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Down on the farm?

Small farm owners say regulations causing undue burden

By Cindy Swirko
Staff Writer

Article from The Gainesville Sun

Tricia Coyne/The Gainesville Sun
Jerry Williams, co-owner of Cognito Farm in Starke, Fla., greets a few of his cows in a pasture attached to their property. Williams is one of many local farmers that have been hindered from selling produce due to strict U.S. and state regulations.

Some of the biggest lines for today's weekly farmers' market in downtown Gainesville will form outside the trailer of Kurtz and Sons Dairy for two prized foods - raw milk and grass-fed beef.

The regulars chat every Wednesday with Bubba and Leslie Kurtz about life on the Live Oak farm and the day's offerings. It's the kind of farmer/customer relationship that largely disappeared decades ago yet still has enough of a bucolic pull that companies whose meat or milk comes from industrial feedlots and dairies use the small-farm imagery in advertising.

Worse, say small North Florida farmers, is that the regulatory system to keep food safe is geared entirely toward those big agribusinesses and is keeping more small farmers from selling locally raised food to customers despite increasing demand.

Salmonella outbreaks, peanut butter recalls, E. coli in the broccoli - food scares are one reason people are turning to farmers they know and trust.

Those are the same problems regulators cite when saying food laws are needed, including for small farmers who sell directly to their customers. The system has helped keep instances of contamination relatively low, officials say.

"All across Florida families raise their own beef and pork, take it to a local custom-cut slaughterhouse that is state-inspected, and the state deems that safe for those people," Kurtz said. "But for some reason that same meat is not safe to sell to another person. It doesn't make any sense."

The local food movement that took root a decade ago is growing, fertilized by best-selling books such as Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," environmental concerns and a desire to boost local economies - as well as food safety.

The primary regulatory agency is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects in slaughterhouses the meat that will be sold commercially, said Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator in the office of field operations.

Cases of contamination can be traced to both large and small operations, Petersen said.

"As you can imagine, we see both. We do recalls from time to time - not a whole lot of them, maybe 55 or so a year," Petersen said. "When you look at the volume of food that is actually produced and the volume of recalls, the number of illnesses related to that is very small, but some of those illnesses are quite troubling, and people can get very, very sick."

Stefanie Hamblen, editor of the Hogtown Homegrown newsletter and Web site, said interest in buying food from local sources is growing, and food safety is one of the most common reasons given by area residents.

"Quite a number of people, particularly after the spinach scare and the tomato scare, have said they much prefer knowing where their food is grown," Hamblen said.

Yet finding local meat can be difficult.

Sandra and Jerry Williams own Cognito Farm in Bradford County. When they bought the land several years ago, they had no intention of farming but ended up with cows that had been grazing on the land under a previous lease.

Now they are raising grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef cows, pastured poultry and pastured eggs.

They say some state and federal regulations are onerous for small farmers and make little sense.

For instance, as many as four people can own an animal - say, one they buy from Cognito.

The farm can raise it for them and take it to a local slaughterhouse for processing as a whole, half or quarter.

But the Williamses cannot take one of their cows to the same slaughterhouse, have it butchered into steaks and roasts and then sell it directly to customers.

For that, they would have to take it to a processor with a USDA inspector.

There are fewer of them, which means a longer trip. Their service is more expensive, and some of them are so used to dealing with large orders that they won't take a cow or two at a time. And with those that do, the Williamses said they are not comfortable the beef they take home will be from the cow they brought in.

"Four people can each take home 100 pounds of beef, but 40 people can't take home 10 pounds of the same animal. A lot of people who want the meat don't have freezer space for 100 pounds," Sandra Williams said. "The USDA is more geared toward volume. ... There are regulations that work really, really well on a long food chain where there are a lot of people or corporations involved.

"But where the customer actually comes to the farm and looks you in the eye as the grower, and press their noses and eyes to you, that kind of relationship doesn't need regulation in my opinion," she said.

On a recent day at the downtown Union Street Farmers' Market, many were buying raw - unpasteurized - milk from Kurtz. Under law, the milk must be labeled for consumption by pets only.

Nick Segnitz was stocking up on steaks. He praised the health benefits and tastiness of the meat - a distinctive beefy taste that fans say makes grocery store corn-fed beef seem bland.

"If you eat four ounces of this, it's like eating eight ounces of the other. ... There is no comparison in the taste," he said.

Kurtz and the Williamses said they know of other small farmers who are interested in raising healthier livestock for local, direct sale but don't because the regulations make it too costly or cumbersome.

Advocacy groups such as the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund are lobbying to change laws, but an attorney for the group, Pete Kennedy of Sarasota, is not hopeful.

New Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack championed big agribusiness while serving as Iowa governor, Kennedy said. He added that proposed regulations, including an animal identification system to more easily trace contamination, will make small farming more costly.

"There are two food systems in this country right now - the local food system and the industrial food system. These proposed food safety bills take a one-size-fits-all approach and lump the local food system in together with the industrial food system ... when the local system isn't part of the problem," Kennedy said.

But agriculture officials said small farmers need to be regulated as much as large growers.

Florida Department of Agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy said the agency does not intend to put an undue burden on small farmers who want to sell directly to consumers. But he added the agency has a responsibility to try to ensure that food is safe for all consumers regardless of where they bought it.

"We don't want people to get sick. You can eat whatever you want yourself and feed it to your kids, but if you are doing it on a commercial basis and making a living at it, there are certain regulations, and they are all geared to the safety of the consumer," McElroy said. "It's not done to harm or punish or be onerous. It's done so people don't get sick."

Contact Cindy Swirko at 374-5024 or at [email protected].


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