From Farm to Fork: What Does Food Safety Look Like on the Ground?
Posted On: November 3, 2009
Tenley Weaver and Dennis Dove of Floyd County, Virginia own Full Circle Organic Farm and operate Good Food-Good People, a distributor of local fresh farm food. With food safety legislation pending in Congress, FMC took the opportunity to chat with Tenley about food safety at her farm and distributorship.
FMC: Tell us about about your farm. How long have you been in business? What are your operations like?
TW: We have owned Full Circle Organic Farm, here in Floyd, for 15 years. We have two parcels totaling 15 acres, and tend to grow fast rotation, high dollar per row crops, which means that a lot of the acreage is employed seven times in the 9-10 months per year the farm is in production. We grow garlic, salad greens, beets, carrots, shitake mushrooms, run a culinary herb business, and use lots of garden seedlings for season extension. The other business that we operate is called Good Food-Good People, a local fresh farm food distributorship that we started at the same time as the farm. In the last several years of running Good Food, we have branched into eggs and meat, and try to buy only certified organic. However, since we only work with farmers within a 50-mile radius of Floyd, we handle commercial fruit since it is all we can find locally.
FMC: What marketing outlets do you use? How do farmers markets play in your sales?
TW: Our farm sells all of its produce through Good Food-Good People, which in turn sells at farmers markets as well as to restaurants, stores, individual consumers, and other outlets. Farmers markets are incredibly important to us; we’ve been selling at them for 20 years. This year, we participated in three farmers markets—Blacksburg, Grandin Village, and Blacksburg YMCA—which accounted for about a third of our sales. We also have an online virtual market preorder program for our CSA and farmers markets.
FMC: It sounds like your client base is diverse—do any of them ask about food safety?
TW: Incredibly, they don’t! Foodborne illnesses have actually strengthened our sales and those of other small farmers and CSAs, due to the perception that food safety problems only occur at large companies. This is certainly idealistic, as small farmers can make mistakes too, although we do tend to care more about our customers than large corporations. Still, most of us are hesitant to bring food safety up, and it’s quite surprising that nobody—not farmers market customers, not restaurants, not natural food stores—has asked a word. Even more surprising is the fact that nobody except for us growers seems to have even heard of GAPs.
FMC: GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) are based upon a 1998 Food and Drug Administration publication. Since 1999, the USDA has offered voluntary auditing services to determine a farm’s compliance with GAPs. As a farmer and distributor, how have GAPs, and the food safety issues it addresses, affected you?
TW: Not long ago, all of us growers started to realize that GAPs were for real and starting to breathe down our backs, and that we needed to pay attention to two things. First, there’s the regulatory level—the paperwork—and there are copious pages of information to sort through on what the regulations are about. It’s hard to understand, and even harder to figure out how to work with growers to bring them up to snuff and make them compliant with the issues. However, more importantly, there are serious issues with food safety in agriculture today that must be addressed. It’s so hard for small farmers like us to know what we need to do to stay safe. The people we work with all gross less than $25,000 a year, and certainly can’t afford to build $10,000+ state of the art prep facilities—but GAP doesn’t spell out other options for small farmers. Nobody wants to get in the way of food safety, but the imposition of industrial-scale GAP measures on small farms could easily put a lot of us out of business.
FMC: So, GAPs aside, how have you taken food safety into consideration at your farm? What food safety concern looms largest?
TW: Water, water, water! We have had our spring water tested, but according to the Department of Health it could be clean one day and dirty the next, since it is being continuously fed by an underground source. Water is particularly important at the packhouse. We don’t test our irrigation water, but we use an underground drip system that is far less likely to have problems than overhead irrigation. It’s in washing the produce at the packhouse that contamination worries become relevant—the temperature of the water needs to be matched with that of the produce so the produce doesn’t draw water in. So, employee training to deal with these packhouse concerns is number one. The first thing we did when we got serious about this was sit down with all our employees and open their eyes to food safety issues, starting with water. We’ve established a firm clean-up procedure with them. They wash their hands with antibacterial soap, clean all surfaces with bleach solution, wear food handling gloves, tie bags tightly, and check cooler thermometers at every shift. A lot of the food safety literature emphasizes traceability, so we’ve really focused on that as well—using checklists, making sure we’re in the packhouse watching the employees so we know procedures are being followed. Of course, nobody can watch everyone all the time, so trust is key. The emphasis on washing produce carefully is also something I’ve shared with our growers—just because you’re used to the water on your farm and can drink it without any problem, doesn’t mean you can wash lettuce with it, take it to a restaurant, feed it to an elderly person, and have them be okay. Most of the farms around here have $1-3 million of liability coverage, and although if there were to be a problem it would be on a much smaller scale than if it were, say, Dole, it would still be very damaging.
FMC: Have you had any food safety incidents?
TW: Never! Good Food has had not one single incident in 15 years of operation. The job ahead of us is simply to continue to stay conscious of food safety concerns.
FMC: What can be done to help farmers stay conscious of these issues?
TW: I think any information by organizations like the Farmers Market Coalition or farmers market associations that can be filtered down to individual vendors would be extremely helpful. A lot of small farmers have no idea that food safety regulation is coming their way, and may not be thinking about the issues as much as they should. There are things we could do for free on our farms that would make us safer, and we need to know about them.
As of this writing, the Senate is still working on its version of the Food Safety Legislation passed by the House (HR 2749) earlier this year.
The text of Senate 510, or the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, as it is presently called, is available at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:s510: FMC recently had an opportunity to meet with staffers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee working on the bill about our concerns. A brief PDF of FMC’s current Food Safety Position Statement is available at www.farmersmarketcoalition.org/joinus/policy/. We encourage you use these points to remind your congresspersons of the importance of scale-appropriate measures, and to keep guidelines voluntary for direct-marketing farmers.
Browse or submit food safety resources to the ever-growing FMC Resource Library at www.farmersmarketcoalition.org/resource-library.