Local leaders try to protect small farms

By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn

William Shelton knows one positive aspect about losing his bid for re-election to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners: as a farmer, he can now turn his full attention to keeping Shelton Family Farm healthy and afloat.

Shelton this week shepherded a request through the board urging Congress not to hurt small farms like his while they work to toughen regulations governing the nation’s food supply through the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Shelton told his colleagues on the board and the 40 or so people who attended the meeting. “If you hold small farms to the same standards, it ends up punishing the small farmers and enterprises that do produce safe food.”

Resolutions containing identical language have been passed by other boards in Western North Carolina, including Haywood County this week and Macon County in September.

“No provision of this act shall be deemed to apply (a) to any home-business, homestead, home or community gardens, small farm, organic or natural agricultural activity, (b) to any family farm or ranch, or (c) to any natural food product, including dietary supplements regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994,” the key paragraph requests.

Small farmers across Western North Carolina have spoken out against the Food Safety Modernization Act. They fear added expenses and piles of government-required paperwork.

Bill Holbrook, a Haywood county farmer who has testified in Washington against the measure, spoke to Haywood county commissioners at their Monday meeting, asking them to voice their opposition to it.

“It’s going to be difficult for many men and women to pass this food safety as small farmers,” Holbrook said. “All the water’s got to be tested, no animals are allowed in your field,” he said, adding that these are just a few of the difficult conditions farmers must meet every year to stay certified.

“Some of these are good things,” Holbrook said, but some – like the requirement to account, in writing, for everyone who enters their fields, would be “impossible for us to maintain.”

The cost, Holbrook said, is burdensome, as well. A small farmer would, under the bill, pay the same fee as a mega-farm, which can run to more than $1,000 a year.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is co-sponsoring an amendment to exempt facilities with gross incomes of less than $500,000. Additionally, small producers who mainly sell to restaurants and consumers would be exempted from some of the regulations.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., also has promised his support to small-farming operations faced with potentially onerous and expensive government regulations.

The purpose of the proposed federal legislation is to protect the nation from outbreaks of food-borne illness. Local farmers (joined by their counterparts across the U.S.) assert that the bulk of the unsafe food has been produced and distributed by large corporations. But the act itself threatens to shutdown the smallest operations, they say.

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