By Tom Parker
Like most farmers, Tom Brown, co-owner of Meadowlark Farm outside of Wichita, takes a dim view of what he considers unnecessary government regulations meddling in his operation. One such piece of legislation is the Produce Safety Rule-the first mandatory federal standard for growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fresh produce. Published in Nov. 27, 2015, the rule is one of seven that comprise the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform of the nation’s food safety laws in over 70 years.
While his farm is largely exempt from the rule because of several factors based on the types of commodities grown, processing activities, average annual produce and food sales, and sales to qualified end users, Brown doesn’t believe that producers like him should be complacent.
“Most Kansas horticulture growers are small enough that most won’t be affected, yet,” he said. “For the moment we’re under the radar, but we need to keep this in mind. I anticipate that it will come to us, and we should be prepared.”
Londa Vanderwal Nwadike, State Extension Food Safety Specialist for Kansas State University and the University of Missouri, agreed. “We’re assuming that buyer requirements are going to be more restrictive, and buyers might start requiring sellers to be compliant with the rule,” she said. “There could be fewer exemptions in the future, too. We’re trying to encourage farmers to move toward food safety practices and getting into the habit of documentation, because it’s a good business practice and we want to be sure that people do not get sick from eating Kansas produce.”
But navigating the act can be daunting without assistance. To assist producers in understanding how the rule will affect them as well as providing a basic outline on good agricultural practices (GAPS) for post-harvest handling, harvesting, washing, storage and packaging produce for safety and quality, K-State Extension has partnered with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition to bring a series of training sessions throughout the state. The first of these sessions will incorporate information on the FSMA produce safety rule along with a bus tour showcasing three Wichita-area farms that are developing their own food safety management practices.
The Produce Farm Twilight Tour will be held on Monday, August 7, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Registrations are $15 and can be made online at http://sedgwick.ksu.edu or by calling 316-660-0100. Reservations must be made by Friday, July 28, to reserve a seat on the bus and a box lunch. Directions to the departure location will be included in the registration.
Participants will be bused to each location and provided boxed dinners. Tours include Meadowlark Farm, Firefly Farm and the Pearson Farm/Common Ground Producers and Growers. The Produce Farm Twilight Tour is sponsored by K-State Research and Extension, Kansas Department of Agriculture, Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Beginning Farmers Coalition.
The farms were chosen for the varied nature of their business operations and marketing, said Rebecca McMahon, a horticulture agent with Sedgwick County Extension Service.
“Each of them are marketing their produce primarily through very different outlets,” she said. “Donna McClish of Common Ground Producers has her mobile farmers market, Leah Dannar-Garcia of Firefly Farm primarily markets to restaurants, and Tom Brown of Meadowlark Farm is heavily into you-pick plus a little farmers market. Different crop mix, different needs as far as dealing with produce quality and produce safety, and different ways of addressing the needs of the act.”
Though admittedly most producers in the state aren’t required to be in full compliance with the rule, producers need to understand how the rule will impact them, Nwadike said.
“We understand a lot of people will be exempt, but if anyone ever has an outbreak they’re not exempt anymore,” she said. “The bus tour will provide an overview of the regulations, and half-day training sessions will be available across the state in November.”
Full-day training sessions across the state are scheduled for early next year, she added. Producers who attend full-day sessions would be in full compliance with the training requirement of the rule. Produce growers can also contact their local Extension office if they have questions on produce safety.
The Local Food Safety Collaborative, a collaborative between the National Farmers Union Foundation and the Food and Drug Administration, is also available for training and assistance, and is currently conducting a survey to better understand the specific needs of small local producers and processors. The survey can be taken online at www.localfoodsafety.org.
“Food safety is a concern for all producers,” said Mary Howell, education specialist for Kansas Farmers Union. “Proper training in the aspects of food safety is critical to the livelihood and success of specialty crop producers. The old saying by Benjamin Franklin, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is applicable. It’s easier to do things in a manner that prevents problems rather than to have to find solutions and deal with them later.”
For his part, Brown is doing his best to avoid having to be in full compliance while simultaneously adapting procedures to align Meadowlark Farm to the new regulations. It’s a balancing act, but he’s used to such things after years spent working on agriculture projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dealing with government regulations, he suggested, is a lot like dealing with Mother Nature.
“We’re going to get wind damage in the peaches, too, so we just have to swallow it and keep on going,” he said.