FDA outlines food safety guidance for farmers

PORTLAND — Federal food regulators outlined their proposed “guidance” to help the farm industry understand how new regulations will be implemented during a Nov. 27 meeting.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized rules for growing, harvesting, packing and holding certain fresh produce in 2016, the “guidance” explains the agency’s current thinking and recommendations for how they’ll be carried out.

During its meetings in Portland and other cities, the FDA hopes to solicit advice from the produce industry on how to make the guidance more clear and useful for growers and others, who have until April 2019 to submit their comments to the agency.

“What we do can only be as good as the information we have to work with, so we’re counting on you,” said Michelle Smith, an FDA senior policy analyst specializing in food safety.

Officials with the agency repeatedly told the audience that guidance recommendations are intended to compel farmers to analyze their own operations to best apply food safety principles.

To some extent, such ambiguity in the rules can be frustrating for growers, who want to comply with the regulations but want to be certain what they need to do, said Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, who spoke at the meeting.

“Please just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” Hanrahan said, summarizing the feeling of many farmers. “It’s really not as simple as this.”

Ultimately, though, the FDA is counting on growers to implement regulations in the most effective way, so the agency will benefit from their local insights and commodity-specific research, said Jim Gorny, senior science advisor for produce safety with the agency.

“Nobody knows your operations better than you do,” Gorny said.

Samir Assar, director of FDA’s produce safety division, said the agency was aware of certain tensions the regulations may present for agriculture, such as minimizing the risk of contamination from feces without disrupting local wildlife habitat.

“We’re sensitive to that and we want to avoid that,” he said. “There’s a recognized need to align sustainable practices with food safety practices.”

The regulations don’t prohibit domesticated or wild animals from existing on farms covered by the rules, but farmers are advised to determine the “reasonable probability” fields may become contaminated based on historical observations and other information, said Smith, senior policy analyst with the agency.

“This is one area we’re specifically seeking comments and data,” she said.

In addition to being aware of where animals may be defecating, growers should also consider other factors related to contamination, such as flooding, said Amber Nair, consumer safety officer with FDA. It’s also recommended they visually monitor fields for contamination, in case they may not be fit for harvest.

“These assessments are most effective when performed as close as practicable before the beginning of harvest or during harvest,” Nair said.

Some of the guidance recommendations, such as informing visitors of farm food safety policies, are often non-existent or not broadly applied enough, said Sue Davis, produce safety development specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

It will be helpful for ODA to highlight such recommendations as the agency conducts outreach and education about the Food Safety Modernization Act, the overarching law that was enacted in 2011 and led to the new rules, she said.

However, implementing such rules may affect farmers’ behavior, said Faith Critter, produce safety extension specialist with Washington State University. “I think people may not allow visitors on their farms if it becomes too hard to manage at the end of the day.”

Raising organic beef a challenge

CHEHALIS, Wash. — PND Organic Beef started life as a dairy.

Paul Olson grew up helping with chores on his dad’s dairy farm. He and Dalene were married in 1975 and raised their five children on that same farm.

As the children found their own interests and began moving off the farm, the Olsons’ chief source of help went with them. So, in 2006, the Olsons converted to a beef farm — PND Organic Beef.

“Our dream was not just any beef farm,” says Dalene. “We had already transitioned to certified organic in 2000 when the option to ship organic milk was introduced here.”

There is a lot to maintaining organic certification.

“‘Natural’ means nothing,” Dalene says. “There are no checks and balances for ‘natural.’ But to remain certified organic, our fields have to be inspected every year, there is lots of paperwork, and our animals have to be inspected every year — in fact, the whole farm and all its fields are inspected. We have a closed herd, except for a new bull every two years.”

Dalene says the most difficult part of running a certified organic beef operation is “keeping and finding fields we can certify. We need fields to be at least five acres. The county uses Roundup or whatever along the roads and fencelines, but to be organic, everything, including roads and fencelines, needs to be free of weed spray and commercial fertilizers,” Dalene says it is getting increasingly difficult to find such property.

The Olsons lease 140 acres for growing hay and haylage. The 250 head of cattle, including cow/calf pairs, are kept on the home place grazing on pasture or being fed hay and haylage when pasture is not available.

