Combining Sustainability and Food Safety Audits Can Help Educate Consumers

A citrus grower participates in an inspection

A citrus grower participates in an inspection

Food Safety audits have become standard in agricultural production.  Retailers require food safety audits for growing, harvesting, packing, processing, cooling, and distribution.  Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices are the base standards of all audits, whether the audit is certified or not.

The agricultural industry has always practiced sustainability in various ways.  Keeping agricultural production lands viable is a must for the future of the industry.  Now, growers and producers see the value in educating retailers and consumers about the sustainability practices used in food production.  Documentation of these practices, against a set of accepted standards, may help provide consumers more transparency regarding the practices used in both organic and conventional food production.  

New to the sustainability audit scene is a scheme driven by retail.  Whole Foods Market is pilot testing standards to be known as “Responsibly Grown”.   The audit program is being developed by The IPM Institute[PKD1] , in conjunction with Whole Foods Market.  The audit measures supplier performance on a designated range of sustainability topics, primarily related to protecting human health and the environment.  The “Responsibly Grown” audit requires both a certified third partyfood safety audit and, in addition, reporting on adherence to sustainability requirements.

The “Responsibly Grown” audit encompasses multiple topics, including Social Accountability and Farm Worker welfare, as well as the environmental topics shown below.  These topics, are audited through documentation and visual inspection.

Pest Management is vital in both Food Safety and Sustainability.  The guidelines put forward in “Responsibly Grown” are based on a goal of reducing pesticide use through various methods including crop rotation, application equipment calibration, limiting high risk pesticides, using non-chemical controls, and limiting pesticide drift.  These techniques are not new to agriculture, and meet industry guidelines and procedures.

Pollinators are a necessity in many agricultural crops.  Protection of pollinators may include providing refuge for pollinators along roadsides, field borders, and under power lines as well as identification of pollinator nesting sites, managed hives, and not applying pollinator toxic pesticides during crop bloom.

Soil Health encompasses erosion management through contour cropping, cover crops, crop rotation, mulches and protected production, such as greenhouses and hydroponic growing.   Additionally, soil health is to be assessed using indicators such as water holding capacity, earthworm count, soil compaction, and infiltration rate.  Micronutrients (boron, chloride, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum and zinc) are to be assessed periodically. 

Water Management plan would  prevent or reduce the discharge of wastewater fromtail water, aquaculture use, pesticide application, frost protection, produce washing and cooling water and other sources into natural water bodies and the associated ecosystems from discharge contamination .  Other components of the plan would include water conservation measures such as flow meters, laser leveling, rainwater storage, variable rate irrigation, use of tertiary treated water and draught-resistant plant varieties.  Additional components of water management are watershed planning with regulatory agencies and irrigation efficiency. 

Energy Conservation and Air Quality Management are included in the pilot “Responsibly Grown” audit.  Practices included in this standard are reduced use of motorized equipment, efficient irrigation pumps, no or low tillage, tractor maintenance and employee training on energy conservation.   Use of sustainable energy sources are tracked in this standard, including wind, solar or geothermal.  Air quality management measures   to minimize particulate matter, gases and odors released into the air may include erosion prevention, timing of operations (no tillage in high winds), careful handling and storage of bulk materials to reduce odors, equipment modifications to reduce emissions, paved roads, low-emission utilities and wind breaks.

Waste Management is another component of the “Responsibly Grown” pilot audit.  Recycling to divert materials from landfills and incinerators is important in waste management.  Packaging materials should be biodegradable, reusable, and recyclable or made of recycled materials.  Packaging with paraffin alternative coatings may be certified and recyclable.

Sustainability audits have not reached the status of food safety audits, but retailer interest in these audits is growing.  The agricultural industry continues to work toward meshing food safety management practices and sustainable practices together for the benefit of agriculture

For more details on the “Responsibly Grown” audit, visit www.wholefoodsmarket.com/responsibly-grown.

By Connie Quinlan

Handbook Provides Guidance for Co-Management while implementing FSMA on Farms

‘Co-Management’ involves developing an approach that takes into account multiple objectives.

‘Co-Management’ involves developing an approach that takes into account multiple objectives.

