Sweet corn season will begin this month without one of Akron’s favorite growers.
Bessemer Farms, the only working farm within the city of Akron, has stopped growing vegetables for local tables.
Farmer Don Bessemer this year planted all of his fields with soybeans instead of the corn, squash, peppers, lettuce and other vegetables that he typically grew. His farm market on St. Michaels Avenue is closed, and he has laid off all of his workers.
Bessemer called it quits out of frustration with pending federal food safety regulations that likely will require farmers to very specifically track their produce and how it is handled from seed to sale, among other things.
The new rules are part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, sweeping changes within the Food and Drug Administration aimed at making our food system safer by being able to pinpoint where contamination occurs. The federal law was passed in 2011, but how it will be implemented is still a work in progress.
It will be a few years before the regulations are finalized and a few more years before farms are required to follow them, but Bessemer believes there are just too many layers of government red tape and paperwork that would cost him too much.
At 70, Bessemer said he would rather throw in the towel than continue.
“We don’t want to quit, we were forced out of the business. We can’t spend enough money to comply,” he said. “We’ve been farming for 117 years. I’m the third generation and we’re being put out of business by the government. We can’t comply with all of the safety laws. We haven’t poisoned anybody with an ear of corn for 117 years and we’ve shipped it all over,” he said.
“I can fight the bugs, I can fight the lack of rain, but when the guy comes with a clipboard what are you going to do?” Bessemer said.
He turned to soybeans because the law does not apply to commodity crops grown for uses like oil. Interestingly, sweet corn is exempt from the new regulations, as are most crops that typically are cooked before being eaten. The law focuses most intensely on produce that’s usually eaten raw, like lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, green onions and fruits — items that often are at the center of nationwide recalls due to contamination.
Bessemer Farms was known for the sweet corn and other produce that it sold at its farm stand and also at local Acme Fresh Markets. In 2012, Bessemer grew 26 produce items for Acme, including corn, radishes, lettuce, green onions and pumpkins.
Jim Trout, executive vice president of Acme, said the grocery chain was saddened by the loss of Bessemer produce from its stores.
“The service he provided was impeccable,” he said, “Certainly, Acme cannot thank Don and his family enough for providing food for our community for years.”
Trout said Acme is sourcing its produce from other area farms because customers increasingly want locally grown produce. “It was not an easy hole to fill, but we have sourced the product to other farms within our community,” he said. “Others that we are sourcing will take on those regulations and will be able to carry on in the business.”
Concerns about cost
One of Acme’s suppliers is Chris Saal, 41, who farms Walnut Drive Gardens in Suffield Township. Saal said he intends to comply with the new regulations when they are implemented, but acknowledged the biggest concern among farmers is the cost.
The law likely will require farms to hire a third-party auditor to inspect their operations — audits that are expected to cost about $5,000. For farms that require several audits to pass, the costs add up.
The FDA estimates the cost to implement the new rules will be about $4,700 a year for very small farms, $13,000 for small farms and $30,500 for large farms. Size is determined by how much business the farm does annually.
Farms that sell less than $25,000 of produce each year are exempt from the law. There are other exemptions too. Farms that sell directly to the public and not through a third party are exempt. In total, the FDA estimates about 79 percent of all U.S. produce farms won’t have to comply.
The rules are expected to save 1.7 million Americans from food-borne illness each year — a cost savings of $1 billion, according to FDA figures.
Bessemer estimates the proposed rules would cost him at least $100,000 to come into compliance, and another $30,000 a year after that for inspections, according to the FDA’s estimate for a farm of his size.
Saal said he already has fairly aggressive safety standards in place, and he is hoping he won’t have to make too many changes when the new rules are finally implemented, but he knows there will be adjustments. “A lot of it depends on how far behind you are to begin with,” he said.
Under the new produce rules, knives used to cut cabbage heads from their stalks in the field will need to be soaked overnight in a disinfecting solution. In the past, Saal would have used bleach to disinfect equipment.
He is trying to comply with what he can now.
One of the biggest changes will be the number of records that farmers have to maintain, on everything from what trucks were used to transport produce, to what employees handled it and how they washed their hands.
“It’s almost another full-time job in the farm,” Saal said, “And that’s overhead completely.”
He said the rules are enough to scare some farmers away, but that wasn’t an option for him. He’s seen a huge expansion in his pick-your-own business and currently is planting additional fields of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries to keep up with the demand. He also recently expanded his farm market.
“We can’t throw in the towel,” he said.
Inspections and audits
Doug Doohan, a professor of horticulture and crop science and leader of the fresh fruit and vegetable safety team at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, said that while the audits may sound arduous, many farms already voluntarily subject themselves to audits or inspections required by the companies who buy their produce.
Many national food manufacturers and grocery store chains require farms to be inspected for safety standards before they will purchase their crops. He said if farms are large enough to have to comply with the new law, they likely already have been audited to satisfy their wholesalers.
“In most cases, the audits will still be triggered by the customers, not the regulators,” he said.
Doohan said most farms are addressing food safety issues without the federal government telling them to, but he stressed that all farmers need to take advantage of the ongoing open-comment period to voice their concerns to the FDA.
Sereana H. Dresbach, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said the proposed rules are just that — a proposal. The public comment period already has been extended once, until Sept. 16. Implementation of the rules likely won’t begin until 2015 and will be phased in over several years. Smaller farmers will have as long as four years to comply.
In April, the FDA hosted a “listening session” at OARDC for farmers and other stakeholders from across the state. Right now, neither regulators nor producers know what the final rules will be, Dresbach said.
She said in the largest sense the proposed rules are a good thing — creating a safer food system for the U.S. The changes are similar to previous ones governing meat, she said.
But for produce growers who operate with slim margins, the rules may well be a financial burden that they can’t overcome, she said, addressing Bessemer’s concerns. The agriculture department is hoping that’s not the case. “We want people to stay in farming,” she emphasized.
Dresbach also has concerns about the cost to state government. As the rules are proposed, Ohio would have to double the agriculture department’s food safety budget to enforce them. “Sure it sounds good, but how do we pay for it?” Dresbach said.
She wants rules that are flexible enough to adjust for states that already have good working practices in place, and that give states the ability to grant local variances, in particular for Amish farmers.
The proposed regulations would limit the use of animals in the fields and put limits on the use of manure as a fertilizer. “We’re hoping for variances that allow us to put diapers on the horses,” Dresbach said.
Doohan said researchers at OARDC have done studies in the past about the risk of using horses in the fields, and plans call for additional research into the matter. He said Amish farmers are some of the most progressive in the state in terms of food safety, and steps are being taken to protect their traditions.
Price impact unknown
Of course, the largest unknown is how the changes will affect the price of produce for the consumer, and who will truly end up paying for increased food safety.
“You never know, this is such a supply and demand business,” Trout said. “Farmers will have to try and look for how they are going to spread that cost. It’s not an easy decision for farmers from a supply standpoint. It’s the same on the retail side. We can’t always pass on the extra cost to the consumer. Acme’s goal will be to not have any increase to our customers.”