“We never feed any grain to our cows,” Dalene emphasizes. “They are 100 percent grass fed. Grain isn’t good for the animals, so it can’t be good for people who eat the meat.”

Some ranchers and farmers find that their children have no interest in continuing the legacy. Dalene says, “Our son helps us every couple of weeks, and he wants to continue our efforts. He wants to diversify — add fruits, vegetables and bees.”

The biggest challenge is winter.

“It gets cold, wet and sloppy,” Darlene points out and says all the work is just more intense in winter. “During calving season, Paul walks into the fields three or four times daily. Most of our cows do fine calving on their own, but every now and then, one will have difficulty or refuse to let the calf nurse. It’s important that we find them in time to save them.”

“We advertise on our website,” Dalene says of their marketing efforts. “There is a lot of word of mouth, and we are on EatWild.com. We find the combination to be effective. The farthest our meat goes is on a barge to Alaska, but we really like interacting with our customers. We meet a lot of good people.”

USDA calls on poultry owners to ‘defend flock’

The USDA has started a campaign to remind poultry farmers to safeguard their flocks from infectious and fatal diseases.

Bird flu and virulent Newcastle disease are particularly worrisome. Bird flu continues to surface in the U.S., though not with the ferocity of the 2015 calamity.

Virulent Newcastle disease, similarly contiguous and deadly, has been found 176 times since May in Southern California, almost entirely in what the USDA calls “backyard exhibition chickens.”

The USDA’s new initiative, dubbed “Defend the Flock,” resembles two earlier campaigns to promote biosecurity, but has been broadened to apply to commercial and backyard poultry.

Foreign countries do not take lightly infectious diseases in non-commercial flocks. The U.S. poultry industry was quickly prohibited from many countries in late 2014 when a small backyard flock in Southern Oregon came down with highly pathogenic bird flu.

“While each of the previous campaigns were successful, by combining them and emphasizing shared responsibility, USDA will improve its ability to promote biosecurity and protect avian health across the country,” USDA Chief Veterinary Officer Jack Shere said in a written statement.

Highly pathogenic bird flu claimed more than 50 million chickens and turkeys in the U.S. in 2015. The disease killed few, but contaminated flocks were euthanized. The USDA reported that revenue from U.S. poultry exports declined by $1.3 billion from the year before.

The outbreak started in the Pacific Flyway, the migratory route over Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. The virus appeared in late 2014 in commercial poultry farms in British Columbia and then in a wild duck in Washington and then that backyard flock in Southern Oregon.

From there, bird flu hit commercial poultry barns in California and the Midwest. The panzootic, the animal equivalent of a pandemic, erupted into what the USDA called the worst animal-health disaster in U.S. history.

Migratory waterfowl spread the disease in their feces, making poultry kept outdoors particularly exposed. The outbreak was so devastating, however, because the virus got into barns holding tens of thousands of birds.

The virus clings to clothes and equipment and can be spread from barn to barn by workers, according to a report prepared for lawmakers by the Congressional Research Service. The report, citing USDA findings, said the virus also may have been moved about by rodents and small birds, and even the wind.

Low pathogenic bird flu, less contagious but just as fatal to flocks, most recently appeared in the U.S. in October in commercial turkey barns about 60 miles apart in Minnesota.

Globally, highly pathogenic bird flu has appeared in 68 countries and killed nearly 122.6 million birds since 2013, according to the World Organization for Animal Health. New outbreaks continue to be reported in Asia and Europe.

Virulent Newcastle disease, formerly known as exotic Newcastle disease, affects the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of poultry. “Virulent” is part of the disease’s name, and the word is apt, according to the USA. The disease strikes so quickly that many birds die without showing any signs of being sick.

USDA posts information online about safeguarding flocks at www.aphis.usda.gov/animalhealth/defendtheflock.

Farm Bureaus set up California disaster relief funds

SACRAMENTO — The California Farm Bureau Federation has established a Farm and Rural Disaster Fund to help farms, ranches and rural communities damaged by wildfires, floods and other natural disasters.

The fund has been created under the Farm Bureau’s charitable foundation known as the California Bountiful Foundation. Donations maybe made at www.californialbountiful.com or www.cfbf.com.