Growers and conservation planners wanting to implement conservation on farmland while engaging in Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for Food Safety will find The Wild Farm Alliance’s new handbook, Co-Managing Farm Stewardship with Food Safety GAPs and Conservation Practices: A Grower's and Conservationists' Handbook to be an excellent resource.  This handbook was written to help growers and conservation planners co-manage food safety and conservation (see above figure) by understanding food safety risks in the growing environment, and by learning details of how specific management practices may reduce or increase food safety risk. The Handbook starts with a description of pathogens of concern for human health and how they can be introduced to the farm through water, air, or animals or humans.  It explains how conservation practices address food safety concerns in the context of the FDA Produce Rule in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and GAPs.  Educational information is provided on pathogen persistence in soils and how environmental factors such as sunlight, temperature and predation influence or reduce pathogens. The handbook then provides information regarding conservation practices that have demonstrated evidence of reducing pathogens in the produce environment or as they enter or leave this environment. A variety of practices are covered, most provide NRCS practice references.  The Handbook explains how each practice relates to food safety concerns, in some cases by helping to reduce or remove pathogens or prevent their transport into the cropping system.  In other cases it explains the potential risks so that they can be managed. A multi-barrier approach is presented where conservation practices and food safety Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) can be used to reduce food safety risk.

The Handbook builds on the ongoing work by major research scientists, food safety regulatory agencies, and extension personnel, referencing industry and research documents that can be reviewed for more in depth knowledge on a wide range of food safety, conservation and co-management topics.

http://www.wildfarmalliance.org/resources/fs_Grower_Conservationist.htm

 

By Jo Ann Baumgartner and Pam Krone-Davis

Compost Tea in the Age of Food Safety

LaHave Natural Farms

LaHave Natural Farms

Compost tea - let’s talk about it! Just what exactly is this blackish colored, liquid substance people call compost tea and why do growers use it on their crops? How is it made and how is it applied? In the age of ever increasing food safety concerns, is it safe to use in the production of fresh produce?

First, let’s cover the basics. At its most elemental level, compost tea is a liquid brew made by steeping finished compost in water, usually aerated with pumps, to achieve an elixir containing the soluble nutrients and microbial biomass present in the parent compost – this is known as aerated compost tea (ACT). Some growers brew their tea without aeration by placing loose compost in a large, teabag-like netted screen, and letting it steep for multiple weeks without air pumps or constant circulation – this method is called Non-aerated Compost Tea (NCT). Many people believe the aeration helps shorten the brew time by aiding with the multiplication of beneficial microbes by the millions or even billions. These beneficial organisms tend to be aerobic in nature, so most commercial and home growers use the ACT method and this article will focus on this specific type of brewing.

Peer reviewed scientific literature on the efficacy of ACT is notoriously lacking, however some of the claimed benefits of compost tea to farming systems include the suppression of disease causing pests and organisms; improved nutritional quality of plants; improved soil structure via water infiltration and retention; increased biological activity in the root zone; and the chelation of nutrients making them more bioavailable for plants. While study results vary, one of the main goals of ACT production is to take the beneficial bacteria, fungi, and protozoa already existing within the parent compost and grow them exponentially to inoculate your soil or plant surfaces with beneficial organisms.  

To aide in the growth of the beneficial organisms, some brewers use additives such as kelp meal, fish hydrolysate, humic acids, rock dust, molasses, etc. These additives provide a food source for the rapidly multiplying microbial population within the solution. Brewing the tea for 24 to 48 hours, growers then apply it as a soil drench or foliar spray direct to plant surfaces. Some brewers do not use additives to spur microbial growth, using the tea more as an extract for the soluble nutrient content within the finished compost. 

Compost tea brewer by GreenPro Solutions

Compost tea brewer by GreenPro Solutions

Considering the safety of compost tea, a consensus seems to be emerging that the safety of the tea is all about the quality of the ingredients being used, as well as how those ingredients are used.

