Food safety issues and worries about food safety rose to a high level last year among farmers. The owner of one of the original small organic farms in my county asked me what lessons could be learned from the E. coli O104:H4 outbreak in Europe, but then came E. coli O157:H7 on strawberries in Oregon, Listeria on cantaloupes in Colorado and the FDA rulemaking process for farm food safety.

What exactly is a small farm?

The last Census of Agriculture data is from 2007, although a new census will be made this year. In 2007, there were 2.2 million “farms.” About 1.3 million of these had farmgate gross sales of less than $10,000. Only 57,000 of them had farmgate sales of $1 million or more (sales, not profit). (1)

This is about the sales volume of a medium-large urban food co-op in the 1970s, 40 years ago, when a million was worth a million, you might say. All of agriculture in the U.S. had farm sales of around $300 billion, roughly equivalent to a single major multi-national oil company.

Almost all the farmers I work with are part of the 57,000. But the 57,000 are as stratified as the whole farm population. About 10 percent of them (5,600) have farmgate gross sales of $5 million or more. Some of the farms I work with are among those 5,600. The USDA doesn’t break down the 5,600 any further, but there are also a wide range of farm sizes within the category “$5 million or more.”

Some are truly ‘superfarms’ with significant share of production of an entire commodity. When I analyzed California leafy greens using the 2002 Census of Agriculture data, for example, 59 lettuce farms grew 69 percent of the state lettuce crop on 1,000 acres or more. In 2006, USA Today reported that a single spinach grower produced almost all of the spinach for Fresh Express, at that time the largest fresh-cut processor in the country.

What is the definition of a “superfarm”? There are both organic and conventional vegetable operations in California that farm more than 20,000 acres — almost 30 square miles. They could certainly qualify, but where the cutoff would be is not clear. Some are simply outstanding operations, including for food safety. Perhaps 10 percent of the farms with sales above $5 million, or about 500 farms, have very large roles in many produce categories.

In 2011, the USDA’s Economic Research Service published “Financial Characteristics of Vegetable and Melon Farms” by Mir Ali and Gary Lucier, which shows continuing concentration across all vegetable and melon types (2).

The fact that the same individuals may control more than one farm “entity” complicates matters, but in general this means that farm statistics understate the degree of concentration and disparity between farm sizes.

The term “farms” includes farms and ranches, both crops and animal production, including large CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), as well as woodland and pasture farms.

It’s pretty easy to guess that the 1.3 million farms with less than $10,000 in sales should be in the “very small” farm category. But where this category ends is not clear.

The Tester Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act, under which the FDA is writing new farm food safety regulations, establishes a kind of definition of small as less than $500,000 in (farmgate) sales and selling most production “locally” within a state, or within 275 miles if sales cross state lines. From my perspective, and looking at the O104:H4 outbreak in Germany, this sounds more regional than local, but regional is not a defined category.

The FDA briefly describes the FSMA as follows:

“FSMA is the most sweeping reform of FDA’s food safety authority in more than 70 years, and a law of this scope and complexity often comes with direction from Congress for the federal agency responsible for implementing it to go through a process called rulemaking…”

Under the new food safety law, FDA will be issuing a number of rules including a preventive controls rule in food facilities, a foreign supplier verification rule, and a produce safety rule.”

For farmers, the question of how a “food facility” is defined — because it can include on-farm basic operations — and how rules for produce are developed, and where federal regulation stops and state regulation takes over, are all crucial questions, which are partly dependent on the size of the farm being “small” or not. Very different language is used by different parts of the industry for both “small” and “local.”

One could say that a small farm has average annual sales somewhere in the range of from $10,000 to about $500,000, but less than $1 million dollars, recognizing that a lot of jockeying is going on because of the legal implications of the categories for food safety. By this very inclusive definition, there are about 840,000 “small farms,” if by “small” you include what might be more reasonably called “medium” or “medium-large” farms.

There are no “average” farms except as an inappropriate statistical fiction.

Crops are not evenly distributed geographically. For example, California grows about 1/2 of U.S.-produced fruits, vegetables and nut crops, and for produce like leafy greens, the Salinas valley and the desert production of the Imperial Valley and Arizona dominate U.S. production in very specialized sub-regions, which are often dominated in turn by the largest farms. 

It might make more sense to write leafy green regulations geared toward the largest farms in these areas rather than trying to impose a one-size-fits-all on smaller farmers growing a variety of crops in varying climates and geography. Many fruits and vegetables to be regulated as “produce” have similar concentrations, with large farms producing much of the crop in specific regions.

Just using very broad statistical indicators, it should be obvious that U.S. agriculture is highly heterogeneous. At an ecological, geographical, geological, biological, social, and farm or farm-field level the heterogeneity is infinitely more complex.

It does not seem like a rationally conceivable project to write national regulations for food safety on-farm, although it may be legally mandated.

Not, that is, if by regulation one means detailed instructions for every farm and farm size and crop and diversity of production and integration of production between crops and animals and ecosystem interactions and farm benefits to the environment. Even looking just at what I look at (mostly) in food safety, the production of “specialty crops” (fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and other raw products), U.S. farm complexity defeats centralized rule-making that could function.

