- Vegetables: broccoli, cucurbits, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes
- Crop Production: food product quality/safety
- Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, technical assistance
- Farm Business Management: marketing management, value added
- Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems
Increasingly, local grocery stores are requiring wash and sanitizing of produce, regardless of farm size. This proposal will evaluate multiple methods for small farms to sanitize produce like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers to identify cost, efficiency, applicability and success in removing bacteria and soil.
When we began production, we started selling to small local restaurants that knew our farm and our location. We also had a friend who could sell our produce with her lamb and wool at regional farmers markets. Here in Western Indiana, like much of the Midwest there are no large population centers to seek that premium that can help achieve financial success.
As production grew, we began talking to produce buyers at grocery stores and distributors to white table cloth restaurants. Success was going to require a steady demand and consistent pricing.
Farmers markets are inconsistent sales arenas at best. Too hot, rainy, whatever, reduces the buyers. Good growing weather increases the sellers.
However, as a result of increasing foodborne outbreaks caused by contaminated fresh fruits and vegetables, grocery stores and high end distributors are increasing their expectations beyond that of a basic Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) plan. Every buyer we spoke to requires sanitation of the produce in their purchase agreement.
A survey of previous research has shown that E Coli and Salmonella are responsible for the majority of produce related foodborne outbreaks. A Vermont study showed that coliform bacteria were detected in more than 70% of the fruits and vegetables sampled, regardless of whether the product was organic or conventionally grown. Closer to home, the Indiana Dept of Health recently found Listeria, Salmonella and E. Coli on a range of produce from small and large farms.
We are just a county away from the farms that produced the contaminated cantaloupe that caused a massive recall in 2012, and many of the smaller melon producers in the area have gone out of business rather than deal with the food safety liability. Another subset of producers banded together and spent $400,000 on a packing shed. University of California researcher Steve Sexton, when examining the contaminated cantaloupe cases in Colorado and Indiana concluded that retailers’ dependence on smaller, local producers may come at the expense of food safety.
He also reports that the consumers’ growing demands for both locally produced and safer foods are in conflict. Sexton theorizes that as local production increases, food safety is likely to decline as small firms optimally invest in disproportionately lower levels of food safety than larger firms because of higher average costs of food safety provision and less financial risk from food contamination. New FDA regulations will have a significant impact on growers of all sizes, but will probably have an outsized impact on small producers.
According to a Leopold Center research project, upper Midwest tomato market farms rely on hand sorting and modest temperature control to grade and prepare tomatoes for market. None of the farms they surveyed used a mechanical washer or grader of any kind for tomatoes or cucumbers. All of the farms were using some sort of manual wiping to remove dust and contaminants.
All of this may explain why retailers have increasing expectations. The requirement for a sanitation process and inspection of the harvesting program was the same whether we were field grown, high tunnel or greenhouse produced.
ATTRA and Leopold both have the design of several washing facilities, most of which involve washing in tubs built into wooden frames. Most are like SARE grant FNC05-568 which uses a wood based frame and batch dunk washing. There are simple systems of sinks and drying stations beneath roofs, but with the new FSMA and most produce sales agreements, there is no wood permitted in the future.
We propose to develop a small farm produce washer/sanitizer for the more delicate crops like cucumbers and tomatoes that minimizes handling, maximizes labor efficiency and maximizes bacterial removal. The washer cannot contain wood, needs to minimize labor, cost and water use, and reduce bacteriological contamination without damaging ripe produce. We will use our produce and produce from other local outside growers to determine the extent of bacteriological contamination pre and post wash using water and various sanitizing agents. We have an agreement with a food scientist at Purdue for bacteriological analysis of the produce for his materials cost.
Project objectives from proposal:
Vegetable sampling- using sterile Ziploc bags, collect unwashed, washed and sanitized produce from our production and neighboring farms. Transport to Purdue for bacteriological analysis.
Develop cost effective washing machine: Using materials that can be bought on ebay, craigslist or at used equipment lots, retrofit/design/build a washing/sanitizing unit for delicate, ripe vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes. Test, rebuild test, rebuild and document success and failures.
Outreach: Farmers do not attend meetings. Our outreach will involve a couple of steps, develop a brochure that will be sent to each produce extension specialist and horticulture association in the North Central SRE region. Distribute same brochure to all farmer’s markets supervisors for which we can obtain addresses. Produce a you tube video and schematic plans of construction and operation of cleaning machine.