By Billy Mitchell, NFU Food Safety Training Coordinator
Organize the tools. Clean the barn. Patch the pants. As farmers make their New Year’s resolutions, produce growers have an extra one to add: test the water.
Contaminated water is often the culprit of produce-related food borne illnesses – but with proper precautions, it can be avoided. Like seeing a car with a flat in the grocery store parking lot might cause you to check your tires, reading about outbreaks in the news – and the effect they have – have brought a renewed focus for all growers, large and small, to regularly check their water sources.
But water testing is easier said than done. Farmers can expect to be confronted with lots of rules, some confusing paperwork, and a laundry list of potential pathogens to contend with. To help them navigate the world of water testing, groups like the Kentucky Horticulture Council (KHC) step in to lend a hand. Cindy Finneseth, the executive director for KHC, says that she finds that growers are “conscientious and they want to know what they are doing and that they are doing it right. They’ve seen these reports at the national level, and they want to provide high quality, fresh, and safe produce to their local customers.”
Congress and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have gotten involved as well, and while the water testing rules in the FDA’s Produce Safety Rule aren’t finalized yet, the grower community is aware of the need to be ready to be in compliance. Most folks, grower or not, don’t like to be told what to do – especially if those rules come down from government – but, for the farmers Finneseth works with, they are motivated to test their water both from a commitment to doing the right thing and to be prepared for the new rules.
Whether it’s putting on muck boots to wade out into a pond or slipping on gloves to test a well, growers are often happy to learn the where, when, and how to test. One grower put it simply, “I am pleased to be educated on safer ways to grow and handle food.”
Finneseth listed off three things that are positive signs as we move into 2021. First, the continued “contact with growers so that they know how to be prepared to test” that groups like KHC and others around the country, sometimes with support from the FDA, are doing with growers. Second, the “confidence growers have that when they get their results that they know what to do.” And third, that “the community at large can have some peace of mind knowing that in the same way growers would not just randomly apply a pesticide, they’re not just going to randomly apply some water.”
For some, 2021 may be the year of the Ox, but, for produce growers, it’s off to a good start as the year of the Water Test.
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