Connecticut seeks better information and understanding of produce growers in the state
The University of Connecticut Extension is collaborating with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg) to support Connecticut produce growers covered by the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule. In order to do that, we need to have more and better information about farms that grow produce in Connecticut.
Better knowledge and understanding of who is growing produce in Connecticut, who is covered by the Rule, who may be eligible for an exemption, and who must comply fully with the Rule, can only help us improve implementation of FSMA rules and better meet food safety information and resource needs of Connecticut farms.
Every farmer that fills out the survey will be entered into a drawing to win one of two Connecticut Grown pop-up tents. In order to participate in the drawing, the survey must be completed/returned by October 1, 2018.
We know that many farms are not covered by or are exempted from parts of the Rule. Please complete the survey even if you think you may be exempt from parts of the Rule or not covered at all. The information we get from uncovered farms or farms with exemptions will help us to:
eliminate any farms from our mailing list that do not grow fruits or vegetables and
develop alternative food safety programs aimed at reducing food safety risks of uncovered or exempted farms and helping them meet food safety requirements of potential buyers of their product.
The questionnaire should take only 5-10 minutes to complete. There are three options for completing the questionnaire:
Before a bowl of clam chowder or a freshly grilled swordfish steak ends up on a restaurant diner’s plate, specially trained seafood handlers will have been working to eliminate any risk of contamination or hazards that could cause illness.
Many of those handlers will have learned their skills in training offered by Connecticut Sea Grant, including a three-day course held in September of 2017. The three days of training took place at the Avery Point campus of UConn. There, 22 seafood processors, wholesalers and dealers in products ranging from sushi to oysters to soups learned how to identify and control hazards associated with fish and shellfish to keep the public safe and their businesses running smoothly. Completion of the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) classes are required by a 1997 federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulation.
“Any wholesale seafood company has to have at least one HACCP-trained person,” said Nancy Balcom, associate director of Connecticut Sea Grant and co-teacher of the class with Lori Pivarnik, coordinator of food safety outreach and the food safety education program at the University of Rhode Island. While students in the recent class came from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York, previous classes have drawn from outside the Northeast.
After completing the nationally standardized course developed by the Seafood HACCP Alliance of seafood scientists, regulators and industry members, students receive a certificate of training completion from the Association of Food and Drug Officials. They then go back to their workplaces to write site-specific plans for potential seafood safety hazards for the products they handle, applying HACCP principles, Balcom said.
She said HACCP plans are then implemented by each company to manage and minimize the risk of seafoodborne illnesses. Training 75 to 100 seafood processors and
regulators each year, Balcom said she and Pivarnik have trained more than 2,000 individuals in the application of HACCP principles over the past 20 years. Sessions are offered alternately between Avery Point and URI in Narragansett. No exam is given to students at the end of the class, but they build experience developing plans for different seafood products as a group exercise to help them immediately apply what they learn once they return to their own businesses. That is in everyone’s best interest. “The test comes when the FDA comes in and inspects them,” Balcom said.
Balcom and Pivarnik team up to teach the three day standardized class for industry and regulators, as well as a one-day practical course that, in combination with an online course offered through Cornell University, also meets the FDA training requirement. Since 1999, Balcom has offered eight equivalent HACCP training courses specifically for Connecticut shellfishermen under the auspices of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference—the only trainer to do so. Connecticut’s shellfish harvesters are all licensed as seafood dealers, so they fall under the FDA HACCP regulation.
Finally, since 2001, as a School to Career offering, Balcom has taught the standardized industry course 13 times for senior high school students at The Sound School in New Haven, Lyman Hall High School in Wallingford, Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science and Technology Education Center (BRASTEC) and Grasso Tech in Groton, training 291 students who focus primarily on aquaculture.
The newest group afforded that opportunity were the 17 students from Lyman Hall and Sound School who gathered at the New Haven campus over four days this spring. The HACCP certification training is part of the requirements for Sound School seniors taking the Shellfish Production course.
