Food Safety on the Small Farm

by Dr. Ben Chapman and Dr. Audrey Kreske (NCSU)

Farmers, imagine your child or neighbor comes home from school one day and asks, “Why can’t we have your fresh, local produce in our school cafeteria?” You’re thinking: “A new market for my products!” And, “Bonus—maybe if kids know where and how their food was grown and got to meet the farmer who grew it, they would be excited to eat more fruits and veggies.” So, you call the school and they are interested, but they need supporting documentation to verify the safety of your product. And they need it in the form of a third-party audit. Don’t be discouraged, here’s how to get started.

Common Sense Practices

The frameworks used to ensure produce safety are the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Best Handling Practices (BHPs). The purpose of these practices is to help reduce the risks of microbial contamination of fruits and vegetables from your farm. Although they might sound complicated, these practices are meant to provide guidance from seed to market. Wholesale buyers who are looking to source local produce often require them, and many of these best practices not only satisfy GAP certification, but serve as common sense protection for your business.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are one of the most significant sources of foodborne illness today. There have been over 600 outbreaks related to produce in North America since 1990. Although very healthy, fresh produce possesses high risk of contamination because it’s fresh: Since they are often eaten raw, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination. What’s more challenging is that outbreak data suggests many of these risks must be controlled before a consumer, restaurant or retail store gets the product. Even the most diligent washing of produce will accomplish very little; in some cases, pathogens are still present.

Contamination Risks

Many risk factors for contamination are found on the farm. These include contamination from water sources, animals, soil amendments and people. Understanding the microbial quality of the water used for irrigation, fertigation, and washing produce is important. Buyers are increasingly concerned about all of these crop inputs. For example, well water should be sampled for E. coli annually at a minimum and surface water should be tested three times annually. Testing municipal water is not necessary as records can be obtained through local authorities.

Domestic and wildlife animals can also carry pathogens in their feces, so reducing this risk of contamination is also important. While removing all animals from production settings isn’t realistic, buyers are looking for farmers to employ best practices to keep wild and domestic animals out of active crop production areas. For example, the use of fences, scarecrows, noise cannons, or fish emulsion in surrounding areas reduces potential risks, especially if deer or feral pigs are nearby.

Animal manures often contain pathogens. As a best practice, it is recommended to compost manure or ensure that you don’t harvest produce crops until at least 120 days after your apply raw manure to a field. Record application dates and locations of raw manure; for composted manure, document the duration of the composting process and temperature of the pile during that process.

Working Toward Progress

During the past two years, thanks to grants to CFSA from the NC Specialty Crop Block Grant program and RAFI-USA’s Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, we have worked closely with 12 diversified farms across North Carolina to identify processes and cost barriers to GAP certification. Each of these producers has spent time going through the certification process, collecting and sharing data so we can better understand where others may be able to succeed and are likely to encounter problems. The valuable lessons we’ve learned include:

• Certified organic farms are already completing some of the documentation that is required by GAPs.

• A food safety manual that catalogs any food safety hazards and how you address them is a must.

• As a small farmer with a large number of crops, an auditor will want to see all your harvest processes, such as by hand, knife, shears or other equipment, but not necessarily all your crops in production. It is a myth that each individual crop must be audited.

• Workers and visitors (including agritourists) need to be made aware of health and hygiene policies, such as washing hands before handling produce and not handling food while ill from a transmissible disease.

An on-farm food safety program should be designed clearly so that a producer can say what they do, do what they say, and verify that it works. Applying these practices needs to begin from the bottom up, with resource experts on the farm helping farmers with any food safety questions. The farmer does not need to be the food safety expert and should not have to be with so many other priorities. But they do need to know what hazards exist on their farm, how to manage them, and communicate those management practices clearly to an interested buyer.

Dr. Ben Chapman is a food safety extension specialist with NCSU and focuses on food safety risk management and communication. Dr. Audrey Kreske works as a food safety extension associate at NCSU and focuses on reducing risks from farm to fork and determining practical cost-effective solutions.

> See workshop trainings and other resources at http://gapsmallfarmsnc.wordpress.com.

> CFSA will be offering trainings to help diversified farms to pass GAP audits in 2013, along with cost shares for farms applying for GAP certification. Watch our website, , for further details.

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