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Harvesting Uncertainty

Brennan Starkey, owner of Maryland's largest spinach farm, examines his soon-to-be-harvested crop. Starkey says he's worried the E. coli outbreak could deter consumers from buying his spinach.
Brennan Starkey, owner of Maryland's largest spinach farm, examines his soon-to-be-harvested crop. Starkey says he's worried the E. coli outbreak could deter consumers from buying his spinach. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

Brennan Starkey, Maryland's largest spinach farmer, is so confident that his spinach is safe and still very much nutritious that here he is, standing in the middle of his farm, packing the stuff into his mouth.

Starkey is standing in a spinach field not much different from the ones farmed by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, though now a housing development looms nearby, pressing in on the Eastern Shore's shrinking farmland. Since planting the spinach in August, he has worried about the weather and the insects -- as usual -- but now, 3,000 miles away, 12 California spinach fields linked to an E. coli outbreak are casting a long shadow that threatens Starkey's way of life.

It is lunchtime. He bends down in his field to pick off a few more leaves.

"Lots of times at dinner, I've eaten so much in the fields that my stomach is full and I can't eat," said Starkey, whose farm is in Kent County's Galena, on the Eastern Shore. "I love spinach."

But strolling through nearly 1,000 acres of spinach that is only a few days from harvest, Starkey wonders whether there will be a market for Starkey Farms spinach beyond his own mouth. The E. coli spinach outbreak that has sickened 187 people, killed one and is suspected in two other deaths, prompted federal health authorities in mid-September to warn consumers not to eat fresh spinach -- even if it was grown outside the three California counties implicated in the outbreak.

The blanket warning shut down the country's more than $300 million spinach industry for the past few weeks. On Friday the Food and Drug Administration cleared spinach for sale with the exception of bags that were part of several recalls, but as the popular vegetable begins slowly showing up again on national supermarket shelves, farmers such as Starkey wonder if anyone will buy the stuff. With an acre of fresh spinach potentially worth $7,000, Starkey and his family stand to lose a lot of money -- even though the contaminated spinach came from the other side of the country.

"There has certainly been damage to the entire industry," said Starkey, who grows Savoy spinach, a curly variety. "I'm 3,000 miles away. I'm thinking: Why am I thrown in with that part of the country?" He added, "I'm sinking with the rest of the ship."

Maryland and Virginia are not exactly hotbeds for spinach production. That nod clearly goes to California, which produces 74 percent of the country's fresh spinach.

However, the two states are significant secondary markets for a spinach industry that in the California off-season rotates around the country, particularly for Savoy spinach. Maryland averages around 1,200 acres of spinach; the bulk of it typically comes from Starkey Farms. Virginia produces about 550 acres of spinach.

Spinach has become a big industry in California, complete with mergers and acquisitions and revenue of $258 million last year. The dominance is such that a problem in that state's fields harms the country's entire spinach pipeline. California spinach farmers have the wherewithal and deep pockets to weather a slowdown in spinach sales. But around this region, spinach operations are primarily family-owned and operated, either with tiny farms that sell to local farmers markets or much bigger farms such as Starkey's that sell to national repackers.

"This is their livelihoods," said Dan Verdelli, vice president of Verdelli Farms Inc., which buys spinach from growers such as Starkey, then packs and sells it to grocery stores, including Giant Food. "They get two months in the spring and two months in the fall. These guys, if they lose this crop, it could be very devastating to them. I'm sure their life is not easy right now, but there's not much help I can give them at this point."

The swiftness with which their spinach businesses were turned upside-down has startled growers. Perry Bowen, who farms about 180 acres of Savoy spinach at River Farm in Virginia's King George County, was having dinner in Pennsylvania with Verdelli and other growers on the night the spinach warning came down from the FDA.

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