“It provides a school-to-career opportunity for them,” Balcom said. “Whether they go on to college or start working for industry, the knowledge gained in the class will serve them well. It will make them more viable candidates for working in the seafood industry.”
Enroll Now in the UConn 2018 Master Composter Program
Almost 25% of household waste can be recycled through composting. The purpose of the UConn Master Composter program is to educate and train residents about the basics of small scale composting and in exchange for the training, volunteers will pass on their knowledge to others through outreach activitiessuch as talks, demonstrations, tabling at events, providing promotional activities, working with schools or community gardens etc. Master Composter classes will be held at the Tolland Agricultural Center in Vernon. There will be 4-week night lectures (October 16, 18, 23 & 25), Worm Day (Oct 20) and 2 Saturday field trips with only one being mandatory. The cost of the program is $100. The Master Composter brochure with registration information is available at www.ladybug.uconn.eduor www.soiltest.uconn.eduor call (860) 486-4274 for more information.
Saturday, October 20, 2018 at the Tolland County Agricultural Center from 10 am to 2 pm.
Want to learn more about invasive earthworms in Connecticut? Ever thought about making a worm bin to recycle kitchen scraps into rich vermicompost? Join us for Worm Day! It is free and open to the public. Following presentations on beneficial and invasive earthworms, and how to make and care for a worm bin, folks are invited to make their own worm bins. Attendees supply the materials and we will supply the worms. A $5 donation is suggested to cover the cost of the worms. Go to www.ladybug.uconn.eduor www.soiltest.uconn.edufor more information. Please RSVP as we need to know how many worms to bring!
Dozens of bright yellow Goldfinches flew alongside as I made my way up the winding driveway past their meadows and into the heart of the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in Bloomfield. The high, wiry whistle of the birds sounded the alarm at my arrival. I parked behind the barn, and climbed the hill to the Foodshare Garden, a project of the UConn Extension Master Gardener program.
The UConn Extension Master Gardener Program has provided horticulture training and a community outreach component for the last 40 years. Master Gardeners are enthusiastic and willing to learn. They share their knowledge and training with others through community outreach projects.
The 120-acre 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is a private, non-profit education center. It was deeded to the Connecticut 4-H Development Fund by the family of Beatrice Fox Auerbach in 1976. Over 15,000 students and family members participate annually in year-round 4-H curriculum-based school science programs, animal clubs, and Junior Master Gardening projects.
One of the Master Gardener volunteers is Marlene Mayes of West Hartford. She grew up on Tariffville Road in Bloomfield. The 1774 house was the only one left standing after King Philip’s War and later, was part of the Underground Railroad. The oldest of six children, Marlene spent her youth playing in the woods and building hay forts with her sister in the neighbor’s barn. Life often has a way of coming full circle, Marlene is back gardening in the same area of Bloomfield as the lead volunteer in the Foodshare Garden.
Marlene retired in 2001 from the Torrington Public School System, but wasn’t ready for full retirement, and became the School Administrator at Grace Webb School in Hartford. She also wanted to take the Master Gardener course, and the director at Grace Webb allowed her to use her vacation time for the Wednesday class each week from January through April of 2004.
“I was lucky to merge the ending of one phase with the beginning of another, and hook into something I was so interested in,” she says. The 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm was one of the group outreach assignments for Master Gardener interns.
“When we went up to the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm in the beginning it was just a field, an overwhelming field. We started by weed whacking rows between the grass,” Marlene recalls. “There was no coordination, it was very frustrating. I decided to take over, and got my husband Ed involved and a couple of other guys. They weed whacked, mowed and rototilled for us.”
“Our goal is to raise sustainable, low-maintenance plants that people can replicate at home,” Marlene says. “We planted currants, elderberries and asparagus. The whole garden is about teaching and getting people to grow things in their own backyard.”
In 2006 Marlene and her group of volunteers at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm asked the Hartford County Extension Council for money to build raised beds, and began installing them. There are 50 raised beds in the garden now. The following year, she found herself serving on the Extension Council too.
