Facilitating Food Safety for Small, Sustainable Farms

Final report for EW16-018

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2016: $55,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2018
Grant Recipient: ALBA
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Co-Investigators:
Expand All

Project Information

Abstract:

Demand is surging for local, sustainable produce grown on small farms. This presents both opportunities and new challenges for small farmers in an industry that caters to large agribusinesses and which is subject to new food safety regulations. Farmer development programs and food hubs nationwide help small farmers capitalize on growing markets. However, FSMA rules now dictate new on-farm food safety requirements governing access to these markets. Food safety capacity has to be addressed promptly to enable small farmers to secure a strong foothold in mainstream markets.

Those aiming to sell small-farm produce (e.g. food hubs and cooperatives) must invest resources in ensuring that their suppliers are food safety compliant. Group GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) is a new audit program promoted by USDA/AMS as a way to streamline the compliance process and make it more affordable to farmers who are resource-constrained.

The goal of the “Facilitating Food Safety for Small, Sustainable Farms” or “FS3” project was to educate agriculture professionals working with small, sustainable farmers to efficiently comply with newly adopted food safety standards in reaching growing markets for sustainably grown produce. Project activities included: direct consultation with 5 organizations on GroupGAP and food safety compliance; a series of five webinars in conjunction with the Wallace Center; a multi-day auditor training; conference presentations; an updated and shareable Quality Management System template; and a case study document. The project reached over 150 participants with direct training (webinars, presentations, audit shadowing and technical assistance) and hundreds more with project materials.

(May 2017: Ag professionals participate in Auditor Shadowing trainings at ALBA)

 

Project Objectives:

1) Objective 1. Research: Document ALBA’s experience with assisting farmers with both GAP And GroupGAP to help guide partners’ strategy in addressing farmer food safety.

2) Objective 2. Education: Strengthen the capacity of professionals working with farmers relating to adoption of Group GAP and produce marketers on adoption of GroupGAP.

3) Objective 3. Outreach: Inform over 100 organizations on GroupGAP through webinars and posting of resources on ALBA website. 

 

Introduction:

A new era of food safety is upon us. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed into law in 2011 with the Produce Safety Rule being published in 2015.  This is of great interest and concern to small farmers because the time and cost of complying with such regulations can be disproportionately burdensome for small businesses.

Regardless, increased scrutiny on food safety is inevitable. Many wholesalers and retailers of food products have been requiring food safety certification from growers for years. Many small growers have been relegated to direct markets such as small retail, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to side step the rising requirements of mainstream food distributors. However, these direct marketing channels channels are constrained by competition and higher marketing costs.

On the bright side, markets for local, organic produce grown by small farmers are strong and growing. Consumers are willing to pay a significant premium for organic produce; all the more so if it comes from local family farms. Reflecting this, the number of farmers markets has quintupled in the last 20 years and organic food sales have tripled in the last decade (USDA Economic Research Service, 2013). Small, local, and organic – or more succinctly ‘sustainable’ – agriculture is a well-established niche nearing 5% of overall food sales, which continues to grow at a double digit pace.

As an organic farm incubator and food hub for small, beginning, low-income organic farmers, ALBA has marketed over $20 million of small farm produce since the passage of FSMA. This has given us direct experience contending with stricter regulations and the challenges of preparing beginning, immigrant farmers to uphold these requirements. Since 2011, ALBA has assisted over 35 farmers annually pass 3rd party food safety audits.

