One of the interesting dynamics in the produce industry today is the tension between commercial growers and the “little guys.”

Language in the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act carved out some exemptions from the law’s requirements for operators selling less than $500,000 per year. That language caused all major produce associations to switch from lending measured support for the reform effort to active opposition.

I had earlier argued that the industry should look to its best interests and embrace the food safety law, notwithstanding the troubling exemptions. However, I clearly see the injustice, so to speak.

Much to the annoyance of many, his $500,000 threshold seems to be the demarcation line for noble, deserving and authentic growers. Growers above that arbitrary line are profit-mongering and careless stewards, shipping produce willy nilly across the Continent. Meanwhile, farmers who sell less than half a million are green-thumbed, earth-friendly local growers and as good hearted as Mayberry’s Andy Taylor.

In fact, Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., introduced legislation in January “to promote more fresh fruit and vegetable production in America through the use of tax incentives.” How so? you might ask.

“ The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grower Tax Incentive Act amends the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow for a $10,000 tax credit to farmers whose annual farming income is less than $500,000, with at least 75% of that farming income being attributable to the sale of fruits and vegetables. “

Baca argues that his bill “provides incentives that will increase the number of fruit and vegetable growers in America, and help to end the food access crisis that is negatively impacting the health of our nation.”

I say that if a $10,000 tax credit is good for the fruit and vegetable producer with sales of less than $500,000, then a $100,000 tax credit makes even more sense for a producer with $5 million in sales. If we want to end obesity, let’s put fruit and vegetable growers with serious clout to work on the cause, not just some truck farmer hauling cucumbers to a road side stand.

The large v. small wounds are not all healed, as the grower-shipper board at the United Fresh Produce Association’s winter leadership meetings admitted they still get wound up over this issue. United Fresh leaders still vow to address the issue in the upcoming Congress or, if possible, to redress some of their concerns about the exemptions in FDA rulemaking on produce safety.

Perhaps that may work. But there also are reasonable voices in the produce industry who point out the common interests of small farmers and the commercial produce growers.

In a discussion thread on the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group on LinkedIn, I asked what the boards of directors of United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association should be working on. One member said this:

“One area in particular still not high enough a priority, nor moving fast enough, is an efficient, much faster process, that helps "local" "small scale" farmers comply with food safety expectations. With all the consumer interest and demand, and retailers pushing hard to procure more local, this is a time bomb waiting to go off. Small scale farmers are not paying enough attention to water, and land drainage, rodent control, et cetera, to the degree necessary. It’s only going to take one "local" farm incident for this to blow up nationally. Right now, the approach by retailers is to demand from the farmer a certain level of liability insurance. That’s a really poor approach.”

Another member pointed out that PMA has in fact teamed with Sysco Foods and PrimusLabs have put on a series of workshops aimed at small growers in the past few months and has another similar event planned for February.
I think this approach is appropriate and speaks to a suggestion made by another made by another member about United Fresh and PMA creating a “bigger tent” to include smaller growers. That reader suggested that the associations add a “small grower" membership level that is affordable for the small independent farms exempted by the Tester Amendment.

The mythic and revered “small grower,” kicking back on his rocking chair in Mayberry and waiting for his tax credit, may think all this attention from his commercial produce brethren is a little flattering, if somewhat condescending. For the sake of the consumer confidence, let’s hope both large and small growers can see their common bond and shared produce safety responsibilities.