USDA “setting the record straight” about inspectors

I was working on a story about how pasture-fed ranchers in California have been hit by the drought and the closing of Rancho. Accessibility to USDA slaughterhouses and especially USDA cut and wrap operators is creating a bottleneck. Consolidation, environmental rules, NIMBY (no way am I going to have a slaughterhouse in my backyard!) and federal regulations are part of the picture, according to a 2009 Food and Water Watch report, “Where’s the Local Beef.”

The authors wrote that USDA regulations are skewed to support corporate giants like Tyson, Smithfield and Cargill that can afford expensive techniques and equipment now part of government inspection requirements. USDA inspectors begin with a live animal and end with a carcass. But beginning in the 1990s, the USDA also required facilities to have food safety plans for each segment of their operation, which inspectors audit. The decision put food safety in the hands of the operators running the plants and reduced USDA oversight “beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer,” according to a 2000 review by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Here is the USDA’s Inspection 101 publication.

I asked Food and Water Watch’s Patty Lovera about how USDA staffing plays into problem. She said “They stand out in the budget,” she said, meaning the inspectors. “They have a target on them.”

Staffing is a problem, she added, “but it varies in different parts of the country. There are some USDA districts that suffer chronic inspector shortages and that’s where you hear about them having to visit multiple processing plants in a day, just to say they were there every day, but not spending a lot of time to really see what’s going on.”

I left all that out of my story. I knew nothing about the storm being kicked up by Food and Water Watch and a NY Times story, which elicited a strong response from the USDA. They refuted any suggestion that they are short-staffed and that staffing has anything to do with food safety concerns or the Rancho recall.  (It appears the NY Times has been a thorn for a while and just fyi, FSIS is an arm of the USDA.)

The question is how many inspectors are enough. Here are the numbers: USDA regulations are enforced by 7,800 inspectors responsible for overseeing the safety of billions of pounds of meat and poultry — 92.3 billion in 2011 — produced by 6,200 USDA-certified plants in the United States. (This, by the way, is all I ended up putting in the story. I  try to avoid getting stuck in the middle of arguments by considering the numbers, especially when I don’t have enough time to dig into the records and talk to operators at length before going to print.)

Here is the email from USDA and the response:

Good Afternoon – Recently, advocacy groups have alleged that fluctuations in food safety inspector staffing levels have led to food recalls and compromised food safety. FSIS posted a response to these false statements on the USDA blog at the link below. You are welcome to retweet this story as is or use the content in your own publication.

Here is what Aaron Lavallee, FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, wrote:

Recently, the New York Times published an article claiming that job vacancies in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are leading to more food recalls. That’s not true.  The fact is, vacancies within the agency do not mean there are less inspectors on the job in our nation’s meat plants.FSIS is legally required to have a sufficient number of inspectors present in every single meat and poultry plant in the country.  No plant in America is allowed to operate if it does not have the required number of safety inspectors in the plant at all times, and every plant currently operating in America has the necessary food inspection staff.The New York Times article was based on misleading and inaccurate information, and to the paper’s credit it ultimately ran at least a partial correction.  The article was supposedly based on data from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by an outside group called Food & Water Watch-but Food & Water Watch had not yet received that FOIA report.  Yet, they told the Times they had received it, and the Times unfortunately reported faulty information without verification.The FOIA referenced in the article is actually just being released today.  You can view it here. The report will show that, at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, there was a vacancy rate of 7.08% among FSIS’ inspectors. Food & Water Watch claimed, and the New York Times reported, that inspectors in the Raleigh District faced an 11% vacancy rate. In fact, the vacancy rate there is currently 8.27%.Like all organizations, FSIS has a vacancy rate that fluctuates as inspectors leave work or retire.  FSIS is working to fill open positions. FSIS always prioritizes food safety inspection and dedicates significant resources toward ensuring that all plants have the required number of inspectors.  Again, if a plant does not have enough inspectors, it is illegal for that plant to operate.It is irresponsible to attempt to confuse FSIS vacancy rates with plant inspector shortages and then imply that meat and poultry products are less safe as a result.  There is no connection between recent recalls and FSIS vacancy rates, and any claims that these issues are linked are false.

