Friday, May 17, 2013

Farm Bulletin: A Swale Proposal

The following letter was written by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, addressed to members of the Oregon Farmers' Market Association. In it he outlines a new development on the farm, a building that will house packing and milling operations for the crops he and Carol grow, as well as some of the issues faced by small farmers in such expansions.

This summer, we are constructing a building for packing stuff and milling. The building will satisfy the Oregon Department of Agriculture's food establishment rules at OAR 603-025-0030. The building also anticipates future requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It will be primarily a dry facility, with provisions for washing harvest containers and produce; we are not planning to produce preserves, pickles, prepared or cooked foods on site, nor will we have a toilet in the building as we have several accessible nearby. Nonetheless, separate hand-washing and container washing sinks are required in order to license the building, and they must be approved by the county health department.

The Roto-Fingers Pea-Bean Sheller will have a new home.

Yesterday, the Washington County Health Department inspected the premises and approved our pumping the water from the two sinks into a nearby sewer system. If we did not have a system nearby, we would have to build a separate septic system with a leach field in order to get county approval and thus meet the ODA licensing rules. Currently there is no simpler or more economical way to meet the requirements, even though this water is more green than grey, and does not contain any human waste or animal blood, &c. It costs several thousand dollars to install a tank and leach field. Larger food processors can spread their washing water in agricultural fields, but on a farm such as ours that option is even more expensive than a septic system.

Throughout the state, municipalities use bioswales to collect and process water that drains from streets, sidewalks and parking lots, keeping it out of the general sewer system. This water carries all manner of disease bearing materials (animal urine and waste, spit from uncouth joggers, bird droppings, discarded food), as well as herbicides, insecticides, motor oil and other toxins from urban activities. From a public health perspective urban run-off is far more problematic than anything that will be generated in a farm's packing and milling facility, yet it is allowed, as it is considered the environmentally better approach and very wholesome.

Flint corn will be milled into cornmeal in the new building.

Small farms such as ours should be able to construct simple bioswales to process the waste water from packing sheds. For our situation, pumping it is probably a bit cheaper, but from an environmental and aesthetic perspective, I would prefer to use natural vegetation rather than the leach field to process the waste water.

As we look down the road, I think it is inevitable that we will see additional regulations governing the harvesting and packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. Even those of us who fall under the Tester exemption will face increased challenges from our buyers and insurers. Anticipating these changes, I would like to see bioswales adopted as a legally approved means to process wastewater from cleaning farm produce, harvest containers and hand-washing.

The designs and research are done. It is just a matter of tweaking the designs so they are scaled correctly and convincing the decision-makers of the benefits of the approach, and including small farm facilities in the bioswale rules. It would remove a substantial barrier to developing better packing facilities on small farms, furthering food safety.

Something to mull over as we wait for the ground to dry. I am not sure whether anyone is interested in this, but I figured I would start the discussion. I believe a proposal could be presented to the state Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Human Services. Someone might even get a whopping big grant to do the work. There are certainly less worthy projects that get funded.

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