Let’s unpack this. Starting with completely finished, stabilized compost is absolutely key to reducing the risk of human pathogens such as E.coli, Listeria monocytogenes or Salmonella sneaking their way into the brewing process. The Food and Drug Administration’s Produce Safety Rule defines Stabilized Compost as “a stabilized (i.e. finished) biological soil amendment produced through a controlled composting process.” They also refer to composting as “a process to produced stabilized compost in which organic material is decomposed by actions of microorganisms under thermophilic conditions for a designated period of time (for example, 3 days) at a designated temperatures (for example, 131 degrees Fahrenheit) followed by a curing stage under cooler conditions.” So, it is critical to start with compost that has been validated to be free of pathogens.

Aerated compost tea is all about growing the beneficial microbes already existing within the finished compost, especially with the use of additives like humic acids, rock dust, fish hydrolysates, etc. If even one small portion of the batch of compost is unfinished and contaminated with a human pathogen like Salmonella or E.coli, the brewing process will ensure ALL microbes will grow in the brew, including those of the pathogenic variety! Some brewers argue that vigorous aeration ensures these pathogens will not grow, however, Salmonella and E.coli are facultative anaerobes and can therefore grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments, and so neither ACT nor NCT are exempt from brewing without precaution.

Using water free from pathogenic organisms is also critical for the same reasons. Should some small amount of E.coli O157:H7 be present in the water used for brewing (e.g. surface water from the ditch), the greater the likelihood of the growth of that pathogen being amplified during the brewing process. Water validated as pathogen free reduces risk of the final brew being contaminated.

The FDA’s FSMA Produce Safety Rule (PSR) does not specifically define “compost tea”, however FDA does define and regulate what they call Agricultural teas, meaning “a water extract of biological materials (such as stabilized compost, manure, non-fecal animal byproducts, peat moss, pre-consumer vegetative waste, table waste or yard trimmings), excluding any form of human waste, produced to transfer microbial biomass, fine particulate organic matter, and soluble chemical components into an aqueous phase. Agricultural teas are held for longer than one hour before application. Agricultural teas are soil amendments for the purposes of this rule”. As you can see, the FDA’s definition includes more than just compost as a feed stock and they specifically call out an agricultural tea as a soil amendment for the purposes of the new FSMA Produce Safety Rule (PSR). The “soil amendment” language appears to exclude the use of agricultural teas for foliar applications, and as noted below, we will be working with FDA formally to find out if agricultural teas or compost teas can be applied via foliar methods.

Forgoing tea additives is also seen as a way to ensure a safer agricultural tea, however as noted above, this type of tea will likely not pack the biological punch growers are brewing it for. Microbiologists David Ingram and Patricia Millner at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that ingredients commonly added to compost tea can promote the growth of pathogenic and beneficial organisms, while teas made with finished (stabilized) compost and no additives did not show substantial growth of pathogenic organisms in the final tea product. FDA’s Produce Safety Rule (PSA) defines Agricultural tea additive as a nutrient source (such as molasses, yeast extract, or algal powder) added to agricultural tea to increase microbial biomass”.

So, if a grower wants to make and use an agricultural tea and be compliant with FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule, how would they go about it? Well….as typical with new regulations, especially rules trying to capture the complexity of the agricultural industry, the answer is about as clear as a good batch of compost tea! 

Some clues on how to comply with FSMA can guide us. It appears the key to using an agricultural tea in a manner compliant with the FSMA PSR, lies within how FDA defines and describes the use of “treated” or “untreated” biological soil amendments of animal origin, detailed in FSMA PSR’s Subpart F.

It appears the key question for FDA intrepretation is “are agricultural teas made with potable water (free of pathogens), stabilized compost, and no additives considered "treated biological soil amendments of animal origin" by FDA? And if so, additional clarifications on the application restrictions in FSMA PSR Section 112.56 will be helpful to the agricultural industry. For example, in what (if any) cases can a grower apply an agricultural tea as a foliar spray.

With regards to tea made with additives, it appears a key question for FDA intrepretation is "are agricultural teas made with potable water (free of pathogens), stabilized compost, with the addition of agricultural tea addivitives for the microbial benefits, considered "untreated biological soil amendments of animal origin" by FDA? If so, will agricultural teas made through this process need to be applied per FSMA PSR Section 112.56 and what specifically do those application restrictions look like?