Checks maybe sent payable to: California Bountiful Foundation, Farm and Rural Disaster Fund, 2300 River Plaza Drive, Sacramento, CA, 95833. Attn: Financial Services.

The Butte County Farm Bureau and Butte Ag Foundation have created a Camp Fire Animal Agriculture Assistance Fund. www.butteagfoundation.org.

Author seeks harvest tradition stories

ENDICOTT, Wash. — Author Richard Scheuerman is seeking stories about harvest traditions in the Pacific Northwest.

Richard Scheuerman, who is also co-founder of Palouse Heritage Grains, spoke this week at events in Colfax and Pullman, Wash., to coincide with the release of his book, “Hardship to Homeland,” published by Washington State University Press and available throughout the region.

“I’d love if (farmers) would share memories they might have,” Scheuerman said. “Old World harvest traditions, but hey, I’m also interested in the fact that when we were kids, our fathers threw their hats in the combine on the last minute of harvest.”

“Hardship” is the story of the Volga Germans moving from Germany to Russia to the Pacific Northwest in the 1880s.

The book was originally published as “The Volga Germans” in 1985; the new release has a new introduction and a collection of folk stories based on true events.

“It’s a bit peculiar, because there are really strange things that were in our elders’ memories about early life here, encounters with strange people,” Scheuerman told the Capital Press. “Those stories are all retold as they were told to us.”

Scheuerman said he had a special interest in telling the folktales passed down through the generations, such as seeing the northern lights for the first time and thinking the world was ending, or students being roped together to avoid walking over a cliff in the middle of a blizzard.

“These people were farmers, and their agrarian traditions inhabit all aspects of the story,” Scheuerman said. “Their farming traditions, culinary lifeways — all those things figure into the text. They’re wrapped around the life of peasant farm people. They had many folk beliefs about the seasons of the year, how that affects life and how that affects the crop.”

Scheuerman is also working on a three-volume series on agricultural traditions and themes in great art and literature, tentatively titled “Hallowed Harvest,” including connections to the Pacific Northwest.

“Why did Monet paint his grain stack series? Why were the last 20-some paintings by Van Gogh all of wheat fields? Why did Willa Cather write about growing up on the farmlands of the Great Plains?” Scheuerman asked.

Scheuerman’s interests go all the way back to farming and biblical connections. He believes stories in the Old and New Testaments have great lessons for any time, but especially now.

“We’re starting to lose our connections with the earth, and in an increasingly industrialized world, we’re finding out how precious those connections are, how vital they are to sustaining a quality of life that’s being threatened in our day and age,” he said.

To share harvest tradition stories, contact Scheuerman through Palouse Heritage Grains.

Seed cooperative grows in a regional-by-design niche

Snake River Seed Cooperative is bigger than its compact spread in a northwest Boise neighborhood might indicate.

Founder and self-proclaimed “seed freak” Casey O’Leary likes it that way. But she describes the organization’s recent growth enthusiastically.

“A lot of people are becoming interested in where their seeds come from,” she said. A growing contingent wants to learn about saving seeds, the subject of an instructional booklet Snake River sells.

Snake River Seed Cooperative, now in its fifth year, is adding to its grower base while increasing the number of seed varieties it has available. The volume of sales to end-user customers also is rising.

As the world’s seed industry consolidates, “more people are waking up to the idea that it is scary to have your food security in the hands of a handful of corporations,” O’Leary said. “So the demand for ‘seeds with a face’ — produced in your area by someone you trust — is increasing.”

More people are gardening, including a rising percentage in the millennial generation, which bodes well for continued solid demand, she said.

Operations Manager Reiley Ney said Snake River offers around 320 varieties.

“It seems like we add about 30 every year,” she said.

O’Leary said 36 family farmers produced seed for Snake River this year, up from 29 a year earlier.

The cooperative’s farmer-suppliers produce a wide variety of seeds in and for the Intermountain West — from sugar snap peas and zucchini to carrots, Zinnia flowers and various heirloom seeds. They use organic practices to grow seeds for mostly home gardeners and small-scale farmers in the region.

Cooperative-member suppliers range from home gardeners to larger farms, O’Leary said. Some are commercial growers of pea and bean seed. All must use organic practices under the cooperative’s rules.

