Seed Farm answering call toward food safety

AFP Correspondent

(Nov. 15, 2014) The Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, just over the border from New Jersey, is ripe with institutional demand for locally grown products. Institutional buyers such as Sodexo, as well as regional food hubs like the Philadelphia-based Common Market are seeking local growers.
Common Market, which began using a few large New Jersey growers, is now also aggregating product from many smaller growers in the region.
They will require third-party GAP certification for all growers by August 2016 and are seeking organic or sustainable growers.
To help the region’s growers effectively meet the demands of the rapidly emerging institutional market, The Seed Farm, in partnership with Penn State Extension, Buy Fresh Buy Local of the Greater Lehigh Valley and Pennypack Farm and Education Center presented a daylong workshop focusing on the realities of scaling up the farm.
The Seed Farm, located in Emmaus, Pa., is Lehigh County’s Agricultural Business Incubator and runs new farmer training programs.
Land, equipment, mentoring, wash and pack facilities and greenhouse space are available for rent via the farm’s comprehensive apprentice training and stewardship programs.
“We can only maintain quality in storage, we can’t improve it,” Tianna DuPont, Penn State Extension sustainable agriculture educator in Northampton and Lehigh Counties, said. “Making sure we are starting with a healthy crop” is the most important step.
DuPont offered a range of advice for growers. Rotating crops in high tunnels as well as in the fields, using reflective mulches to decrease damage from thrips or biodegradable mulch to decrease bacterial pressures, keeping vegetables protected from dirt in the field and immediately shading produce once picked, are some of the basics everyone needs to practice.
Not overfilling crates, picking in the morning, keeping both domestic and wild animals out of crops as much as possible, marking areas where animal evidence is present and not harvesting those areas, and picking produce without damaging it are other common sense but often-overlooked concerns, DuPont said.
“Bangs and scrapes are also entry points for those pathogens,” she cautioned.
At the GAP certified, certified organic Spiral Path Farm, a 2200-member CSA and a Wegman’s wholesale account are supported with their 250 acres of land. Mike and Terra Brownback and family have made investments in their farm’s infrastructure over the years, with the aim of increasing produce quality, and increasing efficiency.
“Organic certification is a big plus if you want to get on retail shelves,”Mike Brownback said.
Taking back the regional market from long-distance growers, and putting local food on grocery stores shelves will require high-quality produce, he added. And growing high-quality produce has many layers, starting with the soil health, and going through the proper harvesting, washing, cooling, packing and storage procedures for each crop.
“You’re not going to give all the winter squash out the first week you harvest it,” so you need to store it properly, Brownback said. “In the store, I’m totally dependent on the produce guy. Do the absolute best you can. There’s a point where you lose control.”
One of the most important factors in maintaining food quality is to properly and safely cool the produce.
Removing field heat and cooling the temperature down is necessary before it is ready for longer term storage, DuPont said.
“Produce is alive,” she said. “A one hour delay (in cooling) can decrease shelf life by one day.”
Once cut, produce continuously loses water, and slowing down the plant’s respiration and transpiration rates, to stop this water loss is imperative.
DuPont discussed the roles of temperature and humidity, and the three types of cooling which can be used: room cooling, hydro-cooling, and forced air cooling.
No matter what type of cooling and storage is being used, it needs to be monitored regularly. Basic food safety practices, such as not having any food touch the ground of the cooler, having no standing water on the ground, not storing wet product, being aware of ventilation amongst bins, and controlling rodents are some of the primary issues.
Becca Munro, farm manager and educator at The Seed Farm, led participants on a tour of their wash and pack facilities, discussing food safety concerns and how to mitigate them.
The Seed Farm is set to undergo a mock food safety audit. Munro pointed out some concerns they have with their facility.
The wash and pack stations are outdoors, and the roof is very high. Birds like to nest there, which is a food safety issue, so they are implementing measures to deter them.
Shade is also a problem, and lattice will be erected. The windy location causes problems. The gravel floor is great for maintaining drainage.
The farm uses a triple wash system to clean and sanitize produce, and they’ve begun keeping compost bins and storage bins separated, to reduce cross-contamination risk. In the coolers, they’ve repaired roof leaks and paint rust spots to alleviate food safety issues.
DuPont advised that “there’s really only a few basic things” in field and pack house food safety requirements.
Excluding rodents, proper drainage, shatter-proof glass, a regular cleaning schedule, covering packaging materials when stored and having surfaces which can be easily sanitized — and sanitizing them properly — are key in the pack house. No food or drink in the fields or pack area, proper handwashing procedures, and access to a first aid kit, both in the field and in the wash and pack area are other requirements.
Safety and maintaining quality standards during transportation are also important. Keep logs throughout the process, and keep the truck, coolers and bins clean. Make sure loads are properly secured, Brownback added.
Being able to trace your product throughout the supply chain, every step of the way, is an important food safety issue, he said. Routine product testing should be done.
“We have so much invested in our products,” Brownback said. “The more we can minimize the problems along the way,” the more the profit potential. “This is a movement. If you want to take over the local food system, you have to take care of the basics.”