Crop quality and food safety support for World PEAS Food Hub participants

Final report for ONE15-236

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Jennifer Hashley
Trustees of Tufts College / New Entry Sustainable Farming Project
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

Crop quality and food safety are important concerns for consumers and produce buyers as small farmers increasingly sell specialty crops to wholesale outlets, institutional markets, food service operations, food hubs, and restaurants. Producers need to understand crop quality standards, food safety requirements and liability coverage to address more stringent federal and state regulations and to meet institutional purchasing standards. New Entry operates the World PEAS Food Hub (WPFH) which aggregates and distributes produce and fruit sourced from over 30 New Entry farmer graduates to multiple market outlets (CSA, university dining services, elder service agencies, and other low-income wholesale partnerships). Each year, there are significant crop quality concerns that often limit which items can be included in our offering to consumers. Food safety and insurance coverage are also significant challenges for food hub or wholesale buyers. This initiative will increase awareness and knowledge of smaller-scale farmers about crop quality, food safety and liability insurance requirements of institutional food service and similar wholesale buyers, and promote practical strategies to strengthen on farm production and food safety practices.

     We developed a practical training curriculum on variety selection, key production practices around crop health, assessing harvest readiness, post-harvest handling, and affordable strategies to improve food safety practices of specialty crops. We also provided over 273 hours on-farm coaching, and connected producers to cost-share resources for on-farm improvements and affordable liability insurance coverage. Finally, we created and distributed a comprehensive guide to crop quality geared towards our farmer audience which will serve as a resource moving forward and will be available on our website.

Project Objectives:

To prepare beginning farmers for wholesale readiness, whether sales to World PEAS Food Hub or other wholesale and institutional outlets, growers need access to easy-to-understand produce quality standards (what is “acceptable” and what is not) and to be able to comply with food safety and insurance requirements. Key questions to address for producers are: what are the product quality expectations (when is my crop ready to harvest – at what stage, size, quality), post-harvest handling and cooling practices, packaging (pack size, appropriate containers, boxes), and overall food safety considerations important to address when seeking to expand to wholesale markets? What types of record-keeping and food safety practices can producers incorporate into their daily farm “work flow” so regulatory compliance is not burdensome? What is a “simple” (picture-based) guide to wholesale readiness that shows producers what buyers are seeking? To address this, our main project objectives are:

    • To develop a practical training curriculum on specialty crop production, post-harvest handling, and food safety protocols.
    • Conduct practical trainings on crop quality assessment, cooling/storage, and food safety protocols and best practices.
    • Provide on-farm 1-1 technical assistance and coaching on wholesale readiness.
    • Compile, review, research, and create crop quality resources to disseminate to farmers and partner organizations.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dan Berube
  • Dr. A Richard Bonanno
  • Stephen Fowler
  • Simca Horwitz
  • JoAnn Robichaud
  • Ed Tivnan
  • Julie Weitekamp

Research

Materials and methods:

This project only required minimal research. Our project staff took the time to research, review, and compile the existing resources available on crop quality for our focus crops; they did this mainly by reviewing resources available via internet search and by reaching out to our incubator farmer partners, bother in MA and beyond, across the nation. We also reviewed our own resources in our Online Farmer Resource Library.

Research results and discussion:

N/A

Research conclusions:

N/A

 

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

30 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
10 On-farm demonstrations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

90 Farmers
10 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

A). Crop quality training project outreach:

New Entry will offer crop quality training and technical assistance (T&TA) opportunity to 80+ farmers.   Our target audience will be current and graduated New Entry farmers supplying the World PEAS Food Hub; though the assistance will be available to other beginning farmers. Producers will be expected to attend workshops, keep production and sales records for crops they grow, and be available to receive virtual and in-person field based technical assistance.  

From the beginning of this grant period, New Entry provided crop quality training and TA to 27 farmers who participated in the World PEAS Food Hub, through delivery of workshops, one-on-one technical assistance. We provided training on production and post-harvest strategies for attaining production and post-harvest standards. Through site monitoring and weekly meetings, we focused on assuring that each farmer can continuously improve quality and overall performance and work toward food safety compliance goals. We provided assistance to new incubator farmers on estimating harvest volume in the field, harvesting, proper washing procedures, and packing and cooling procedures using our newly constructed cooler.

B. Deliver Crop Production Training Workshops:

Hands-on Trainings: We will develop and deliver 8 field-based training workshops that will cover key elements in the seed-to-market cycle to address the challenges described above. Content for the workshops will include:

Production-based Workshops (a):

    • Seed varieties and sources; direct seeding versus transplants;
    • Season extension strategies and options; Greenhouse/Hoophouse vs. field-based production;
    • Field production tips to assure high quality output – planting methods, watering, pest and weed management, soil and crop fertility, and crop-specific information. 

Harvest and Post-Harvest Handling Workshops (b):

    • Estimating yields to fulfill market orders
    • Harvest timing and crop readiness, labor-saving harvest techniques, post-harvest cooling strategies (hydrocooling vs air cooling), cleaning, trimming and packaging specifications;
    • Food Safety training including GAPs, FSMA regulations, and other practical strategies to address safe food handling.

