* Photo Credit Adam Ford
By Gina Clithero, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets
When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, Kara and Ryan Fitzbeauchamp of Evening Song Farm made radical changes to their business: they canceled their farmers markets for the season, developed an online store, and adjusted their field maps to meet the demands of a larger volume of CSA sales. Fortunately, thanks to proactive investments in on-farm food safety practices, the changes that Kara and Ryan needed to make to their wash/pack processes due to COVID-19 were minimal. Evening Song Farm had just completed their Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grant project on March 1, 2020, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. For this grant, Evening Song Farm was awarded a $4,800 Produce Safety Improvement Grant to purchase a new handwashing sink, plastic harvest and storage bins, and stainless steel washing and packing equipment to allow for more effective cleaning and sanitizing.
We connected with Kara over a video conference call to learn about Evening Song Farm’s produce safety improvement grant project and how their farm has responded to COVID-19.
Tell us about Evening Song Farm.
We're a certified organic veggie farm, and we grow on 4 to 5 acres south of the Rutland area in Vermont. We normally serve two farmers markets, one year-round, several wholesale outlets, and a large CSA that goes year-round. We hire six humans to work on our farm, but we have flexible schedules for some folks, including parents, and so we employ the equivalent of about four full-time staff.
Can you describe the steps you take to keep your produce safe?
The basics are washing our hands, keeping all our surfaces clean, tracing how we move product from the field to the consumer, and making sure each step is either done safely or there's a cleaning mechanism at each step. The main key is the training of our employees and having an actual food safety plan. From the get-go, as beginning farmers, we felt like having a food safety plan legitimized us to the community when we were new faces that people would have to get to know. That was a way to establish ourselves as serious, reliable growers before we were certified organic.
How have some of these practices changed due to COVID-19?
Now, with COVID-19, like many other farms, we've really ramped up our standard practices. All high-touch surfaces are wiped down and disinfected regularly. We used to have a couple pairs of wash gloves for the wash station that people would share. But now, every staff member has their own labeled gloves and they wash their hands before putting on their gloves and after putting their gloves away. All gloves and masks are washed at the end of every day for the next day. We have different ear protection for everyone that uses the machine. We have our own separate harvest knives. All of these things are also getting disinfected, but we find that because there are eight of us who work here, and five of the eight of us live with someone who has a risk that would make a poor outcome for this disease, we all have to take it really seriously not to have this workplace be a place of contamination.
Describe your Produce Safety Improvement Grant project.
The main theme of our project was to increase our capacity to clean and disinfect surfaces. We got large, plastic, foldable bulk bins for the veggies we store during the winter. We also got new tomato crates for storing, transporting, and displaying tomatoes. We have enough bins now that we can truly keep our field harvest and storage bins separate, even with our biggest harvests. The other improvement was to get all of our surfaces in the wash station to be stainless steel, including adding a stainless steel handwashing station. Our produce safety project wrapped up just in time to have a situation where we're disinfecting surfaces more frequently.
What produce safety risks did you address?
Predominantly our ability to disinfect surfaces to keep things clean. This grant helped us transition from porous surfaces to non-porous surfaces. We also helped reduce risk of cross-contamination by differentiating supplies and materials for each activity, such as keeping the storage bins separate from the harvest bins.
Beyond food safety, what other benefits resulted from your project?
The biggest benefit we’ve seen so far is in team morale. It is so much easier to keep spaces clean and organized when you have appropriate equipment. When you have nice, shiny things, people want to do a good job. I did not expect a food safety grant to make our team as happy as it did, but they love it and now it is also a source of pride for them.
How did the grant affect your farm’s ability to respond to COVID-19?
This grant helped us pivot everything quickly. We all had to shift very fast—every business, not just farms. Due to COVID-19, we quit our farmers markets and expanded our CSA to about double the sales volume that it was pre-pandemic. We had to spend a lot of time creating a new online store and changing our field maps to become a CSA farm predominantly instead of CSA and market. We didn't have to spend that much time at all coming up with new systems for our wash station safety, it was just like buy a lot more products, buy more gloves and masks, and then print out a new checklist for when all of this new food safety stuff needs to be done, and that was it. The changes that we needed to make in the wash station due to COVID-19 were really minimal.
Why do you care about produce safety?
So many reasons. First of all, prioritizing food safety is the right thing to do. And from a practical perspective, it keeps you in business. It's also the kind of food that I would want to eat; I have to trust when I get food from some other place that food safety best practices have been followed. Produce safety is also an equity issue. Those of us who are blessed with good health and uncompromised immune systems don't have to worry as much about what we ingest because we have the capacity in our bodies to beat most minor pathogens off. After working with adults living with disabilities and having my own kids, one with a health concern, I understand that it's sloppy to not care about everyone's different bodies' abilities.
Can you briefly share your vision or goals for the future of your farm?
We are always working on staff pay, benefits, and culture. We are working to make our base pay $15/hour and trying to figure out how everyone can have more time off. Another one of our goals is to be more present for our kids on the weekends. We’ve felt really grateful to be able to have more of that time now that we’ve stopped attending farmers markets due to COVID-19. We're trying to use this opportunity to redesign our business so that we stay predominantly CSA year-round. We all just want to continue to improve our work-life for our employees and ourselves.
What can the State of Vermont do more of to support your business?
These grants are amazing. If there's funding for farms to have this type of support, and maybe even more than once, that would help. We’re looking ahead to the coming seasons and noticing that we’re going to be in some version of this pandemic for a while. We've set up a safe situation at the entrance of our farm for our CSA customers, but this only works now because of the weather. Our CSA is year-round, and I can't put peoples' food outside when it's like 10 below. So we're scratching our heads about COVID-19 preparedness in the coming months. We're experiencing a higher cost of production because of all the cleaning and sanitary supplies we're using. The cleaning, gloves we go through, how often we're doing the laundry, all the new products we're buying, how fast we're going through disinfecting products. Also our costs have skyrocketed with the cost of doing things online, taking all payments online. I have to hire people for more hours because we're packing our orders in ways we've never done before. Farms are experiencing more costs. I don't know how the state could help besides providing micro-grants for sanitary products, that could be helpful.