The prevailing notion among both limited resource and beginning farmers is that food safety is an issue primarily for large operations and that it requires cost prohibitive infrastructural changes and burdensome record keeping and maintenance. A general lack of discretionary capital coupled with often tenuous land situations – including short-term lease agreements and an unwillingness on the part of landowners to invest in structures only their tenants may benefit from - results in a state of complacency on many farms. The purpose of this post is to dispel the aforementioned matters, introduce some basic food safety practices and to direct beginning farmers to more in depth resources concerning both Good Agricultural Practices and food safety more broadly.
Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, refer to the steps taken at the farm level to lower the risk of contaminating produce with dangerous pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. While not typically found on fresh fruit and vegetables, these microbes contaminate fresh produce via contact with various vectors, namely people, animals, and water. Fortunately food safe production is largely a commonsense endeavor. While GAPs certification through the USDA is not for every farm, the adoption of the practices and precautions are universally beneficial. By following GAPs, or a basic, striped-down version of GAPs on the farm year-round – from field preparation through harvest and marketing - the risk of contaminating produce can be greatly reduced.
Food safety, for those not already convinced, is incredibly important for every farm, regardless of size, methods of production, or marketing outlets. It is a common misconception that food safety and the need to implement the practices necessary to mitigate contamination of fresh produce are problems of scale, concerns only for larger farms. While this may be more a product of an information gap among consumers, beginning farmers (as well as those with more experience) are not immune to the prejudice. Not helping curtail the perpetuation of this misjudgment, small farms and those direct marketing the majority of their produce are, at present, exempt from regulation under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
The USDA and FDA designed GAPs to reduce the risk of contamination of produce by various pathogens present on farms. While not mandatory, it is becoming increasingly common among wholesale and institutional buyers to require their producers to follow GAPs. If these markets are of interest to a farmer, GAPs compliance should be also. Despite exemption from government regulation under the FSMA, food safety is important to the viability of farms choosing direct marketing as a significant part of their business plans as well. The reasons are commonsense. The economic sustainability of direct marketing farms is dependent on quality produce and customer relationships. A one-time mistake can have devastating affects on a farms reputation or worse, result in legal problems.
Again, while a GAPs audit and certification may not be necessary, implementing the practices will go a long way in protecting a farm from contamination risks. The potential points of contamination in the field and in post-harvest and packing areas should be a primary concern for most beginning farmers. Generally speaking, a farm should have a food safety plan that details what measures are being taken to mitigate risks. The farm should also keep careful records of sanitation practices including cleaning of facilities. Hand washing and toilets should be in convenient proximity to work areas. While all this may seem unnecessary compared to meeting your planting schedule or weeding, documentation can help limit your liability and ultimately lead to the formation of good habits maintaining your farm equipment, harvesting tools and washing station.
The main areas of concern for food safety are water quality, manure and compost, human hygiene, wild and domestic animals in the fields and packing and storage facilities. Irrigation and water used for washing produce should obviously not contain harmful pathogens. To ensure levels are tolerable, water tests should be conducted. The frequency with which a farm tests its water depends on the source – municipal, well, and surface sources all have different requirements under GAPs. Furthermore, water-contact surfaces, such as dump tanks, wash tanks, and coolers should be cleaned frequently. Knowing the quality of your water is the food safety equivalent to a soil test. You wouldn’t farm without knowing the qualities of your soil and you shouldn’t sell produce without knowing the quality of the water used to irrigate and wash it.
Likewise, compost and manure should be managed carefully to ensure pathogens are not present at harmful levels. In the case of raw manure, 120 days must elapse between application and harvest. Other inputs, specifically pesticides, should always be used in accordance with their labels. When a farmer purchases a pesticide, whether it is glyphosate, copper, or any other, the label represents a contract by which the farmer is now bound. Following the safety precautions therein, will not only protect your health, but that of your customers.
Efforts should be made to keep domestic and wild animals out of produce fields as well. Fences, streamers, noisemakers or other deterrents may be affective. These precautions will not only help decrease animal-borne contaminants on fruits and vegetables, but also help limit pest damage from birds and mammals, protecting the quality of the produce. Similarly, packing and storage facilities should be clean and free of pests such as rodents and birds. It is also very important to consider the proximity of vegetable production areas to livestock either on the farm or on neighboring farms.
Harvest containers should be cleaned and sanitized after each use and made of food-grade plastic not wood. Harvest knives should also be cleaned regularly. Both practices will help avoid cross-contamination in the event that produce comes in contact with pathogens at some point. Likewise, it is important to always remember to wash your hands after using the toilet, eating, smoking, etc. And, finally, while it should go without saying, do not go to the bathroom in your fields.
As for the cost-prohibitiveness of the infrastructure and equipment needed to operate in a food safe way, it seems to be a bit of a red herring – an easy target to place the blame and to continue business as usual. The reality is that most of the changes needed to move a farm from food contamination risk-takers to one of risk aversion via good agricultural practices are easy and require little capital investment. Further more they have the potential to enhance produce quality and improve labor efficiency. Even a food safe, GAP-modeled wash station is a relatively small financial investment.
If you take nothing else away from this post, remember these few things: 1) always wash your hands, 2) clean your harvest containers and knives after each use, 3) keep avian and mammalian pests out of your fields and packing and storage facilities as well as possible, 4) follow the necessary precautions for manure and compost, and 5) test your water.
Quick Guide to Food Safety Resources, from New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Produce Safety and GAPs Resources, a whole toolkit of easy to understand materials from UVM
National GAPs Program, educational and training materials from Cornell
Wash station design, from Farm Hack
-Billy McKerchie abandoned his farm in the Finger Lakes of Upstate NY to pursue a MS in Agriculture, Food, & Environment from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. He still occasionally blogs at sowloud.blogspot.com and can be followed on Twitter at @sowloud.
This material is based upon work supported by USDA/NIFA under Award Number 2010-49200-06201.