General Wholesale Readiness Workshops (c):

    • Buyers requirements for compliance: insurance coverage, packaging standards, food safety training and building relationships with institutional buyers

Workshops will be open to beginning farmers and will be held either in our Lowell office or at our incubator farms in Dracut/Newburyport. We expect an average of 15-20 farmers per session to attend.

We conducted ten on-farm hands-on practical skills trainings since February 2015, including:

Soil Biology and Chemistry and Soil Test Interpretation (9 participants)

Soil Bed Preparation (7 participants)

Small Farm Equipment and Safety – (6 participants)

Irrigation – (9 participants)

Insect Management – (4 participants)

Field Summit on Small Equipment - (8 participants)

Food Safety + Postharvest concerns for Vegetable crops workshop – (8 participants)

Season Extension via cropping schedules & high tunnels field training – (5 participants)

Disease Management Field Workshop (7 participants)

Weed Management Field Workshop (6 participants)

Staff held an Annual World PEAS Farmer Meeting with 18 participants. We discussed the 2015 season and looked ahead to 2016. Crop bids were distributed and important deadlines were communicated. We discussed importance of maintaining crop quality on the field, and during post-harvest and delivery of produce in order to maintain standards of institutional and retail markets.  We distributed a power point presentation including photo representations of sub-quality vegetables, and discussed the main causes resulting in unacceptable produce, and best practices to maintain high quality produce. This power point presentation is attached.

The major quality challenges we noticed during the 2015 growing season pertained to harvest speed and issues related to heat. The 2015 growing season was especially warm, and our TA Coordinator needed to pay special attention to ensuring that produce was delivered to the on-site cooler in a timely basis. There is a three step diagnosis process for crop quality, involving (i) field-level production; (ii) harvest; (iii) and post-harvest/transport. In prior years, the TA Coordinator trained farmers directly to provide support around these three steps. For 2015, in addition to direct farmer workshops, we established a new system to better utilize staff time and provide a comprehensive system for better training regarding crop quality.

With the new system, the TA Coordinator conducts “train-the-trainer” sessions so that WPFH staff, World PEAS volunteers, and our Farmer Resource Coordinator can pass on important information to farmers in order to improve crop quality. The TA Coordinator visits the World PEAS Site on a bi-weekly basis to review produce as it is being packed. In the meantime, the World PEAS Food Hub staff captures diagnostics of produce quality through photos in order to provide documentation for trainings. The TA Coordinator trains the staff regarding quality issues and reasons for the issues (in particular, he identifies which step in the production or quality diagnosis failed). The staff passes this information on to farmers during their weekly interactions or at the time that WPFH farmers deliver produce to the WPFH Packing Site. Through this new system, staff is now able to determine which step of the process failed in the case of substandard produce quality. As a result of this new system, the TA Coordinator has seen a decrease in substandard quality of produce.

(C) Statewide workshops:

We will offer two 1.5 hour workshops for statewide audiences – one at NOFA’s annual winter conference (50 producers), and another at Eastern Mass CRAFT meetings (40 producers).

On June 17, 2015, New Entry staff, in conjunction with Eastern Massachusetts Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, provided a detailed discussion of the many benefits of cover crops, how to time ideal seeding windows, and how to manage cover crops with tractor as well as small scale implements. Participants walked both the New Entry Ogonowski Memorial Field and Smith Farm incubator training sites to show cover crop utilization and how incorporating cover crops throughout the growing season improves overall soil health which is a primary factor in enhancing crop quality. A total of 34 individuals participated. At NOFA's 2017 Winter Conference, New Entry conducted a "Farmer Files" Panel discussing how record keeping aids in improving crop quality over time. Four farmers presented about their record keeping strategies and 30 people attended.

D) Provide Technical assistance (TA) to Specialty Crop Producer.

TA will be an integral aspect of the crop quality project. Farmers will receive combinations of email, phone, and hands-on, farm-based help to improve their production and post-harvest handling of these crops. New Entry staff and partners will provide up to 20 producers with up to 5 hours of TA under this project to address individual production challenges to better prepare them for markets. Hands-on expertise and TA will cover all of the topics mentioned above.

Since the beginning of this grant period, New Entry staff has spent a total of 273 hours providing technical assistance to approximately 30 farmers in the areas of crop production and quality, business planning, providing connections to USDA and conservation services, assistance with installation of infrastructure, securing new farm site land, and food safety and insurance.

During this grant period, with support from other (non SARE) funders, we retrofitted an on-farm refrigeration cooling unit from an insulated box from a former delivery truck, and installed this new cooler at one of the two Dracut incubator farm sites. We constructed a new GAP compliant packing area adjacent to this retrofitted refrigeration unit. Using support from our SARE grant, we worked directly with individual growers to teach them to make the best use of the new refrigeration facility and to provide the highest quality produce for both our World PEAS CSA as well as for other markets such as restaurant direct sales and local farmer’s markets.