The organic and food safety certification body I work for, CCOF, will be utilizing the FDA’s Technical Assistance Network (TAN) to submit specific questions about the brewing and use of agricultural teas. Through this system anyone can submit a technical question about the FSMA rules and FDA will formally respond publically so the entire agricultural community can benefit from the discussion. Please stay tuned to CCOF website and the FFSCN blog for the outcomes of these technical questions, or even ask FDA on your own!

But let’s get back to making a safe tea. Another important way to ensure your compost tea is safe is by sanitizing all the equipment used to brew the tea after each batch and flushing your drip lines with (an organically approved if your farm is certified or in transition) drip line cleaner. When brewing tea, biofilms can build up on the equipment and in the drip lines, serving as a protective habitat for pathogenic organisms, allowing them to survive on the equipment and potentially taint further batches of tea.

In 2006 the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) looked at the issue of compost tea safety and came up with strategies and recommendations that are similar to those found in this article. You can find these recommendations within a popular compost tea guide called Tea Time in the Tropics, which is a great reference for the would be tea brewer.  

Bottom line, if you want to brew an agricultural tea and you are growing a product eaten fresh, it is a really good idea to use the very best stabilized compost, potable (pathogen free) water, standardized procedures and ingredients, sanitized equipment, and then take regular samples of the final tea for listeria, salmonella, and E.coli to reduce the risk that the final product being applied risk to the people consuming your produce. If your ingredients or processes change, update your brewing procedures and retest the final product.

As with everything food safety and organic compliance related, keep records on hand to show inspectors you are working to reduce the risk of your tea and to track your processes. Similarly, if your farm is certified organic or audited by third-party food safety certification body, be sure to check with your certifier to ensure you are complying with all the applicable standards.

Many successful growers believe compost or agricultural teas are a valuable asset in their crop health and soil nutrient programs. Knowing how to ensure a safe application of this biologically rich brew helps growers give back to the land while keeping consumers safe. Happy brewing! 

by Jacob Guth

Final Produce Rules From Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Are Out

The much-awaited final food safety rules for produce farms—otherwise known as the Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption (http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/ucm334114.htm)were officially released on 11/27/15.

The Produce Safety Rule establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. Co-management of food safety, conservation, and environmental protection are addressed within the Produce Safety Rule, most notably in the sections on domesticated and wild animals, agricultural water (water quality and testing), and biological soil amendments (raw manure and stabilized compost). Other key requirements address sprouts, worker training and health and hygiene, and equipment, tools and buildings. Exemptions where the rule does not apply are explained, as well as compliance dates for different types of operations.

If you are interested reading the full version of the Produce Safety Rule(https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/11/27/2015-28159/standards-for-the-growing-harvesting-packing-and-holding-of-produce-for-human-consumption)

it is good to know that the the first 700 pages contains the Preamble, which explains FDA’s thinking. The rules themselves begin after that. For those of you who just want an easily digestible fact sheet, you can find one here (http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/UCM472887.pdf).

 

Below are some excerpts from the Preamble and the Rule:

Excerpts Relating to Co-Management in the Preamble to the Rule

In the Preamble to the rule, it states “We encourage the application of practices that can enhance food safety and that are also consistent with sustainable conservation… We continue to encourage the co-management of food safety, conservation, and environmental protection. We consider it important to take into account the environmental practice standards and policies of other relevant agencies in the context of food safety.”

The FDA states in other parts of the Preamble that

“Domesticated animals, due to their close proximity and interaction with humans, are generally more likely to harbor zoonotic pathogens than are wild animals.” Further in the Preamble they say: “We understand that when covered produce [meaning produce eaten raw], is grown in an outdoor environment, wild or feral animals are likely to have access to production fields. We reiterate that the presence of animals in a production field of covered produce, in and of itself, is not a significant food safety risk. However, wild or feral animals are known zoonotic disease reservoirs for human pathogens, and therefore their excreta may contaminate growing covered produce crops.”

Excerpts Relating to Co-management in the Produce Safety Rule

In the subpart on Domestic And Wild Animals in the rule, the Produce Safety Rule states that

“Nothing in this regulation authorizes the ‘taking’ of threatened or endangered species as that term is defined by the Endangered Species Act … in violation of the Endangered Species Act. This regulation does not require covered farms [non-exempt farms] to take measures to exclude animals from outdoor growing areas, or to destroy animal habitat or otherwise clear farm borders around outdoor growing areas or drainages.”

