- Author: Brenda Dawson
For consumers, the effects of food safety practices can seem simple, though critically important: You’re either sick from the food you eat or you’re not.
But for producers, food safety comes in many shades of risk at many critical points in their business operations: water testing, worker hygiene, harvest techniques, postharvest cooling and storage, previous land use, wildlife and more.
To help small-scale farmers better plan for food safety concerns, several UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors are being trained in food safety audits and are planning food safety workshops. The project is led by Shermain Hardesty and Richard Molinar of the Small Farm Program, with funding from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The group is beginning to offer workshops for farmers in eight regions of California.
New FDA regulations are being developed for the Food Safety Modernization Act that will affect food producers, among others. The act includes an exemption for farms whose annual sales were less than $500,000 on average during the last three years, with the majority of their product sold directly to consumers, farmers markets and restaurants within the state or within a 275-mile radius.
"Even though it exempts many small farmers, the Food Safety Modernization Act says the exempt producers would still need to comply with any food safety regulations from state and local governments," Hardesty said.
Trevor Suslow, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in food safety at UC Davis, has said that the FDA can withdraw the exemption with cause.
“Whether or not the exemption will hold, I think, is incumbent on everybody,” he said.
He expects the regulations will be implemented in tiers, with smaller farms having three years to comply once the regulations are final.
Even without regulations in place, more buyers — including packinghouses, retailers and at least one certified organic distributor — are requiring farmers to meet food safety standards. Insurance companies are also, in some instances, cancelling policies or hiking rates for small farmers who have not documented their food safety practices, according to Hardesty.
Many farmers who work with large packinghouses, sell to major distributors or are members of a commodity-specific commission have already established their food safety practices to adhere to standards of their industries.
But smaller farmers who grow multiple crops or who aren't part of a commission may still be looking for food safety guidance, which these workshops aim to provide.
"Most of the growers I work with are exempt, but even so, they are very concerned about how it will affect them," said Cindy Fake, one of the UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors who is part of the project and works in Placer and Nevada counties. "There is a lot of awareness of what is coming down the line."
Food safety basics
The workshops will include presentations about food safety as it relates to regulatory and business trends, previous land use, workers, water, wildlife, waste, soils, harvest, transportation, traceability and farm mapping. What should a farmer do with all this information?
“First and foremost, farmers should have some sort of food safety manual, a written food safety manual for their individual farm,” explained Richard Molinar, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Fresno County. “And then if they want or need to be certified, that’s a second step with a third-party auditor.”
In his session, Suslow examined the link between fresh produce, outbreaks and illnesses. Leafy greens, melons and tomatoes have been associated with a combined 65 percent of produce-related outbreaks, between 1996 and 2009.
He listed key areas of food safety for all farming and shipping:
- Water: pre-harvest and postharvest
- Workers: hygiene and training
- Waste: manure and compost
- Wildlife: intrusion and fecal
Food safety programs, he explained, depend on multiple hurdles to help prevent biological, chemical and physical hazards from entering food, surviving, growing and persisting.
Cold chain management is one critical aspect of postharvest food safety. Bacteria can double in a very short period of time if cold chain management is neglected.
“In just a few hours, you can go from something that won’t affect most of us to something that would make you sick,” Suslow said.
Food safety workshops for this project will be held in multiple regions around the state. The first such workshop, scheduled for April 12 in Santa Rosa, has already sold out.
Registration is available for the next food safety workshop, May 3 in Stockton. The workshop is free to attend, though pre-registration is required.
Additional workshops will be planned by UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors participating in the project, who are located in Lake, Sonoma, San Joaquin, Placer, Nevada, Santa Clara, Fresno, Ventura and San Diego counties.
All food safety workshops associated with this project will be included on the Small Farm Program's calendar as well.
Some additional resources, recommended by farm advisors on this project:
- Creating a food safety manual:
- California small farm food safety manual from UC Cooperative Extension
- On Farm Food Safety project is part of Familyfarmed.org and can help farmers create a customized food safety plan. Suslow was a technical advisor to this project, along with a national team of stakeholders and specialists.
- Good Agricultural Practices Food Safety Plan template from Penn State Extension
- Books from UC ANR:
- Small Farm Handbook includes a chapter on postharvest handling and safety of perishable crops
- Organic Vegetable Production Manual includes a chapter on postharvest handling for organic vegetable crops
- Free publications from UC authors (PDFs)
Back to the newsletter: Find more Small Farm News articles from our Vol 1. 2012 edition.
- Author: Brenda Dawson
The talk, along with introductions, a Q&A session and light refreshments, will be 4-6 p.m. at the Rominger West Winery, 4602 Second St. in Davis. Tickets are $10, and reservations are available online at
Slow Money is a national network dedicated to investing in local food and agricultural enterprises, which has a Northern California chapter.
“We often hear about ‘voting with your dollar’ when it comes to supporting small-scale farmers and local food,” said Shermain Hardesty, director of the UC Small Farm Program and Cooperative Extension economist with UC Davis. “Shopping at a farmers market or becoming a CSA member are ways to support small-scale farms as a consumer — but Slow Money can be a way to invest in them.”
One local venture that has sought funding through Slow Money is the Capay Valley Farm Shop, a collaborative of 30 farms and ranches who together offer a CSA to institutions and corporations.
“Through Slow Money, we’re reaching investors who share our values, who believe that community food systems are a great investment for the health of communities and for the planet,” said Thomas Nelson, president of Capay Valley Farm Shop.
After presenting at a Slow Money showcase this summer, the Capay Valley Farm Shop is currently working with a group of interested investors through the local chapter.
Another agricultural venture — Soul Food Farm in Vacaville — has received approximately $40,000 in loans from Slow Money investors, according to the group’s website.
“This model is another way that entrepreneurs in sustainable agriculture and community food systems can seek funding — especially when conventional sources such as traditional venture capitalists, the Farm Credit System or commercial banks may not be an option,” Hardesty said.
Hardesty, along with Gail Feenstra of the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, is currently studying values-based food systems, where relationships between growers, funders, distributors, consumers and others are based on shared values. The project is working to identify bottlenecks in the development of these values-based food supply chains, with an eye toward enhancing the prosperity of smaller producers through networks that support environmental and social sustainability.
The research is part of a USDA-funded, multi-state project, along with researchers at Colorado State University and Portland State University.
The event is sponsored by the Davis Food Co-op, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and the Giannini Foundation.
More details and ticket reservations for the Slow Money event are available at http://ucanr.org/slowmoney.