Wash Water Management

FAQ:  Can the used water draining from the hand- and produce-washing sinks flow via gutters in the concrete floor to an exterior outlet?

100_2154Wastewater drainage should not promote cross contamination. If you are using an open gutter or tube, the water could splash and contaminate the floor or other surfaces. People or equipment could contribute to the contamination by walking or moving through the wet areas.

If the wastewater is moving through a closed pipe or channel, then the potential for contamination is greatly reduced. Be sure any piping is not a tripping hazard for workers.

Perform regular maintenance on floor drains to make sure they are free from debris.

dry wellWhere is the wash water going after the packing area? Local governments may require that wash water be put through a septic system, but avoid hooking it up to your home’s septic. The huge amount of water you use in the packing shed may overwhelm your septic system. Most growers just run the water from the packing shed off to a non-production area, storage tank, dry well, or settling area. Think about traffic flow and make sure that people and equipment are not crossing through wet areas.

Using Recycled Sinks

FAQ: Can we use a used fiberglass utility tub as a sink for produce washing?

102_4082All food contact surfaces in a packing area should be food grade in nature and easy to clean and sanitize. As long as the sink has not held chemicals then it should be fine. Other ideas for low-cost sinks include food grade barrels, used kitchen sinks, old dairy bulk tanks or even old bathtubs. If using a recycled item as a sink, be sure it is good condition.

If you are washing and sanitizing produce, you may want to have a two- or three-compartment sink so you can wash, rinse and sanitize.

100_1823Think about how you are going to keep the harvest and packing containers off the floor during washing and packing.

Finally, always use potable water for washing, and be sure there is a separate sink for handwashing.

Food Safety at U-Pick Farms

Field washing JG Ranch
Photo credit: tripadvisor.com

The U-Pick season is quickly approaching. Customers can carry and spread microbial pathogens like any other farm worker. It is important to remember that all customers entering the U-pick field need to be aware and follow good hygiene practices, too.

Encouraging customers to wash their hands prior to and after picking sends a positive message about farm stewardship and reduces microbial risks. Providing clean, accessible restrooms and handwashing facilities are essential, along with posting signs encouraging visitors to use these facilities.  Post signs on your property that remind customers to wash their hands before entering U-pick fields and locations of restroom facilities.

Click here for a guide to help you assess food safety practices on your farm.

U-Pick Food Safety Considerations:

  • Hand washing
  • Restroom locations
  • Not harvesting while sick with foodborne illness
  • No animals in the fields

Packing Shed Design

ISU Extension and Outreach recently hosted Atina Diffley as she presented on post-harvest handling of fruits and vegetables. The three-hour presentation was broadcast to 12 sites across the state.

Diffley is former co-owner of Gardens of Eagan and a Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service board member. Diffley drew on her years of experience in vegetable production and marketing to provide growers with useful, practical and profit-making guidance on how to achieve the highest quality of sale.

One of her lists I found interesting–and can testify to its applicability in Iowa –was the basic requirements for a vegetable packing shed.  Food safety can be accomplished without a state of the art shed.  Here is her list of minimum pack shed requirements.

  • Roof for shade and protection from the elements
  • Potable water
  • Designated handwashing station.  (Toilet facilities are optional)
  • System to sanitize equipment and tools
  • Keep rodents, flies, birds, bugs and pets out of the packing area.
  • Cold storage unless shipping immediately after cooling or if you are harvesting moderate to low respiration crops
  • Safe food contact surfaces
  • Designated space.  Not shared with machines, repair or storage areas.
  • Safe, clean area to stand.  Beware of slippery concrete surfaces or areas that can become muddy.

Here is a short tip sheet and sample layout plans prepared by the University of Wisconsin with more information about designing your pack shed.


Packinghouse Blamed in Cantaloupe Outbreak

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released an environmental assessment inspection report on how exactly the cantaloupes linked to a deadly 2012 Salmonella outbreak may have been contaminated. The report comes six months after Chamberlain Farms in Owensville, Indiana was pinpointed as the source of the outbreak, which sickened 261, including three deaths, in 24 states.

According to the report, the initial contamination of the cantaloupes “likely occurred in the production fields and was most likely spread by operations and practices in the packinghouse. It is also likely that the contamination proliferated during storage and transport to market.”