The Rule requires that “…if under the circumstances there is a reasonable probability that grazing animals, working animals, or animal intrusion will contaminate covered produce you must:

"(1) Assess the relevant areas used for a covered activity for evidence of potential contamination of covered produce as needed during the growing season (based on your covered produce; your practices and conditions; and your observations and experience); and

(2) If significant evidence of potential contamination is found (such as observation of animals, animal excreta or crop destruction), you must evaluate whether the covered produce can be harvested … and take measures reasonably necessary during growing to assist you later during harvest when you must identify, and not harvest, covered produce that is reasonably likely to be contaminated with a known or reasonably foreseeable hazard.”

In the subpart on Growing, Harvesting, Packing And Holding Activities, the Produce Safety Rule requires that:

“You must take all measures reasonably necessary to identify, and not harvest, covered produce that is reasonably likely to be contaminated with a known or reasonably foreseeable hazard, including steps to identify and not harvest covered produce that is visibly contaminated with animal excreta. At a minimum, identifying and not harvesting covered produce that is reasonably likely to be contaminated with animal excreta or that is visibly contaminated with animal excreta requires a visual assessment of the growing area and all covered produce to be harvested, regardless of the harvest method used.”

In the subpart on Agricultural Water, the Produce Safety Rule states:

 “At the beginning of a growing season, as appropriate, but at least once annually, you must inspect all of your agricultural water systems, to the extent they are under your control (including water sources, water distribution systems, facilities, and equipment), to identify conditions that are reasonably likely to introduce known or reasonably foreseeable hazards into or onto covered produce. ”

In the subpart on Biological Soil Amendments, the Rule  states:

“If the biological soil amendment of animal origin is—Untreated [such as raw manure],” then … it “must be applied-- In a manner that does not contact covered produce during application and minimizes the potential for contact with covered produce after application.”

“At this time, the FDA does not object to farmers complying with the USDA’s National Organic Program standards, which call for a 120-day interval between the application of raw manure for crops in contact with the soil and 90 days for crops not in contact with the soil.”

 by Jo Ann Baumgartner

 

Training Beginning Farmers in Food Safety

The Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) based in Salinas, CA is a non-profit farm education and business incubator program creating opportunities for farm workers to become organic farmers.  ALBA has three main programs 1) Small Farmer Education Course, 2) Incubator Program, and 3) ALBA Organics, a licensed distributor.  Historically, ALBA’s audience has been migrant farmworkers who take advantage of ALBA’s program to use some their skills acquired working in the fields and become their own boss.   Currently, ALBA rents land to 45 independent farmers on two ranches in Monterey County.  An average farm size ranges from 0.25 acres to 5.5 acres on ALBA’s ranch. 

Recognizing the need to minimize risks that independent beginning farmers face, ALBA reduces production and marketing risk with the sheer nature of its programming.   ALBA has also been at the forefront training its famers on food safety and assisting them to become food safety certified to reduce liability risk.

Food Safety and Beginning Farmers

“Recordkeeping, recordkeeping, recordkeeping, I don’t even farm anymore.” This is the largest complaint that I hear from small farmers.  The challenge of being a small farmer is exhausting, especially when cumbersome recordkeeping is involved.  Without a large division of labor within the company, the small farm owner is responsible for carrying out a multitude of responsibilities that would normally be divided amongst different departments for larger farms with more resources.

The key to successful food safety training is continual training on different components of a food safety, program coupled with individual technical assistance. We easily budget at least 12 hours of individual technical assistance per beginning farmer.   In addition to representation during audits, most of the technical assistance is focused on training farmers to examine their fields through a food safety lens and to be persistent with recordkeeping.

Farmer Trainings Offered

Annually, ALBA offers 4 -6 different trainings specifically on food safety to its farmers and the Latino farmer community on the Central Coast.   Both ALBA’s Farmer Education Course and annual farmer training workshops are offered in Spanish and English.  Core food safety trainings include: basics of food safety and symptoms of food borne illness, recordkeeping and advance recordkeeping, and how to perform risk assessments. 