End-user customers, including those selling at farmers’ markets, range from home gardeners to growers who occupy several acres. They use low-input approaches and want locally adapted, non-genetically-modified seeds that produce a good crop and good seed for replanting, she said.

“When you save a seed in a certain place, it becomes more adapted, year after year, to that place,” O’Leary said.

Because Snake River’s seeds were started in the region, they tend to grow better and with less care in its arid environment compared to seeds that originated elsewhere, she said.

The benefits of growing with local seeds, and saving them, extend beyond suitability to local conditions, O’Leary said.

“This is our local economy,” she said. “Most all of the seeds you buy on a nursery shelf have been brought in from somewhere else. By buying locally grown seeds, you are supporting your local farmers and your local economy.”

The cooperative this winter is starting a seed saver’s club designed to help bridge experience gaps between longtime and newer producers while providing educational and collaborative opportunities for all, O’Leary said. Participants pay $100 annually and receive new online content every month.

“It also offers them the opportunity to support the work the co-op is doing,” she said.

Snake River sells at some 35 retail stores in the Intermountain West. O’Leary, who earned a horticulture degree at Boise State University, previously was growing seeds on her own small farm — now one of the cooperative’s suppliers.

“We want there to be a greater diversity of locally grown seeds here, so we can have more interesting diets and more productive gardens,” she said.

Tilth keynote speaker emphasizes diversity for farming future

SPOKANE — Farmers of different backgrounds must work together to bolster support for future generations, a California grain farmer says.

Mai Nguyen gave the keynote speech, titled “Regenerating Diversity,” during the Tilth Alliance’s conference Nov. 10 in Spokane.

Nguyen, a Sonoma County heirloom and ethnic grain farmer, is the California organizer of the National Young Farmers Coalition and co-owner/operator of the Sonoma Grain Collaborative.

Nguyen said she works to find cooperative ways for growers to increase seed, access markets or obtain financial credit.

“These are important times to remember farmers have been doing a great deal of work and that it’s often been overlooked,” she said.

She’d like to see farmers move from viewing one another as competitors to being colleagues, working to identify common problems and find solutions together.

“We get to see how each other work, we’ve built a lot of trust,” she said, pointing to a friend who is a ”multi-generational Republican” from a completely different background.

Such relationships are important when rural populations are becoming more isolated, and 1 percent of Americans are farmers, Nguyen said. Six percent of that 1 percent are younger than the age of 35.

“We really need to stick together to be America’s farming future,” she said.

Nguyen said the coalition engages politicians to take agriculture more seriously and show that the American food system has been built by a diversity of people across a diversity of landscapes.

Nguyen spoke of her experience working with others to ensure that California farmers have better access to land and resources. The Farmer Equity Act, passed in 2017, is designed to create a state definition for and provide assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers.

Nguyen said President Trump’s budget proposes eliminating federal grants designed to offer such assistance.

Nguyen said the equity act is “the very first California civil rights agricultural bill to ever exist.”

The act creates a new executive position in the California Department of Agriculture to support the effort. Nguyen said she was disappointed when the person selected for the position, slated to represent farmers of color across the state, was a white woman.

“While we are acknowledging that there’s progress we’re making in terms of saving more seed, cultivating more knowledge, creating cooperatives, there will be those moments where we have to question what progress and change over time looks like, and how quickly that will take place,” she said. “Even though there are those moments, it’s also really important to celebrate what we’ve gained.”

During a recent party to celebrate the passage of the act, Nguyen spoke with a young boy, who told her “I was always ashamed of what my parents did, but now I think I want to be a farmer.”

“If we’re going to raise that 6 percent to maybe even 7 percent, we need to do that work of sharing that seed, creating cooperatives, cooperating, localizing and celebrating,” she said. “That’s really how we’re going to be able to generate diversity in our landscapes, as we do this common ground work of sustaining our future.”

Dairy Goat Day challenged beginners, experts

PLEASANT HILL, Ore. — For newer goat owner Marit Vike, Dairy Goat Day was an opportunity for her and her husband to learn more information about their animals — and celebrate their anniversary.

