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Harvesting Uncertainty
3,000 Miles From the Fields of Tainted Spinach, Local Farmers Anticipate a Consumer Backlash

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.

"We were having a great time," Bowen said. "We were talking about having a good fall crop. We were bucking each other up."

Bowen had left his cellphone in his car. When he finished dinner, he walked across the street, got in his car, and saw he had eight voice-mail messages from family members, business associates and friends -- asking if he had heard the news.

"You talk about going from the top of the world to the bottom in 100 feet of asphalt," he said, adding: "I've got a house under construction. I bought my neighbor's farm. My whole world is built around this business, and because of something that happened in California it is all disappearing."

Verdelli, which is based in Harrisburg, Pa., is a key customer for Starkey and Bowen, who rely primarily on repackers and frozen processors to get their product from the fields and into consumers' bellies.

"We will stay in Virginia and Maryland until about Thanksgiving, and then move to Texas and Arizona from Thanksgiving to April. And then April we come back to Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey until June, and then from June until October we go to Colorado," said Verdelli, whose company laid off 79 people after the outbreak. "It's a cycle."

Regional spinach farmers largely follow farming techniques similar to those of their competitors in California. In Starkey's case, one difference is that he grows his spinach in flat land instead of in beds, as California growers do. Also, he doesn't have to worry about contamination from water runoff in nearby cow pastures, since there aren't any. E. coli thrives in the stomachs of ruminants -- cattle, goats, deer -- and animals can get it on their feet, walk through a field of spinach or lettuce and leave bacteria behind.

When the spinach cycle hits Maryland and Virginia twice a year -- in a normal year, without a crisis -- Verdelli might buy two or three loads a week of 30,000 pounds of spinach from Starkey and Bowen. The general market price is $12 for every 35 pounds, and each grower could sell Verdelli 10 or 12 loads on a good year.

But now, with customers fearful of spinach, Verdelli doesn't foresee ordering two loads a week. He is processing 2,000 pounds a day, down from 35,000 pounds. Bowen hopes to send him half a load twice a week to start.

"We bring in what we need to pack," Verdelli said. "I think we are going to be feeling this for some time."

Starkey Farms -- which also includes some land in Delaware -- produces wheat, soybeans, corn and lima beans on his 1,700 acres, but spinach takes up the bulk of the acres and produces the most revenue. The Starkey family has been farming spinach since the 1930s. Brennan Starkey grew up on the farm in Galena and went to boarding school in New Hampshire. He then studied political science at Middlebury College, where he became interested in African life. He served two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, helping women and children start gardens, and then returned home to farm his family's land with his brother as their father grew older.

Starkey's brother, Chris, is now in the farm equipment business, leaving the farming to Brennan, who lives on the farm with his wife and two young children; his mom and dad; and Chris's family.

The economic calculation for farmers like Starkey and Bowen is simple: a drop in demand equals a drop in need of supply, and that equals thousands of pounds of spinach for their own dinner tables but not anyone else's.

"I'm worried the crop" could go to waste, Starkey said. "No question about it. We just don't know what's going to happen. It's too early to say what the consumer reaction will be."

Bowen said: "The produce has to go out of the store. Those are the numbers we will see [this] week. I mean, the question is: How much of the product moves off the shelves?"

Starkey said several things need to happen for spinach to make a quick comeback. For one, the FDA would have to come up with some sort of finding -- "smoking gun," as Starkey put it -- about how the contamination occurred.

"The consumer wants to know: How did this happen?" Starkey said, though FDA officials have said they may never be able to answer.

Also, people need to stop getting sick.

"We're gonna need five straight days of people not getting sick," he said.

"The third ingredient is whether the consumer decides, well, nobody is getting sick and the FDA says you can eat spinach. They need to decide whether they think they are taking a risk or whether they say the scare is over and we can go back to our normal lives."

And finally, spinach farms need to prove they are E. coli-free. To that end, Starkey has begun testing his irrigation water -- a possible cause of the California outbreak -- for contamination. Starkey has little reason to worry, but he's taking this step because of the public uncertainty. Judging by the mouthfuls he consumes on his daily trips through the fields, he is confident his spinach is clean. (This reporter also ate some, and despite an aversion to anything green, remains on good terms with his digestive system.)

According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there have been no reports of food-borne illness traced to Maryland produce in the past five years.

"The fact of the matter is that our track record is excellent," Starkey said. "It's unblemished."

The spinach farmers who could turn out okay, say some in the industry, are those that farm small quantities of spinach and sell it at local farmers markets, where they maintain close, friendly and trusting relationships with their customers.

"This won't make a difference in how much I plant," said Heinz Thomet, whose business, Next Step Produce, sells spinach grown in Newburg at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market on Sundays. "I'd be surprised if nobody will buy my spinach."

He said his fall spinach will be ready in about a month.

"The average American memory lasts three days," he said. "By the time my spinach is in, it will be past three days."

Starkey and Bowen are not expecting such an easy road.

Bowen said, "We are going to get spinach back, one bag of spinach at a time."

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