From Field to Market: Keeping Food Safety in Mind

Having great produce is essential to success as a market gardener, and food regulations and handling practices are in place to help achieve that. Produce contamination is damaging to both farmer and consumer alike, but attention to food safety can help ensure that everyone stays happy and healthy.

By Lynn Byczynski


September 2015

harvest totes

At Hearty Roots Farm in Tivoli, New York, Buckhorn flip-top totes have been power-washed and stacked to dry before harvest.

Photo by Benjamin Shute

Content Tools

Market Farming Success (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) is an indispensable guide to market gardening and farming for those in the business of growing and selling food, flowers, herbs or plants. The book has been extensively updated with new information, photos, charts, graphs and business profiles of successful market-farming pioneers. The following excerpt is from chapter seven, which covers food safety practices and procedures from planting to post-harvest.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Market Farming Success.

Food Safety

After several widespread produce contamination outbreaks that killed dozens of people, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January 2011. In January 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published proposed regulations that would require stringent food safety procedures and inspections for farmers. However, the law provides an exemption for small farms that meet these criteria:

  • Farms with less than $25,000 a year in food sales are exempt.
  • Farms with less than $500,000 annually in gross sales are exempt if more than half of their product sales are to qualified end users, defined as consumers or restaurants and retailers either in-state or within 275 miles of the farm or facility.

At this writing, the proposal is still in the comment stage, and there will probably be several years of phasing in the rules once they become final. But it’s safe to say that as things now stand, most people reading this book are going to be exempt from the FSMA rules. That doesn’t mean exempt from food safety, however. Everyone in the business of growing and selling food should commit themselves to producing food that is safe, wholesome, and nourishing. To grow food that makes customers sick or worse would be devastating emotionally, as well as financially. I urge you, whatever your scale or level of expertise, to learn about food safety and to correct any deficiencies that exist in your practices. You should begin by reading the standards known as Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Handling Practices (GHPs). They are largely commonsense recommendations for preventing contamination of food in the field, packing shed, and markets.

There are many potential sources of contamination on a produce farm: soil; irrigation water; manure or improperly composted compost; wild and domestic animals; field worker hygiene; harvesting equipment; transport containers; wash water; unsanitary handling during packing; equipment used to soak, pack, or cut produce; ice; hydrocoolers; transport vehicles; improper storage temperatures; and cross-contamination in storage, display, or preparation. Review these potential weak links in the chain of your production, harvest, washing, and transportation of produce to determine whether your practices need modifications.

Despite the exemption, many small growers may find that buyers want them to provide assurance about their practices. At the least, buyers may ask to see a food safety plan; at the most, they may require GAPs certification by a third-party agency. Even if no one is requiring you to do so, you might as well learn the recommended practices and create a food safety plan for your farm. It can’t hurt, and it will put you much farther down the road to compliance should you ever need it.

Food safety resources for small farmers are abundant and increasing every month. Workshops, webinars, self-assessments, and publications are readily available on the web and from your state Extension service. A great resource for growers is available from Cornell University. Called Food Safety Begins on the Farm, the 30-page guide explains the points in the production chain where fruits and vegetables can get contaminated and offers suggestions for preventing contamination. It is available on the web at www.gaps.cornell.edu.

Although some farmers resent any oversight of their practices, the vast majority are willing to learn and comply. And, frankly, food safety is one area where cooperation is essential for the greater good. If one farmer at a farmers market brings food that sickens or kills customers, every vendor at that market will be affected. Furthermore, large growers are already pushing for Congress to remove the exemption for small farms, arguing that contamination is just as likely on a small farm as a large one; a few incidents of contamination from small farms could result in greater regulation for all.

Harvest and Postharvest

You can grow the most beautiful produce on earth, but if you can’t get it to market in perfect condition, all your efforts are in vain. The practices collectively known as postharvest handling can make the difference between success and failure in market farming, so it’s important to pay careful attention to what happens after your produce leaves the field. You need to focus on these matters: harvest containers, cleaning, cooling, packaging, and transportation. Let’s consider them one by one.

Containers

To comply with food safety regulations, containers must be sanitized before you use them for harvest or storage, so most growers use food-safe crates and boxes specifically made for produce or other hard plastic containers that can be washed.

