Carroll farmers leading the way in providing safe produce

July 13, 2013

Although the United States Food & Drug Administration’s more stringent requirements involved in the growing of fruits and vegetables haven’t been made mandatory yet, Carroll County farmers have been at the forefront of putting the now voluntary guidelines into practice, says retired extension agent Wythe Morris.

“Kudos for what we’re doing here. It speaks volumes about our guys. We have some of the best in the state, if not the world,” says Morris, who continues to advise local farmers. “I worked with these guys for a lot of years, and I told them I wouldn’t leave them stranded when I retired.”

The forthcoming guidelines were mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act, which represents the most sweeping reform of food safety laws in more than 70 years. After being signed into a law by President Obama in 2011, the FDA held a comment period for input from the public. The period ended on Sept. 22 of this year and finalized guidelines are expected to be made mandatory by September of 2014. The FDA hopes to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

Although the guidelines are technically mandatory, Morris said farmers not going by the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practice (GHP) are at a disadvantage.

“The buyers have driven this thing. They won’t buy any product unless it’s certified,” said Morris.

In order to be certified, farmers have to go through GAP and GHP training, keep extensive records concerning their produce and be audited each year. So far “over 500 individuals and 240 to 250 farms in Virginia and North Carolina” have undergone training, according to Morris.

“It all started pretty much here in Carroll County, and we’ve had a pretty good success rate,” he said.

Morris said he often helps older farmers with the paperwork since they are usually not as computer adept as younger farmers.

“It can be very stressful and very frustrating. I don’t want anybody to stop farming as a result of paper work,” he said.

One part of the yearly audit deals with the presence of animal droppings among the produce, which can result in the nearby produce going unharvested.

“If an auditor comes across droppings, the farmer is supposed to mark that area off and pull back an area of 25 feet,” said Morris. “That came about because a couple of years ago fresh spinach in California made a lot of people sick. They found it contained ecoli bacteria, which was traced back to feral hogs in the fields. The fields hadn’t been monitored well enough.”

The new guidelines do create more expense for farmers, but due to recent changes the cost has become more manageable. At first, Morris said, the company buying the produce would determine which company they wanted to do the audit. Sometimes that resulted in a farmer having to have three or four different audits done. Since the auditors were for-profit companies, audits could cost as much as $1,200-$1,500 dollars a day and run four to six days.

However, the United States Department of Agriculture is now doing “homogenized” audits, which verify adherence to the recommendations made by the FDA, and are accepted by all buyers. The audits cost $92 an hour, resulting in a total cost for farmers of $400-$600.

“It’s an extra expense, but it’s the cost of doing business, just like buying fertilizer, plants or seed,” said Morris. “If it means selling more, that’s a good thing. Plus, it’s opened up additional markets and that’s a good thing.”

Just recently, the Carroll County Farmers’ Market became the first direct market in the state and the Worrell Family Farm owned by Alan Worrell became the first commercial farm in the state to pass audits.