(UPDATE) Forget the Farm Bill: This Is the Most Pressing Policy Issue for Small Farmers

The public comment period for controversial draft rules for the Food Safety and Modernization Act ends tomorrow.

FSMA organic farming Food Safety Modernization Act

Under the FDA's proposed draft rules for FSMA, letting chickens forage in harvested fields would become a thing of the past. (Photo: suziesfarm/Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

UPDATE: Due to recent technical problems with regulations.gov, the FDA has extended the comment period on the draft rules for the Food Safety and Modernization Act until November 22.

If you spend more than a few minutes talking with a certain type of farmer these days, the conversation is bound to come around to policy debates in Washington. It’s not the farm bill that this person, the kind you might buy fruit and vegetables from at the farmers market, is concerned with. The men and women who work small farms planted with a variety of crops, with maybe a henhouse or a couple of hogs on the property, aren’t eligible for the kind of direct payments and subsidized crop insurance for which big commodity farmers are eligible.

What farmers like Peter Schaner, who has been farming in north San Diego County since 1984, is worried about is the Food Safety and Modernization Act. The law, passed in 2011, was initially seen as a landmark bill, one that could vastly reduce the occurrences of food-borne illness and other health-related concerns originating in the food-supply chain. But when the Food and Drug Administration released draft rules earlier this year, smallholder and organic farmers like Schaner balked: Many of the proposed regulations would, if passed into law, fundamentally change the way places like Schaner Farms go about growing food—if not put them out of business altogether.

The public comment period on the draft rules ends just before midnight tomorrow.

As we reported in October, the draft rules would require regular water testing, put new restrictions on the use of manure, and impose additional regulations on farms that make their own products, such as jams or pickles. Then there are the rules regarding animals.

“These new farm laws that they’re trying to shove down our throat [are] really going to wipe us out, because you can’t have animals on the farm,” Schaner said from his perch in the back of a panel truck at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. “And it’s like, what the heck are we doing? Here we have a farm that’s diversified, that’s had animals on it for hundreds of thousand of years, basically—well, not ours—and all of a sudden animals on the farm is the worst thing around.”

Instead of being able to use animals as working elements of the farm, eating pests and scraps from already harvested plots and fertilizing the soil, plants and livestock would have to rigorously be kept separate under the new rules.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is working to organize farmers and consumers to submit comments on the draft rules, but that effort has been hampered by federal government website troubles: Regulations.gov, the primary means of disseminating draft rules and accepting public comments for all federal agencies, has crashed three times in the past week, says NSAC’s Sarah Hackney.

Despite the technical glitches, Hackney, the advocacy group’s grassroots director, is seeing a spike in interest from both farmers and consumers as the deadline looms. She believes public comment can influence the final language of rules in bills like FSMA.

“It definitely has an impact,” Hackney says. “FDA, they know that they aren’t farmers themselves, and they know that they have to hear from the stakeholders who would be impacted.”

The FDA, which has moved slowly in implementing the bill, is under a court order to finalize and publish the regulations by June 30, 2015. While it's impossible to know what will come next—another round of draft rules, followed by another public comment period, or the finalized regulations—Hackney and NSAC are working hard to get the messaging right this time around.

"Part of the work has really been to arm farmers and consumers with the knowledge and tools to weigh in effectively. To not just say, 'Hey, keep government off my farm,' but rather, 'Hey, if you’re going to pass these rules, they cannot unfairly affect me because I’m an organic farmer,' " she says.

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