“Sarah Bailey became the Master Gardener Coordinator for Hartford County the year after I began volunteering. She’s been supportive from day one, and we’ve also become very good friends. Sarah is a big part of creating that community around the program. She talks with us about problems and helps us find creative solutions. She has wonderful leadership skills. We also developed the Junior Master Gardener Program and conducted a teacher training for some school gardens, and developed curriculum for them to use.”
The volunteer community in the Foodshare garden at 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm has a lot of fluidity; people come and stay for as long as they can. Marlene tries to plant something interesting every year to engage the volunteers. Many of the volunteers are consistent and have been with the program for six or eight years; for example, one gentleman is totally focused on the maintenance and has been coming for years to help with it. Over the course of a summer there will be 600 volunteers total working in the garden. High school students volunteer in May and June fulfilling the hours required by their school. These students often keep volunteering after their hours are done.
“There is a sense of community and excitement to whatever it is we’re doing at the garden; every day is a new day,” Marlene says. “We had a woman come with her son this summer, and she stayed while her son was volunteering. They were planting a new succession of beans, and she said, ‘This is fun!’ – it’s really neat to get that reaction from adults. You’re up there almost next to the sky when you’re working in this garden.”
The volunteer schedule hasn’t changed since Marlene took over in 2004. Volunteer days are Thursday and Saturday from 9-12, unless it’s raining. In the hot weather the volunteers take more breaks and use the benches. The benches also enhance the meditative function of the garden.
Thursday is harvest day and Saturdays are for maintenance. Marlene’s husband, Ed, loads up the car on Thursday and takes the produce to Foodshare. “Ed has been a consistent back-up for me all of these years, I couldn’t have done it without him,” Marlene says. “Our son Tim has also helped with maintenance.”
“We’ve met people from all over the world in the garden,” Marlene continues. “It’s absolutely amazing. African exchange students in the agricultural business program at UConn come up every summer. We learn a lot by comparing notes. We also had a fellow Master Gardener from an Israeli kibbutz who was very interesting to talk with.”
In 2017, the garden produced 4,423 pounds total that was donated to Foodshare. This year, the volunteers are measuring donations by the number of meals, although Marlene notes that the total may be lower because of weather related challenges.
The Foodshare garden is ¼ acre. Two years ago Marlene fundraised for a fence for the garden because the deer were eating everything. Now the challenge is the
woodchucks and the rabbits.
The Medicinal Garden, Greenhouse and Herb Garden were all funded by UConn Extension. Marlene designed the circular herb garden. Funding for projects that the Master Gardeners complete at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is from UConn Extension, the Connecticut Master Gardener Association, or fundraised from private donors. Even the seeds used to grow the garden are obtained through donations.
Projects are implemented in phases. The greenhouse was built with funds from a grant by an anonymous donor to the UConn Foundation who greatly appreciated what the Master Gardeners are doing through their community outreach. The first-year volunteers had to haul water up the hill in buckets from the kitchen. This year, irrigation was installed for the greenhouse, solving the water problem.
“You keep learning as you go – mechanics, botany, pest management and whatever else is needed. We all work together as a team,” Marlene says. “It’s not a one-person thing. We’re all passionate about gardening, creativity, and work together to make it happen.”
“It never stops at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm; something is going on all of the time. If you tie into any part, it’s fascinating. Everything is research-based, the greenhouse is always a research project. We also have to factor in daylight hours, watering schedules, and how many growing seasons we can fit in each year. There is enthusiasm for wherever the problem we have to solve is.”
The next challenge for this intrepid group of volunteers is figuring out how to run the greenhouse in the colder winter months. The cost of propane has been a challenge; however, the group wants to donate consistently to Foodshare throughout the year. They are discussing raising house plants or some sort of tropical that can be sold as a fundraiser, and used as a teaching tool for the students that visit the farm each year. Tomatoes and peppers will be transplanted from the garden into the greenhouse this fall, and microgreens will also be raised for Foodshare.
Marlene also wants to continue expanding the medicinal garden and the educational component around it. Native American medicinals fascinate her as she discusses how it’s never a single herb, and always a combination of herbs.