During an inspection of the Chamberlain Farms packinghouse from August 14  t0 31 of last year, FDA found a number of conditions that could have contributed to the spread of contamination. According to the report, the food contact and non-food contact surfaces in the packhouse were constructed with materials that couldn’t be easily cleaned or sanitized, including carpet and wood. The FDA also said that records were not available to demonstrate whether the farm had monitored its water for washing the melons had the proper pH for disinfecting and preventing cross-contamination.

The report also notes there was an accumulation of debris including trash, wood, food pieces, standing water, mud, and dirt observed beneath the conveyer belt in the cantaloupe packinghouse and that the melons were not pre-cooled after packing before shipment to retail stores. “Warm cantaloupe with rinds that have an increased water-activity (i.e., free residual moisture from washing procedures) and available nutrients from contact with insanitary food contact surfaces may have facilitated Salmonella survival and growth on the cantaloupe rind during subsequent holding,” according to FDA.

Read more from Food Safety News, March 5, 2013.

CoolBot Enables Small Farmers to Build Do-it-Yourself Coolers

Like many small-scale vegetable growers, Anton Burkett couldn’t afford a large, expensive walk-in cooler compressor to cool his produce before market.

Then he found the CoolBot.

The CoolBot is a thermostatic controller that turns an off-the-shelf air conditioner into a compressor.

When he started Early Morning Farm near Ithaca, N.Y. in 1999, he built a small, eight foot by ten foot walk-in cooler powered by a small refrigerator compressor.

With the continued success of his vegetable CSA, two years ago he found it necessary to build a bigger cooler, but couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars it would have cost for a larger compressor. He had a dilemma – without the cooler he couldn’t grow and harvest more vegetables, but without larger harvests he couldn’t afford a bigger cooler.

After doing some research, he decided to try the CoolBot, a thermostatic controller that turns an off-the-shelf air conditioner into a compressor for a homemade walk-in cooler, which would save him thousands of dollars and still keep his produce fresh and cool.

Weeks later, Burkett built a larger eighteen by nineteen foot cooler around his original cooler, powered by the CoolBot, and started hauling in vegetables within hours.

“Not only did it work, it worked great!” he said. “We now cool the big cooler with less electricity than we used to use on just the small cooler, plus it seems to get the veggies down to temp faster.”

Since the device went on sale in 2006, thousands of small farmers – and florists, hunters, brewers and anyone else needing a walk-in cooler – have started using the CoolBot to keep their product fresh for a fraction of the installation and construction costs of the more traditional options.

The CoolBot uses patent pending technology that allows a home window air conditioner to keep a well-insulated room as cold as 35 degrees consistently, while at the same time using about half the electricity of a comparably sized standard compressor. The setup is simple: aluminum foil attaches a heating element to the air conditioner’s temperature sensor to trick the compressor into running longer. The CoolBot has a second sensor that idles the air conditioner when its fins are about to freeze, and restarts it when they have thawed sufficiently.

Inventor and small-scale vegetable farmer Ron Khosla created the CoolBot simply because he and his wife Kate couldn’t afford an expensive walk-in cooler compressor for the CSA they operated, Huguenot Street Farm. After lots of research and talking with friends, he thought that he might be able to use an air conditioner to accomplish much the same cooling effect with only an AC unit. Although he had to destroy more than a few air conditioners while trying to create the controller, he was able to keep his vegetables cold, using a simple device made from a light bulb and a thermometer, but had to monitor the unit to keep it from freezing up. The final product doesn’t overwork the window air conditioners. Because of the small room, tight nature of walk-in coolers, the compressors run less hard than when they are installed in someone’s living room.

CoolBot inventor and organic farmer Ron Khosla with his partner Kate in front of their CoolBot regulated cooler.

“We made it out of a desperate need for our small farm, but I never thought it would get this popular,” he said.

Once he had figured out how to keep his produce consistently cold by manually cycling the compressor, he enlisted the help of an engineering friend from his college days at Cornell University, Timothy Weber, to build a micro controller “brain” for the CoolBot that would cool an insulated room down to well below its normal range automatically. Khosla said he’s been astonished by how successful the device has been.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also provided technical assistance in the design of the frost sensor through their Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program.

“This was one thing a small farmer couldn’t do well on his/her own, you were stuck paying thousands of dollars for a normal compressor, and now we’ve provided do-it-yourself folks a way to build their own coolers,” Khosla said.

