Sunday, July 19, 2009

Farewell to Frikeh: A Way Forward for Oregon

Looking at how other states differentiate between industrial food production and that done by farmers who sell directly to the public, Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farms sees a more equitable way forward for Oregon. You can find Anthony and Carol at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market every Sunday from 10 am till 2 pm.

In the first installment of "Farewell to Frikeh," we noted that the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) defines "food processing" as 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 such a food in a container." While this long recitation certainly includes all activities that happen in food processing factories, the definition also covers many traditional farm activities that fall well short of what we consider processing foods. Under a strict interpretation of ODA's rules, all of the activities identified above must take place within a licensed facility.

Because frikeh (top photo) involves heating and drying, ODA calls it a "processed food." Like many other traditional foods, including raisins, sundried tomatoes, dried peppers and herbs, frikeh is prepared outside in the field, and not in a factory. Under ODA's scheme, if a "processed food" is not produced in a licensed facility, the agency prohibits the sale of the food. If California took such a view of food processing, we would have neither raisins, nor domestic sun dried tomatoes and peppers. Most raisins, for example, are dried on kraft paper trays set out on the vineyard floor. Some of the newer varieties are dried as clusters attached to the trellis, but still outdoors.

After learning of Oregon's approach to regulating food, we decided to see how other states regulate small operations such as ours. What is immediately striking about Oregon is the lack of any stated policy regarding farmers markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) in either the statutes or rules. Although farmers' markets and CSA's have strong support among Oregonians, that support has not translated into written policies concerning direct sales. As a result, ODA's default position is to consider farmers' markets the same as retail stores. And when farmers stray from the narrow category of fresh fruits and vegetables, they are treated as food processors. It is as if everyone, from a bicyclist to a heavy truck driver, must get the same Commercial Drivers License (CDL). No distinction is made between farm based enterprises and multinational corporations. In fact, ODA has been adamant that no distinction should be made.

Many states, perhaps a majority, have adopted what is the regulatory equivalent to a bike lane for farms that sell directly to the public. In Ohio, the state has a category called "Cottage Food Production Operation." Farms are allowed to produce and sell a clearly defined range of nonhazardous foods, including sorghum and maple syrup, various baked goods, jams and jellies, candy, fruit butter, dried herbs. Kentucky and Iowa similarly allow farms to produce a range of nonhazardous foods without a processing license. Kentucky also has a "Homebased Micro-Processor" certification which allows greater latitude in pressure canning low acid foods.

In 2004, Minnesota passed the "Pickle Bill" which allows Minnesotans to make and sell their famous vegetable pickles without a processing license. Last month, the Indiana legislature passed a law that allows market vendors and roadside stands to make and sell nonhazardous foods made at home. New York, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts also have a separate tier for farm-based food production.

A couple of decades ago, Oregon's farmers sold virtually all of their production to food processors. The previous owners of our farm, for example, had contracts with Agripac (sweet corn), Steinfeld's (cucumbers), Smuckers (strawberries) and Cascadian Farm (blackberries). Today, three of those companies are no longer doing business in the Willamette Valley, and Cascadian Farm has but a few Oregon growers left.

New types of farm operations have arisen in the decades since the current statutes, definitions and rules were drafted. Over the last decade, new farmers have had little choice but to find new ways to sell their food, including directly to the public at farmers' markets and CSA's. We need to update the statutes and rules to reflect farming's future, not just its past. At Ayers Creek, we have been making wonderful raisins for our own consumption and we might even have our first run of sorghum syrup this year. Under the current rules, we are prohibited from selling these unadulterated and wholesome foods.

Our hope is that Oregon will take a closer look at states that have adopted less onerous approaches to increasing family farm income. A more realistic set of rules defining and regulating "food processing" as it is applied to farm operations will provide many benefits to farmers and consumers. Will loosening requirements for farm-based food production create a food safety issue? No. The "Pickle Bill" did not create a mass die-off of farmers' market customers in Minnesota.

The food industry is where the problem lies, not the family farm. The reality remains that, in states with progressive views on farm-based food production, food borne illnesses have not been an issue at farmers' markets or with CSA's. Farmers eat the food they produce and there is no chain of custody to track. Squadrons of food inspectors and a myriad of properly filled out forms and licenses cannot replace the simplicity of a direct sale when it comes to food safety and quality. In fact, if you read the ingredients for a jar of conventional, mass-produced pickles, you will understand why they have to be licensed.

In Part III of this series, we will discuss the various ways to improve the rules governing food production in Oregon. Up to now, those rules in Oregon have been shaped the industry, not consumers. That has to change. Consumers need to participate in governing how food is produced in Oregon.

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