Farming Magazine - October, 2013

COLUMNS

New England Farmers Union: Use Manure and Lose a Field?

By Sarah Andrysiak

Proposed federal food safety rules might change the way you manage manure on your fields and could affect many agricultural practices in our region. The New England Farmers Union (NEFU) is working hard to ensure that these proposed rules are modified so they do not change the face of New England agriculture.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed rules to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which Congress passed in 2011. One of the proposed rules, the produce safety rule, regulates how farms can use manure, compost and other biological soil amendments of animal origin. The rule applies to produce that is generally consumed raw, such as lettuce, apples and summer squash ("covered produce"), and it makes a farmer wait nine months between applying untreated soil amendments and harvesting a crop. In New England, that nine-month interval would take fields out of production for an entire growing season.

The rules specify different wait times depending on the type of soil amendment and how it is treated. Soil amendments must be applied in such a manner that they avoid contact with covered produce during application. Even if you minimize the potential for contact with covered produce after application, you must wait 45 days until harvest if you have treated the amendment by an FDA-approved composting method, or nine months if the amendment is untreated. If the amendment is treated with a chemical or thermal process (one that reduces listeria, salmonella and E. coli to negligible levels), no wait time is required.

This rule would have a disproportionate impact on the region's growing organic segment. Organic producers do not use chemically treated amendments, and they rely on manure and compost to add fertility to their fields. Practically speaking, this policy will likely encourage the use of chemically treated soil amendments.



Photo by jasonwebber01/morguefile.com.

The proposed rule has implications for livestock producers too. They may see a decline in the demand for the manure they sell, according to former New Hampshire legislator Tim O'Connell of Butternut Farm in Milford, N.H. "The amount of manure a cow produces a day is staggering," he said. A neighbor who raises roughly 40 head of cattle for beef earns a major portion of his income by selling manure to fellow farmers, and the rule will have a "major impact" on that business, O'Connell said. There's also the question of what happens to the manure if growers choose not to use it. Stockpiled manure could generate unhealthy runoff into rivers and streams.

O'Connell and his wife Noreen raise a small herd of goats, and the manure they produce is spread each spring. He said the amount of heat generated by his current manure treatment process - 90 days of curing - is adequate to kill harmful bacteria. However, the FDA has established standards and practices that are more stringent and more difficult to implement.

The FDA's proposed rule does allow growers to use alternative standards for both compost production and application intervals. For application intervals, the FDA acknowledges that further research is necessary to resolve the appropriate application intervals for manure and other biological soil amendments. Variables due to climate, region, soil type, and application and tillage methods, as well as other factors, will impact die-off rates for pathogens. However, the FDA would require adequate scientific data to support a conclusion that an alternative provides the same level of public health protection as the applicable produce safety rule requirement.

As for compost production, the FDA would again require that a producer provide the scientific evidence to support any alternative production method. The proposed rule allows for three types of composting:

1 Static composting that maintains oxygenated conditions at 131 degrees Fahrenheit (minimum) for three days, followed by adequate curing; or

2 Turned compost that maintains aerobic conditions at 131 degrees Fahrenheit (minimum) for 15 days with a minimum of five turnings, followed by adequate curing; or

3 Another scientifically valid composting method that results in less than 3 most probable number (MPN) of salmonella per 4 grams of total solids and less than 1,000 MPN fecal coliforms per gram of total solids.

The FDA acknowledges that treatment options are limited and that further research is needed. They say that allowing a range of treatment methods in addition to heat treatment is intended to "foster innovation and the development of new means of treating biological soil amendments."

While this initially sounds helpful, the FDA is effectively shifting the cost of developing a scientific basis for the alternatives to growers, who will then need to rely on our land-grant universities. The FDA is using regulation to drive innovation. The law, however, requires that the FDA rules be based on sound science.

NEFU encouraged the FDA to hold hearings in New England and to learn about our regional agricultural practices. Now the FDA needs to hear from New England producers. NEFU encourages you to help the FDA understand how your farming operation ensures food safety. Your input is needed to create food safety regulations that will work for our region. For the most up-to-date FSMA information, please visit http://www.newenglandfarmersunion.org/food-safety-modernization-act. Please join NEFU in helping the FDA create rules that will work for New England.

Sarah Andrysiak is a communications consultant for New England Farmers Union.