Match the container size to the mode of transport from the field; that is, if you have to hand-carry your harvest, use small, lightweight containers; if you can drive a pickup truck into the field, use stackable boxes to maximize space. Scale is the issue here, so think through your system before you invest in harvest containers.

Consider how you are going to move harvested produce from field to barn. Many growers set up their fields so they can drive a pickup truck along an edge to minimize the hauling distance for produce. This is really important if you’re growing heavy produce, such as watermelons and winter squash. Tractor-pulled wagons can serve the same purpose without requiring a road. On a very small market garden, you can use a garden cart. In any case, I advise you to think about this carefully. Don’t strain your back any more than is absolutely necessary, or you’ll soon be out of business.

Bulb crates or bread crates are among the cheapest harvest containers for market growers. These are hard plastic, ventilated crates that stack. Most vegetables can be packed loose in them, then carried to the wash station and hosed off right in the crate or transferred to a tub for washing. They also make excellent storage and transport containers, and they are useful for organizing and storing tools and supplies elsewhere on the farm. They are so useful that it is worth expending some energy to locate a supply.

Bulb crates can often be purchased for a dollar or two each from wholesale greenhouses.  Here’s a tip for locating bulb crates: Go to a supermarket floral department in winter or spring and look at the potted tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. You should find a tag with the grower’s name, but, if not, ask the floral department employees where they get their flowers. You’ll likely find the name of a regional greenhouse grower that you can then look up on the Internet. These greenhouses buy thousands of bulbs for forcing, and those bulbs are almost always shipped from Holland in plastic crates. Some greenhouses have mountains of bulb crates that they are happy to get rid of; you may even be able to get them for free. Just be aware that they take up a lot of space, and you won’t be able to transport more than a few dozen at a time, depending on the size of your vehicle.

Bus tubs are another low-cost option for moving produce; they can be purchased from restaurant supply companies. They are FDA-approved for holding food, and they are durable. Some can be purchased with lids, which are great for storing lettuce and other perishable greens in the cooler.

Wooden crates are often available free from supermarkets, which view them as a disposal problem. Produce shipped from afar often comes in very sturdy wooden crates that can be stacked. Certified-organic growers cannot use crates or boxes that contained conventional produce, but there are plenty of organic produce crates looking for homes, too.

Buckets are an essential harvest tool on market farms. You can purchase new 5-gallon buckets at hardware stores, but you can easily find them for free or at a nominal cost if you know where to look. Restaurants purchase a lot of supplies such as pickles and doughnut icing in 1-gallon, 2-gallon, and 5-gallon buckets. Check with supermarket bakeries and places like Dunkin’ Donuts. Always get buckets that have been used for food rather than chemicals or industrial supplies, and clean them thoroughly.

When searching for harvest and storage containers, always look first at commercial suppliers, which are more likely to have sturdy containers that can withstand the heavy loads and banging around that they will undergo. Crates made specifically for produce harvest will last a long time. Look for crates that nest to minimize storage space. Don’t buy cheap stacking crates from discount stores or office supply stores; they just won’t hold up.

The Packing Shed

Every farm needs a dedicated place for cleaning and packing produce. It needs to be clean, brightly lit, safe, and well organized. You will spend a lot of time in your packing shed, and it will become an important part of your food safety plan, so it bears careful consideration from the start. When choosing a location, think of the packing shed as the funnel from the fields to the vehicle that will transport your produce off the farm. It should be easily accessible when you are bringing in harvested produce, and you should be able to drive your vehicle right up to the door when you’re getting ready to go to market.

The structure itself will be what you can afford when starting out. Some growers use a canopy to cover their wash tubs and other equipment. Some use a hoophouse or greenhouse. Others convert barns or build new buildings. Whatever the roof is over your head, here are some of the other things you need to consider:

  • The packing shed needs clean running water that is safe for washing produce.
  • It should have food-contact surfaces that can be sanitized, such as hard plastic tubs or stainless steel sinks.
  • Floors need to be of a material that is not slippery and can be cleaned, such as brushed concrete.
  • Ergonomics have to be considered, so that you aren’t straining any part of your body regularly while working. According to the Healthy Farmers, Healthy Profits Project at the University of Wisconsin, the most efficient work table height is halfway between wrist and elbow, measured when the arm is held down at the worker’s side. For heavier items, it is slightly lower.
  • Good lighting is essential so you can spot defects in your produce.
  • The most efficient layout avoids extra steps and people crossing paths. It should move produce in the direction of the worker’s leading hand—left to right for righthanded people.
  • Packaging supplies should be kept nearby and neatly accessible.
  • Rodents and other vermin, such as cockroaches, should be trapped regularly.