The goal of the FS3 project was to educate agriculture professionals working with small, sustainable farmers to efficiently comply with newly adopted food safety standards in reaching growing markets for sustainably grown produce. Activities under the project included:

  1. Updating ALBA Quality Management System document
  2. Training of ALBA staff in running the Quality Management System
  3. Updated ALBA farmer training curriculum to incorporate food safety topics, including FSMA/PSA requirements
  4. A case study on ALBA’s experience with GroupGAP focusing on lessons learned for the benefit of agriculture professional (i.e. both project partners and other outside entities) working with small, sustainable farmers
  5. Recommendations on revisions to the USDA-AMS GroupGAP User’s Guide
  6. Survey to assess current partner capacity and strategy on food safety; the type and breadth of farmers served; and expectations held for the project
  7. Technical Assistance – partners directly engage ALBA food safety experts on entity-specific questions
  8. One Auditor Shadowing Workshop
  9. One Conference Presentation at the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative Annual Field School
  10. 5 Webinars – featuring ALBA and partner efforts – inviting regional peer organizations to benefit from FS3 findings
  11. ALBA initiated a section for ag professionals on its website, and began uploading relevant food safety resources

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Education

Educational approach:

Just as ALBA is an experiential learning center for farmers, under FS3 ALBA served the same purpose for agricultural professionals. ALBA led partners in a practical learning at ALBA and offsite. Methods used included conference calls, a webinar series, presentation, direct technical assistance, and tool development. One training was held at ALBA to walk partners through the audit process. ALBA reached a broader network by posting key materials on our website, in addition to reaching a national audience through webinars and tool sharing.

One way to look at FS3 is that it started on our home turf, focusing on documenting ALBA’s own journey in implementing a GroupGAP system (objective 1). It then extended to a network of hand-picked partners in the tri-state region (CA, OR, WA) who work with sustainable farmers and are facing similar challenges (under objective 2). FS3’s final stage reached out to a regional stakeholders, leveraging partner networks, making available project deliverables and partner experiences to a broader audience seeking guidance on navigating food safety challenges (objective 3).

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Food Safety regullations and Group GAP
Objective:

Objective 2 – Education: Strengthen the capacity of professionals in the non-profit, private, cooperative, government and university sectors in 10+ organizations in 3 states on issues relating to the adoption of a Group GAP.
Objective 3 – Outreach: Inform over 100 organizations nationwide on GroupGAP through webinars and posting resources on the ALBA website, those of participating organizations and longstanding partners.

Description:

Objective 2.

In 2016:

  • In November, ALBA’s Certification and Compliance Manager presented at the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative annual conference, alongside USDA AMS GroupGap representatives, to staff from over 60 farm incubators. 
  • ALBA provided technical assistance to the California Center for Cooperative Development who works with a number of farmer cooperatives that are pursuing GroupGAP certification.

2017:

  • 10 additional agricultural professionals improved their abilities to perform GroupGAP audits. In April ALBA hosted a 1.5 day GroupGAP Auditor Shadowing in collaboration with the USDA AMS and the Wallace Center. The full day consisted of classroom work, a mock field audit, and a classroom debrief. The half day focused on revisiting and edifying the decisions of Wednesday’s audit, as well as facilitating questions, peer-to-peer learning, and distilling best practices and take-aways. 
  • 4 organizations received direct consultation on food safety program development and/or GroupGAP. Two of those organizations were from Western States.

2018: 

  • ALBA hosted two food safety professionals from the California Center for Cooperative Development to shadow our auditors and learn about ALBA’s GroupGAP program.

Objective 3.

2016: A needs assessment survey was administered to ALBA’s food safety partner network. This will direct outreach and education efforts in 2017. ALBA participated and offered its perspective in bimonthly GroupGAP Community of Practice Calls organized by the Wallace Center. 

2017: ALBA collaborated with the Wallace Center to provide a webinar series based on the needs assessment in 2016. A total of five webinars were held on the following topics (# of participants):

  • Food Safety Plan and SSOP Development (29)
  • Water Requirement for FSMA and GAP; developing SSOPs (25)
  • Food Safety Certification Options (26)
  • Quality Management System Development (16)
  • Equipment Sanitations: SSOP Development and Practices (14)

In total, there were 110 participants for the webinar series.

2018: ALBA created its ‘ALBA GGAP Case Study’ bulletin and sent it to 60+ organizations involved in training through the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative and Wallace Center networks. 

