Postharvest Handling and the process of GAPs Certification
At Local Roots Farm near Duvall, Washington, farmer-owners Jason Salvo and Siri Erickson-Brown led nearly 50 farmers and community members on an informative farm walk regarding postharvest handling and the intricacies of following GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) guidelines. The walk was also led by their farm manager, Sam Bowhay who has been instrumental in researching GAPs recommendations and making changes at Local Roots. Resource people in attendance included Tricia Kovacs (WSDA Food and Consumer Safety/Farm-to-School), Hannah Cavendish-Palmer (WSU Cultivating Success), and Andy Bary (WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center).
Local Roots Farm grows 8 acres of mixed vegetables that they sell through a 235 member CSA and three farmers markets. Jason shared the challenge it can be to find the right balance of time and efficiency when it comes to proper postharvest handling for all their markets. Sam went on to explain that this past winter, he took the time to research GAPs guidelines. He discovered that about 40% of the protocols that Local Roots had been using are not aligned with the best practices suggested by GAPs. A lot of these practices come down to precise record keeping and extreme cleanliness, as Sam put it. He already completes between 40-60 hours of recordkeeping in the winter months. During the growing season, it is not easy to find time to complete records amidst all the other production and marketing tasks that take precedence.
As Jason talked about their postharvest handling routine, he expressed the desire to utilize more field packing of certain vegetables including kale, cabbage, and perhaps even lettuce. In experimenting with field packing (i.e. directly harvesting into a wax lined box to then be sold to customers), Jason has found that often times the produce holds its quality longer than if it is washed before it is packed. He has found this to be especially true for lettuce, which likely incurs some damage when it is washed in cold water and then packed together in a box that is damper than if it had simply been field packed.
Jason was a great host in that he encouraged attendees to drive the conversation with their questions. A common question among all was the difference between GAPs and FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act). Andy Bary and Tricia Kovacs were able to clarify for the group that GAPs is a certification that is driven by large food purchasers such as schools, hospitals, and grocery stores. These institutions like GAPs as it gives them the information they need to ensure that a farm is a safe source of food. FSMA is a federal law that is currently being written and going through the commenting process. So while no farmer is subject to the rules of FSMA quite yet – they have yet to be finalized – it behooves them to get their practices in line with the rules being proposed. Even if a farm meets the small farm exemption, they will still need to have a food safety plan. Since Local Roots sells only to direct markets at this time, they don’t necessarily have customers asking for GAPs certification – which would most certainly happen if they wanted to sell to an institution.
In answering questions about labor costs and harvesting, Jason shared the semi-precise cost calculations he and Siri have done to discover these costs. They have determined for several different crops the average time it takes to pick a certain amount of produce in one hour. Jason said that across all crops, a person can harvest between $80-100 worth of vegetables in an hour. This figure has helped them determine how to allocate labor during harvest days.
Sam and Jason took attendees through the set-up and logistics of one of their wash stations. One of their main issues with their wash station is where to funnel the waste water. Sam also shared that ideally, the station would have washable walls and all corners and bases of the walls would be visible for easy cleaning (per GAPs standards). They currently utilize wash tubs and a washing machine to wash and dry their leafy vegetables. They also have a spray table and a root washer to wash root vegetables. Squash, cucumbers, and other cylindrical vegetables are also washed in the root washer. For their CSA shares, restaurant sales, and some farmers markets, they pack vegetables into wax boxes. These boxes cannot technically be reused, so Jason has been trying to find alternatives. For markets, they pack into Rubbermaid tubs that then get sanitized between uses. Despite their re-usability, Jason and Sam have found that the tubs lack the air exchange that the wax boxes offer, so produce doesn’t retain its quality quite as well.
After viewing one of their washing stations, Jason and Sam led the group through the vegetable fields to talk irrigation and harvest. Being so close to the Snoqualmie River, Local Roots Farm has the advantage of an extremely high water table. As a result, Sam explained that they only irrigate through drip tape once or twice after transplant and then they mostly rely on sub-irrigation for the rest of the season. Sometimes in extremely dry weather they will supplement. Being within the river valley also means frequent flooding of their acreage, which Jason has viewed as a source of fertility. They also add compost to their soil and allow for fallow in their crop rotation – they would like to investigate the use of cover crops and green manures in the future.
The group then walked to another location on their farm where an old dairy barn sits. They use the covered area as an additional space to wash vegetables and to pack their CSA boxes. Jason and Siri also purchased a shipping container to store winter squash and some root vegetables through the winter months. Before storing squash, they wash and then cure it in their greenhouse. Jason has outfitted the container with a humidifier to provide some sort of humidity and temperature regulation. Last year, they were able to sell squash and root crops through March providing them farm income through the winter months.
Attendees were then able to see Local Roots employees packing up some of the 235 CSA boxes. They pack produce into wax boxes, filling one box at a time. Jason and his crew deliver boxes to 12 drop off sites in the Seattle area. They also offer on-farm pick-up. Any produce that is left over – either from farmers markets or CSA packing – is sold at their farm stand at the entrance to their farm where people put money in a box for the produce they take.
The farm walk ended with discussion of the types of equipment and infrastructure used at Local Roots Farm in their overall production. It was evident throughout the walk that Jason, Siri, and their farm manager Sam are very knowledgeable and honest about their experience with postharvest handling and investigating the rigors of GAPs certification.
This project is supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov, a component of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Summary by Angela Anegon, Tilth Producers Education Coordinator