CONCORD, N.H. -- As the local food movement gains steam, northern New England farmers are steaming mad about proposed regulations they fear will leave them unable to meet growing consumer demand for their produce.
Andre Cantelmo of Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton helps run Eastman's Corner, a foundation dedicated to making local farms an economically and environmentally sustainable, integral part of the community. The group is preparing to break ground on a large food distribution and preservation center, but uncertainty over looming food safety rules could halt that progress, he said.
"We have this really amazing local food movement, it's got this head of steam, it's moving along, and then you get something like this law, which really puts the kibosh on it," he said. "This is what holds up economic development -- weird regulations that no one knows they're going to be implemented. Why would you expand your business?"
Cantelmo and hundreds of his fellow farmers from Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire attended public hearings last week on proposed rules for implementing the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, which aims to create a system for preventing foodborne illness instead of reacting to it. Among other measures, the rules would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, including ensuring that workers' hands are washed, irrigation water is clean and animals stay out of fields.
New England farmers have argued that many aspects of the rules were derived from large-scale farming practices that don't apply to the region's smaller farms. And they suspect the rules are part of a larger effort by corporate farms to get rid of smaller operations they view as threats.
"I'm all for food safety. But when food safety becomes the excuse to write rules and regulations that drive small farms out of business, the people need to make it clear that enough is enough," said Maine state Rep. Craig Hickman, who operates an organic farm in Winthrop.
The proposed rules exempt farms with less than $500,000 in annual sales as long as half those sales are direct-to-consumer. Farms with less than $25,000 in sales also are exempt regardless of where they sell their produce.
Michael Taylor, a deputy commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration, was among the panel of federal officials who led last week's hearings. He estimated that about 110,000 farms nationwide -- or more than half -- would be exempt from the rules based on the scale of their operations.
"I think there are a lot of folks who will be exempt who aren't clear about that yet," he said. "When you look at the concentration of small farms here (in New England), it's a very large percentage."
Taylor said there are legitimate concerns about whether farms approaching various threshold levels would be discouraged from expanding, but he emphasized that federal officials are trying to make the standards as targeted as possible.
While Taylor was familiar with most of the issues that came up at the two sessions, he said hearing directly from farmers was a "tremendous learning experience." Some of the farmers, however, came away far from satisfied.
Hickman said federal regulators "disrespected all farmers" by holding the sessions during their busiest time of year. And Michael Smith of Gypsy Meadow Farm in Plainfield said major issues, including enforcement, were left unaddressed.
Smith, who has turned to farm consulting after the remnants of Hurricane Irene destroyed his crops two years ago, said the rules will make small farms the victims of someone else's mistakes.
"You're going to prohibit a region from producing its own food. You talk about food safety -- if you don't have any food, you don't have to worry about it," he said.
New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill said she is very concerned about the rules given the state's many small, diversified farms. Some who don't sell enough produce to fall under the regulations could end up subject to them if their other operations -- dairy, for example -- bump them over the thresholds, she said. Or bigger farms that purchase produce from them and are subject to the rules could drop them, she said.
"It's definitely a priority issue for New Hampshire and New England agriculture because we're experience this renaissance of local agriculture and food, and I think it's very much something our citizens are supporting and see the value of," she said. "I'd hate to see it nipped in the bud. But we also want to make sure the food we're producing here is healthy and safe."