On Thursday, September 17, USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden led a panel of veteran farmers and veteran training organizations, including Marianne Cufone on behalf of Recirculating Farms Coalition. The group discussed, via an online chat through Google+ Hangout, opportunities available for returning service members who are looking for long-term careers in farming and ranching.
Many veterans show interest in agriculture because they feel that working on the land helps them successfully transition to civilian life and provides them with a way to continue serving their community. As part of the beginning farmer and rancher community, many veterans are eligible for a wide variety of USDA programs and resources.
The event allowed RFC to highlight the assorted benefits of water-based growing methods for veterans. During the talk, Marianne Cufone noted, “[w]e learned these growing methods are especially useful for more senior or disabled vets – they are very versatile in design and so inspire creativity, they can be inside or outdoors and so offer flexibility, growing food often leads to healthier eating, and socializing, and in terms of physical requirements these systems are usually vertical – in towers, or elevated in beds – so they don’t require much bending and there is no weeding!”
Two new bills in Louisiana that support bringing more good food to communities through local agriculture are now law!! The first creates a “farm-to-school” program, which allows Louisiana public schools to communicate directly with local farmers to buy food. Previously, for any food item over $25,000, schools had to go through a complicated and difficult public bidding process, which often left out local farmers because they could not participate, be it due to lack of time or technology. Now, schools can connect with farms for any items under the federal minimum purchasing threshold, which is currently $150,000! This will bring more fresh local food to Louisiana schools. As over 65% of students in Louisiana public schools qualify for free or reduced price meals, the new law will promote providing children with fresh food who may get their primary meal, or even most or all of their meals at school.
The second new law is an urban agriculture incentive, which allows Louisiana cities to reduce taxes on land used for farming. The hope is that more landowners will be motivated to allow use of their properties for urban agriculture and share the tax savings with farmers by leasing at more affordable rates. The intent is to increase access to affordable land in cities for farming and thus also increase availability of local fresh food.
Recirculating Farms Coalition, working with students from Loyola New Orleans Law, various farmers, food advocates and especially the National Farm to School Network and Louisiana Farm to School Alliance successfully moved these 2 very important concepts through the Louisiana Legislature with Rep. Ebony Woodruff and Sen. Francis Thompson. On August 1st, with unanimous approval of the House and Senate, they both became law. Hooray for local food and farming and CONGRATS to all involved.
Yesterday, the Louisiana House Agriculture Committee moved a Farm to School bill forward that could bring more fresh local food to schools, by allowing them to directly connect with farmers, and sets up a database of farmers and schools interested in participating in such a program. Emily Posner, RFC’s Policy and Legislative Counsel, testified in support of the bill.
House Bill (HB) 730 would increase the “small purchase threshold,” which is the maximum amount of money schools can spend on a contract to buy food items, without having to engage in a lengthy and complicated formal public bidding process with potential food providers. In Louisiana, the threshold is low – up to $30,000 – so most school food purchases require formal bidding. This often prevents smaller-scale farmers, who can not spend significant time doing intricate paperwork, from selling to schools. Additionally, the bill creates a database so that farms and schools able and willing to participate in such programs can identify one another and easily make contact.
HB 730 comes on the heels of Senate Bill (SB) 184, which has a similar focus, introduced by Sen. Francis Thompson. SB 184 passed through the Senate Education Committee unanimously two weeks ago. Both bills will now move through the full House and Senate respectively.
Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) four years ago, shifting the focus from food contamination response to active prevention. FSMA represents a dramatic overhaul of food safety standards in the past 70 years — but there are some worrying gaps for urban farmers and water-based growers in particular. Get the facts below, and click here to get our full set of comments to the FDA on the issue.
Environmental Impact and Water-Based Growing
FDA’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement was recently released for public input. It discusses some of the potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the measures being suggested under FSMA. However, the FDA missed some important issues for the urban agriculture and hydroponic and aquaponic farms. These systems are growing rapidly nationwide, and becoming a bigger and significant part of U.S. agriculture. It’s not fair or appropriate to try to fit water-based growing and urban agriculture into rules meant for much larger, often rural soil based farming.
Recirculating Farming – hydroponics and aquaponics
Recirculating farm technology has been continually growing over the course of the past 35 years here in the U.S. These water-based farms function in closed-loop systems that make things getting into the farm, like contaminants and diseases very difficult, and as such, can often operate without the antibiotics or other chemicals that can pose a potential threat to consumers’ health. They’re also energy-, space- and water-efficient.
Long story short, recirculating farms shouldn’t be punished for their unique and innovative practices by being grouped in with other farming techniques with different risks. However, FSMA does not account for the important ecologic, social and economic role of recirculating farms.
The Environmental Impact Statement also doesn’t take into account the growing urban agricultural sector. In the future, both traditional and water-based farmers will continue to emerge and expand across the U.S., but if the changes to FSMA pass in their current form, urban and recirc farms will almost certainly be hampered by unfair restrictions and lack of clear regulations for growing.
E.Coli, Food-Borne Illnesses and Recirculating Farm Technology
The FDA defines “agricultural water” as the “water that is intended to, or likely to, contact the harvestable portion of covered produce” or food contact services. In short, it’s the water that’s used for overhead spray irrigation — not the water used to hydrate a plant’s roots. Many outbreaks of E.Coli and Salmonella in the U.S. have been due to spraying contaminated water over fields of leafy greens like spinach or romaine. Naturally, a large part of the FDA’s concern is preventing agricultural water from contact with fresh food.
However, in the context of recirculating farms, water containing fish waste fertilizer is not intended or likely to come into contact with the harvestable portion of the plants. Second, fish waste does not contain E. Coli, and therefore the microbial testing proposed by FDA ijust doesn’t fit with water used in aquaponic systems.
Recirculating farms are different, by their very nature, than other forms of field soil-
based agriculture. Nevertheless, the DEIS completely fails to recognize the differences between soil and water based agriculture — a factor that could be disastrous for the growing number of recirculating farmers.
The RFC is continually working on this issue, submitting comments to the FDA and raising awareness of the possibilities of water-based farming. Want to get involved? Contact our Policy Counsel today to find out how you can make a difference for farms and farmers around the country.
Fantastic news this week – a bipartisan Farm to School program bill was introduced both in the House of Representatives AND the Senate. We are VERY excited! RFC and partners nationwide have been urging legislators to connect farmers with schools so more fresh food can be part of school meals. Additionally, much farm to school programing includes gardens on site at schools. This can foster children learning more about nutrition, health and various other topics associated with growing.