Farewell Frikeh

This piece is from Anthony & Carol Boutard’s July 5th newsletter. Many of you have bought Ayers Creek Farm frikeh through our CSA and at the Hillsdale Farmers Market. I thought you might like to hear what happened to it. You can join the Ayers Creek Farm email newsletter list here for more info. -Laura

Several years ago, we started experimenting with various grains at Ayers Creek Farm.  Our research led us to an ancient food called “frikeh.”  Produced by farmers since Biblical times, frikeh is wheat harvested while still green, then burned (parched) and threshed.  The resulting grain is jade green with a grassy, sweet and smokey flavor. The green wheat is more nutritious than mature wheat, and high in fiber.  Over the last five years, we have sold frikeh for a short time in early summer. With its smokey quality, our frikeh offers a distinct and exciting variation on normal starchy grains.  It is especially popular with vegetarians.

Frikeh is prepared throughout the Middle East. Until we began our experiments, there was no commercial production of frikeh in the US.  There is a three-day window where the grain, durum wheat, can be burned.  It is a rustic process, the grain is parched in the field on sheets of corrugated metal. Once parched, the grain must then be dried outside on screens covered to protect it from the sun and birds. To see traditional frikeh preparation, go here. Frikeh is an ideal crop for small farms which need to add value to overcome the disadvantage they have relative to “economies of scale.”. For more detail discussion of our experience with the grain and its production, go here.  Because of a new and aggressive direction taken by the Oregon Department of Agriculture Food Safety Division, we will not be able to sell frikeh this summer.  

Here’s the problem.  The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) has just decided to define frikeh as a “processed food,” same as Spam, Marshmallow Fluff or Fruit Loops.  Because it is prepared in the field, there is no industrial facility to license. Last week we were notified by the ODA that we are prohibited from selling frikeh.  

Is there a food safety issue with frikeh?  Absolutely not, it has been prepared for 3,000 years or so without a blemish upon its reputation.    In fact, ODO allows the sale of frikeh imported from Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Nonetheless, it bans the locally produced frikeh.  Yes, this flies in the face of common sense, sound food policy, and the basic principles of food safety. What’s the difference?  Our frikeh is fresh, certified organic, locally produced, and contains no additives.  

The problem is not just the banning of locally produced frikeh, absurd as it is.  The ODA has adopted an extremely broad definition of food processing:  “The cooking, baking, heating, drying, mixing, grinding, churning, separating, extracting, cutting, freezing, or otherwise manufacturing a food or changing the physical characteristics of a food, and the packaging, canning, or otherwise enclosing of such food in a container.” (OAR 603-025-0010(10))  This definition provides for no hazard analysis.  It is just a laundry list that only works in the favor of large scale industrial operations.  

As such, it sweeps up whole foods that people have never considered processed.  Dry and fresh shell beans, dried peppers, grains, even garlic, all fall into ODA’s definition of processed foods.  The steep licensing fees will discourage farmers from trying new ways to present food.  For example, up to now, most of us have quietly interpreted the rule to exclude casual drying of peppers on the plant.  That has changed because ODA sought severe means to keep farmers and other vendors in line, and the legislature accommodated them by increasing civil penalties from $250 to $10,000.  

What is troubling to us as farmers is the absence of a larger, positive and forward looking vision of farmers’ markets within the ODA. It saddens us that the Oregon Department of Agriculture has chosen to be an impediment to small farm operations such as ours. As many other states have recently worked to relax the regulation of nonhazardous food preparation, and expand the potential for family farm income, Oregon is moving in the opposite direction.  Those of us who sell directly to the public take food safety very seriously, so it should not be a surprise that there have no incidents of food borne illnesses reported at Oregon’s farmers markets.   

This is a three part essay.  In our next newsletter, we will summarize how other states have encouraged small farm enterprises, through policy and statutes.   The third will offer some thoughts on the ways in which Oregon can encourage the growth of farm enterprises.  On the 26th of July, we will return to our musings on birds, insects and other aspects of pastoral life in the Gaston Agricultural District.

-Anthony & Carol Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm