- Vegetables: beans, carrots, greens (leafy), tomatoes
- Crop Production: food product quality/safety
- Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research
- Production Systems: organic agriculture
- Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems
The problems: Farmers avoid GAPs and food safety regulation, farms do not have food safety plans, some farms have washing and packing stations which are inefficient and unclean. Small and medium sized produce farmers perceive food safety regulations to be too complicated to implement on their farms. Recommendations available for large scale produce farms can be difficult to apply to smaller scale farms, even though the principles are just as important on small farms. Farmers resist the certification due to the documentation and paperwork burden as well as the expense which does not necessarily translate into higher selling prices. Many farms report that they will avoid regulations such as the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certification by avoiding markets that require such measures. We feel that improved harvest and post-harvest food handling practices are important to farms, regardless of market requirements, because they benefit farms through increased food safety and farm labor efficiency. GAPs certification is required by an increasing number of wholesale buyers (grocery stores, restaurants, and distributors) and is important for farmer access to these markets. We believe that equipping produce farmers in our region with food safety plans and assistance with GAPs certification will keep them well-equipped and “ahead of the curve” in the areas of food safety, access to markets, and farm viability. Even in direct markets, food safety is important and farms with food safety plans will be positively differentiated from their competitors. We anticipate that direct market consumers will be increasingly savvy about food safety as public education on the topic continues. The trend is for more food safety regulation rather than less. For example, the Ithaca Farmers’ Market has recently required each vendor to carry independent liability insurance for the first time, and Wegmans and Hanafords Grocery stores have announced that they will discontinue purchasing from farms that are not GAP certified. In our experience working with the region’s produce farmers we have observed farm washing and packing stations which are poorly designed, potentially unsafe, and inefficient as well as simple, effective, efficient set-ups. Since harvest and packing labor may account for up to 70% of the cost of marketing a crop, well organized washing and packing systems can have a huge impact on profitability by minimizing labor requirements. At the same time, we’ll help these farmers think about how they can protect their produce from contamination by food-borne pathogens and how they can communicate the value of these practices to their customers. In addition, identifying the best and most efficient harvest and washing methods was listed as a research priority in the 2009 Farmer to Farmer Exchange held as part of a SARE Grant titled “Developing On-Farm Research Expertise Among Farmers in Vermont.”
Project objectives from proposal:
The solutions: We educate farms about the advantages of good washing and packing set-ups, and how to build better wash stations, we devise simple wash/pack station plans (a publication), we assist farmers in developing food safety plans, we offer GAPs training, and we assist farms with GAPs certification.
• We will study harvest and packing practices and infrastructure at regional produce farms to create benchmarks and examples, using a case study approach on approximately 10 farms. We will identify “good” and “bad” practices, and areas where efficiency could be improved. For the assessment, we’ll use the basic GAPs criteria—worker hygiene, water quality, harvest sanitation, postharvest handling, and scouting for sources of contamination.
• We will help the participating case study farms implement improvements by providing a “shopping list” and assistance with design and installation. We will measure labor efficiency improvements after the new set-ups are in place.
• We will provide training and field days for other area farmers. At the training we’ll use a panel of participating farmers, photos, and labor data to demonstrate what they’ve done on their own farms. We will demonstrate the advantages of implementing an efficient post-harvest wash and pack station including increases in both food safety and labor efficiency. We will also discuss the advantages of food safety and a written food safety plan as a marketing advantage with direct market customers. In addition, we will organize 1 or 2 field days for farmers to visit 3-4 other farms and learn about their systems. Included in the field days will be a mock GAPs inspection to demonstrate what farms can expect.
• We will create and distribute a publication showing efficient and food-safe harvest and packing set-ups that work for small scale produce farmers. Existing publications such as “Packing Shed Layout 1” and “Packing Shed Layout 2” from University of Wisconsin do not comprehensively address the factors of work efficiency, station layout, good procedure, and food safety. (These publication can be found at http://agmarketing.extension.psu.edu/Wholesale/PDFs/PackingTip.pdf and http://bse.wisc.edu/hfhp/tipsheets_pdf/shed4web.pdf ) Our publication will give multiple specific examples of good set-ups both for crops that need washing and for those that just need packing.
• We will assist interested farmers in their pursuit of GAPs certification by investigating the resources they need and itemizing materials and actions needed.
The Southern Tier will be a safer place to eat locally when we’re through!