“Our volunteer work at the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm is never boring, and I’m not tired of it yet,” Marlene concludes. “The Master Gardener program creates a sense of community and camaraderie. There is no judgement, everyone works together and has a sense of responsibility – it’s very binding in a nice way.”
Applications are currently available for the 2019 UConn Extension Master Gardener program. Classes will be offered in Stamford on Mondays, Haddam on Tuesdays, Farmington on Wednesdays (an evening class), Bethel on Thursdays, and Brooklyn on Fridays. Applications are due by Tuesday, October 9th. More information can be found at mastergardener.uconn.edu.
On July 17, UConn Extension and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture hosted a meeting in Storrs for operations (distributors, schools, institutions, restaurants, grocery stores, and foodservice operations) that buy fresh produce from farms in southern New England. A team of regulators and produce safety educators from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island conceived and developed the program to raise awareness and answer questions about how the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Produce Safety Rule (PSR), Preventive Controls for Human Food, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) audits and state produce inspection programs will affect regional farmers and their customers. More than 50 retailers, regulators, distributors, school and university foodservice personnel and farmers from across New England came to learn.
FSMA is the regulation implemented in 2011 to improve the safety of the US food supply. The regulation includes two rules that specifically impact those who grow, distribute and sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Included are the Produce Safety Rule (PSR), the Preventive Controls Rule (PC). “While many believe that meat or eggs or poultry are likely the source of most foodborne illnesses in the US, in fact it is fruits and vegetables that top the list. We need to work to reduce these numbers,” said Diane Wright Hirsch, Food Safety Educator with UConn Extension. “It is important that anyone preparing fruits and vegetables for a restaurant or school or selling them at a grocery store be familiar with the regulations that affect the industry.”
The Preventive Controls Rule regulates those who warehouse and distribute produce. It outlines Good Manufacturing Practices including procedures that impact the safety of the food they are holding: worker hygiene, worker food safety training, sanitation and pest control are some of the practices outlined in the Rule. The Produce Safety Rule requires growers of fresh fruits and vegetables to implement practices that reduce risks for contamination of fresh produce with microorganisms that cause foodborne illness.
Mark Zotti is an Agriculture Marketing/Inspection Representative with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, and says, “Every
farmer should educate themselves on what the FSMA Produce Safety Rule says and how it relates to them. The Rule makes science-based standards for the growing and harvesting and holding/packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. Never before were there laws related to those activities, so it’s important that farms regardless of size, know what the PSR says.”
“There’s been a documented increase in foodborne illnesses related to produce,” Mark states. “A lot of that can be correlated to the increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the regions and practices used during the production of produce. Nationwide we’ve seen the produce industry require that farms who grow for them implement practices aimed at reducing the risk of microbial contamination during the growing, harvesting, holding, and packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. We hope the information provided today benefits the participants and the farmers they work with.”
Sean Stolarik is the Produce Sales Manager for Big Y Foods, Inc, and he attended the July training on behalf of his organization. “This is very relevant to my day to day life. When it comes to food safety and where our growers have to be in terms of regulations, this is very important.”
“Today’s training will help Big Y Foods, Inc. with transparency with customers, knowing that the farms we are buying produce from are using safe agricultural practices. It will help me to know what questions to ask the growers and know what requirements that growers must meet,” Sean continues. “My biggest takeaway is that the rules are complex, with many different parts and some allowed exceptions. We are trying to understand the laws because they can be confusing sometimes.”
To help Connecticut farmers comply with the PSR, the Department of Agriculture and UConn Extension are providing nationally accredited Produce Safety Alliance Grower training to fresh fruit and vegetable growers in the state. Growers can attend training, learn the specifics of the regulation, find out about resources available to them, and go back to the farm with the tools needed to make changes in their food safety practices, including making their facilities easier to clean and taking steps to comply with the regulation.
Produce buyers can have access to the curriculum through the Produce Safety Alliance website as well. Downloading and reviewing the grower training materials will help them to determine what practices or procedures they may want to see implemented by the farmers they buy from.