Vike has had goats for four years, after her goat enthusiast friends inspired the couple to get their own. Although they consider the goats as pets and do little milking, Vike said she was most looking forward to health and pasture management seminars.

Vike was one of more than 50 attendees at Dairy Goat Day, which was sponsored by Oregon State University Small Farmers Extension Program and Emerald Dairy Goat Association (EDGA) in Cottage Grove. Attendees traveled from around the Willamette Valley, as well as from Central and Southern Oregon and Washington.

“We are so happy to be paired with OSU this year,” Laura Lounsbury, EDGA president, said. “They have been a big asset to us in putting everything together.”

Last year, Lounsbury suggested to the association that they should host an educational day to “ramp up numbers for our nonprofit group and encourage 4-H kids.” She was inspired by the Northwest Oregon Dairy Goat Associations’ annual conference, and attended OSU’s goat education event.

“It made sense to combine our efforts,” Melisa Fery, OSU Small Farms Extension Program agent, said. “(The program) is all about community education and helping landowners or small acreage owners meet their goals.”

She said that the program puts out needs assessments and workshops to ask farmers what they need to know to work more efficiently. The seminar topics were chosen by EDGA and Small Farms Extension, and were geared toward both beginners and life long learners.

“Our hope is that everyone, beginner or expert, can take away a few new pointers,” Lounsbury said.

Seminars included: Adventures with Pack Goats, Common Diseases of Goats, Getting Started with Milk Certification, Cheese Making for the Home Dairy, Managing Internal Parasites, Livestock Guardian Animals, Raising Goats for Meat, Pasture Management, Finessing Freshening: The 123s of Milking, Herbal Goat Foundations and Handling Goat Emergencies the Herbal Way.

During lunch, a demonstration by Becky Gee with EDGA showed attendees “how to build an inexpensive milk stand from PVC.”

Fery taught the general pasture management class. She said that “many Oregon pastures are overgrazed” and there are simple strategies to change that. She liked that it was applicable to people with goats as well as other livestock.

Katherine Drovdahl, with Fir Meadow LLC, was another instructor. She taught both Herbal Goat Foundations and Handling Goat Emergencies the Herbal Way. She said she wanted attendees to start “thinking like a vitalist” and learn ways to handle simple and scary emergencies with herbal remedies.

“I hope they leave more educated and encouraged to try new methods,” she said. “This information saves money and they learn to be independent. If there’s an emergency at midnight, it’s easier to find some dandelions than it is to go to the vet.”

Lounsbury said she was excited about this year’s growth — double the attendance from last year — as well as the variety of different topics.

“The Emerald Dairy Goat Association is committed to sharing knowledge of goats with others,” she said. “It is also a fundraiser for our nonprofit to keep our group alive, as well as encourage 4-H kids in the goat project.”

Teagan Moran, OSU educational program assistant, said these collaborations happen when a need is identified. She said people have reached out to her before who have experience in milking but wanted to branch out to meat goats, and events like these connect the community to skill share and network.

For Fery, after all the planning, she enjoyed watching attendees network and learn from each other.

“Knowing they’re getting some quality educational seminars today,” she said. “Anything they glean and apply to their farms is good for everyone. Good for water quality, soil and (the) animals.”

Consider what’s important for your farm before signing lease

SPOKANE — When it comes to leasing farmland, experienced farmers say it’s important that the ground meet as many of their needs as possible.

Several farmers spoke during a panel about helping farmers and landowners connect at the Tilth Alliance conference Nov. 10 in Spokane.

Some of the top items they consider are access to water, housing availability/proximity, soil, cropping history and market access.

“Water access is a tough one,” said Julie Kintzi, Enumclaw, Wash. farmer. “Land may not have water rights any more, may not have a well, it may just be city water, (but) the question still needs to be asked.”

“Soil is working on a long game, and we’re only here for a short time,” said College Place, Wash., farmer Chandler Briggs. “My approach has been, don’t mess with soil that isn’t good.”

“Find out what your non-negotiables are first,” said Amy Moreno-Sills, Puyallup, Wash., farmer and PCC Farmland Trust farm to farmer coordinator. She needed water rights and a Pierce County location.

Moreno-Sills is in the process of improving soil fertility on the leased ground.

