Archive by Author | Ben Chapman

Project kick off next week: Initial data collection docs

Growing season is in full force in North Carolina and in the next week the Opening Markets project team will be beginning on-site visits with our small farmers. Through this project, post-doc extrordinaire, Audrey Kreske will be working alongside small North Carolinian farmers (<20 acres) to collect data on economic, process and infrastructure barriers to achieving USDA GAP certification. Many of our participating producers have already put a certification date on their calendar and are starting to work towards that goal.

Below are the initial data collection tools that we’ll be using. These are currently in draft form. Please send any comments to  Dr. Audrey Kreske (ackreske@ncsu.edu)  or me (benjamin_chapman@ncsu.edu) and we’ll adjust and incorporate into our methods. The documents are available as pdfs and can be annotated.

We’ll be using an evaluation tool to determine a Good Agricultural Practices baseline score for each small farm. The tool will be a modified version of the USDA Good Agricultural Practices & Good Handling Practices Audit Verification Checklist. This checklist is intended to assess the participant’s ability to attain USDA GAPs certification (which is based on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables”). Our initial draft instrument can be found here. These will be discussed with the participants in a face-to-face in-depth discussion format and self-reported current practices and strategies will be recorded. Feel free to pick the instrument apart and send us comments.

A portion of this modified document will address the real economic affects of transitioning a farm for GAP certification. For the economic portion, we will separate the GAP requirements into categories (such as making policy/documentation, changing process, amount of time, changes in infrastructure (small/large), material cost, labor cost in time) and identify specific tasks that will need to be completed.  Growers will be asked to report what they think each requirement will cost to be implemented (in time (hrs) and money (dollars)) and the degree of difficulty associated with completing each task. This will be initially recorded in the activity tracker, which we will be providing to participants in electronic and hard copy formats.

Throughout the summer we will be working with growers to overcome the real barriers through the use of currently available resources and blogging about the process so that other growers are able to benefit from this information immediately. Future posts will be supplemented with self diaries explaining their issues on a daily basis as needed.

All through the process we’ll be posting documents, data, and anecdotes to relay the information that we identify. Since we will be working with small farms, our blog entries will also include tips and tricks that our participating farms are using to produce food that is as safe as possible. All project posts are archived at https://gapsmallfarmsnc.wordpress.com/.

This project is conducted in partnership with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association as part of a North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services Speciality Crops Block Grant.

Opening markets: exploring and communicating food safety barriers

I’m a local food eater, fan of small farms and a farmers’ market patron. I’m also a food safety nerd. Now I get to combine the two things I love as much as my wife and my kids, and almost as much as hockey, into a project to uncover food safety barriers that small farmers encounter as they grow, harvest, market and distribute their products.

Usually at the end of a study there is a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal – only then does the information become available publicly; this project is a bit outside the norm. Through this blog, our NC State project team is going to release information as we collect it; make it available for public and peer consumption; and, create an open-source project.

Throughout the process we’ll be posting documents, data, and anecdotes to relay the information that we identify.  The project kicks off later this week, when we post our draft data collection tools for comment and review. Since we will be working with small farms, our blog entries will also include tips and tricks that our participating farms are using to produce food that is as safe as possible. And there will still be a paper submitted at the end.

The local food economy is partially fueled by a societal push for a greater connection to where food comes fro, an increased interest in agriculture and economic sustainability: but is it microbiologically safe?

Buyers of various sizes, from large retailers or food service groups like Wal-Mart or the school lunch program to smaller grocery outlets and neighborhood bistros, have increased their attention on supplier food safety. One of the strategies food buyers have used to protect themselves is require suppliers to meet certain food safety standards such as good agricultural practices (GAP) certification, or an audit of practices carried out by a third-party (not usually the buyer themselves, but an agency hired to check on a supplier). When a farm has passed an audit or received their USDA GAP certification it has been verified that the farm has demonstrated adherance to guidance suggested by the Food and Drug Administration’s Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and  egetables(http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/ProduceandPlanProducts/ucm064574.htm)at least  when the verifier was there. Certification or audit doesn’t ensure that a product is risk-free but many buyers are requiring the steps prior to entering into agreements with a supplier. Certification is often a market entry barrier.

While the discussion about regulating and implementing food safety guidelines on small farms has been heated, there is a lack of data derived from working farms on what the real barriers are: how much time and money will be required, and what process or infrastructure changes might be needed to implement safety risk reduction strategies.  Knowing more about the behavior barriers and economic impact can help in the design of better materials, resources and aids for farmers. In partnership with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, we’re hoping to create an evidence-based, practical system for small farms who are trying to reduce public health risks and meet market demands for employing GAPs.

We will be gathering information on costs and barriers from 12 small farms (less than 20 acres, at least 8 commodities) across North Carolina as they go through steps that could lead to USDA GAP certification. These steps include addressing risks and collecting documentation on food safety practices, which are often cited as the biggest issues. Many of our participating farms have chosen to open up what they are doing in hopes to create and communicate approaches to food safety that are practical for small farms.  Through this project we will identify practice, facilities and system barriers to the current GAP certification process as well as the economic barriers that have been alluded to in previous reports.

Our team will be travelling across the state this summer and conducting biweekly visits to observe on-farm activities and identify risks associated with on-farm processes.  During an initial visit, farmers will lead us through on-farm activities and processes; we’ll talk about some of the potential barriers and collect what participants are already doing to reduce risks. Follow-up visits will refer farmers to possible solutions and track implementation of the risk reduction strategies. Conducting on-site visits to engage producers is something that I’ve been part of for the past decade in working with producers in Canada and North Carolina. The best way to gather info on what is practical and what isn’t is to conduct some reality research and spend time with the farmers who are battling with these issues daily.

In preparation for GAP certification, we will be working alongside the producer and asking questions about how realistic the guidelines are. We’ll be carrying out document review to tracking of costs accrued for the purpose of certification such as the total costs of building a handwashing sink. Data on other resources (both time and money) will be collected and will include: time required to document; capital investments such as sorting tables or product washing facilities, water testing and fertilizer substitution. Producers will be creating journals (video, audio and text) and documenting their own path to food safety risk reduction specifically discussing any problems they encounter, tips on solutions and discussing issues they deal with.

All of the data collection instruments and analysis plans will be posted here in upcoming posts. Everything is open, transparent and available for comment.

Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has generously funded this project through a grant they received from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Specialty Crop Block Grant fund.