2000s Archive

Politics of the Plate: Greens of Wrath

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Baumgartner and I drove south for 20 minutes to a grill in King City for lunch with Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms, a 6,000-acre operation. There is nothing reticent about Martin, a strapping, crew-cut man. “I’m so outspoken that I’ve come close to losing my job,” he said. Rio Farms has spent $500,000 to comply with buyers’ food-safety demands, which Martin dismisses as “window dressing.” He has ripped out riverbank wildlife habitats and erected ten miles of eight-foot-tall fencing to keep deer off his company’s land. “There’s not a scrap of scientific research that shows deer carry E. coli in California,” he said. “Where will they draw the line? Birds? Bugs?”

Hoping that hard scientific proof will allow him to tear down that fence, Martin has been working in cooperation with Dr. Andy Gordus, a staff scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game. Last fall, Gordus examined the colons of 27 deer shot by hunters in Monterey County. All tested negative for E. coli. He plans to examine more deer this autumn and the next. “The science isn’t there to prove that deer are a factor, but farmers are being required to moonscape the habitat around their fields in the name of food safety,” he says. “That’s amputating a person’s leg because they have a hangnail.”

One evening, just around dinnertime, I visited Phil Foster, who operates a 250-acre organic farm based in San Juan Bautista. Beginning a decade ago, Foster built his own local distribution network to wean himself off selling to the processors. It’s a decision for which he is grateful, he said, as he and his pack of four assorted mongrels set out to walk me through fields containing more than 20 crops: apples, cherries, chard, fennel, bell peppers, peas, strawberries, walnuts, broccoli. He is proud of the hedge of wild buckwheat, lilac, coyote brush, and elderberry he planted along the edge of his fields. Far from being a “food-safety issue,” the hedge of native plants provides a vital habitat for birds and beneficial insects that feed on bugs that would otherwise devour his crops. I poked my head through the hedge. A 25-foot moat of cracked, barren earth stood between Foster’s land and his neighbor’s uniform rows of greens.

Dinner, which was prepared by Foster’s wife, Katherine, began with zucchini blossoms, lightly battered and stuffed with feta, parmesan, and provolone. They were followed by a salad of mixed greens topped with walnuts and slivers of golden beet and a bowl of simple sautéed snap peas. Then came pasta with a sauce of oven-dried tomatoes and Swiss chard, and fresh strawberries for dessert. Everything except the cheese and the pasta was grown on Foster’s farm. Asked what he would do if the regulations became mandatory, Foster sipped his wine and said, “This is a good way to farm. I would fight for as long as I could.”

He has an ally in Judith Redmond, the co-owner of Full Belly Farm, northwest of Sacramento, and also the president of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). Ever since the one-size-fits-all rules were first unveiled, she has feared they would become mandatory for all greens growers. “The people who are going to have the most difficult time are those who have small, diverse farms that produce multiple crops for the local market,” Redmond said. Such growers can’t pay auditors to inspect their fields for compliance. They lack the staff to record every instance of a wild animal setting foot on their property, and if one does, they can’t afford to hire a trained expert to assess the problem. Nor do they have time to maintain the long, involved paper trails that the big buyers demand. “I’m not sure raising the bar so high makes sense,” she said, “particularly if you’re raising it in the wrong place. A lot of small farms would go out of business.”

Redmond and the CAFF have made some big enemies by pointing out one indisputable fact that the big packers would rather ignore: Of the 12 recorded E. coli outbreaks attributed to California leafy greens since 1999, 10 have been traced to mechanically harvested greens bagged in large production facilities. The source of two outbreaks has yet to be determined. None have been linked to small farms selling to local markets.

“There is a clear difference between farms that machine-harvest three hundred acres of one crop in a single day and ship to a processing plant that produces bags of greens that can last sixteen days on the grocery store shelf, and farms with thirty acres and thirty different crops that are hand-harvested and sold at a farmers market or a CSA a day, or at most two, later,” Redmond says. “It’s the industrial food system that created this problem. We didn’t.”

The corporate processors vehemently dispute that assertion, saying that pathogens do not discriminate between small plots and monocrop acreages. But after all the efforts in the fields and in the processing facilities, no one knows what really caused the outbreak at Paicines, and there is no hard evidence that the draconian measures have fixed it, despite the optimistic observation that “it hasn’t happened again.”

Charles Benbrook, the chief scientist at The Organic Center, in Boulder, Colorado, which supports research into the benefits of organic food and farming, thinks he knows what went wrong in the Paicines field. The culprit, he claims, was most likely E. coli–laden dust that blew over the spinach from a cow pasture. Exposed to 100-degree heat and daily irrigation from sprinklers, the dust hardened to create a ceramic-like biofilm on leaf surfaces that was impervious to the washing processes in the packing plant. Once chilled and bagged, the E. coli went dormant and stayed that way as long as the temperature inside the bag remained low. So maybe a shipment sat outside too long on a loading dock. Maybe a store’s produce display was too warm. A shopper may have left the spinach in the back of the car for a couple of hours while running errands. Somehow, the bags warmed and became perfect little incubators for E. coli 0157:H7. According to this scenario, the outbreak had nothing to do with deer, ground squirrels, or frogs. “E. coli 0157 bacteria shed into the environment in the United States all originate from the back end of a cow,” he says. “Requiring growers to take out grass in waterways and trees and shrubs along the edge of their fields could, in the final analysis, prove counterproductive. If areas around fields were covered with grass and shrubs, there wouldn’t be any dust in the first place.”

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