Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Education and Regulation

I spent yesterday at a food safety plan writing class that the Penn State Agricultural Extension service workshops for farmers in the area. The Agricultural Extension Service has passed its one-hundredth year of funding from the USDA to educate farmers and conduct research for better agricultural practices.[1] However, their funding for education and research has been shrinking. Near Kutztown, two hours drive along highway 222 puts into perspective the rural nature of Pennsylvania that is still a reality for many. The back roads that twist and branch off among steep hills run perpendicular to a busy four lane highway. The duality of commuting in a rural place with so much traffic is what most New Yorkers traveling to New Hope for the weekend must feel; we are so off the beaten path! Yet, we are only 30 minutes from highway 95.

Entering the conference room, the spectrum of farmers highlighted the range that Agricultural Extension services have to accommodate and prepare for. Two men in their early thirties sat together with their laptops, their clothes too new and their faces too bright, ahhh the educated hipsters that are moving the organic CSA movement, I thought. The man to their left, middle-aged with a jack'o'latern smile and brittle eyes, boasted of his massive pumpkin crop, soon to be exported to Europe; maybe I am too harsh but after the third time of me stretching from sitting and him checking out my breasts, I decided he could play the antagonist role in this column. Adjoining the corner of Mr. Cucurbit, a young Mennonite couple, him, in his staid button-up, jeans, and suspenders, her, in her prairie dress and bonnet. Their behavior affable, but his speech was slow and swallowed, giving me the impression that his biggest worries were about dirt and God; while her speech was clear, concise, business-like. My respect went out to her, without really knowing her. Here was a young woman who probably raised the children, looked after the house, ran the business and still had time to guide her husbands' thoughts on dirt and God.  An old 'salt of the earth' farmer sat beside them; the only one aside from the Mennonites' that mailed in his RSVP instead of emailing and of course they couldn't find his registration. I felt badly, here was a man of an older time, and older generation; I hoped he had a woman beside him at home still, keeping track of important papers and submitting the information to keep up to date with new regulations and audits, but reality can be bleaker than fiction. He was like a lean-to barn in his worn trucker cap and earth crusted clothes, with hands common to old farmers, strong stumps and square fingers dirt caked through the deep wrinkles where even when washed it remains. Beside my mom, Amy, and myself, sat Brett. A familiar face, he apprenticed with my Dad before starting his own farm called Bedminster Orchard selling his diversified produce and value added products like cider and apple butter at farmers markets. For introductions, Brett was first and it says a lot about his self-esteem and maturity for someone in his early twenties to calmly deliver a brief informative introduction to a room of strangers. I, for example, get nervous, stumble and inevitably finish a little more red in the face than when I started. Brett shares an assuredness with many older farmers, a reservoir they draw upon from knowing what they want in life, learning the skills and having the tenacity to stick with it.

All of us, this miniature farmer sample gathered to learn how to comply with USDA Farm Food Safety Plan measures. It was a good review, not just about washing your hands; the speaker shared a lot of insight from his auditing years, about how the details of managing and working a farm fit into the bigger picture of food safety. Each farm is going to have its own unique risks depending upon the type, size and sales model it has, but the themes, of cleanliness, orderliness, logging records, and writing down and educating workers on procedures no matter how obvious they may seem, remain the same. It's about prevention of food borne illness but more so about traceability. About half the farmers in the room used auctions or brokers to move their wholesale produce. All grocery stores require farmers they source from be audited by a third party and subject to one or more of the three food and safety standards. For the other half of us who market directly to customers auditing is voluntary though I believe one of the food and health safety classes is mandatory. The auditing process for us at Manoff Market will be mandatory to get our license to sell our hard cider. However, this class for me is a useful reminder that the record keeping and training and organizing for cleanliness will actually help us in the long run. It will help us to see trends in our business and business practices, help new employees familiarize themselves by making training routine and second nature, and when everything is labeled and has its place and space we become more efficient and some might say sane. Agricultural extension service agents contribute by helping us farmers create better practices in the field, which benefits consumers, as well as providing education and resources for navigating the mire of paperwork that can seem overwhelming to any farming enterprise.  

[1] "The Smith Lever Act formalized extension in 1914, establishing USDA's partnership with land-grant universities to apply research and provide education in agriculture. Congress created the extension system to address exclusively rural, agricultural issues. At that time, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and 30 percent of the workforce was engaged in farming." Accessed 3/28/2018:

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