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May 13, 2022

Science: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

There are many areas in the western United States where specialty crops are grown in proximity to—or at an immediate interface with—various types of domesticated animal operations. These mixed agricultural regions raise important concerns about the potential of human pathogen transfer from animals to crops.

When neighboring operations share the same geography, infrastructure and weather influences, can the solution for enhanced productivity and produce safety be found within the wisdom of “good fences make good neighbors?” A conceptual definition of a “good fence” is one that equally supports the needs of both neighbors, while also protecting each neighbor’s separateness and independence.

In other words, a “good fence” provides each neighbor—in this case, animal and specialty crop operation—with shared and equal protection. Applying this definition within a mixed agricultural system, a “good fence” would need to go beyond a simplistic context of a barrier and be inclusive of protections such as rain runoff, dust migration, water quality, common road use and working activities on either side of the fence that may negatively impact a neighbor. Maintaining a “good fence” would then need to be the shared responsibility of a mixed agricultural community, all neighbors playing a role in assuring mutual and equal protection.

So where do mixed agricultural communities stand on the need for building “good fences”? Is there sufficient awareness and alignment to truly achieve them? Is there sufficient understanding of what’s necessary to build a “good fence?” And if no, how do we move forward?

The California Department of Food and Agriculture launched a dialogue group in 2020 that brought together representatives from across the Salinas Valley’s agricultural community to discuss the varied needs of animal and specialty crop operations and how to generate the best advantage for each operation type for productivity and safety. The California Agricultural Neighbor project brought forward many insights and recommendations toward making “good fences” in the Salinas Valley. The interim report can be accessed on the CDFA’s website; the final report is expected by mid-2022.

In tandem, a nationwide team of public health and industry stakeholders, including representation from Western Growers, also has been meeting for the past two years to discuss a broad range of recommendations to build “good fences” within mixed agricultural communities. These recommendations include these areas:

1.  Targeted development of cooperative extension resources to held assess the needs and solutions within a mixed agricultural community

2.  Additional funding for fundamental research to understand how human pathogens move within an environment and identify appropriate preventive controls

3.  Require interagency cooperation (Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency) to assure there is a framework to assure and support necessary resources for “good fences” mixed agricultural communities

4.  Educational resources focusing on sharing best management practices for both specialty crop and animal production operation.

Western Growers is embedding these recommendations into both our state and federal government affairs agendas. For example, we’ve already taken steps to bring forward the need for a Memorandum of Understanding between the FDA and USDA APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to assure that specialty crop outbreaks can be fully investigated if the human pathogen source is suspected to be an animal operation. Additionally, we are working on the state level to support funding for cooperative extension, research and infrastructure solutions.

Ultimately, the best advocates for making “good fences” are the operational neighbors in a mixed agricultural community. Taking a critical look at your agricultural neighborhood, discussing challenges with your neighbors, engaging subject matter experts in water and compost and exploring solutions are all immediate steps forward. Embracing the wisdom of the proverb “good fences make good neighbors” will enhance the safety of specialty crops and preserve the high potential productivity of mixed agricultural regions.