By Dominique Giroux, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets
Sweetland Farm is a diversified family farm nestled in Norwich, Vermont. In a pursuit to expand and improve their operation, Norah Lake, owner and farmer, applied for a Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grant (VPSIG) and was awarded $10,000 in grant funds in January of 2018 to upgrade their wash/pack facility. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAFM) launched the grant program in 2017 to support produce farms that need to make upgrades for improved food safety and increased competitiveness in the wholesale and retail marketplace.
VAAFM Produce Program’s Multimedia Specialist Trevor Audet and Education and Outreach Coordinator Dominique Giroux visited Sweetland Farm and met with Norah to get a tour of their finished project.
VAAFM: Tell us about your farm and what you grow here.
Norah: We purchased the farm from the Vermont Land Trust in the Spring of 2012. When we purchased it, we decided we wanted to primarily grow vegetables, primarily for a CSA. We also wanted to add in some other diversity. The first year we moved here we put in an orchard of a couple hundred fruit trees, we’ve been making about 5,000 square bales of hay every year, and we also raise some animals on pasture.
VAAFM: What are some of your produce safety efforts on the farm?
Norah: Our CSA has grown incrementally over the last six or seven years, as has our efficiency and produce safety. The very first year we had about fifty CSA members. We didn’t have any cold storage, and we didn’t really have any official wash and pack. At that point, and pretty much to this day, we try to give out all the produce that we harvest on the same day. So, it wasn’t really much of a problem in terms of long-term storage, but by the end of a harvest day we were up to our ankles in muck and it was just not very efficient. As we’ve grown a little bit every year, we’ve started to fine tune our systems. So now, after the recent construction with the help of the Produce Safety [Improvement] Grant, we have a concrete slab that we are washing on underneath a roof, we have permanent stainless-steel counter tops, and we have a walk-in cooler—which is a complete game changer in terms of being able to harvest a bit further ahead of time.
VAAFM: What produce safety risks did you address with this project?
Norah: I was primarily worried about contamination from above. By having a roof over our heads, I feel like the quality and cleanliness of the produce has improved in terms of not getting overheated and not having birds fly overhead. I really feel like that, in terms of contamination coming in, this grant enabled me to have a contained clean space that we could keep well-maintained.
VAAFM: Are there any other benefits that came out of the project besides produce safety?
Norah: Definitely efficiency. We are still figuring out our exact patterns within the new building, but I am already seeing that our hoses are more efficiently coiled because they have dedicated places to go, and our harvest knives are all lined up and clean. We have a dedicated crew, but we also often have people coming in just to help for a morning and it’s so much easier to say, “the knives are on this wall, the buckets are on that wall, this is the protocol for bleaching the tubs,” and it just feels a lot more efficient and official.
Q: What can the State of Vermont can do to support your business?
Norah: This grant was an incredible boon for us. We had been really hoping to do this project and looking for the money to make it happen, so more grants of this type would be great. I really think that we as farmers are so excited to improve our standards and we could just use a little help making the leap.
The feedback that we have gotten from our customers have been so positive. I wish I had written down the testimonials, but we have had people come in this season and say, “We notice that the produce is so much cleaner this year.”
Sweetland Farm plans to continue fine-tuning their layout in the wash/pack facility to find what works best for them in terms of workflow, efficiency, and food safety.
The Vermont Produce Program at VAAFM is working to secure funds for additional rounds of the Vermont Produce Safety Improvement Grant Program. To receive direct funding announcements, enroll your farm in the Vermont Produce Portal at 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.