Guest Post by NCAT Horticulture Specialist Luke Freeman
In August I visited Caston’s Blueberry Farm in Onia, Arkansas, for a food safety training that focused on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification and preparing farmers for a GAP audit. Many produce growers in the state are becoming interested in GAP certification as large buyers are starting to request that their suppliers are certified. GAPs are a set of food safety practices and standards for farms with oversight and certification provided by a third party like the USDA.
GAP Certification Can Help Farmers Reach New Markets
Arkansas Farm to School facilitated this training in August to help acquaint mid-scale growers with the GAP program to help them pursue certification and potentially start selling their produce to Arkansas schools. GAP certification is not necessarily required for a grower to sell produce to a public school, but it may be required by a produce distributor that sells to a school district. In addition, GAP certification can open doors to other markets like hospitals, large grocery stores, or restaurant chains.
Robert Caston raises close to 50 acres of blueberries and blackberries on his farm tucked away in the Ozark hills outside of Mountain View. He sells most of his berries to Walmart packaged under the “Healthy Harvest” label and has been certified under the USDA Harmonized Global GAP program for many years. The GAP certification gave him access to the large grocery store market and ensures his buyer that he is providing them with a safe, high-quality product.
Food Safety Policies in Practice
Because of GAP certification, there are several things that Robert Caston must do on his berry farm. One of the first things you notice when you drive on to the farm is a large sign that reads, “RESTRICTED AREA: DO NOT ENTER WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM OWNER (NO EXCEPTIONS).” The rest of the sign clearly states the food safety policies of the farm including hand washing requirements, restrictions on domesticated animals in the field, and restrictions on eating and drinking, among many other policies. Robert ensures that all of his employees understand these food safety policies and are trained on food safety practices.
Another example of food safety on Caston’s farm is the mobile handwashing station Robert has parked under the pole barn. During harvest, this handwashing station is set up in the field so that employees can easily wash their hands after using the restroom, taking their lunch break, or taking a smoke break. Providing an easily-accessible handwashing station is part of the requirements of GAP certification and helps ensure that pickers are handling produce with clean hands.
After walking the fields we toured Caston’s packing facility, where it was clear that food safety played a major role. The floors were made of smooth concrete that drained to a central grate in the middle of the floor for easy cleaning. Boxes and bins were raised off the ground on pallets and stacked away from walls to reduce the chance of rodents taking up residence. Robert’s blueberry sorting machine was made out of stainless steel and rubber belts so that it could be easily cleaned and sanitized. Also, Robert had a label printer to print off packing labels with lot numbers for product tracking and recall.
Find Out More About Food Safety
There are many aspects of food safety on the farm and a farm tour is a great way to get acquainted with food safety practices. If you are interested in learning more about GAP certification and food safety, I would suggest that you reach out to a farmer in your area who has already pursued GAP certification to learn from their example. In addition, you can find more information on our ATTRA On-Farm Food Safety page. We have several publications and videos that can help you start out on the right foot when it comes to implementing food safety practices on your own farm. And you can always call the ATTRA helpline at 800-346-9140, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with a specialist via the ATTRA site, www.attra.ncat.org.