For years, Peg Morse and her family have run an apple orchard and blueberry and vegetable fields stretching over 200 acres of gently rolling hills in Wrentham.

But like many small farmers and agricultural processors, Morse is finding the peaceful landscape and sounds of farm machinery invaded this fall by a more discordant thought: costly new food safety regulations that many say could drive up the cost of farming substantially and even put many small farmers out of business.

Farms say the regulations are also certain to drive up prices to consumers, in some cases causing commodities to double.

"It makes you think about how much longer you want to be doing this," said Morse, who with her husband John operate the Big Apple Farm, which has been in the family for more than 60 years.

With new rules proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, The Big Apple would likely face expensive water testing requirements, paperwork and other changes covering not only its fields and orchards but its farm store, which washes fruit and serves up specialties like candy-coated apples.

"There's a lot of paperwork," Peg Morse said, adding that meeting the regulatory requirements could require as many as three or four additional full-time workers. The new rules would also require stepped-up water sampling and testing.

Morse said she and her family believe in and practice food safety.

"We drill our people in hand washing and cleanliness," Peg said.

But John says the regulations currently being proposed are over the top.

"It seems like they want to sanitize the whole country," he said. "It's not going to happen."

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011, signals a shift from a food safety system that largely responds to incidents involving illness and contamination to one whose goal is prevention.

The Food and Drug Administration was empowered to adopt regulations both on farms and on processing centers.

Proponents say the government historically has put too little emphasis on preventing food-borne illness, and that the new law and other new rules will give a better chance of preventing such outbreaks in the future.

They argue that the potential consequences of food impurities, such as salmonella-tainted peanut butter that sickened hundreds in 2009, make higher standards essential.

Many argue against exemptions for small farms, saying the possibility of contamination is as dangerous there as on factory farms and processing plants.

But the proposed regulations, which include more stringent testing of irrigation and wash water and restrictions on handling fertilizer and manure, are drawing howls from farmers and farm organizations.

In response, the FDA has extended the deadline for commenting on the new rules until Nov. 13.

The proposed regulations would have a major impact on farms in New England, most of which are small and are unable to spread regulatory costs over a large volume of product, said Richard Bonanno, president of the New England Farm Bureau Federation.

"The FDA has already admitted that the new rules could put some farmers out of business," said Bonanno, who calls some of the new rules "unreasonable."

Under the proposal, farms with gross produce sales of $25,000 or less would be largely exempted from the new rules, and those who sell anywhere from $25,000 to $500,000 would be exempt from most parts of the regulations if more than 51 percent of their sales were to a qualified retailer.

But under the rules, the FDA could also revoke a farm's exemption and force a small farmer to comply with the regulations, Bonanno said.

A complicating factor for many farm operations, like the Morses', is that many small farms and orchards must combine farming operations with food processing operations, such as baking pies, canning jellies and other post-farm products, to remain profitable.

Processing operations would also be tightly regulated, bringing with them their own costs.

For the Morses, the cost of the new rules could be substantial.

The proposed new irrigation and water testing standards alone could cost the farm more than $20,000 per year, they say.

Currently, the Morses test water once a year. The new rules would require weekly testing of each and every water source the Morses use.

Since they draw from three irrigation ponds and two wells, John Morse sets the cost of testing, alone, at $400 per week.

There are lots of other changes, too, he says.

The farm will have to replace its wooden apple picking boxes with plastic ones, upgrade its machinery and change the way it applies fertilizer.

Proposed rules require nine months between the time manure is applied to a field and harvest time. With New England's short growing season, such a rule doesn't make sense, Bonanno says.

The Morses say they're worried about the new rules and how they would affect not only their business but their customers. All the added expenses would have to be paid by someone, and most likely would be passed on to the consumer.

"We might have to charge $12 for a bag of apples we now charge $6 for," John said. "Who's going to pay that?"

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Ma., is concerned about small farmers and wants to hear from constituents on the proposed rules according to a statement released by his office.

"Congressman Kennedy is deeply committed to the smaller farms that form the base of New England's agricultural industry," the statement read. "While we have not received many constituent inquiries or complaints about the Food Safety Modernization Act, we encourage anyone with concerns to contact our office."

The Farm Bureau's Bonanno cautions that if more stringent rules force local farms out of business, it means more imported produce in local stores - imported produce that is often not subject to the same high standards used in U.S. agriculture.

The proposed FDA rules would also affect imports, but local producers are skeptical that any U.S. regulation of foreign produce would be effective.

Bonanno's organization is urging farm families to send in comments concerning the new rules so that the FDA will receive feedback on its rules' potentially destructive effects.

But farmers are also hoping that consumers will become educated on the topic and add their voices.

"Consumers should want to express themselves on the importance of food safety the same as the rest of us," Bonanno said. "But they also might want to caution the FDA not to overregulate farmers to the extent their local food sources are taken away."

RICK FOSTER can be reached at 508-236-0360 or at rfoster@thesunchronicle.com.

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