A new generation of farmers fighting for land in California’s parched wine country

 Rains may yet head off a full-blown drought crisis in Sonoma County. But no amount of water will solve one of the toughest problems facing America’s most picturesque, productive and pricey farmland regions. That is getting new farmers access to land.  Listen to the Story

It’s a late Saturday afternoon and the sky has been darkening all day, casting Sonoma County in a sheet of gray the color of cement. The sky means rain and that’s good news to the farmers here at the Sebastopol Grange Hall. California is in a drought, the worst in recorded history. Reserve ponds are drying up and the pastures are brown and barren.

Dairy farmers and ranchers are cutting into their slim profits just to feed their herds. They’re culling deep into their stocks, selling or butchering entire herds. The organic dairies worry they won’t be able to sell their milk because they can’t pasture the cows much longer. A liter of organic milk from one of nearby dairies already goes for $5. The ranchers have it even worse with the shutdown of the only USDA slaughterhouse within a three-hour radius. You can’t have grass fed beef and lamb without pasture. And now they’re feeding their herds and having to drive further to slaughter. This might be enough to make any farmer get out of the business. But these new farmers in skinny jeans and flannels were here because they wanted in. To farm they need land. And in Sonoma County that’s a big problem. With the average age of farmers now at 59, it’s a problem that reaches deep into the future of farming in America. IMG_1797

That’s why I have come to the Sebastopol Grange Hall, a one story sage green building on Highway 12 that runs through grasslands dotted with wooly white sheep and row after row of grapes grown for some of the country’s best known wineries. The temperature was dropping when I arrived and the wind whipped the edges of a white tent pitched outside, behind the hall. Inside the hall, a stream of women threw open their arms and lurched up to hug a man who turned out to work for the USDA, the agency that oversees our food system. Normally this would be enemy territory for the USDA. But his long blonde hair and big eyes seemed to melt resistance. “Hey! Glad to see you in the big city,” one woman said, laughing. Sebastopol is hardly a metropolis but compared to a farm, it can seem like jarringly busy.

IMG_1800They sipped glasses of Mission Hardware Old Sonoma Red and Highway 12 Sauvignon Blanc, named for the road that connects the town with the rest of Sonoma County. This was the annual meeting of the Farmers Guild, an organization catering to young farmers trying get started. So it wasn’t surprising that these young agriculturalists looked more like baristas in the Mission District in San Francisco than our classic image of farmers “straight white men on tractors” as one woman put it. No one showed up in dreadlocks but they wouldn’t have been out of place. A few wore cowboy boots but if there was a cowboy hat it would have been an ironic flourish. The crowd held plates piled with salad greens, pulled pork and meat-free maple sausage — all organic and local of course, from a place called the Happy Pig Farm.

Evan Wiig, the organizer of the event, was trying to round up the crowd for what he called farmer speed dating.IMG_1795 “This is chaos,” he said, ringing a cowbell. “It’s like herding cats.” The first time I met the red-haired Wiig he was dressed in a three-piece plaid suit that looked like it came straight from the rack of a vintage store. He wore cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat. He left the New York publishing world for a 600 acre farm where he raised chicken and now lives on the Green Valley Village cooperative. He has 17 pigs including the litter born that morning.

“I am not sure people will be reading books in five years but they’re still be eating,” he told me on a January afternoon. The sky was cornflower blue and yaks and cows bellowed in the field behind us. The breeze made the grapevines curled around the trellis above us move just slightly. Most small growers have to subsidize their earnings with a second job or marijuana he said. “Cause you ain’t eatin’ local otherwise,” he said.

Land in Sonoma County can go for tens of thousands of dollars an acre, more if a vineyard is planted there. That’s out of reach for young farmers. “The cost of land is the number one obstacle,” Ariana Areguzzoni told me. She works for California Farm Link to help new farmers get access to land and capital. Rent and housing prices skyrocketed, she said. “And that’s really spilling over to ag land.”

