AUGUSTA — Amid lack of clarity on how new federal regulations will affect Maine’s small-farm economy, a top Obama administration official got an earful from Maine farmers at a forum today at the Augusta State Armory.

Their message was consistent: The Food Modernization Act, signed into law by the president in 2011 and aimed at reducing foodborne illness, may impose onerous regulations on small Maine farms with no history of making people sick.

“I think you’re trying to mold small, family farmers to an impossible ideal that will not work in Maine,” said Jim Gerritsen, a potato farmer from Bridgewater, in Aroostook County.

At the forum, headlined by Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for food safety at the Food and Drug Administration, federal officials outlined the act, taking questions and testimony from the public.

One rule set looks to ensure that produce usually consumed raw is safely grown; the other looks to reduce contaminants introduced in the processing stage.

The set of proposed produce-safety rules would force farmers to adhere to standards relating to water quality, manure application, hygiene and effect on crops from animals. Proposed processing rules would make facilities that process food register with the government and implement a food-safety plan.

There are many exemptions: Produce rules wouldn’t apply to foods not typically consumed raw, such as potatoes. The rules also aim to protect small-scale farmers, but many said those provisions don’t go far enough.

For example, those selling less than $25,000 of food annually would be exempt from the proposed produce rules, along with those who sell less than $500,000 if half of sales are to stores, restaurants or customers within 275 miles of the farm.

However, Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, said $500,000 in sales doesn’t necessarily make for a big farm. He said five trailer-truck loads of apples could sell for that, but a farm may see just $10,000 in profit from them.

Farms also will have to spend money to comply with the law, with different proposed phase-in dates for compliance based on farm size.

The office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said the FDA estimates a medium-sized farm with annual sales of $250,000 to $500,000 would spend about $13,000 a year to comply, while farms with sales of more than $500,000 would spend more than $30,000 a year.

Pingree’s husband, S. Donald Sussman, is majority owner of MaineToday Media, owner of the Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel, Portland Press Herald and other media outlets.

The congresswoman testified on the rules, saying “one-size-fits-all regulations” could force family farms out of business. Taylor said the department intends to adopt a set of rules that allows flexibility.

According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data, the average size of Maine’s farms dropped from 190 acres in 2000 to 167 acres in 2010, following a national trend that showed growth in the number of farms but a reduction in their average size. Farms in Maine are typically small and diversified.

“This isn’t where most of those problems lie,” Pingree said in an interview. “I’m worried about food safety, but I’m more worried about someone who grows 500 acres of cantaloupe or 1,000 acres of spinach, not some who grows six rows of spinach and two rows of tomatoes.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say annually, about 1 in 6 Americans suffer from foodborne illness. Of those 48 million people, about 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, Maine has been part of just one multi-state outbreak of foodborne illness since the 2011 passage of the act. In 2012, 166 people were sickened in 15 states after eating mangoes grown in Mexico, one of whom was a Mainer.

“My guess is you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than get sick from locally grown produce,” said Rep. Brian Jones, D-Freedom, in testimony.

Within the proposed rules are provisions that may be unworkable for New England farms.

For example, they say manure must be applied nine months before harvest. Maine’s climate makes for a growing season lasting roughly six months.

Also, it’s unknown how many Maine farms will be affected once rules are adopted, said John Bott, spokesman for Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. As written, it would be “a small percentage” of Maine farmers, but there’s no known number.

That’s no consolation to farmers, including Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, an organic farmer who said he wasn’t sure whether his farm would be exempt.

He said the rules won’t hurt industrial farms responsible for most foodborne illness, but they will keep many would-be farmers out of the business or force small farmers out.

“I have never gotten sick off eating food at my farm. None of my customers have; if they have, they haven’t told me and if they did, they would,” Hickman said. “From a smaller farmer’s perspective, our reputation is our bond with our customers.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
[email protected]

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