Organic farmers say proposed manure rules stink

Manure and farm fields, natural companions. But is it unsafe for the food supply? Photo: Some rights reserved.

Manure and farm fields, natural companions. But is it unsafe for the food supply? Photo: Some rights reserved.

Manure and agriculture. The two have pretty much been entwined since humans figured out how to farm. While so-called Big Ag has mostly gone over to fertilizer made in factories, many home gardeners – and most organic growers – still rely heavily on what comes out the back end of animals.

As reported by NPR's Dan Charles on Thursday, many organic growers are unhappy with new rules on applying manure proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

One of the main sticking points would mandate a 9 month gap between the application of fresh manure and the harvesting of produce that's eaten raw. (Note: this is just one part of a larger safety overhaul by the FDA.)

As NPR recounts:

The rules don't cover the smallest farms. They apply to farms with more than half a million dollars in annual sales, or which supply food to supermarkets.
But that includes Jim Crawford's farm.

He already follows the organic rules; he doesn't harvest crops within four months of spreading manure. But having to wait nine months — longer than a growing season — would completely disrupt his operations. "We wouldn't even be able to function," he says.

There is an alternative: Composted manure. The heat from composting kills disease-causing microbes. But Crawford says compost would cost him anywhere from three to six times more than manure. And he just doesn't see why he should have to switch, because he doesn't believe that what he does now is at all risky.

While much of the reaction has been strongly negative some organic growers are supportive. Why? Because deadly outbreaks of things like E. coli are best avoided, if possible, and food safety affects everyone's bottom line.

Manure does contain pathogens. There's little disagreement that knowledgeable handling is important for safety's sake. News Director and home gardener Martha Foley blogged about this back in April. In their weekly garden chat, Cooperative Extension hrticulturalist Amy Ivy explained that Foley's practice of adding manure to the garden every spring risked falling short of the recommended 120 days between adding manure and harvesting. It's better to apply fresh manure in the fall, basically. (Here's more on manure as fertilizer for small-scale production from Cornell University Gardening Services.)

Which brings up variables in manure management. With time and extra handling, manure can be composted to kill the dangerous germs. ("Well-rotted" is an old-time term for manure that should be safe to use. A trailer of well-rotted manure is a perennial favorite thank-you gift on NCPR fund drives.) But when it comes to germs we need to avoid there's often room for doubt: How hot is hot enough? How long is long enough for different types of animal waste, and just how safe does fertilizer need to be?

Manure storage and disposal have been big, controversial topics for some time now, as illustrated by this David Sommerstein story from 2005. As if there aren't enough things to avoid in regular poop, modern reliance on antibiotics has created risks of "super germs" too, another reason to be careful about how animal manure is dispersed.

The comment period for these latest FDA proposals ends Friday, November 22nd. And, according to Politico:

FDA officials are going to have a lot of reading to do over the holidays. The comment deadline for two of the most significant FSMA proposals — produce safety and preventive controls — ends Friday and already nearly 19,000 comments have been logged. The docket for the produce rule, which would for the first time ever impose on-farm food safety standards, has received a whopping 12,807 comments

Whatever regulators come up with, the issue of safe use of manure will be around as long as corporations farm on a grand scale, or old MacDonald has a cow.

Is this an issue of concern for you as a grower, or consumer? Is regulation the answer? Do you think the new rules are good ones?

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  1. This is an over-paranoid reaction to a non-existing problem. Where there are real concerns…in the creation of super germs caused by over use of antibiotics…we will see no action taken. The big money interests have far more power in this discussion than the organic farmers ever will.

  2. If there were a major outbreak of some eColi disease epidemic it would be an economic disaster for the industry. Its a low probability event but with serious consequences. Its a potential problem they need to take seriously. If these regulations prove unworkable, find some other way.

  3. I know Jim Crawford and know that he runs a very profitable farm. His claims that he can't afford compost are baffling. I run a modestly profitable farm that uses Giroux's poultry compost for the bulk of our fertility. Buying in professionally made compost that complies with the National Organic Program's rules [for how it's made] is cheap and easy for many (but not all) regions of the US. A tiny, tiny percentage of our annual expenditures each year go to Giroux's for their excellent and safe compost. Jim Crawford can tell you right from wrong on many agricultural issues, but NPR, please look elsewhere for a more complete perspective on FSMA rules and their impact on organic farms.