Whether a produce farmer is selling fresh fruits and vegetables at a city market, at a roadside stand or creating meals in a farmstand kitchen, there's an inherent responsibility to make sure that every customer has the safest experience possible. A customer's safe farm market experience begins when driving into the parking lot of a farmstand or farmers' market.
Paved parking lots with open visibility and plenty of space for both foot and vehicle traffic reduce the risk of accidents.
PHOTOS BY SALLY COLBY.
"Farmers' markets should be held on a paved parking lot," said Steve Bogash, Penn State University regional horticulture educator in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. "It's easier to push carts, easier for pulling wagons, easier to load from. Anything is better than gravel; even short-mowed grass is better than gravel." Bogash realizes that paving a parking lot is a costly project, but believes that it's a worthwhile investment for markets that serve primarily urban and suburban populations.
"We have an aging population," said Bogash. "They're good customers, but a lot of what we sell (at produce and other green markets) is heavy. Making things easier for them, such as offering to help load and even deliver to their home, is a big service. But charge for delivery - don't give it away." Bogash noted that plastic bags are hard on peoples' hands, especially when the bags are heavy, and that although paper bags with handles are more expensive, they're much easier for people to use. Bags with handles are also less likely to break and result in a spill.
At the outdoor market or farmstand, pay attention to placement of displays and how easily foot traffic moves through. Are freestanding displays sturdy enough to withstand minor nudges, or could someone trying to navigate in a wheelchair easily knock them over? Outdoor bins and displays should be located as far away as possible from vehicle traffic, especially if there's truck traffic nearby.
Vendors should try to display enough of a selection of fruits or vegetables to give the customer options, but keep most of the supply stored at the appropriate temperature until needed.
In regard to food safety, Bogash says that the most important aspect of food safety at a market is understanding the produce that's being handled - what needs to be kept refrigerated and the ideal storage temperatures for each kind of produce. "Keep whatever produce you can stored under the conditions that are ideal for that fruit or vegetable," said Bogash. "Don't have too much out. There's a balance. You want the display to appear abundant because people will buy more when it looks abundant, but keep as much as you can packed in coolers. Everything should be easily accessible and easy to display so you aren't wasting a lot of time pulling new produce out of coolers."
Although customers love food samples, they can present a major food safety issue. "Anything that vendors can provide to the customer to sample as a whole is better than cutting," said Bogash, who advocates providing samples of whole items such as cherry or grape tomatoes or small fruits. "As soon as you take a knife to something, you're under health department regulations. The knife has to be kept sanitary, and now you have a piece of fruit that's cut open and starts to decay. If the customer is buying a quart or pint of cherry or grape tomatoes and also buying slicing tomatoes, they don't have to taste the slicing tomatoes. If your products look good, you've already convinced them by letting them taste a cherry tomato that what you have tastes good."
Bogash says that the world of farmers' markets and related direct-to-consumer markets is changing rapidly due to GAP. According to the USDA, "the Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices (GAP & GHP) audit verification program focuses on best agricultural practices to verify that farms are producing, and packers are handling and storing fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards." Bogash advises farmers to operate their farms to comply with GAP standards, and to check with their insurance carrier to make sure that what they're doing is within policy coverage. "I think of market safety as marketing responsibly," he said. "Folks come here to spend money. We don't want them to decide it wasn't a good idea to come here."
Food contamination can occur at any stage of production, as evidenced by the recent Colorado melon situation. Although the melons coming from the field to the packinghouse were clean, packinghouse equipment was old and difficult to clean properly. The skid loader was traveling through puddles of contaminated water, and the truck for spoiled melons was too close to the packinghouse. When an outbreak of illness results in one area of production, the entire industry feels the repercussions. In many cases, consumer trust is breached and difficult to regain.
"There are so many places where things can become contaminated," said Bogash. "Everyone needs to constantly look around their operation and be mindful of the weakest links. Realize that if you are the principal - the owner, manager or supervisor - people are going to cut corners unless you are really leading the way." One common weak link is containers that are used in the operation. "We all reuse plastic crates and harvest tubs," said Bogash. "Anything that is reused should be sanitized. Wash the produce, tubs and boots. Assume that wherever you're being least careful is where 'something' will sneak in."
Restroom facilities must be maintained properly throughout the season and supplied with clean running water, soap and paper towels. Outdoor restroom facilities are rated for a certain number of people to use in a given time period, so those facilities should be closely monitored to make sure that they're clean and not unpleasant for customers. Outdoor hand-washing stations should be equipped with soap and water.
Many farm markets have created petting zoo areas or allow customers to visit livestock on the farm. Although this attracts customers and can serve as an educational tool, it also adds risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that facilities with animals should be designed so that animal areas are separate from food consumption areas, and prohibit visitors from consuming food and drinks in animal areas. Trained staff members should be present to guide visitors through a safe experience and should be aware that people don't necessarily know how to handle or behave around animals. Employees should be prepared to advise visitors not to allow any oral contact with animals (such as close fondling or kissing). Adults should supervise children's hand washing after visiting the animal area.
Covering all the bases takes work
Kay Hollabaugh, whose family has operated Hollabaugh Brothers Fruit Farm & Market in Biglerville, Pa., since 1955, is ServSafe certified. The process is mandated by the national restaurant association for establishments that conduct any kind of cooking or baking activities on the premises. "Food safety and physical safety is a very real concern," said Hollabaugh, who manages the farm's retail market. "We can assure our customers that what we're serving has been stored, cleaned, cooked and handled properly." Hollabaugh says that while a lot of the training for ServSafe certification was common sense, she gained new insight about different aspects of food safety. Hollabaugh Brothers is also a GAP-certified grower.
Hollabaugh says that monitoring physical safety of customers at their rural farm market is an ongoing process. "Everyone is watchful of little things that could become safety issues, such as a step that protrudes and might trip someone," she said. "All of our employees know exactly what to do in the case of an incident." Hollabaugh explained that the employee handbook includes thorough information on how to handle accidents. The handbook is reviewed annually and updated as needed, and each employee signs a statement that they have read the handbook and understand all policies. Hollabaugh noted that to an adult, most of the policies are simply common sense, but not to an inexperienced high school student who is new to the job.
"We see several thousand schoolchildren here in the fall," said Hollabaugh. "Our guides know to ask the group if there are any bee sting allergies, and if so, is the teacher prepared? We have a bee kit on the wagon in the event that someone is stung, and we're also prepared for stings at the farm market, where cider and apples draw bees." Before a wagonload of children leaves for the orchards, the guide reviews safety rules and watches the group throughout the ride to make sure the rules are being followed.
The concrete floor in Hollabaugh's market is a nonslip surface, and is swept and mopped at least daily to keep it as clean as possible. Spills in the store are handled immediately to prevent accidents. Although the market is carefully designed to keep foot traffic flowing, the Hollabaughs have outgrown their existing market and are in the process of constructing a new, larger farm market. The new market, which will open this summer, will include handicapped parking and easy access for patrons who use wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility devices.
"We want to be able to accommodate those shoppers," said Hollabaugh. "The new market will allow us to accommodate all shoppers without the problem of space."
The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.