Tying in Co-Management to Food Safety Training

This year ALBA developed an additional workshop curriculum under a USDA AMS, National Organic Program’s Sound and Sensible Grant to teach the similarities and differences of food safety and organic certification side by side. One workshop focused on managing post-harvest sanitation practices and products for utensil, equipment, and wash water that meet food safety and certified organic requirements.  A second workshop discussed practices that help maintain natural lands, installing Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) ag conservation practices, and methods for monitoring and managing these practices for food safety.  The workshops highlighted different NRCS cost share practices available to farmers (hedgerow/windbreak planting, filter strip installation, cover crop, etc.) and common natural areas (riparian, wetland, sediment basins).  We emphasized to farmers that their primary responsibility is to monitor the fields and areas around them for signs of contamination or animal activity.  .. If and when contamination is present or issues are persistent and threaten the crop area, controls should be installed.  Workshop facilitators allowed farmers to brainstorm controls they could employ to ensure the problem will not impact the crop production area that did not necessitate the removal of habitat or conservation practices,. 

ALBA farmers on the Triple M Ranch have passed food safety audits.   Yes, when a food safety auditor comes to the ranch, they do seem a little overwhelmed at the amount of habitat on the ranch, and they do scrutinize the ground and ag fields more closely for signs of animal activity and contamination.  Nevertheless, the farmers are able to demonstrate preventative controls in place that inhibit animal activity.  As no signs of contamination or animal entrance have been observed in the field, the food safety auditors have nothing negative to report.

Challenges

As farmers in ALBA’s incubator acquire land and move off of ALBA’s ranches, becoming fully independent, we anticipate that food safety compliance will be the biggest challenge for them due to language and cultural barriers. It is ALBA’s goal to have all farmers create and manage individual food safety plans, in the appropriate languages, by their 4th year in the farm business Incubator Program.   Many Incubator participants lack formal education past the 4th grade, which can make complex food safety recordkeeping quite daunting.  Additionally, audit scheduling is normally carried out online and in English, which is a barrier for our audience of beginning farmers.  ALBA staff also find themselves assisting non-ALBA Spanish speaking farmers to schedule food safety audits and communicate with the certifying body’s office on their behalf.

Many of our farmers rely on a family-member, primarily one of their children, as a translator during audits.  Using a translator with no strong background in food safety or technical language poses a great limitation to effectively communicating about their food safety program.

Moving forward

Food safety, similar to bookkeeping and financial management, is necessary to ensure a produce business can sustain itself and grow.   While a small farmer cannot be an expert on every subject, they may want to consider hiring a bookkeeper to manage their finances, and a food safety consultant to manage their food safety program. 

by Kaley Grimland-Mendoza, ALBA

Conservation Plantings on Farms

By Sam EarnshawHedgerows Unlimited

Native plant hedgerow on Central Coast vegetable farm

Hedgerows, windbreaks and grassed waterways are increasingly being planted on farms and can be co-managed for food safety and ecological functions on the farm.  Native shrubs and trees planted in hedgerows and windbreaks support bees that provide pollination services and serve as habitat for beneficial insects that attack pests. Windbreaks reduce wind damage to crops and intercept pathogens, pesticides, and dust. Grassed waterways and other conservation plantings help to filter pollutants, reduce non-point source water pollution and groundwater pollution, and increase surface water infiltration. These plantings enhance biodiversity on the farm.  Pollination, pest control, and water quality protection yield economic returns to the farmer and healthy, safe food to the consumer.

Co-managing for food safety involves monitoring the crop and the conservation planting for animal damage, presence of fecal matter, and signs of intrusion.  If monitoring indicates an increased risk, growers can use mitigation measures to discourage animal intrusion and minimize crop loss.  A recent article published on August 10, 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/08/05/1508435112.full.pdf) found that clearing non-crop vegetation around farms involved in the study did not reduce the presence of two primary pathogens (enterohemorrhagic E. coli and Salmonella enterica) responsible for the majority of bacterial outbreaks in fresh produce.  As buyers and auditors become more familiar with the benefits and low risks associated with biodiversity plantings, they will help farmers integrate nature into growing safe food.