Two incubator farmers at our Newburyport training site were successful in their application to NRCS for receipt of EQIP funding for purchase and construction of new high tunnels which will improve their crop quality by protecting crops from inclement weather. Using support from our SARE grant, our TA Coordinator provided data to the farmers regarding structural integrity and management of crop production in a high tunnel environment. The new high tunnel will allow these farmers to extend their season in the spring and the fall.

Using support from this SARE grant, we provided one-on-one TA to one farmer to purchase and construct their own independent cooler (purchased with support from another funder) to help provide better quality produce for season extension deliveries to institutional markets. This farmer worked independently to negotiate an agreement directly with the landlord of the WPFH Packing and Distribution site to locate her cooler at the site. This farmer achieved the highest gross revenue of all New Entry farmers for the 2015 growing season (over $18K).

Staff assisted one farmer to identify, procure, and install an irrigation system on her farm in order to provide needed water for irrigation and washing of her produce. Staff educated family members regarding how to service the pump and demonstrated for the farmer how to make adjustments with the spray gun and gun stand placements. As this irrigation system was installed at the end of the 2015 growing season, the farmer will benefit from the improvement beginning in the 2016 growing season.

E) Develop a Comprehensive Resource Guide on Crop Quality and link to other online resources.

This Crop Quality Resource Guide is currently in process. We will be building upon existing resource guides to create visual standards that address common problems to be avoided from the perspective of a produce buyer. Throughout the growing season, we began to photo document poor crop quality and ideal crop conditions to illustrate crop specific expectations. We will continue this process in 2016 and this will create a comprehensive guide to visual standards and expectations for wholesale crops. The Guide and other educational materials prepared for workshops and TA will be posted on New Entry’s website and promoted through our dissemination strategies described below. New Entry is also sponsoring a “Wholesale Success” workshop in collaboration with Family Farmed in March 2016. This workshop comes with a comprehensive resource guide to wholesale sales and crop quality, so any gaps in this training and workshop will be incorporated into our SARE Crop Quality resource guide in 2016.

Learning Outcomes

60 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

crop quality; harvest strategies and best practices; postharvest strategies and best practices; wholesale readiness; season extension; seed and variety selection

Project Outcomes

1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$25,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
6 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

The World PEAS year-end customer survey revealed a change in how customers felt about the produce quality of the World PEAS CSA between 2014 and 2015 (the questions changed slightly).

In 2014:                4% of respondents claimed to receive multiple items of poor quality on a frequent basis

                                18% claimed to receive one item of poor quality on a frequent basis

                                47% believed the produce was generally good quality

                                31% believed the produce quality was excellent

 

In 2015:                9% of respondents claimed one item of poor quality on a frequent basis (decrease)

                                44% believed the produce was generally good quality (slight decrease)

                                47% believed the produce was consistently good quality. (increase)

In 2015 customers felt similarly about the variety of items offered. 85% felt that the variety offered was just enough and only 15% were unhappy with the selection.

Our World PEAS Food Hub 2015 institutional sales included partnerships with 15 organizations, including 2 restaurants; eight senior community centers; the Lowell Women, Infant and Children’s office; a center for homeless individuals; a food bank that manages distributions at low-income apartment buildings; a children’s summer feeding program; and one food service institution. A total of four new institutional markets were established during the 2015 season. Sales to institutional markets grow from $87,013 in 2014 to $95,490 in 2015, an increase of 9.7%.

Other outcomes observed were:

  • Through a new quality control system, staff is now able to determine which step of the process failed in the case of substandard produce quality. As a result of this new system, the TA Coordinator has seen a decrease in substandard quality of produce.
  • Two incubator farmers at our Newburyport training site were successful in their application to NRCS for receipt of EQIP funding for purchase and construction of new high tunnels which will improve their crop quality by protecting crops from inclement weather. Using support from our SARE grant, our TA Coordinator provided data to the farmers regarding structural integrity and management of crop production in a high tunnel environment. The new high tunnel will allow these farmers to extend their season in the spring and the fall.
  • Using support from this SARE grant, we provided one-on-one TA to one farmer to purchase and construct their own independent cooler (purchased with support from another funder) to help provide better quality produce for season extension deliveries to institutional markets. This farmer worked independently to negotiate an agreement directly with the landlord of the WPFH Packing and Distribution site to locate her cooler at the site. This farmer achieved the highest gross revenue of all New Entry farmers for the 2015 growing season (over $18K).
  • Staff assisted one farmer to identify, procure, and install an irrigation system on her farm in order to provide needed water for irrigation and washing of her produce. Staff educated family members regarding how to service the pump and demonstrated for the farmer how to make adjustments with the spray gun and gun stand placements. As this irrigation system was installed at the end of the 2015 growing season, the farmer will benefit from the improvement beginning in the 2016 growing season.

Our 2015 World PEAS Annual Report, linked from our website, includes additional impacts and outcomes:

http://www.nesfp.org/sites/default/files/uploads/2015_annual_report.pdf

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Our project did not require significant research, and we feel the approach we took was suitable for the desired outcomes. Our crop quality guide is proving a helpful resource for communicating with farmers of varying backgrounds about crop quality, and our training curriculum can be used again and again to communicate to new farmers who enter our programs.

Information Products

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.