New Food Safety Program To Aid Area Farmers

New Food Safety Program to Aid Area Farmers

By Carrie Henderson

REGION – Food is comfort, but recent reports of widespread salmonella and E. coli outbreaks rattle that illusion at the grocery store and farm stand. Concerned shoppers demand better inspection practices, but federal certification is expensive for smaller farms.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), a $92-an-hour program that sends experts to inspect farms, making sure there is a low risk of microbe contamination when food is produced, packed, handled and stored. Farmers also pay round-trip travel costs for the inspector.

Now, a new free state program called Safe Food Risk Assessment (SFRA) is being offered jointly by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Michigan State University to aid area farmers assess their current food safety practices.

"Implementing GAP can be intimidating to our region's small, local growers, so this tool helps them assess their current practices," said Garrett Coggon, a safe food technician with the Grand Traverse Conservation District. "The overall goal of this program is to limit the opportunities of harmful microbes to interact with our local produce and keep our local food safe, from farm to table."

Northern Michigan is one of only two areas in the state that has workers dedicated specifically to working on food safety with small, local growers. Coggon says this includes reviewing and making suggestions on things like worker health and hygiene, sewage treatment, manure application, and safe produce packaging and transportation.

"By addressing these key areas, farmers build awareness of food safety on their farm, and can reduce their risk for microbial contamination," Coggon said. "Farmers who complete assessments with a passing score receive a certificate which can be used to demonstrate they are implementing responsible practices to deliver safe, high-quality food to customers."

The assessment program is free, voluntary, and the results are kept confidential between the inspector and the farmer.

Zenner Farms of Kingsley was the first local farm to go through SFRA. It sells produce like hydroponically grown cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce at roadside stands and restaurants like Schelde's Grille & Spirits, Jolly Pumpkin, North Peak Brewing Company, and local stores, including Tom's Food Markets.

Richard Zenner was born and raised on the 205-acre farm and has been farming since 1972. He wanted to make sure he was in compliance with "what we should be doing."

Zenner said he scored in the 80s out of a scale of 100, a passing grade. Some minor improvements included putting containers below tomato food tanks so potential leaks don't seep into the ground, and installing light bulb covers so glass doesn't get into crops if the bulbs break.

Zenner said he's already corrected those problems, and would recommend the program to other farmers, adding that he "wasn't nervous" about the assessment.

"I've been farming for more than 20 years," he said. "I felt like we were doing everything that needed to be done."

Another local farm to take part is Bardenhagen Farms in Lake Leelanau. Steve Bardenhagen's family has been working the land there for five generations, growing strawberries, cherries and blackberries.

Bardenhagen's wife, Pam, said they take food safety seriously, and already had a food safety policy in place from when their farm was GAP certified in 2009.

However, she said SFRA is a better choice for small and mid-sized farms like theirs.

"It provides farmers and buyers peace of mind," she said. "It's also a great alternative and more realistic for smaller farms than GAP, because GAP is expensive."

Coggon says both Bardenhagen and Zenner's farms passed their audits. He hopes 25 other small area farms will join them by the end of this year.

For more information on the free Safe Food Risk Assessment, email gcoggon@gtcg.org or call 231.941.0960, ext. 7.

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