Today the USDA halted an Almond Board rule change that would have prohibited direct online sales of raw almonds, which farmers had previously been pursuing as part of the roadside stand and farmers’ market exemption. When these direct-to-consumer exemptions were initially created there was no internet and so farmers hadn’t yet incorporated internet technology into their marketing nor had ecommerce been explicitly included in these exceptions.
“CAFF thanks USDA Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt and AMS Administrator Bruce Summers for listening to the concerns of small-scale almond growers who have been selling almonds directly to consumers via the internet,” says Dave Runsten, CAFF’s Senior Policy Analyst, “If this prohibition had gone through, consumers of raw almonds would have had to obtain them from Europe and many of these farmers would have been out of business. USDA has sided with consumer choice and free enterprise.”
At Anderson Almonds, a small 20 acre family farm selling its own production directly from the farm, over the phone and through e-commerce, the decicison comes as a great relief.”
“The proposed change to the Roadside Stand Exemption threatened the future of founders Glenn and Leslie Anderson’s life work and was a dark cloud hanging over our family’s succession planning,” said Wendy Larson, the farmers’ daughter. “Though they’ve been farming alone for over 40 years, these days they are pleased to be working with the next generation to continue the small family farm success story – made possible in many ways through e-commerce. Preserving that access to households who wish to eat almonds sourced directly from family farms is a key element of our business.”
According to the Almond Board in 1978, a Handler was defined as “any person handling almonds during any crop year, except that such term shall not include either a grower who sells only almonds of his own production at retail at a roadside stand operated by him, or a person receiving almonds from growers and other persons and delivering these almonds to a handler.
In 1985, this roadside stand exemption was expanded to include farmers’ markets. And in the 1990s, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) became popular, where farms deliver boxes of produce directly to consumers for their own consumption. This channel of direct marketing has grown significantly up to the present. In 2013, a California law was passed (AB 224 (Gordon) that set regulations for CSAs and required registration with CDFA. A number of CSA farms that grow almonds have included raw almonds in the products they make available to their customers. There has never been any objection to this practice by the Almond Board. Most CSA transactions are conducted via the internet.
In 2007, after Salmonella outbreak incidents traced to the largest almond companies, a requirement that raw almonds be fumigated with propylene oxide or steam-heated before they could be sold to consumers was instituted by the Almond Board. This outraged small organic almond producers as well as many consumers of raw almonds and led to a lawsuit managed by the Cornucopia Institute. Although a judge eventually found that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue, it nevertheless pointed out the absurdity of federal policy that allows the import of raw almonds from Europe but denies sales of such almonds from California.
In the intervening 15 years, a group of small organic farmers have continued to sell raw almonds directly to the public under the direct marketing exemption. However, with the COVID pandemic, their sales have increasingly shifted to the internet, as has been the case with much direct marketing. Recently, out of the blue, and without consulting with the farmers who would be affected, the Almond Board proposed to halt these sales over the internet and in the process destroy the business of a number of small farms.
When the 2007 fumigation rule was created, there was no institutional outreach to the broader public who consumed raw almonds. Now once again USDA had failed to inform the public and treated the elimination of access via the internet to raw almonds from California as something that only concerns almond handlers.
E-commerce is not the equivalent of brick and mortar “retail” where buyers are anonymous and rarely individually known. E-commerce is conducted very specifically with households known by name including where they live. Furthermore, payment is collected before shipment, thereby transferring ownership of the almonds at the farm just like an onsite “Roadside Stand” purchase. E-commerce is traceable and verifiable even more than Farmer’s Market transactions.
The proposed change would have had a negative impact on small business. If this change to the Roadside Stand Exemption went through, each small farm desiring to continue to sell via e-commerce would have to become a handler, complete all the paperwork of a handler, pay for USDA inspections at incoming, pay for one more process step (pasteurization) that must be done at an approved facility and that may include additional packaging and transportation cost. These additional costs would be untenable for small farms. In addition, the consumers who seek truly raw and untreated almonds would shift to foreign imports.
“To CAFF,” according to Dave Runsten, “this almond marketing order was an anachronism from 1950 and the proposed change to the Roadside Stand Exemption that forbids internet sales would have been an anti-competitive act that USDA should not be enabling.”