The knowledge needed, if anywhere, is in the fields.

One could get far more impact for every regulatory buck spent if the initial goal were the regulation of the 6,000 largest farm operations. These truly approach what we think of as “industrial agriculture,” with very large field sizes — often in large monocultures, and often collectively dominating the overall production of a particular commodity.

They have many characteristics in common and look like the place one could start implementing national regulations. One could make sure these 6,000 farms had good food safety procedures and then perhaps move on to the next 50,000 farms with sales over $1 million — a tougher nut to crack but conceivable. If we had well-validated food safety procedures f
or the very largest farms, that is. Do we?

Apparently not. Otherwise hundreds of millions of dollars of ongoing and new research projects — federal, state, and private — would not be going into fundamental and operational (or validational) research on farm food safety, in particular aimed at these kinds of farms. A several-year study headed by the University of Maryland will for the first time

have some access to the private data of the largest produce farms and processors, for example.

There is a further problem in fitting on-farm food safety to the scale of farming. If one looks at some of the metrics and “‘supermetrics” developed by groups like the California Leafy Green Marketing Board and private buyers, respectively, it looks to me like the very largest farms and superfarms have the best fit to the metrics and face the least economic damage from applying them.

One of the metrics commonly used is to buffer production away from natural habitat. This can be a reasonable issue for a 1,000 acre field situated on a multi-thousand acre production farm. But it gets more expensive the smaller the field and the closer the natural habitat. At the limit of difficulty would be a small field, close to habitat, where the requirements for buffering (set on a national standard) leave no field left to farm.

But my impression is that economic constraints start with even quite large farms.

There is quite a lot of well-validated data, not on how to farm safely, but on how to farm unsafely in particular ways, on how to specifically screw up. Some of these are general principles that appear truly scale neutral. Some are commodity-specific and one hopes reflected in parts of the commodity-specific guidances by the FDA and others, and are mostly scale neutral.

The human pathogens of major concern in food safety have their individual ecologies and preferences. Situations where each pathogen thrives can be looked for. These include Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (such as O157:H7), Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella and Campylobacter. There are also common pairings between a particular crop and a particular pathogen found to be of greatest concern for that crop. Salmonella on cantaloupes is a common pairing.

So I could imagine several thousand pages of regulations being written for food safety on “small” and “very small” farms being replaced, instead, by one sentence: “Don’t screw up.” 

For example: “Don’t harvest strawberries, produced near ground level, next to wild animal droppings. And if rain or sprinkler irrigation could have splash-dispersed potential pathogens, expand the area where there is no harvest.”

This is a strategy of known defect reduction, or elimination, often used in sensory control of food quality. Defect reduction is an achievable process of improvement on any farm. It would seem to be more effectively approached through education and cooperative efforts, leaving farmers in control — as they should be. They know their farms. It could have dramatic impact, over time, in reducing food safety hazards on-farm. This is a statistical reduction of harm, effective on average, and not a guarantee. There are fairly simple steps that farmers have control over that would increase food safety.

On the farm, water quality, presence of excrement that can contact a crop, worker health, and crop “handling” — preparation for sale off farm — seem to be the main hazard points under control. Yet most regulations try and comprehensively detail every aspect of growing a crop. Growing crops up until harvest might be the least important factor in increasing overall food safety. The steps from harvest to the consumer are the places that seem to have the greatest impact on food safety. Those steps include handling, processing, commingling, storing, packaging, labeling (such as use-by dates, use-instructions), transportation (and consumer or retail behavior), which can have far more destructive effects. Except insofar as a grower is involved in all of these, they remain out of the grower’s control.

In 2007, we found that processor/handlers of whole produce, and fresh-cut products, were the known sources of many multistate produce outbreaks and recalls over the previous 20 years.  We also found that fresh-cut produce, compared to whole produce, looked like the cause of more outbreaks than would be the case if on-farm contamination was all that mattered.

For E. coli O157:H7 and many produce categories like leafy greens, we came up with the notion that the introduction of a new pathogen into a new kind of processing and food category without a kill step — fresh-cut for both retail and food-service/wholesale — combined with certain commercial realities to create the majority of the outbreaks and recalls in the U.S. (3). Consequently, the greatest impact on food safety would come from better and specific regulation of the fresh-cut industry, or self-regulation for that matter, rather than regulating “farms.”

One type of regulation that, from the record, could have great impact is simply to have use-by dates on bagged fresh-cut produce for consumers, or containerized fresh-cut for food service, be determined with food safety criteria, as well as by “freshness” and, in fact, to be under some regulation of any kind.

The three outbreaks in 2011 mentioned at the beginning of this commentary show the limitations of this approach as the sole analysis — it is only true as far as it goes.

(1) 2011 Census of Agriculture

 (2) Financial Characteristics of Vegetable and Melon Farms 

(3) September 22, 2009 testimony of David Runsten, Director of Policy and Programs, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Davis, California, at the USDA hearing on the proposed National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, Monterey, California


Daniel B. Cohen is the owner of Maccabee Seed Co., an agricultural research-and-development and consulting company in Davis, CA.