Local Farmers, Grocers Clash Over Food Safety

May 20, 2010

Major grocery chains in the region have jumped in on the buy local movement.
They’ve been finding local suppliers for many of their fruits and vegetables.
And while that can mean increased sales for small farmers, it’s coming at a cost.
The retailers are requiring small farms to get certified as safe growers by the USDA.
To consumers alarmed by e.coli scares, it sounds like a great idea.
But as, part of our food series, NHPR’s Elaine Grant reports that many New England farmers say the new policy may keep them out of the market.

Right now, Seth Holton should be hearing this…


Or maybe this…


And he should be out planting his fields.

But he’s not hearing cows or chickens.

And he’s not planting.

He’s worrying about how he’ll meet a dizzying array of food safety requirements spelled out in binder three inches thick.

Northeast retailers Hannaford and Price Chopper are expanding their business with local farms.

But after this year, they won’t buy from local growers that aren’t certified in a USDA program called Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP.

GAP requirements span everything from hand washing to wildlife control.

Seth Holton says they’re forcing him to fundamentally change the way his 270-year old Westminster, Vermont farm works.

Seth Holton, Holton Farms: “The rules and regulations they’re putting on us, they’re not realistic. And they’re taking away the ability for us to have animals and vegetables, a whole running operation, all together. The cows, for me, have to go somewhere else.”

So Holton’s beef cattle are on pastureland elsewhere, and there’s not a hen in sight.

But there are still just enough animals here to add to Holton’s hassles.

He waves toward a big, weathered barn, where he used to pack his vegetables.

Seth Holton: “We keep horses in there, and there’s some cats in there, so we can’t do it anymore. We’ve just leased up a sterile warehouse building with metal sides, cement, and that’s where it all has to happen this year.”

That warehouse costs him an extra $3000 a month.

And it will cost him $92 an hour, including travel time, to have the state’s sole GAP auditor inspect his crops.

Dick Uncles of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture says GAP is a poor fit for Granite State farms.

Dick Uncles, NH Agriculture Department: “The GAP program was initially set up for large, single-commodity farms on the west coast who perhaps grow only tomatoes on hundreds and hundreds of acres. … The typical NH grower may grow 10, may grow 50 different crops.

Both the agriculture department and many local growers point out that none of the notorious e.coli outbreaks originated in New England.

Retailers, however, say they need some regulation to protect customers from foodborne illness.

And they say they need it to protect themselves and the farmers from legal liability.

Mona Golub, Price Chopper: “Many local growers don’t have any kind of food safety plan.”

That’s Mona Golub, a vice president at Price Chopper.

Mona Golub: “We are not requiring that local growers are GAP certified, however, we are encouraging them to move toward GAP as a means of introducing good food safety practices into their operations.

Later, however, she admitted that Price Chopper isn’t just encouraging farmers.

It is, in fact, mandating certification this summer.

Golub’s hesitancy to admit to the hard and fast rule speaks to the sensitivity of the issue.

New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill says she’s working with New England’s other commissioners to find a balance between regulations and economic development.

NH Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill: “How do we assure that we do have as safe a food supply as possible here in New England, but also to somehow prevent this, what I would describe as a regulatory storm, as really setting us back in terms of developing our local food and agriculture system?”

Hannaford spokesman Michael Norton argues that GAP certification will help small farmers grow their businesses.

Not only will they be able to sell to Hannaford, he says, but he claims that the GAP mark of approval will help local growers sell to all retailers.

Michael Norton, Hannaford: “We think there will be a lot more farms doing a lot more business and a lot more successfully because we did this than if we hadn’t done it.”

The initial hurdles loom large, however.

Farmers are complaining about the expense of getting – and staying – certified.

Hannaford is giving growers $300 each toward the initial audit.

Price Shopper isn’t giving any financial assistance.

But even Hannaford’s $300 won’t go far.

For a small farm, getting and staying certified is estimated to cost $500 to $1000 a year.

But it can cost a lot more.

Chip Hardy, owner of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, had his 300-acre farm certified last year.

Chip Hardy, Brookdale Fruit Farm: “We use 10 different water sources…and we have to test those ponds three times a year, which is $30 a sample, so that’s almost a thousand right there ….”

Moreover, Hardy is one of the first growers to start a mandatory trace-back program.

He’s now using lot numbers and barcodes to track where his produce is going, in case of a recall..

Despite the expense, Hardy is one of a few farmers embracing GAP.

Chip Hardy: We’re all proud of our heritage of growing crops and that we’ve always grown good safe crops and now you just have to document it.

Both Hannaford and Price Chopper plan to use the GAP certification to market local food.

That will be good for producers like Hardy who rely on business from large retailers.

But it leads skeptics like Holton to say…

Seth Holton: “In my opinion it really is set up by the grocery stores as a marketing ploy for one grocery store to compete with the next grocery store.

It doesn’t benefit the farmer…”

Indeed, Dick Uncles at the Department of Agriculture is worried that GAP is already pushing smaller farmers out of the business.

Dick Uncles: “Therein lies some of the irony. Hannaford really has been very good in sourcing local products, but this does make it very difficult for the smallest farmers and a number of them have simply decided that it’s not worth it to them.”

Local growers may soon have more anxieties.

Other major New Hampshire grocers may jump on the GAP bandwagon.
Shaws and Stop & Shop did not return NHPR’s calls.

And Congress is debating two major bills that may mandate a slew of new food safety regulations.

In the meantime, farmers like Seth Holton are watching, worrying, and…spiffing up their farms.

For NHPR News, I’m EG.