Friday, July 03, 2009

Farewell to Frikeh


Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm return to the Hillsdale Farmers' Market this Sunday, but will be without a unique seasonal product that their customers have come to love. Anthony explains:

Several years ago, we started experimenting with various grains at Ayers Creek Farm. Our research led us to an ancient food called "frikeh" (above). Produced by farmers since Biblical times, frikeh is wheat harvested while still green, then burned (parched) and threshed. The resulting grain is jade green with a grassy, sweet and smokey flavor. The green wheat is more nutritious than mature wheat, and high in fiber. Over the last five years, we have sold frikeh for a short time in early summer. With its smokey quality, our frikeh offers a distinct and exciting variation on normal starchy grains. It is especially popular with vegetarians.

The durum wheat after parching.

Frikeh is prepared throughout the Middle East. Until we began our experiments, there was no commercial production of frikeh in the US. There is a three-day window where the grain, durum wheat, can be burned. It is a rustic process, the grain is parched in the field on sheets of corrugated metal. Once parched, the grain must then be dried outside on screens covered to protect it from the sun and birds. You can see traditional frikeh preparation here.

Frikeh is an ideal crop for small farms which need to add value to overcome the disadvantage they have relative to "economies of scale. For a more detailed discussion of our experience with the grain and its production, go here. Because of a new and aggressive direction taken by the Oregon Department of Agriculture Food Safety Division, we will not be able to sell frikeh this summer.

Here's the problem. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) has just decided to define frikeh as a "processed food," same as Spam, Marshmallow Fluff or Fruit Loops. Because it is prepared in the field, there is no industrial facility to license. Last week we were notified by the ODA that we are prohibited from selling frikeh.

Is there a food safety issue with frikeh? Absolutely not, it has been prepared for 3,000 years or so without a blemish upon its reputation. In fact, ODA allows the sale of frikeh imported from Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Nonetheless, it bans the locally produced frikeh. Yes, this flies in the face of common sense, sound food policy, and the basic principles of food safety. What's the difference? Our frikeh is fresh, certified organic, locally produced, and contains no additives.

The problem is not just the banning of locally produced frikeh, absurd as it is. The ODA has adopted an extremely broad definition of food processing: "The cooking, baking, heating, drying, mixing, grinding, churning, separating, extracting, cutting, freezing, or otherwise manufacturing a food or changing the physical characteristics of a food, and the packaging, canning, or otherwise enclosing of such food in a container." (OAR 603-025-0010(10)) This definition provides for no hazard analysis. It is just a laundry list that only works in the favor of large scale industrial operations.

As such, it sweeps up whole foods that people have never considered processed. Dry and fresh shell beans, dried peppers, grains, even garlic, all fall into ODA's definition of processed foods. The steep licensing fees will discourage farmers from trying new ways to present food. For example, up to now, most of us have quietly interpreted the rule to exclude casual drying of peppers on the plant. That has changed because ODA sought severe means to keep farmers and other vendors in line, and the legislature accommodated them by increasing civil penalties from $250 to $10,000.

What is troubling to us as farmers is the absence of a larger, positive and forward-looking vision of farmers' markets within the ODA. It saddens us that the Oregon Department of Agriculture has chosen to be an impediment to small farm operations such as ours. As many other states have recently worked to relax the regulation of nonhazardous food preparation, and expand the potential for family farm income, Oregon is moving in the opposite direction. Those of us who sell directly to the public take food safety very seriously, so it should not be a surprise that there have been no incidents of food borne illnesses reported at Oregon's farmers markets.

This is a three part essay. In the next installment, we will summarize how other states have encouraged small farm enterprises through policy and statutes. The third will offer some thoughts on the ways in which Oregon can encourage the growth of farm enterprises. On the 26th of July, we will return to our musings on birds, insects and other aspects of pastoral life in the Gaston Agricultural District.

Be sure to read Part II: A Way Forward for Oregon and Part III: Fixing the Problem, which has links for the legislators you need to write to.

8 comments:

Giovanna said...

Thanks, Kathleen--I'm looking forward to the next two parts. And I'm dreading hearing more about the effects of this...(they sound horrifying).

kab said...

At the very least it seems ill-considered and at the worst it smacks of caving to the grocery/processor lobby. I'm working on getting names and addresses so people can let the ODA know how they feel.

Pat Scheans said...

Where is the farmer's market aficionado and consumer uproar over these ODA dictates? Foodies unite and riot in the streets (or at least on the capitol steps)! What can we do to organize against this threat to our delicious, healthful, locally-sourced food?

Marcia Bell, MPA:HA said...

What a sad situation. And look at all the substandard so called natural foods that have not real nutritional value.

Janine said...

Yes, please let us know what we can do. This is absolutely the wrong direction to be going in, and a horrible time to be doing it!

@jeanannvk said...

And what will happen when we want to buy our dried beans for planting next year?

Meghan said...

One person to start with might be Kathleen Coba, the head of the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture. Her email is kcoba@oda.state.or.us.

Anonymous said...

Pardon my ignorance, but what would they have to do to comply with state regulations to sell this and other "processed" foods? Have different facilities? Licensing?

Surely there's some way the state would be satisfied with how this product is processed.

How is it that their other products, which seem to fit the definition of "processed," are still available and not banned?