“We couldn’t get a radish to bulb at all — it’s like the easiest thing, ever — so we went into quite a bit of personal debt that first year because once you get all the crops in the ground and realize nothing’s going to grow, you’re already in it,” she said. “In the off-season, we’ve been applying as much compost and dairy manure that our pocketbooks will allow us to buy.”

Moreno-Sills uses a custom-blend organic fertilizer, which she calls “vegetable crack,” because it’s the only thing that lets her crops grow, she said.

Things are slowly improving after two to three years, Moreno-Sills said. She expects at least seven years before the land is recovered to the point the custom fertilizer isn’t necessary.

Briggs works on leased ground. His leases are up every two years.

“I have been a farmer seeking land, and I still am a farmer seeking land to own,” he said.

Briggs said he keeps his equipment as mobile as possible, the better to move on to a new location.

Jim Baird of Ephrata, Wash., renews a three-year lease each year. If the landowner or farmer decides to end the lease, they still have two more years before the agreement ends, he said.

Good communication between landowner and farmer is critical, the panelists say. They recommend determining early which payments, improvements or repairs belong to the landowner and to the farmer.

“You’ve got to move into the uncomfortable now, so it’s not way more uncomfortable later,” Briggs said.

Kintzi recommends a formal agreement for both the farmers and landowner’s protection.

Kintzi is also the coordinator for FarmLink, which is in the process of launching an improved, simplified website in the next month to connect farmers seeking land with landowners.

Kintzi estimates the search ratio is eight farmers for one piece of land.

“There are just a lot more farmers looking for land,” she said. “It takes more effort, hand holding and education to bring farmland owners onto this site to get them to post an ad.”

Small chicken farmer shares basics of egg economics

SPOKANE — Paul and Susan Puhek’s eggs go quickly at local farmers’ markets.

When they bring 20 dozen, they’re sold out in 30 minutes to an hour.

“I think people just really want the fresh eggs,” Paul Puhek said, while teaching a class on the economics of egg production during the Spokane Conservation District’s Farm & Food Expo Nov. 3 in Spokane.

“A lot of people like it because they want to support local agriculture in their area,” Puhek said. “There’s definitely a difference in taste. Store-bought eggs for us now are like ‘Ew.’”

The Puheks usually keep 50 hens in Otis Orchards, Wash., but are down to about 25. Puhek said they’ve been profitable since they started in 1995.

The Puheks want to cycle new birds in and old birds out, but Puhek said they’ve had difficulty finding a place to process their older hens. He called that the biggest need.

The Puheks primarily sell produce, with eggs as a secondary market. Paul farms part-time and keeps a full-time job. Susan manages the farm, including delivery.

Possible markets include grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, co-ops, farmers’ markets and CSAs.

Puhek told farmers to start by considering market demand for their eggs to determine how many dozen per week they should produce.

Chickens can have a lay rate of 50 percent to 80 percent, so 100 chickens will lay about 80 eggs per day during peak lay in spring, and much less in winter time, he said.

Producers should also be aware if the market they want to sell at is seasonal.

“If you have a whole lot of chickens producing a lot of eggs and all of a sudden the market closes, it’s like, ‘OK, now what?’” Puhek said. “Chickens don’t stop, you can’t mothball the factory.”

Farmers should think about how far and how frequently they wish to deliver, and how they would receive payment. Most wholesale customers need an invoice with each delivery, and usually pay by check within 30 to 60 days.

Poultry or egg producers may sell eggs from their own flocks directly to end consumers from their farms without the purchase of an egg handler license or egg seals from the Washington State Department of Agriculture if they’re selling on farm or in CSAs.

Farmers selling eggs at farmers’ markets and through direct to retail sales, such as restaurants and grocery stores, must be licensed through the state Department of Revenue as an egg handler or dealer.

Local health districts have jurisdiction over farmers’ markets and may conduct market inspections to assure compliance with local rules and regulations.

Puhek also told farmers to calculate their production costs.

For example, Spokane County requires a temporary food establishment permit to sell eggs at a farmers’ market. If eggs are sold for $5 a dozen, it would take 32 dozen to pay for the $160 permit, Puhek said.

He doesn’t recommend selling for less than $5 per dozen at farmers’ markets.