NSAC's Blog

Stories from the Field: Training Farmers for a Safer Food Future

April 20, 2017

Radish washing station. Photo credit: Lindsey Scalera.

Farmers have always cared about food safety, because they care about the customers who enjoy their products. In 2010 Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which farmers must now learn to navigate in order to keep their operations running smoothly. FSMA represented the first real overhaul of our nation’s food safety practices since 1938, and as such, many farmers have struggled to figure out how the new rules apply to them and what changes they may need to undertake.

“There are a lot of questions that we don’t have the answers to, and a ton of questions that farmers are afraid to ask,” said Matt Tomberg, a Vermont-based produce farmer, in an interview with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

In order to help farmers and producers to understand and adapt to these new food safety requirements, it is critical that we invest in outreach, training, and technical assistance programs. That’s why, in passing FSMA, Congress created a dedicated funding stream to prioritize building food safety capacity among family farmers, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small-scale processors: the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP).

Food Safety Outreach Program

FSOP was designed to provide funding for community-led projects to assist farmers like Matt Tomberg in addressing their specific questions about food safety on their farms. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), FSOP is a relatively new competitive grants program. Since 2016, FSOP has provided funding for pilot projects, community outreach projects, and multi-state education and training projects that are tailored to specific farmer and producer audiences. Recognizing the importance of training as a part of prevention – as well as the disproportionate impacts that food safety requirements would have on smaller, more vulnerable operations – having customized training and outreach options is a particularly critical part of FSOP.

Collaborating for Safe Food

In California, Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) recently received an FSOP award to implement food safety training programs tailored specifically to the needs of small and medium sized, diversified, minority, organic, and direct market California farmers. Through the funding from their award, CAFF will host 25 workshops on various food safety topics, focusing on answering the question: What do farmers have to do in order to comply with the new FSMA requirements? Kali Feiereisel helps organize these workshops for CAFF, and says that her message to farmers is: “No matter what size or type of farm you have, we all need to be implementing food safety practices.”

During the course of CAFF’s two to three hour workshops, farmers are exposed to a variety of food safety techniques that may be new to them and then provided with hands-on training. According to Kali, these training sessions open the door to the world of food safety, after which farmers can then begin assessing the risks unique to their individual operations. At a recent workshop hosted at a small, diversified, organic operation, Kali witnessed the ways in which the CAFF trainings could provide spaces for collaborative learning among farmers. In giving a tour of his farm, the farm operator brought up a potential safety concern in his lack of storage space for his raw manure fertilizer. Without an adequate space, he had been storing it on the main road, weighted down and covered with a tarp. A visiting farmer suggested that he turn to fully composted manure from a local company, avoiding the storage problem and safety hazard all together.

“I’ve seen so many scenarios like this one,” said Kali. “While it takes a lot of time and effort for 10 or 20 or 40 farmers to take time away and talk about food safety, the collaboration and farmer to farmer learning is invaluable.”

One of the greatest advantages of FSOP, according to Kali, is that it creates opportunities for peer learning, which for farmers is one of the best methods of knowledge transfer.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) chapters in New York and Vermont also received a FSOP grant, which they will use to help farmers collaborate directly as well as to work with local partners like Cornell University, the University of Vermont Extension, and the Lake Ontario Food Program. When it comes to food safety training around FSMA regulations, Andy Fellenz of NOFA-NY is convinced that the more people involved, the better.

“If you’re going to mandate compliance as a standard and require that x number of people on every farm have certificates and training, you’ve got to have clear rules and make sure there are people to train those folks.”

By working with local and regional partners to scale up food safety training efforts, NOFA is able to amplify the impact of their FSOP grant to reach even more farmers throughout the Northeast. In particular, NOFA-VT will be focusing on food safety requirements for farmers selling at farmers’ markets and implementing field days and workshops to transfer much-needed knowledge in this new food safety landscape.

One-on-one Support

For CAFF and others, the work doesn’t end when the workshops finish. Kali’s inbox is full of inquiries from farmers on food safety requirements specific to their farm:

“There are so many questions coming in about food safety requirements and it’s usually not a quick answer – I have to understand what their system is in order to collaborate with growers to find the best solution. Our goal is to empower farmers with the food safety information they’ll need to know for their future.”

More funding is needed, Kali says, for nonprofits to devote the needed time and resources to these farmers.

“In California alone, we have 30,000 farms of all different sizes and diverse language and cultural needs that need support, and we’re going to see an exponential need for food safety awareness.”

NOFA-NY has also embraced this tailored approach for their statewide initiatives. Instead of simply telling farmers about the FSMA rules, “we’re emphasizing the ‘how-to’,” says Andy. This detailed, individualized approach to food safety training takes an investment in resources, and FSOP is currently the only dedicated source of funding for this type of work.

Remaining Needs

Both Kali and Andy see important areas for growth within FSOP. They hope to see FSOP support the introduction of interactive resources – like on-farm training videos, podcasts, and smart-phone accessible training resources – to make complying with FSMA regulations easier for farmers. Andy sees a need for funds to help farmers update their equipment to comply with FSMA, and Kali notes that in California there’s a particular need for resources in Spanish.

While specific ideas abound, the most basic need is to get more food safety information into the hands of more farmers. The most effective way to do this, says Kali, is to fund farmer- and community-based organizations to do the work. By design, FSOP is putting these trusted organizations at the center of knowledge transfer and bringing more farmers to the table.

“It’s a process,” says Kali. “Creating a food safety culture on your farm takes time. It’s never done, and it’s always changing.”

FSOP needs to see funding levels that can help it meet the growing demand for the program. Increased funding for this critical program would support a wide range of organizations and approaches to help farmers thrive in this new food safety environment.

NSAC Fighting to Protect and Grow FSOP

NSAC is committed to ensuring that all farmers have access to the food safety training and technical resources they need. During the appropriations process, NSAC fights to protect programs like FSOP that are essential for protecting the economic viability of small and mid-sized farms in the advent of new food safety requirements. We will also continue to fight for these and other farmer support programs in the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Categories: Food Safety, Grants and Programs

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