 

Outcomes and impacts:

2016: At least 60 organizations and 70 agricultural professionals gained information and awareness on food safety compliance strategies through ALBA’s presentation at the annual NIFTI Field School and through direct technical assistance to peer organizations. At least 700 farmer clients of these organizations are potential beneficiaries.

2017: Fourteen organizations increased their knowledge on GroupGAP and food safety topics.

2018: Two additional agricultural professionals received intensive, direct consultation thereby increasing their knowledge on GroupGAP and food safety topic. An additional 60 organizations gained information and awareness related to ALBA’s experience with GroupGAP and managing food safety.

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 On-farm demonstrations
5 Online trainings
1 Published press articles, newsletters
4 Tours
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

150 Nonprofit
5 Agency
5 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)

Learning Outcomes

150 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

2016 Results:

Objective 1 – Research: Compile relevant information and document ALBA’s experience with assisting farmers with both GAP and GroupGAP to help guide partners’ strategy development in addressing farmer food safety.

2016: ALBA updated its food safety plan templates and Quality Management System (QMS), including re-formatting into user-friendly websites. ALBA also updated its training curricula to reflect the implementation of FSMA and the Produce Safety Rule. 

2018: ALBA updated its food safety plan templates and QMS. Training curricula were also updated.

Objective 2 – Education: Strengthen the capacity of professionals in the non-profit, private, cooperative, government and university sectors in 10+ organizations in 3 states on issues relating to the adoption of a Group GAP.

2016: At least 60 organizations and 70 agricultural professionals gained information and awareness on food safety compliance strategies through ALBA’s presentation at the annual NIFTI Field School and through direct technical assistance to peer organizations. At least 700 farmer clients of these organizations are potential beneficiaries.

  • In November, ALBA’s Certification and Compliance Manager presented at the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative annual conference, alongside USDA AMS GroupGap representatives, to staff from over 60 farm incubators. 
  • ALBA provided technical assistance to the California Center for Cooperative Development who works with a number of farmer cooperatives that are pursuing GroupGAP certification.

2017: Fourteen organization increased their knowledge on GroupGAP and food safety topics.

  • 10 additional agricultural professionals improved their abilities to perform GroupGAP audits. In April ALBA hosted a 1.5 day GroupGAP Auditor Shadowing in collaboration with the USDA AMS and the Wallace Center. The full day consisted of classroom work, a mock field audit, and a classroom debrief. The half day focused on revisiting and edifying the decisions of Wednesday’s audit, as well as facilitating questions, peer-to-peer learning, and distilling best practices and take-aways. 
  • 4 organizations received direct consultation on food safety program development and/or GroupGAP. Two of those organizations were from Western States.

2018: Two additional agricultural professionals increased their knowledge on GroupGAP and food safety topics through direct technical assistance.

Objective 3 – Outreach: Inform over 100 organizations nationwide on GroupGAP through webinars and posting resources on the ALBA website, those of participating organizations and longstanding partners.

2016: A needs assessment survey was administered to ALBA’s food safety partner network. This will direct outreach and education efforts in 2017. ALBA participated and offered its perspective in bimonthly GroupGAP Community of Practice Calls organized by the Wallace Center. 

2017: ALBA collaborated with the Wallace Center to provide a webinar series based on the needs assessment in 2016. A total of five webinars were held on the following topics (# of participants):

  • Food Safety Plan and SSOP Development (29)
  • Water Requirement for FSMA and GAP; developing SSOPs (25)
  • Food Safety Certification Options (26)
  • Quality Management System Development (16)
  • Equipment Sanitations: SSOP Development and Practices (14)

In total, there were 110 participants for the webinar series.

2018: ALBA finalized its case study bulletin and disseminated it to over 60 organizations.

