Program Seeks Input & Participation from Vermont Produce Growers
Vermont is home to a robust produce industry with a regional reputation for quality, integrity and excellence. Comprised of roughly 1000 farms growing produce with over 4,000 acres in production, Vermont’s vegetables, fruits and crops generate over $34.8 million in sales annually according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. As consumer demand for quality produce continues to grow, so do the opportunities for increased market share for Vermont produce growers. In an effort to advance these opportunities, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAFM) is excited to announce the launch of a new Vermont Produce Program designed to support the growth of the Vermont produce industry while they grow safe produce.
The goals of the Vermont Produce Program are to:
- Support Vermont produce growers in improving the safety and efficiency of fruit and vegetable production processes
- Help Vermont produce growers to understand, navigate, and comply with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Produce Safety Rule
- Expand market access for Vermont produce growers
- Strengthen and grow Vermont’s produce industry and its reputation for excellence
- Strengthen and grow the Vermont brand and food economy
“Fruit and vegetable growers are an essential part of Vermont’s agricultural economy,” said Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts. “The new Vermont Produce Program is an excellent resource for growers—I hope we can all work together to develop and utilize this program to its fullest potential.”
The near-term focus of the Vermont Produce Program will be to help growers understand and navigate the changing landscape of on-farm food safety. Produce safety innovations are being implemented across the country, driven, in some cases, by consumer demand, and in other cases by federal regulations. The Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) Produce Safety Rule, a component of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) signed into law in 2011, establishes, for the first time, science-based minimum food safety standards for the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. This rule will impact farms that grow, harvest, pack, or hold fresh produce. Larger growers will need to comply with the rule in January 2018. Smaller growers will have additional time to adopt on-farm produce safety measures and comply with the rule. To learn more about FDA’s Produce Safety Rule and how it may impact your business, visit https://www.fda.gov/FSMA and select Final Rule for Produce Safety.
Over the next several months, the VAAFM Produce Program Team will work closely with growers, grower associations, and partner organizations including Vermont Farm Bureau, University of Vermont Extension, other state agencies and NOFA-VT to:
- Understand the landscape of produce farming in Vermont and establish a database of Vermont produce farms
- Develop a strategy for outreach, education, and technical assistance to all Vermont farms that grow produce
- Develop a comprehensive compliance program for farms that must comply with the rule, including routine inspections
The Vermont Produce Program Team encourages all Vermont produce growers to sign up for the Produce Portal to help build a full picture of produce farming in Vermont and gain access to resources. Access the portal at www.agriculture.vermont.gov/produceportal.
“The more we know about our Vermont produce growers and their businesses, the more effective we will be in developing an innovative produce program to deliver the right supports and services to meet the specific needs of our growers,” says Program Director Abbey Willard. “Grower input is critical to building a successful program – a big thanks to all of our growers who have already provided information and feedback through our portal.”
Since 2011, representatives from VAAFM have worked closely with the FDA to ensure that the new Produce Safety Rule can also be realistically and successfully implemented by diversified and small-scale producers, like many of the farms throughout Vermont and New England. Former Ag Secretary Chuck Ross played a key role in the development of the final rule and FDA’s approach to educating before and while regulating.
On-Farm Readiness Reviews
In the spirit of education before regulation, The Agency of Agriculture will offer On-Farm Readiness Reviews (OFRR). On Farm Readiness Reviews (OFRR) are a voluntary, non-regulatory visit to help growers prepare for a real inspection. A Produce Safety Rule expert will visit farms to help identify areas of strength and areas for improvement. VAAFM will offer this technical assistance to all interested produce farms and aims to do so before starting any regulatory inspections. Most Vermont growers will likely find that they are already largely in compliance with Produce Safety Rule requirements, especially if they are CAPS accredited or USDA GAP certified, but there may be additional opportunities to improve practices to align with the new federal rule requirements. Growers interested in having an OFRR must first enroll in the Produce Portal and check the box expressing interest in being contacted about an OFRR when the reviews are available.
Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grants
To help offset potential costs related to coming into compliance with the PSR, the Vermont Legislature has set aside $150,000 to be distributed to produce growers over two years in the form of grants. VAAFM is working on developing the grant program now and applications should be available in late October. The funds will be used to help fund investments such as hand washing stations, plastic harvest crates, and other improvements that have been proven to reduce risk around produce safety. More details will be available next month in Agriview and online.
Since fall 2016, Vermont has been awarded $1.225 million from FDA to develop a state safety program. FDA has committed a total of $3.625 million to Vermont to support produce safety programming through 2021, subject to congressional allocations. Vermont is joined by at least 42 other states to build state-level produce safety programs which will implement outreach, education, and regulatory compliance around FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule.
What should produce growers do now?
- Enroll online in the Vermont Produce Program Portal.
- Find out if your farm is covered by the FSMA Produce Safety Rule: www.fda.gov/fsma > Final Rule for Produce Safety or contact Kristina Sweet at Kristina.Sweet@vermont.gov or 802-522-7811
- If your farm is exempt, keep supporting documentation.
- Attend a Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training: November 7–8 in Richmond, VT.
- Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training – November 7–8, 2017
- Compliance for Large Farms – January 26, 2018