Farmers markets are popping up everywhere, it seems.
A 2013 report by the USDA noted a 400 percent increase in the presence of farmers markets since the early 1990s, according to Judy Harrison, UGA Extension Food Safety Specialist, and that number could be even higher.
“They spring up so quickly it’s really hard to keep track of where they are,” Harrison said.
Harrison, who recently led a multi-state project funded by the USDA since 2009 to study food-safety practices on farms and in markets and create a food-safety curriculum for farmers and market managers, said the influx of beginning farmers selling at markets emphasizes the need for increased education about food safety.
USDA-backed initiatives such as the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and Farm to School programs have helped create a demand for local produce, Harrison said, giving the curriculum even more relevance.
“If you look at people who shop at farmers markets, it’s people who think the food they get there is going to be healthier and safer for them than food at the grocery store,” Harrison said. “We just need to make sure that it is.”
Developed by Harrison along with Julia Gaskin, sustainable agriculture coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, faculty from UGA’s Food Science and Technology department and from Virginia Tech and Clemson, the curriculum includes checklists and fact sheets that cover basic food safety issues for both farmers and market managers.
Evaluations of farmers and managers who have implemented the program suggest the curriculum is having a positive impact. Farmers indicated changes in as many as 16 different practices to improve produce safety, from 18 percent to 64 percent, Harrison said.
Harrison said about 500 farmers and 130 market managers in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina have received training. Other states, including Alabama and Tennessee, also have begun using the curriculum.
“What we’ve found is almost 40 percent of the farmers on small farms in our surveys selling in these three states – Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina – have been farming three years or less,” Harrison said. “They don’t have a lot of experience farming and in many cases are
just getting started.”
Some of the “best practices” Harrison recommends for farmers include testing irrigation water and water used for washing produce for bacteria; properly composting manure; and providing sanitation training for farm workers, among others.
For market managers, Harrison recommends they ask farmers and vendors about how products have been grown and handled; about the use of manure on food crops and have a food safety plan or specifications for their market.
“I think everybody needs to see it,” said Cheryl Brady, market manager for the Monroe Farmers Market who received training in 2012. “It definitely brought some issues to our attention.”
Also included in the curriculum is a DVD that features interviews with farmers and market managers who already use “best practices” and presentations that provide details about food safety issues such as foodborne illnesses, like E. coli, that can trigger significant health and economic concerns.
The project, “Enhancing the Safety of Locally Grown Produce,” recently won the first place Food Safety Award from the National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Harrison said plans are under way for the curriculum to be converted into online self-study modules that will be available on the UGA Extension website.
“Safe production and marketing of local produce can help protect consumers from foodborne illnesses, reduce medical costs associated with these illnesses and prevent devastating losses to farmers,” Harrison said. “It can also help local agricultural markets to flourish, because it’s a way to keep money in the pockets of local farmers."
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