A good risk assessment (pre-season, pre-harvest) would monitor both the crop and the surrounding area (conservation planting).  If there is evidence of animal presence in the surrounding area, but not in the crop area, then notes would indicate that based on continued monitoring the risk is considered low.  If the risk is medium or high, then the grower would indicate what mitigation measures have been taken to prevent animal intrusion or contamination to the crop.  Destruction of the crop would only happen if there was an unforeseen incident and an investigation would be conducted to determine what steps to take to prevent further occurrences.  A pro-active approach includes monitoring and mitigating to prevent any crop loss, along with a record keeping system to communicate those efforts to auditors and customers.

Co-managing for food safety involves monitoring the crop, not the conservation planting, for animal damage, presence of fecal matter, and signs of intrusion. If part of the crop is impacted by animals, it is destroyed. If the animals continue to cause harm, steps are taken to discourage them. As buyers and auditors become more familiar about the benefits and low risks associated with biodiversity plantings, they will help farmers integrate nature into growing safe food.

Links:

By Sam EarnshawHedgerows Unlimited

Drones and Agriculture

This image shows you the layering of color images of plant vigor (red is healthy, orange to yellow is stressed, and blue is nothing) and actual detailed visual imagery.  Click on the image and you can zoom in on a trouble spot and it will show you detailed photo imagery of the spot.

Like it or not, drones have arrived and are here to stay.  While most of the recent publicity around drone technology has been negative (think firefighters suspending efforts fighting fires due to drones filming California wildfires), aerial imagery provided by drones offers a component of precision agriculture never seen before on a wide scale basis.  Whether you’re a Pest Control Advisor, Crop Advisor, Consultant, Food Safety Professional, Grower or Harvesting Manager, looking at a crop from the ground or doing crop measurements will never give you the perspective that can be achieved with aerial imagery.  While boots on the ground will never be replaced, it is a co-management tool that allows those folks to more effectively communicate crop needs using visual imagery and exact GPS coordinates.  Layered images allow the user to drill down from viewing colored areas of concern to actual aerial snapshots of the area.  Multiple images taken of growing areas and viewed over time greatly enhance the collaboration between growers, suppliers, and advisors.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes and can cost from below $5 to millions of dollars.  The most commonly used are ultra-light miniature fixed wing aircraft with a fixed wing span of around three feet, or a quadcopter.  Some require hand launching, and others can take-off and land without a manual launch assist.  These aircraft, when equipped with technologically advanced software and remote sensing, permit the operator to plan actual and simulated flights.  The aircraft use GPS and a wireless WI-FI connection to remain in contact with the programmed flight path.   Point and shoot type cameras placed within the body of the aircraft are controlled by the software and literally take hundreds of individual photos of the production area of interest.  The individual photos must later be composed into a single mosaic image using different software.  Single images produced by different types of cameras used to fly over the same area can be layered one on  top of another,   allowing a the computer user to scroll through and view the different spectrum images.

Now, for a reasonable cost, a farmer can measure plant stress and health, validate farming practices and spot potential issues before they happen.  The upside is substantial – potentially reducing fertilizer inputs, reducing pesticide use, improving irrigation efficiencies, and providing an effective avenue for continuous improvement.  Besides plant health and vigor, the images can show irrigation patterns, runoff issues, slope, and weed intrusion.  The imagery provides near precision direction for locating distressed plant areas, soil and water inefficiencies, and other opportunities by highlighting these areas within the image.  Growers and crop monitoring personnel can use their smart phone and GPS coordinates provided by the imagery to walk directly to areas of concern. Imagery can also be used to demonstrate a grower’s prudent use of agricultural water, defend against further reductions in water use, and serve as a validation of farming practices and continuous improvement. The benefit of being able to identify troubled areas at a single viewing is that it gives the grower a directed, purposeful approach to more effective, efficient farming. This imagery will provide the grower and shipper the necessary data and imagery to effectively co-manage resource use and farming practices towards a goal of the best possible crop to feed a growing population, with a sustainable use of resources and minimal impact on wildlife and the environment.

by Kris Gavin and Walt Armijo

Water Boards a Valuable Resource for Co-management

by Johnny Gonzales

As a result of the leafy green E. coli contamination incident back in 2006, the State and Regional Water Boards (here-in-after Water Boards) participated in the development of the California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA) that developed food safety best management practice metrics. 