“Everyone needs to take responsibility for their piece of the food system,” Diane concludes. “Farmers need to produce a safe product, distributors need to take that product and keep it safe for consumers that eat it. Produce is a risky food because you are not cooking it for the most part. It’s important to know how to safely grow, harvest, distribute and prepare fresh fruits and vegetable so that we can reduce the risks for consumers.”
“Educating farmers in sustainable, profitable and environmentally-sound food production practices benefits every man, woman and child in the country directly, on a daily basis, by helping to maintain a safe and secure food source. Knowledge of effective IPM practices helps prevent excess application of pesticides by otherwise frustrated growers,” Jude Boucher says.
The name Jude Boucher is synonymous with vegetable production in Connecticut. Jude joined UConn Extension in 1986 as the Extension Educator for vegetable crops Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
Jude provided cutting-edge solutions to growers on pest management and crop production problems, keeping them competitive on the local, regional, and national level. A multi-faceted approach is used in vegetable IPM that reaches a vast number of growers, not only in Connecticut, but; throughout the Northeast. During the growing season, Jude worked with numerous farms to improve their business and address crop issues as they arose. From conventional to organic farms, new farmers to experienced farmers; Jude worked with everyone and improved their economic viability and production.
Diversifying a Traditional Farm
Jude assisted Fair Weather Acres in Rocky Hill in diversifying and building resiliency to the challenges Mother Nature provided. The farm is over 800 acres along the Connecticut River. Jude advised Billy and Michele Collins on ways to diversify their marketing efforts and the number of crops they grow, after flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011 washed away much of the crops, and left the farm in debt.
Originally, the farm received IPM training on three crops: beans, sweet corn, and peppers. With diversification, Billy began producing 55 different varieties of vegetables. Jude taught him pest management for his new crops, and the Collins hired an Extension-trained private consultant to help monitor and scout pests and implement new pest management techniques.
“I encouraged and advised Michele on developing a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) venture on their farm and introduced them to other successful CSA farm operators,” Jude says. “Michele started the CSA with 120 members in 2012, and – through a variety of methods – has exceeded 500 summer CSA shares.”
Michele and Billy give back to Extension by speaking at state and regional conferences, hosting twilight meetings, research plots on their farm, and UConn student tours. “Jude has been an integral part of the growth and diversification of our farm. His extensive knowledge and passion for agriculture, coupled with his love of people and farmers in particular, made him an unrivaled asset to Connecticut agriculture,” Michele says. “Jude taught us, advised us, and offered us unlimited guidance in many areas including IPM, alternative farming concepts, marketing, and agribusiness just to name a few.”
Building a New Farm
Oxen Hill Farm is a family enterprise in West Suffield that began when the Griffin family inherited an idle hay and pasture farm with the intent of creating an organic vegetable and cut flower farm.
“Besides small-scale home vegetable and flower gardens, they had no experience operating a commercial vegetable and cut-flower business,” Jude says. “They signed up for training with me, and the first year, 2009, started with an acre of organic vegetables and cut flowers.”
Despite the challenges of their first year, they expanded their business in 2010, growing from 36 CSA members to over 150. Oxen Hill enlarged their acreage onto their parents’ home farm, to almost 20 acres of crops, and learned to grow everything from artichokes to zucchini. The farm continues to flourish.
Finding a Better Way
Jude worked with farmers throughout the region on deep zone tillage (DZT). “DZT allows a grower to prepare a narrow seedbed, only inches wide, rather than exposing the surface of the whole field to wind and rain,” Jude explains. “Farms can also till deeply, right under the crop row to loosen any hardpan that has formed after years of using a plow and harrow. This allows the soil to absorb and retain more water and allows the plants to extend their roots deeper into the soil. The system also improves soil quality over time.”
Due to his work, there are Extension programs in every New England state advocating the use of DZT, and over 45 growers in the region have switched to DZT. Although he retired in 2017, the work of Jude carries on in the farmers across the state. They organized a grower’s organization, and are looking forward to working with our new vegetable crops Extension educator, Shuresh Ghimire, who started on July 1st.