People who have land to sell are holding on to it because they know they’ll get more money from a developer than a farmer. Ask anyone who has lived in Sonoma County long enough and they’ll tell you land is expensive because of city slickers moving in from San Francisco or Silicon Valley. They are chasing a back to nature fantasy of owning some land and planting a few acres of grapes to make their own wine. Vineyards are “in a whole different economic bracket. They just have more access. They have more options,” Ariana said. Some of them want to show off to their friends or make a little money. IMG_1804

The county’s agricultural commissioner, Tony Linegar, called it a dangerous hobby because when the prices of grapes go down they give them away. There are growers who rely on their grapes to make a living. Linegar said the hobbyists don’t have bonds to the community. They pick up after a few years when they get bored or disillusioned — or both — and sell off their land — for ever more money. It’s a $14 billion industry. “There’s a lot of money involved and a lot of influence,” Linegar said.

Even families whose ties to the land goes back to the Spanish-Mexican days couldn’t buy an acre today. They call themselves land rich and cash poor. The new farmers at the Grange are mostly just poor.

Like David Cooper. He works the Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen, a storied piece of land profiled in the book “Field Days.” Oak Hill’s 700 acres are protected because they are of the Sonoma Land Trust. Cooper could never afford to buy into Sonoma County. “Not in this area. Not a chance,” he said. It’s so expensive someone starting out couldn’t make enough money to cover the mortgage. Paul Wirtz and Bob Cannard, two of the country’s leading organic agriculturalists probably couldn’t afford their land either if they were getting started today, he said.

Owning the land means security and not losing the value that farmers put into the soil and surroundings. But Evan, David and the others like them know that 80 percent of the nation’s land is held by non-farming landlords. If you’re getting started you rent. But just getting capital to start is an uphill battle. “It’s not worth your time to talk to a bank,” a red-haired former software executive said. There are option, like Slow Money and Farm Link.

It seems like a pretty hopeless picture and land prices are troubling, which is why they’re playing a game of speed dating, after all. Yet these are some of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met. Farmers like Andrea Davis-Cetina.

She grows organic vegetables and popcorn on her Quarter Acre Farm in the Sonoma Valley. She studied agriculture at Hampshire College and started her own farm “because no one else would hire me.” Six seasons later she has expanded to three-quarters of an acre. She’s optimistic but said part of the problem is the lack of connection shoppers have with farmers. Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm. “So it’s understandable people don’t know what a farmer looks like because they don’t know one,” she said. But to make the local food movement work shoppers need to shop from one, Andrea said. “No middle man” she said. “Get to know your farmer,” David added. They turned and walked back in side. A few minutes later the sky opened up and raindrops pinged off the cars like tin bullets.

It was a welcome sound.

Rancho meat recall, California drought, open questions

First came the drought then the USDA forced Rancho in Petaluma to recall 9 million pounds of meat. I’ve been sprinting to keep up. There is so much to tell. I honestly don’t know where to find the time to write about it all for a few more days. But even though I might be invisible at times here, you can keep up with everything on Twitter —@GleasonRanch — and Facebook/gleasonranchfilm.

Here are some photos from yesterday. David Evans of Marin Sun Farms bought Rancho in record time — with some Silicon Valley tech VC dollars. A worker was already painting over the sign yesterday. IMG_1863



Here is an interview with Evans about the recall.

Livestock growers from Mendocino, Marin and Sonoma counties I spoke to were, as one of them put it, “cautiously optimistic” about the deal because Evans now has tremendous control over the system. Translation: Evans is doing what many of the big players do: integrate all points in the process, from growing to slaughter to marketing. That’s good business but the big worry is whether, in time, he will squeeze out the independent producers. The drought was bad enough: How do you raise pure grass fed beef and making a living if there’s no pasture and you’ve culled as much as you can afford, plus you’re having trouble finding organic hay — expensive organic hay. Livestock growers are burning through gas and dollars driving to get to a slaughterhouse/cut and wrap operation. That’s not what the local food movement was supposed to accomplish. But such is the dilemma the Rancho closing created. Poultry is another story: in Northern California you go to Modesto or nowhere.

I haven’t asked Evans all these questions yet but I have been pestering his press rep for some phone time.

