HANOVER — About 300 people — many of them area farmers — filled Alumni Hall at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College Tuesday morning to discuss new farming regulations involving the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act.
The public hearing was moderated by Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire commissioner of Agriculture, Markets & Food, and held so that Food and Drug Administration officials could hear directly from New Hampshire and Vermont farmers.
Those farmers are concerned that new regulations would make running a small New England farm too costly and would be a disincentive to the growth of small farms.
The new regulations would pertain to water and soil and food processed on farms.
The farmers said they are all for food safety. There was a consensus among the farmers that they are already regulated and that the proposed regulations would not make their food safer, but more costly to produce.
Many said it is the large corporate farms "out west" that need greater oversight and regulation.
While large corporate farm owners may not even step foot on their own farmland, small New England farmers live and work on their farms, eat the food they grow and know their customers.
"I would make the assertion that small farms are the safest farms in America," said Chuck Wooster of Sunrise Farm in White River Junction, Vt. "When you talk about small farms that tractability is built right in."
Some farmers said the new regulations are for the benefit of corporate farms because it's easier for large farms to comply. That means, they said, that large farms could put small farms out of business, eliminating competition.
"This is just a corporate attempt to squash a movement in food," said Will Allen of Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford, Vt.
Michael R. Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, said the Food Safety Modernization Act updates regulations created in 1930s.
But he asked farmers to express their concerns and explain their particular circumstances because, he said, safe alternatives based on local circumstances could be built into the regulations.
"We're eager to find out better ways, safer ways," Taylor said. "We have to work together to make this work. ... We're trying to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach."
Pooh Sprague of Edgewater Farm in Plainfield said if that the proposed rules were in affect, he would likely have to stop his "pick your own" operations because the cost of complying with the mandatory weekly water testing would cost him an extra $6,000 a year. He already pays to test his water and ensure it's safe, he said.
He said other small farms would keep operations small in order to be exempt from the regulations, he said.
"You're going to have to revamp it cause it sure as hell looks like a one size fits all right now," Sprague said.
Along with the farmers, consumers who buy food from their local farms urged the FDA officials steer clear of any regulations that would hurt small farmers.
One organic farmer said the proposed regulation regarding manure would involve a time period much longer than organic farming regulations.
Food safety advocate Gabrielle Meunnier of South Burlington, Vt., was the only person present to speak in favor of the new regulations.
In 2008, her 7-year-old son spent a week in the hospital after contracting salmonella from a manufactured peanut product in the country's largest food borne illness outbreak, she said.
She said most food-borne illnesses and food poisoning cases go unreported.
Taylor said he did not want to diminish any concerns expressed by the farmers, but modernizing federal farm safety regulations is important.
After the hearing Taylor said, "It was a great conversation. A lot of people with questions and concerns about our proposed legislation."
However, many of small farms represented there would likely be exempt under the proposed regulations, Taylor said.
It's estimated that about 60 percent — 110,000 farms out of the country's 190,000 farms — would fall under the $500,000 gross income that would make them exempt from the laws, he said.
Farmers, though, were concerned that exemptions could be taken away by any FDA official at any time, as the proposed law states.
Taylor said he would be visiting farms in New Hampshire and Vermont Tuesday afternoon and today and was to attend another public hearing in Massachusetts on Thursday.
He said the public comment period has been extended to Nov 16.