The UConn Creamery, part of the Department of Animal Science, has once again taken home awards from the annual American Cheese Society Judging and Competition. Our Chipotle Queso Blanco and our Green Chile Queso Blanco were recognized for excellence amongst 1966 products from over 200 entering companies. Both cheeses were awarded third place in their category.
Our Hartford County Extension Center is moving. As of Friday, August 3rd, please use the following address and new phone numbers:
Exchange Building – Suite 262
270 Farmington Ave
Farmington, CT, 06032
Fax (860) 409-9080
Please be patient with our faculty and staff over the next week as it may take a bit longer than usual to respond to any requests. All educators phone numbers have been updated at extension.uconn.edu.
Over recent years a new cohort of farmers has cropped up in our small state. “New”, “Beginning”, “First-generation”, “Early stage”— these growers have been met by a growing number of training programs to help them get started, improve their production skills, and enhance the viability of their businesses. This is a group of avid learners who are always on the lookout for training opportunities, both online, and in a hands-on classroom setting. Most demonstrate a strong interest in sustainable production of specialty crops to sell directly to consumers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers’ markets, and farm stands.
In response to the training needs of new farmers, UConn Extension launched the Solid Ground Farmer Training Program, featuring classroom trainings, online tutorials, and state-wide events targeting growers who range in experience from 0 – 10 years of farming. Since 2012, UConn Extension has received over $1.1 million through USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant Program to develop new farmer trainings and resources.
The UConn Extension team hires and schedules trainers, advertises the program, provides in-person staff support at each training, and steers collaboration with the New CT Farmer Alliance and CT NOFA. Partners set training priorities, help recruit participants, and ensure that trainings are happening across the state so that growers can access this learning opportunity in small group settings. These partners include: Grow Windham, Killingly Agricultural Education Program, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Community Farm of Simsbury, Common Ground (New Haven), Green Village Initiative (Bridgeport), Knox (Hartford), and Listo Para Inciar-Urban Agriculture Program, a sister project led by German Cutz, Associate Extension Educator in Fairfield County.
Current and aspiring farmers are welcome to attend as many trainings as they like. Yoko Takemura and Alex Carpenter from Assawaga Farm (Nipmuck for ‘in between’) in Putnam typify clients in the program. Summer 2018 will be their first year of production. Their farm will feature certified organic Japanese vegetables to be sold in Boston area. After attending six Solid Ground trainings, Yoko explains: “As a new farmer, there are many things you don’t know that you don’t know. So, these programs encourage you to ask new questions you hadn’t previously thought of before and therefore to be better prepared for the season. Since many of the trainers are local, the content of the trainings is more relevant (versus online content) and it’s great that you can follow up with them after the training!”
In its first year (winter 2016-17), the Solid Ground Training Program delivered 28 trainings and events with a cumulative attendance of more than 500 participants. Over 30 trainings are currently scheduled for 2018. All trainings are free and open to growers of all backgrounds. UConn Extension provides translation services for Spanish-speaking attendees. Experienced farmers lead training classes such as Season Extension, Eco-Focused Farming, Post-Harvest Handling, Finding Your Market, and Irrigation for Small Farms. Extension educators and professional consultants deliver trainings on Farm Financial Recordkeeping, Soil Health, Cover Crops, Tractor Safety and Maintenance, Fruit Production, and Pesticide Safety.
“The 4-hour intensive Planting and Growing Cover Crop training with Eero Ruuttila was really great because even though his examples were on large scale farms, there were so many ideas that could be translated into my small-scale farm. I thought 4 hours was long, but I definitely wanted it to be longer,” says Yoko. The Solid Ground Program also provides one-on-one consultations with specialists in the areas of farm finance, soil health, and vegetable production. These consultations are intended to build on the knowledge and skills acquired through trainings in the classroom.
This project is sponsored by the USDA-NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program Award #2016-70017-25416