The recall and the takeover were the topic of conversation at the Farmers Guild meeting last night at Shed in Healdsburg (and btw walking into Shed is like being in some kind of food sensory nirvana; the place just makes you feel gorgeous and rich and like life is best with a bottle of Chardonnay). The Guild invited Evans but I think everyone understood he was busy. Still things have moved so fast, are still moving so fast, that there are many questions left unanswered about how this affects the local food system they are trying to weave. There were enough questions without the Rancho recall. Now…



Gleason Ranch: the book and the blog

By Angela Woodall

Deciding to write a book is like getting engaged. It is at once exciting and frightening, and you have to be prepared to stay together for a long time. But the story behind Gleason Ranch is impossible to turn away from. Even food guru Michael Pollan had bestowed his benediction: “This doc goes beyond the romance of farming… [it’s] a hard look at the struggles…” So within 10 minutes of seeing a trailer of Morgan’s documentary about the Gleasons I could see the story unfolding on the page.

GRpigsIt was the scene with the sows that got me interested. Great big, bossy, Gleason Ranch sows in a pig barn built for them. They watched with curiosity and maybe a little amusement at the humans — Nancy Prebilich and her nephews — cleaning the stalls of messes the ladies had left. One of them rested her front paws on the gate of her stall for a better look at the hard and tiresome work being performed by the fourth and fifth generations, respectively, of Gleasons on the land. They looked nothing like the sows raised in the usual industrial system — enormous pale pink pigs kept pinned down in narrow metal crates with nothing else to do but eat. They stare blankly ahead. By now most people have seen those pigs either in person or in images. In contrast, the Gleason sows and their offspring had the run of the ranch with the sheep and the chickens and other animals.GRpigsmore

Morgan had been filming the Gleasons for four years so I had heard about the project, the twists and turns that barreled at him and the family. Nancy and I met for the first time at the fundraiser for the film, where I saw the trailer. A few days later I rode out to spend some time with her and Morgan, as well sheep, goats, dogs, horse, cow and guard llama, Ace. I wanted to make sure there was enough story and character for several hundred pages before committing. To be honest, my mind wasn’t made up until later that night when we stepped into the hall of the Sebastopol Grange #306. I needed something that put the Gleason story in context, something bigger than one family. Inside the pastel olive-colored hall, I started hearing the stories of other Sonoma County farmers being squeezed by big-time developers looking for land to feed the ever-growing wine business and Rousseauian fantasies of wealthy Bay Area dwellers. Sometimes the two overlapped.

The Sonoma County growers I met at the Grange that night were as libertarian, independent and contrarian as any of their farming brothers and sisters. But one of the youngest men there was dressed in an old 70s-era plaid suit, cowboy boots and a gnarled ranchers hat. The chaplain, a strawberry blonde in her 50s, wore a Medieval-cut tunic and Native American-styled accessories and opened the meeting with a prayer — a poem by Rafael Jesus Gonzalez. A middle-aged women in a black leather jacket, cargo pants and black ankle boots carried a chihuahua. A ring of tiny daisies crowned the head of a teenage girl. That night happened to be the annual election of officers to the Grange, which moved swiftly with no contests between candidates until it got to nominations for the three muses, Flora, Pomona, and Ceres. A competition sprung up for Flora, requiring a secret tie-breaking ballot. I never want to lose a group that idiosyncratic. I made up my mind by the time we started driving back to the Bay Area.

What you will read here on the Gleason Ranch blog is not verbatim from the book. Rather, the blog records discoveries along the way about the food, the land, the farms, the vineyards, the people. For one thing, I discovered a huge coincidence: My partner’s grandparents ran a dairy just down the road from the Gleason Ranch. In fact, his aunt Maria and Nancy’s mother, Barbara, were childhood friends since they went to the tiny one-room Watson schoolhouse in Bodega. Barbara was Maria’s model during her state cosmetology exams. In recent years, Barbara and her husband, Tony Prebilich, stopped by Maria’s housewares shop in Cotati on their way to the feed store. There were many other coincidences and connections. And nearly every day since I have learned something new about where we get our food, why we eat the way we do, what regulations are hurting or helping farmers and what the future is for them.

For starters I started to see the new iteration of greenwashing. Or, as I have to think of it, slow-washing.