This week I visited Chert Hollow Farm, just north of downtown Columbia. It’s a homestead operation tucked in a valley a few miles off U.S.-63. This is where the husband and wife team of Eric and Joanna Reuter harvest their product. They’re both former geologists who decided several years ago to move away from the 9-5 lifestyle and get back to their rural roots.
Joanna and Eric Reuter are concerned about the future of Chert Hollow Farm if new food safety regulations are enacted. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas)
They’ve poured their life savings and all profit into this new career. They live miles from town; you have to cross a tiny stream running through flat rocks to get to their home and farm.
Eric and Joanna Reuter are well known in the vibrant Columbia farmer’s market circuit for their food safety opinions. The blog on their website has featured many food policy posts.
They have strong opinions about the food-safety regulations that would be imposed by the Food and Drug Administration under a bill nearing a final vote in the Senate. An agreement (a revised Tester-Hagan amendment) was reached Thursday that would exempt producers that do less than $500,000 in sales annually and sell their products in-state or within a 275-mile radius.
Even with the small producer exemption, the FDA could come down hard on the farm if it stepped out of line. A sort of one strike and you're out policy.
The Reuters said food-safety legislation with the additional provisions for small producers is not their ideal, but it is their only chance to stay in business.
"I'm still concerned, but it keeps things the way they have been, like the conditions under which we started this business," Eric Reuter said.
For the record, Reuter doesn't claim small farms equal safe food, but they do have an advantage. Unlike large food distributors, Chert Hollow can invite customers to watch how their produce is harvested, rinsed and prepared for sale.
Reuter knows if he sells a bad crop, his customers will know exactly how to avoid his food -- don't buy it. There is no U.S. Department of Agriculture safety net for Chert Hollow, and that’s the way they like it. Certified organic, small-scale, local customers, and little to none in the way of public assistance.
The Reuters said they want consumers to be allowed to choose their food, regardless of what the FDA says is safe.
Eric Reuter said if a food safety law passes that does not include the provisions for small producers, they will reconsider growing produce for commercial sale. They would have to move to inedible products like seeds, cut flowers … corn mazes. Reuter described this fate with a detached understanding that what he’s gotten himself into was by choice.
I asked him if in a post-Food Safety Modernization Act world he would have chosen to leave the safety of a traditional career to be a farmer. Without blinking, he said no.