What Khosla said he’s been most excited by is the CoolBot’s popularity in the developing world, where farmers from Uzbekistan to India have been building small coolers to keep their produce fresh. It’s helping to solve one of the largest agricultural problems in those places, where up to 40 percent of fresh produce spoils before it gets to market.

“Small, poor farmers across the world are so happy to find something they can afford, that uses so much less electricity. That part has been much more fun than the thousands we’ve sold in the U.S,” he said.

Khosla said that in places where there’s no nearby Home Depot, coolers have been made from papyrus, brick, and even straw bales.

“A lot of our customers hack together stuff and it usually works,” he said, laughing.

After building his own cooler and installing a CoolBot, Burkett has some advice for those thinking about their own do-it-yourself cooler.

“Buy your air conditioner early – we found out that there is an air conditioner season at the retailers,” he said. “You would think that the season would be at its peak in say August, but that’s actually when the retailers are boxing air conditioners up and sending them back to the warehouses. We put the finishing touches on our cooler just about at that time and we were really lucky to find an air conditioner still in stock.”

For more information on the CoolBot, visit storeitcold.com.

Source: http://smallfarms.cornell.edu.  By Aaron Munzer, freelance writer and farmer at Plowbreak Farm in Hector, NY.

Look Down

Most small farms I work with have packing areas on the farm.   In the last post, we talked about overhead risks.  Let’s take a few minutes to look down to assess any risks at your feet.  Is there anything on the floor that could contaminate the food?

Look at the floor:
•    Are waste and garbage frequently removed from packing and storage areas?
•    Are spills cleaned up immediately?
•    Do you have a policy for disposal of dropped food?  Have you trained your employees?
•    Are floor surfaces in good condition?  (Note: While concrete is not required to pass a GAP audit, it makes movement of product easier and keeps the packing area cleaner.)
•    Are boxes and food containers kept off the floor?

Look at the floor in the packing shed in the photo above.  See how it is clean and free of debris and standing water.  This is not just a food safety issue, but also a worker safety issue.

Look at the drains:
•    Do floor drains appear clean, free from odors and well-maintained?
•    Do you have a regular cleaning schedule for the drains?  Make sure your drain covers can be removed for easy cleaning.
•    Is there standing water?

Look in the corners:
•    Are you able to look behind coolers, cabinets and storage areas to allow for inspection and cleaning?  12-18 inches is recommended.
•    Are those areas clean and free of debris?
•    Is there any evidence of pests?

Your logs are your documentation that you have managed these risks on your farm.  How are you managing the risks under your feet?


Look Up

Most small farms I work with have packing areas on the farm.  The packing areas range from a simple table to more elaborate set-ups with brush washers, sinks and packing lines.  No matter how your packing house is arranged, take a few minutes to look up to assess any risks above your head.  Is there anything that could fall into the food?

I was recently at a farm where I saw two items of concern when it comes to managing the risk of product contamination from overhead.  Can you see them?

In this photo, the cleaning and sanitizing chemicals should not be on a shelf above the packing area in case of a spill.  Chemicals should be contained in a separate cabinet or in a labeled tote on the floor.

It doesn’t show up well in this photo, but it was clear there was a bird problem in this room at one time.  While the bird has been removed, it left behind droppings on the framing that were visible from our view on the floor.  This area should be cleaned before processing any produce this season.

I’ve been asked about the exposed wood (studs) on the internal walls of this packing room.  As long as the surfaces are clean and don’t show any build-up of dust or evidence of rot, the exposed wood should not be a significant risk.  This farmer may want to consider protecting those wood surfaces behind sinks and wash areas.

The final overhead risk to examine in a packing shed is the lighting.  What happens if a bulb breaks?  Are the light bulbs enclosed?  This farmer has sleeves over his bulbs to prevent contamination from broken glass.

How have you managed overhead risks on your farm?


New design for portable hand-washing station

As food safety issues continue to garner national attention, N.C. State University is helping farmers in North Carolina take steps to manage food safety risks. N.C. State has developed two portable hand-washing station prototypes as customizable models for local growers in an effort to help them provide quality hand-washing facilities in their fields and at their market stalls.

Larger and smaller capacity versions were developed, allowing for use in commercial farm fields or farmers markets. Construction costs for a hand-washing station will vary (because they’re meant to be customized), but ballpark costs will likely be around $2,000, minus a transport trailer.

Click here for the instructions for the small station.

Click here for the instructions for the large station.


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