Friday, December 17, 2010

What We Eat......December 2010

Preface: I write this little column for Roundup's local paper, the Roundup Record, each month. It is called "What We Eat....". Thought I'd post it here as well.

by Erin Janoso

         Imagine a barn confining 20,000 laying hens under the same roof. Now picture a flock of 50 small-farm-raised layers that spend their days outdoors, chasing grasshoppers. Or envision an industrial facility that bags thousands of pounds of salad greens for national distribution, and compare that with the thought of a market gardener clipping and bagging spinach leaves for the farmer's market the next day.

          For me, and probably for many, the mental images that result from the above comparisons are of two almost entirely different worlds: industrialized production facilities owned or contracted by large, multinational corporations, versus small, diversified farms, where the farmer growing the food is the one selling it to customers that he or she likely knows by name. It seems odd then, that regulations governing food production and processing sometimes does not acknowledge the drastic separation between these two very different types of operations. One-size-fits-all legislation is usually designed to regulate the huge, industrial facilities, and it can cripple small farms with exorbitant costs of compliance and/or regulatory paperwork burdens.

               This is why the Food Safety Modernization Act, or SB510 created so much fear within circles that care about the continued existence of small, family-owned farms. Spurred on by the many recent outbreaks of food-borne illness, this bill, which passed the Senate on November 30, was called the most sweeping overhaul of our nation's food system in nearly a century. It was a great relief, therefore, that the version that finally passed the Senate included a number of amendments that would help shield small farmers from the very worst of SB510's regulatory burdens. The Tester-Hagan amendment, authored by Montana's Senator Tester and co-sponsored by Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina was the subject of fierce debate and consumed much of the last two weeks of Senate action on the bill. It faced significant attacks from the large produce and meat trade associations, but enjoyed enough strong support from sustainable agriculture advocates and others that the amendment was incorporated into the final bill. In an abbreviated nutshell, this amendment provided exemptions and provisions for small farms and processing facilities that have gross sales of less than $500,000 annually, that direct market over 50% of their product directly to the consumer (for example, at a farm stand or farmer's market) or to stores or restaurants, and that sell to consumers, stores or restaurants that are within-state or within 275 miles of the farm's location.

              As I finish writing this article on Friday, Dec. 17, the Food Safety Modernization Act's future appears dim. When it moved to the House, it was attached to the omnibus spending bill that subsequently failed to pass the Senate. There are some last minute efforts being made to keep the food-safety bill alive, but if these fail, it is thought that this legislation will not be able to be successfully revived next year.

             Whether the probable death of this legislation is a good or a bad thing for small farms, farmer's markets and their like is hard to know. There will surely be another effort made to overhaul our nation's food safety laws, because there are large problems within the current food system that truly do leave consumers unprotected and vulnerable. The question remains, however....Will the next version of legislation include any language or amendments at all that protect small producers from crippling regulations and costs of compliance? Or might the market gardener picking spinach for the farmer's market end up crushed under the same regulations that control the massive multinational food corporations after all? That will remain to be seen. In the meantime, it is clear that vigilance is required to preserve the vibrancy of, and our access to, locally grown food.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Goodbye Summer's Work; Hello Winter's Rest (aka Armchair Gardening)

A lot has happened since my last, mid-September post. A season has come and gone. Jack Frost arrived, but was followed by a long, WARM first half of November. Harvests were completed, snow fell, and finally, the seed catalogs appeared in the mail. The garden has been put to sleep for the winter, the chickens have been tucked into their cold-weather coop, and I have begun the happy task of armchair gardening. Next year's garden, of course, will be perfect!

The last Billings Yellowstone Valley Farmer's Market took place on October 2nd. We enjoyed beautiful weather on that fall Saturday, and market patrons came out in droves to bid the season adieu. I couldn't believe that, after 2009's early and extreme cold snap, I was still picking tomatoes almost into mid-October.

A killing frost finally did arrive on the night of October 12.

But weather that was generally warm (read: tshirts and shorts into the 11th month of the year!) continued, giving me a much needed chance to play catch-up on all of the fall chores that seemed so impossible to get done while the market was still going. Cover-crop seeding, root crop harvesting, the collection of leaves for compost and so much more.

(And yes, I do work too. Jim just never takes pictures, so he's always the one IN them, working...:-D).

The second half of November finally brought with it the sub-zero temps that we all knew were eventually inevitable. The chickens appreciated getting to clean up the immature corn off the old stalks, and a few even got into a game of shadow puppets once I got their heat lamp plugged in!

Now, the garden sleeps under its white blanket, and I get to enjoy the woodstove's heat while I plan 2011's perfect garden. To quote Pam Gerwe, one of my favorite fellow gardeners: "Next year, I'm not going to start saying "next year...." until at least July." That sounds like a good plan. Cheers taught me more than I could have (or would have wanted to) imagine. Here's to 2011.....