Additional Outcomes:

2016 Accomplishments:

Update ALBA Quality Management System (QMS) document– a renovation was completed in in July 2016 and again in June 2018. As the QMS is a live document, changes and updates are made as necessary at different times of the year.  The 2016 version can be viewed here: https://sites.google.com/site/albaqms/

Training of ALBA Staff in using the QMS – completed in August 2016 and again in June 2018.

Updated farmer training curriculum to incorporate food safety topics — completed for 2016, 2017, and 2018, including adding the FDA-approved training as per FSMA requirements. 

Established practice field as food safety learning site — ALBA’s 1 acre demonstration field is a hands-on food safety learning  site. This field, including a shed and wash area, has already been used for several trainings for agricultural professional and ALBA’s aspiring farmers. This includes providing examples of pesticide and fertilizer storage, color coding and labelling ideas. The idea is to demonstrate cost-effective solutions to minimize food safety risks. During the project period, we were visited by an estimated 50 students–aspiring food safety professionals who are primarily in a food safety certificate program–from Hartnell Community College. 

A presentation was developed on ALBA’s experience with food safety, adoption of GroupGAP and lessons learned: The presentation was presented in November at the National Incubator Farm Training Institute’s annual conference. The PowerPoint presentation will lead to the development of the ‘ALBA case study’ in 2017. Link to PowerPoint presentation: Food safety for farm incubators

Recommendations on USDA GroupGAP User’s Guide: completed in April 2016. As one of the original pilotees of the project, ALBA participated in workshops and provided commentary related USDA GroupGAP User’s Guide development prior to printing.

Needs Assessment Survey: performed in November 2016. This is a link to the survey results.

  • In short, the survey was a baseline needs assessment. Respondents location by state: CA, HI, MT, WA. The majority of respondents were from non-profit organizations. 9 respondents total;
  • Potential number of farmer beneficiaries = minimum of 360 (this is only taking the minimum value of the answer choices) although we know that two organizations work with closer to 1,000 farmer each.

Lessons learned from survey and direct communication:

  • Need to help provide more general resources and training on working with farmers to develop food safety plans and programs for their farm; 
  • Many of the farmers that the organizations represented are not exempted from the FDA’s Produce Safety Rule, but might meet qualified exemptions; therefore, the organizations would like to receive training on FDA Produce Safety Rule;
  • ALBA should focus on the following themes: Farmer trainings and best practices; Food Safety Plan Development and SSOP’s; Produce Safety Rule and USDA NOP (side-by-side comparison); Equipment Sanitation; Is GroupGAP right for you; and QMS development. Trainings will be delivered in 2017;
  • Most participants preferred to receive information/education via webinar.

2017 Accomplishments:

Webinar series: completed 5 webinars together with the Wallace Center from March to June. Link to flyer: WSARE-Webinar-Series-flyer

Auditor Shadowing workshop: hosted at ALBA in May. This was a unique opportunity for current and aspiring auditors to see a real-life internal audit under the GroupGAP system. ALBA’s QMS was profiled and used as the basis for the audit on a real farming operation. Link to flyer: 2017-Audit-Shadow-Workshop-Flyer

Consultations: ALBA provided direct consultation to 4 other farmer training organizations on food safety topics (two of which were from Western States).

2018 Accomplishments:

Case study developed and disseminated: ALBA and partners worked to develop an ALBA GroupGAP case study. This bulletin was then sent electronically to 100+ agricultural professionals involved in the Wallace Center GroupGAP Community of Practice, as well as those involved in the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative network. 

Consultations: ALBA provided director consultation to two participants representing an additional organization on the West Coast.

A strengthened food safety strategy at ALBA: Staff turnover in 2017 led to training several new staff to fulfill food safety functions at ALBA. We have added two internal auditors, one of which also serves as the Food Safety Assistant. For 6 months ALBA held weekly food safety team meetings to ensure its programming continued to function smoothly (see ‘case study’ deliverable). Overall, cross training has helped to strengthen our current approach, regular meetings, as well as involving all top management in food safety matters.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.