One Produce Grower's Reaction to the Produce Safety Grower Training

By Dominique Giroux, Vt. Produce Program Coordinator 

On November 5 and 6 the Agency of Agriculture, Food, & Markets and UVM Extension hosted a Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training in Richmond, VT. As a result, 34 growers and 4 service providers received certificates that meet the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule requirement that a responsible party for each farm covered under the rule receive training under an FDA recognized curriculum.

I visited Tobin Porter-Brown at Pete’s Greens farm in Craftsbury, VT to chat about his experience at the grower training.

Q: Tobin, tell us a bit about Pete’s Greens and your role here on the farm.
A: Pete’s Greens is a large diversified organic vegetable operation in Craftsbury, VT and primarily, my role here is the greenhouse manager. But, I also drive tractors and now, for the winter, I’m the forklift operator and more involved in the washhouse as well as produce safety. 

Q: Can you tell us about your produce safety team here?
A: We have been GAP [USDA Good Agricultural Practices] certified for a few crops for a little while now. I’ve only worked here for the past year so I’m relatively new to the produce safety team, but I went to the training and came back with lots of ideas.

Q: What are your big take-aways from the training?
A: The biggest take-away is that there’s a lot of recommendations from the training about looking at food safety in almost a common-sense way. And just sort of stepping back and seeing where your risks are and doing something about [them]. At the absolute core it’s very straight forward and very simple. You want to minimize risk. So, that for us has boiled down to a few things:

  • One has been access to toilets and handwashing stations, especially in some of our far-flung fields. ​
  • The other is employee trainings. Trying to get all of the workers to understand what to look for and to make sure they know what the protocols are for hand-washing and identifying contaminated produce.
  • And then water and water testing. We have a well that does all of our irrigation water and our washhouse water. I’m not too worried about the water aspect—it’s more of just the testing component and the record keeping component.

But, yes my big takeaway is big picture: look at where your risks are and try to assess your risks. And what is required by the law, is actually pretty, dare I say minimal—there’s definitely a good amount of work with the record-keeping, and if you have a lot of different sources of water it can get a lot more complicated. But at the core of it, for us, it’s not that much of a stretch.

Q: Has your farm made any changes since the training?
A: We have had a few conversations. We haven’t actually implemented a lot of the changes yet – mostly because the training was about a month ago. We are still wrapping up our season, and we are also doing a lot of the requirements already.

Q: You applied and were approved for a Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grant. . Can you talk about what your project will be?
A: We have some big coolers and lots of different bays in the coolers, and everything always needs different temperatures. We applied for a monitoring system that will be able to keep track of the temperatures and create a log overtime. In that system, we will also be able to add additional sensors for monitoring our greenhouses. Another component of the food safety grant that we got was the hydro-cooler, which is great! We’ve had issues with greens not keeping very well, so a hydro-cooler is one way of really bringing the field temperature down quickly.

Q: Were there any concerns that arose for you relating to the regulation during or after the training?
A: Concerns, no, not necessarily. I think that trying to stay on top of record keeping is definitely one [task] where we want to make sure we have systems that are easy and can be followed. Having a toilet and a handwashing station in some of our far fields is going to need to be figured out. Not necessarily a concern, but things we need to think through.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the Produce Safety Rule that maybe you were not aware of before?
A: The thing that surprised me the most was that the food safety law does not require a food safety plan; it is highly recommended. I know we have a food safety plan, but the law does not require it. The training was good though. It really was able to explain some of the requirements around water quality testing for irrigation water and washhouse water. That was something I was not too clear about, and some questions around water contacting the edible portion of the produce I think is something that was cleared up at the training. I’ve gone back to that binder a couple times, and it’s very well laid out and has all of the information there.

Q: Looking ahead and knowing that compliance dates are nearing for some farms with annual produce sales greater than $500,000 and then for others following that, what other forms of support do you think your farm would be looking for to comply with the rule or even to just increase produce safety on your farm in general?
A: The grant has helped a lot in terms of hydro-cooling and monitoring our facilities. And in terms of other support needed – I don’t know if I have an answer for that one. I think that having a cheaper or less expensive water testing service would be great! That would be awesome.

While the Produce Safety Rule can seem daunting at first, growers are encouraged to view this regulation as an opportunity to improve produce safety on their farms to support public and worker health, and access new markets to make their farms all-around sustainable businesses. Even if your farm is not covered under the rule, following good agricultural practices to ensure the safety of your produce will help your farm thrive.

Produce farms should enroll for the Vermont Produce Portal to stay up to date on the rule, receive funding opportunities as they become available, request an On-Farm Readiness Review, and get assistance from the Produce Program team in determining if your farm is covered under the rule.

Growers who attended the training are encouraged to send in any comments or reactions from the training to the Produce Program Team; additionally, any questions about the Produce Safety Rule or enrollment in the Vermont Produce Portal should be directed to AGR.FSMA@vermont.gov or (802) 522-3132.