When growing on a small scale, most growers make do with hand cleaning of produce. Some produce (apples, tomatoes, or peppers, for example) can be cleaned with a dry cloth. Onions and garlic can be cleaned by brushing or peeling the top layer. For produce that needs to be washed, white plastic utility sinks or large Rubbermaid tubs are inexpensive and can be cleaned and disinfected easily with bleach. They also can be drained and refilled easily when water gets dirty. For food safety reasons, clean, potable water should be used for washing produce.

Produce can be dried in crates, on a frame of 2 × 4s covered with hardware cloth, or in plastic baskets. Some growers use plastic laundry baskets and spin them around to dry lightweight items. Many growers remove the agitator from a clothes washing machine, then put greens in it on the spin cycle to remove water. Those who grow a lot of lettuce or mesclun find that an electric or hand-cranked salad spinner, available from restaurant supply companies, is a labor-saving device. Whatever you use to dry produce, make sure it’s as clean as the washing containers and sanitized before every use.

More specialized cleaning equipment is available for those who grow enough of certain crops to make them worth the cost. Barrel washers tumble root crops, such as carrots and beets, to get them clean. Conveyors with spray wands or brushes are available for many types of fruits and vegetables. This kind of equipment is widely available secondhand in fruit- and vegetable-growing areas of the country but hard to find elsewhere. Thanks to the Internet, virtually anything can be found online if you know what search terms to use.

Packaging

You will also need postharvest containers in which to store your produce once you have cleaned and graded it. We have found restaurant supply companies to be a good source of long-lasting containers for items that will be sold at farmers markets or through a CSA.

For produce that is going to a grocery store or restaurant, you may need to comply with USDA’s packaging standards, reprinted in the appendix. Find out first what the buyer expects, because there is a lot of variation. Some supermarkets will accept only new, standard packaging. Others don’t care how you get it there as long as it’s clean and counted or weighed correctly. You may be able to pick up used cartons at a supermarket and reuse them. If you’re an organic grower, you should reuse only organic produce boxes; you will lose the organic label on produce that has been packed in a conventional produce box. Growers who get food safety certified have to provide tracing information on every box.

You’ll find there are many variations in how produce can be delivered. For example, common packaging sizes for beets include 50-pound mesh bags; 45-pound wirebound crates bunched in 12s; 38-pound cartons bunched in 12s; 35-pound half crates, loose; 32-pound, 4/5 bushel crates; 25-pound bags, loose; and 20-pound cartons, bunched in 12s. Look at all the standards for all the different items you grow and try to find one that works for numerous types of produce; it will help you purchase boxes in larger quantities and therefore at lower prices.

Cooling Produce

Coolers are a tremendous asset on a vegetable farm because they extend the shelf life of produce and allow you to harvest whenever the crop is ready rather than right before a market. Most produce items should be stored at 32 degrees F to 36 degrees F (0 degrees C to 2 degrees C) for longest storage life. Some things, however, will experience chilling injury at temperatures that low. Basil, snap beans, some melons, okra, peppers, and squash should be held at around 45 degrees F (7 degrees C). Cucumbers, eggplants, pumpkins, and watermelons should be kept at 50 degrees F (10 degrees C). Tomatoes should not be refrigerated at all.

In hot weather, field heat must be removed from produce as soon as possible after harvest to prevent it from spoiling. Some growers immerse it in tubs of cold water to bring down the temperature. It’s important to use clean water for this, as recent research suggests that pathogens can be forced into plant cells by immersion. Washing and drying produce will also reduce its temperature by evaporative cooling. Some produce items can be iced immediately after harvest.

To get to market, growers use scale-appropriate cooling methods: iced containers or air-conditioned vehicles for small producers; refrigerated trucks for large producers.


Reprinted with permission from Market Farming Success by Lynn Byczynski and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Market Farming Success.