the food safety burden on the farmer. Vana contends that the ultimate responsibility for food safety rests with the consumer. According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, bacteria like E. coli and salmonella can be spread from consumer to produce and through cross-contamination, and those bacteria can also be removed by carefully washing fruits and vegetables.
Jessica Smith, an Indiana livestock and produce farmer, believes that small to midsize farms need to establish new and viable food safety practices to protect their operations from crippling regulations.
Smith is an advocate for food hubs, regional processing facilities that store, market, and deliver locally produced foods. These hubs would allow fresh, local produce to be cleaned, processed, and packaged with uniform processes, enhancing food safety while removing some of the burden from farmers.
Smith’s own business, This Old Farm, works with more than 20 producers throughout Indiana to aggregate their products, ranging from beef to vegetables, and market those to businesses and restaurants that might find it difficult to find local producers. And Smith believes that encouraging businesses like these could be the key to enhancing food safety and protecting farmers.
“We say thank you for the farms that produced our food, but we don’t know how to think highly of our farmers,” Smith said. “We need not to criminalize our farmers. We need to give them options.”