Safety First

Good agricultural practices program helps ensure a safe food supply a few farmers at a time

In January 2011, President Obama directed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish science-based standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of serious illness or death. The FDA is in a several-year rule-making process to set benchmarks related to agricultural water; fertilization with manure and other animal products; worker health and hygiene; animals in the growing area; and equipment, tools and buildings.

Although the rules are not yet final and, even when they are, would apply first to large producers, they still are of interest to small farmers like Sandy Dietz and her husband, Lonny.

The Dietzes farm 136 acres of land about 100 miles southeast of the Twin Cities. At Whitewater Gardens, they raise beans, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes and other produce for farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), co-ops and wholesale distributors. With all the talk about the forthcoming federal regulations, in 2012 they decided to attend a day-long workshop in Winona because they "wanted to be up-to-date on farm food safety."

Producer workshop

Local producers attend a workshop on good agricultural practices in Lakefield, Minn, conducted by Michele Schermann (center top).

That workshop was presented by Michele Schermann ('80–B.S., Horticulture) and Annalisa Hultberg ('11–M.S., Natural Resources Science), research fellows with the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering who have been working with farmers on food safety issues since 2005. As the driving force behind the university's on-farm Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) education program, they offer workshops and training sessions to help produce farmers follow a set of voluntary guidelines to reduce the risk of contamination related to food-borne illnesses on their farms. The workshops include such topics as handwashing and hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing tools and post-harvest food handling and storage, as well as how to write a risk assessment and develop a food safety plan. To date, about 75 farmers have participated in their GAP programs.

Some wholesale food distributors and other buyers require third-party certification that growers follow good agricultural practices to reduce microbial contamination—a so-called GAP audit—but Schermann finds that many small farmers want to do the right thing without being prompted. "They want to know what they can do to improve their practices. For them, food safety isn't in a little box off to the side; it's part of the sustainability of their whole enterprise."

Conducting GAP training programs on site rather than in a classroom is central to Schermann and Hultberg's teaching strategy. "We look at real examples, real scenarios. We want everyone to go home with techniques and practices that they can put into practice right away," says Schermann. "Participants walk around the host farm thinking, 'If this were my farm, what might pose a risk in terms of potential contamination?' They are actively engaged in learning from each other, rather than passively listening to us tell them what to do."

Farmers Market

A woman buys produce from a local producer at a farmers' market in Roseville in late September.

Schermann and Hultberg visit the host farm ahead of time, conducting a risk assessment and working with the farmer to write a risk assessment statement to be included in his or her farm safety plan. They find that growers are eager to share the food safety practices they have implemented, such as installing handwashing stations or rinsing their fresh produce with water treated with a sanitizing agent to reduce illness-causing pathogens, like E. coli and Salmonella.

Being scrutinized by your peers like this could be uncomfortable but Schermann and Hultberg work hard to put farmers at ease.

"No one is perfect, and we are not here to judge," Hultberg says. "We just want to help growers do their best."

"We are educators, not enforcers," continues Schermann. "We are the bridge between Minnesota growers and what they need to know in terms of best practices and the regulatory environment."

Sandy Dietz, who hosted Schermann and Hultberg for a GAP training program on her farm in June of this year, wholeheartedly agrees. "The way that Michele and Annalisa present the information, it's clear that they aren't there to police anyone. They genuinely are there to help."

Although some might be hesitant to take part, Dietz believes that participating in farm food safety training has value as a marketing tool. "It's a comfort to our customers to know that we are actively thinking about the safety of the food we grow after it comes out of the ground, that we are offering them a safe product," she says.

Dietz, who recently visited several farms in New England, thinks that Minnesota is "way ahead of other states in promoting food safety on small farms."

Schermann and Hultberg intend to keep it that way.

–Julie C. Lund