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Winter food safety planning - 5 tips to prepare for next season

 Annalisa Hultberg, Extension Educator, Food Safety

Winter is a good time for planning, reflection and thinking about the systems behind your farm's operation. What worked, what didn't, and what can be improved for next season?  What did your employees suggest for improvements? That review should include your farm's food safety plan. Here are some key things to consider when reviewing your farm's plan.

Reminder: Use the UMN food safety plan template here. You don't need to start your plan from scratch. 

1) Employee training 

One of the most fundamental and important parts of your farm's food safety system is your employee training. Anyone who works with your produce needs to know your farm's food safety policies.  This employee training could include:
  • Your policies about handwashing and where the handwashing and toilet facilities are located
  • Illness - don't work when you are sick, including any vomiting, diarrhea or other signs of communicable disease
  • How and when you clean and sanitize tools and equipment and packing area
  • How to look for signs of animals in the field and what to do when you find them
  • Don't harvest anything with visible contamination
  • And any other farm specific policies you have that pertain to the people you are training. 
Often this training is done in conjunction other employee training in the spring. You need to train your employees on many topics, so include food safety in that training. Many farmers say that the time they invest in training at the beginning of the season is well worth it to ensure staff are aware of your policies. It can save many costly mistakes down the road. 

Tip from a farmer: use your food safety plan as a training guide. It is hard to remember all the policies you want to cover with your staff. Having them read the plan, and then talk about it, ensures that everyone is on the same page. You will likely have to do short refreshers in the season to remind your crew about harvest protocols and other topics as they arise, or if policies are not being followed. 

2) Cleaning and sanitizing tools and equipment

How do you clean, and then sanitize the tools and equipment you use on the farm, both in postharvest and for harvest? Think through your farm's procedures, and write down how you do these tasks into a Standard Operating Procedure format. This is a great tool to have to show employees and volunteers during the season. You can find a sample SOP here.

If you must be away from the farm making deliveries, for example, it is very useful to have a written and laminated page hanging in the packing area to document the cleaning procedures. This reduces the chances that mistakes will be made, and saves time as fewer questions and communications will be needed about how the task should be completed. 

3) Water testing

Test your farm's water annually for the presence of  generic E. coli or total coliform bacteria. This is one of the most important things you can do to protect your fresh fruits and vegetables from contamination. In your farm's food safety plan, you should note what lab you use to run the tests, and keep all test results. Have a plan for what to do if results indicate that the water falls out of acceptable range. If your well water has generic E. coli in it, it is not potable, and it has fecal contamination. What is your plan? Who would you contact? 

You should also have a SOP for how to take the water sample, and follow all instructions from the lab carefully. Whoever is taking the sample should know the protocols to make sure they are followed.

To learn more about how often to test your water, where to find labs, see this webpage from UMN Extension. Also see this previous blog post all about water testing. 

4) Visitors and volunteers

What are your farm's policies for having visitors and volunteers? You might have people working for a share of your CSA, or just coming to visit the country and volunteer, or for a farm party.  You can cover your policies in a short conversation when they arrive on the farm or via an email before they arrive.  This email or conversation might include:
  • Don’t come to the farm when you are sick. This means a fever, vomiting, or diarrhea or jaundice.
  • Don't bring pets to the farm, even if they are on a leash. This is a liability as well as a potential food safety risk.
  • Wash hands frequently on the farm, especially before harvesting or working with the produce.
  • Wear clean cloths and footwear to the farm.
  • Don't eat while harvesting, washing or packing vegetables. Don't smoke (if allowed, note where)
  • Where to go and not to go. If you don't want them in the house, or in particular fields, note that.

5) Manure and compost

If you use any animal-based compost like manure, your farm food safety plan should note that. Animal-based compost is a great resource and builds soil health, but should be used carefully to avoid unintentional contamination of the fresh produce. 

In your food safety plan, describe what kind of animal-based compost you use, where it is stored, and how and when it is applied.  Keep the certificates of compliance from your supplier if you are purchasing fully-treated product from a supplier. Keep records to indicate when you applied the manure and to what fields. This will also be useful so that you can track fertility and determine how application is affecting your plant's health and growth.

It is best to apply raw (untreated) manure - based compost in the fall, to allow at least 120 days between application and harvest of the produce. 

As a reminder - if you want to learn more about specific food safety topics, attend this series of On-Farm Food Safety webinars the third Thursday of each month through March. More info and registration here:

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