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