The Upside to Tainted Spinach Scares

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Carol Ann Sayle


"Hey, Lady, want some spinach?" I whispered, conspiratorially. I was in trench-coat mode, dark-alley style. A salaciously tempting tease in the night. Well, actually, it was broad daylight and I wasn't thatt kind of tease!

The farmstand at Boggy Creek Farm was crowded. It was the start of the fall season, and our tables were loaded with squash, green beans, potatoes, and cucumbers. Some baskets of cherry tomatoes added a punch of red and drew folks to them, like bulls to the cape.

The woman whirled around to face me and excitedly asked, "Where IS it?"

"Oh," I said, laughing. "I was just testing your desire. We're still a couple of weeks away from the first harvest!" I knew she could take the "joke," as her trust in us as her farmers was already established. We have fed her and her family for years.

The spinach is so fresh it still hums with energy and tastes rich and nutty, courtesy of its own special "terroir."

This happened right after the California "spinach scare," the cause of which has never been fully explained to the public by the "investigators." The clues however, point to fields bordering a river, and upstream some sort of dairy feedlot with cows eating grain instead of grass. Somehow, the results of their unfortunate diet entered the river from which was drawn the water that was sprinkled over the many acres of mono-cropped spinach. And then the spinach, harvested by machine, was washed and packaged under many different brand names by many workers, and sent out all over the United States to wreak havoc on the digestive systems of humans, and worse ... But who knows what really happened.

The lady at our farmstand understands that the scenario for producing spinach on our farm is vastly different. The field where a few beds of spinach are grown is about 50 feet from our processing shed, which is right behind our farmstand. Spinach beds alternate with lettuce, kale, escarole, beets, turnips, and other cold-weather crops—a great diversity of vegetables and greens, stretching out like 200-foot-long, colorful ribbons. The crops are watered by drip tape, and the water rarely touches the leaves. No sprinklers are used, primarily since they waste huge amounts of water through evaporation. And no cows live anywhere around us. Our five-acre farm is in the city.

The spinach is cut with scissors—leaf by stemless leaf—by the mother/daughter team, "the Marias," who have worked for us for over 10 years and who are well-known and appreciated by our customers. Then the spinach is washed three times in "approved" City of Austin water, and spun dry in a restaurant-sized salad spinner. Next, it is placed in a new plastic bag that lines a bushel basket, and the Marias rush it to the salad table in the farmstand. There, the ladies and gentlemen happily tong up what they want into new individual plastic bags, take it home, and eat it within a couple of days. The spinach is so fresh it still hums with energy and tastes rich and nutty, courtesy of its own special "terroir."

The contrast of our production of food for our community to that of produce grown in monocultures and shipped from one side of the nation to the other, and from other countries to ours, is drastic. Yet our government, responding to food safety concerns, wants to dump a little farm like ours—where our friends, the customers, walk our farm and look at the crops growing—into a big pot full of giant farms, huge processors, and transportation systems, and create laws that regulate us all as equals.

There have been a slew of food safety bills in Congress lately. Some have caused great alarm and faded away, and others just hang in there, hoping to be passed. One of these, Senate bill 510, will cause such regulatory burdens to small farms that many may cease producing food for their neighbors. And it would be a shame to lose these farms, especially organic ones, for they employ a lot of people. Obviously, this is no time to be cutting jobs.

If you are one of the folks shopping at farmers' markets and farmstands, or participating in a CSA, please visit the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance's website and read up on the latest food bills and find out how you can respond to those who control the future of small, local farms.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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