By Dominique Giroux, Vt Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets
Shelburne Orchards grows apples – and a lot of them! The family-owned, 100-acre orchard recently used Vermont Produce Safety Improvement (VPSIG) grant funds to upgrade one of their refrigerated storage rooms with an insulated, cleanable coating. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, & Markets (VAAFM) Produce Program launched the VPSIG grant program in 2017 to assist Vermont produce growers in making improvements that prevent or reduce produce safety risks on their farms. To date, seventeen Vermont produce farms have been awarded Produce Safety Improvement Grants.
VAAFM Produce Program’s Multimedia Specialist Trevor Audet and Education and Outreach Coordinator Dominique Giroux visited Shelburne Orchards and met with owner Nick Cowles and daughter Moriah Cowles to see the outcome of their project.
Q: Tell us about your farm and what you grow here.
Nick: This is Shelburne Orchards. It’s been in my family – my dad passed it on to me – since the mid-’50s and I took it over in the mid-’70s. There’s about 100 acres, [and] we got about 6,000 apple trees. We have peach trees, pear trees, sour cherries, plums, grapes, [and] we make apple brandy. We grow a lot of stuff but it’s mostly apples. I am passing it down to the next generation, to my daughter. She’s working on the process of taking this farm over to keep it going. We plant a lot of new apple varieties every year. We have probably 60 different apple varieties. A lot of them are for the fresh market, pick your own, and a lot of the varieties are for making apple brandy.
Q: Do you have visitors on the farm?
Nick: In the last 20 years, it’s been a big push to get away from selling to the big-box stores and have more and more sales right off the farm. It’s been a huge success. We are close to Burlington, it’s a beautiful location right by the lake here. Having the internet and having social media is huge to be able to interact with the people who come here and have them really understand when is the best time to come and pick, particularly for our peaches. Having fresh picked peaches off the trees is such a phenomenal event here in Vermont. To be able to get people to come at exactly the right moment to pick them – if we had to do that through paper and newspaper it would be impossible, but [with] social media through our website and so forth, it’s great – all these new great tools we have.
Q: Tell us about your experience with our grant application process.
Moriah: We learned about it two weeks before this round of grants was due. The quickness of the response of all of you guys at the [Agency] of Agriculture was amazing. How quickly you got back to me, how readily available the information was, and I think in two days I had somebody out here [from UVM Extension] on the farm, looking at the farm and the projects we were thinking about and giving us advice about what would be a good project. It felt very supportive and made it really simple for me.
(Owner of Shelburne Orchards, Nick Cowles and daughter, Moriah Cowles share their experience with the Produce Safety Improvement Grant Program)
The walls and ceiling in Shelburne Orchards’ most frequently used refrigerated storage room are now coated with a one-inch layer of two-pound density polyurethane-based closed-cell foam, sealed with intumescent paint, creating a smooth, cleanable surface. The orchard finished their project during the spring of 2018, so they can utilize the space for storage during their busy harvest season in late summer and fall.
Nick and Moriah will also be replacing twenty of their large wooden storage bins with high-density polyethylene bins. While wooden bins are common in the apple industry, they pose difficulties for cleaning and sanitizing. It is also not uncommon for wooden bins to have exposed nails that can puncture the product inside the bins. Punctured fruit can become a habitable environment for microbes to grow. Wood rot is also common in wooden harvest bins, making it difficult to effectively clean the food contact surface.
Shelburne Orchard’s new cold storage insulation layer coupled with the polyethylene bins will allow them to clean surfaces more effectively and efficiently and will reduce the risk of microbial contamination of their fruit.
As produce growers across the state, and country, work toward compliance with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule and buyer demands for produce safety practices, it’s clear that additional funding is needed to address produce safety risks on farms. The Produce Program team at VAAFM is currently seeking additional funding for the Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grant Program to support additional infrastructure and equipment improvements that address produce safety risk reduction on farms. To receive grant funding updates and access produce safety resources, enroll your farm in the Vermont Produce Portal at http://agriculture.vermont.gov/produceprogram.
If you would like to share your story with the Vermont Produce Program, please email AGR.FSMA@vermont.gov or call (802) 585-6225.