By Maggie Kaiser, Farmer, Produce Safety Coordinator, National Young Farmers Coalition
The newly released Needs Assessment reports detail the food safety practices, knowledge, attitudes, barriers, and needs of local producers, with a particular focus on food processors and fruit and vegetable growers. The reports consisted of a national survey of food producers and smaller listening sessions, during which local food producers had the opportunity to discuss issues in greater detail.
The Local Food Safety Collaborative conducted a Needs Assessment to understand what kinds of food safety needs smaller, local growers and processors had. We wanted to dive into those results and see if they reflected the needs of the growers we’ve had the opportunity to work with over the last couple of years.
As part of our work with NFU’s Local Food Safety Collaborative, the National Young Farmers Coalition has trained over 1,500 farmers in the past 3 years. Most of them fall under the definition of “local food producer” used for the Needs Assessment: food producers who sell over 50% of their food within 275 miles of their farm or food facility. Because they fall into this category of “local”, the majority of the smaller farmers we work with are “qualified exempt” from the Produce Safety Rule. Even though they are not fully covered by the Produce Safety Rule, they have demonstrated a deep commitment to improving food safety practices on their farms for the myriad of reasons outlined in the Needs Assessment reports, including personal commitment to growing safer food, liability purposes, market access, etc. Additionally, these findings align with what I have seen in my various farmer interactions: that local producers feel deeply accountable to their customers and want their produce to be of the highest quality possible. This feeling of accountability often drives farmers to learn food safety best practices, beyond what they may or may not be required to do.
What’s Already Growing On?
We often begin our produce safety trainings by acknowledging the wisdom of the farmers in the room. They are probably already doing a lot of the practices that we are about to talk about, and we want them to share their experiences of integrating food safety practices into their farm business. We see this reflected in the data from the Needs Assessment reports. More than 50% of producers reported understanding various food safety principles, like how pathogens are spread, ways to reduce food safety risks, and the difference between cleaning and sanitizing, while 79% said they never use surface water in postharvest activities. This is also reflected in the 54% of respondents who store their biological soil amendments in a way that minimizes runoff and the 65% who monitor for wildlife intrusion in their fields “always” or “most of the time”. The LFSC Needs Assessment reports show the ways local producers are using their existing knowledge to implement food safety practices and points out where there are opportunities to improve food safety practices, especially when it comes to documenting the actions, they’ve taken to keep their produce safe.
Room to Grow
The Needs Assessment reports shows that growers still have room for improvement when it comes to food safety record-keeping. Only 32% of respondents reported having a written farm food safety plan. However, growers are much more likely to keep records when they are connected to their bottom line, as seen by 70% of respondents who reported keeping sales records. As a farmer, I, personally, interpret the data on record-keeping to mean that either farmers do not find produce safety records to be worth their time or effort from a business perspective, or they have not found an efficient way to integrate these records into their farm business. Farmers are going to do what is financially correct for their business, and as a trainer, my biggest challenge is finding a way to connect produce safety practices to the whole farm ecosystem and make the financial connection between produce safety and business viability to encourage better record-keeping.
Unlike sales records, the ways in which produce safety records can improve farm profit may not be immediately obvious. However, keeping food safety records, like how you monitor for wildlife, can help you determine what might be eating into your profit. For example, recording when you see animal intrusion, figuring out what kind of animal it is, and using those records to see if there is a pattern can help you figure out if there are certain times of the year when deer are especially prevalent and when you may want to take extra steps to deter them.
So how can farmers more easily integrate food safety records into their farm operation? I don’t have the magic answer, but I do think there are some little things that can make a big difference, like making records a part of documentation already being kept. For example, producers could add an extra column to their harvest list for wildlife intrusion monitoring. As farmers walk the fields for harvest purposes, they can also look for signs of wildlife and write down what they find. Record templates can be kept right where the activity happens, like attaching a template for monitoring the cooler temperature to a clipboard with a pen on the outside of the cooler. Working produce safety records into software already being used, like QuickBooks, is another easy way to incorporate record-keeping into your existing practices. Little details like this can help improve efficiency and help prevent a small problem from becoming a bigger one.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how the Needs Assessment reports results aligned with my experience training and talking with young farmers around the country about food safety. I hope the results will continue to support trainings and further food safety education for smaller-scale growers, even those who are not yet covered by the Rule.
Looking for more information, tools, or templates to help you comply with FSMA? Here are some top picks for FSMA-related resources:
Produce Safety Alliance: A collaborative project between Cornell University, the USDA and the FDA with the goal of providing training and education to the produce industry.
Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse: A curated source of Produce Safety and Preventative Controls for Human Food related resources.
ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program: A program developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) that provides high value information and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and anyone involved in sustainable agriculture in the United States.
About the Author
Maggie Kaiser, a farmer and Produce Safety Coordinator at the National Young Farmers Coalition (the Coalition). Kaiser owns and operates Too Tall Farm and Nursery in New Orleans, LA and is one of the organizers for the Greater New Orleans Growers Alliance, a local chapter of the Coalition. National Young Farmers Coalition is a national advocacy network of young farmers fighting to change policy, build networks, and provide business services to ensure all young farmers have the chance to succeed.