The Water Boards support the effort that the Farm Food Safety Conservation Network (FFSCN) is doing in collaborating with the agricultural community and other agricultural related agencies/entities/academia to exchange information on co-management of food safety and environmental protection.  The Water Boards position is that food safety practices and the protection of water quality should not be in conflict and applauds the collaborative approach by all agricultural stakeholders (e.g. growers, distributers, buyers, consumers, researchers, agencies, academia, etc.) to address this very important co-management issue.

The State Water Board has a vested interest in making sure that current and future food safety practices are compatible water quality protection programs.  Impacted State Water Board programs include the Irrigated Lands Program, Nonpoint Source, Total Maximum Daily Load, and grants and loans programs. These efforts can complement efforts to improve food safety and protect the beneficial uses of the waters of the state.   

For example, to evaluate the water quality and environmental impacts of food safety on-field practices, the Irrigated Lands Program staff actively participates in the FFSCN to keep informed of recent scientific research regarding food safety practices; and to coordinate the state’s position on how to manage food safety using scientifically based on-field practices without impairing water quality or affecting wildlife.  These on-field practices need to be scientifically based and clearly defined to avoid ambiguity and the potential for subjective interpretation by growers, handlers, auditors, buyers and consumers.  A key element of the ILRP is to provide assistance to enrolled growers in addressing water quality issues to assure management plans and practices align with the Healthy Soils, Food Safety, Safe Drinking Water, and other agricultural related initiatives.

The task ahead to improve food safety and the environment are not mutually exclusive.  Complementary efforts can be instituted that can improve water quality and the environment to grow safe fresh products consumed across the US.

 For more information on State Water Board Programs:

by Johnny Gonzales

Using Drone Technology to Promote Co-management Projects

preparing a drone for takeoff

preparing a drone for takeoff

How do we get more growers to participate in food safety and conservation co-management projects? How do we engage buyer support for conservation and co-management projects?  Sustainability managers get those questions all of the time.  It is a myth that growers and buyers just want to slash and burn in order to sterilize our farms, or that it is in the best interest of either one to do so.  When I was invited to join the Farm Food Safety and Conservation Network, I did some research on the concept of co-management.  Since then, I have had the opportunity to collaborate on a few projects with some amazing people, and see how co-management and collaboration can apply to agriculture.  What I learned from those projects, is that unless you can do the data collection, measure the effects of past and current practices, and find a way to convey your findings in a clear and concise way, it is difficult to move co-management projects forward.  In the past, the time and expense required in collecting the data and background necessary to work with consultants, farm advisors, and UC biologists prevented farmers from making the effort, and then, when the projects are done, nobody has the time to monitor and evaluate them.

While I have found a lot of value in the use of GPS mapping for collaborative projects in the past, Drone technology brings mapping and aerial imagery to a new and exciting level.  When you look at the mapping and aerial imagery, you see your farm's footprint as a part of the surrounding environment.  The challenge is to farm the inside of that footprint most effectively, without disturbing the outside.

3D post flight rendering for field assessment

I have taken a few buyer representatives around the ranches, and they always are surprised and impressed with how we co-manage their food safety requirements without creating the sterile, clear cutting of the land that some imagine. What if you could show them the farm, without all of the time and expense? The potential for communication is great.  If we can use the imagery to give virtual tours to food safety buyers and auditors, and with fertilizer suppliers to apply inputs only where they are needed, imagine the benefit to beneficial insects, bees, and the natural habitat surrounding the farm?  If we can pinpoint and cut back on the overuse of water and fertilizer, imagine the benefit in terms of water quality and water use?  When a grower or grower resource has a clear picture of what is going on, maybe even enabling grant projects, and/or saving money, we can make the most progress.  I think that the drone’s visual imagery offers the current, and eventually, historical data needed to facilitate co-management efforts.  Farming, food safety, and conservation efforts cannot be compartmentalized, so we have to look at the big picture.  This is one way to bring the big picture straight to someone's cell phone or laptop.

By Kris Gavin