Food

Food Safety on Farms

carrotsFruits and vegetables add important nutrients, color, variety to our diet. Most of us enjoy them raw in salads, as a snack, or dessert. However, in the last few years there has been an increase in the number of foodborne illness outbreaks asso- ciated with fresh fruits and vegetables. Spinach, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cilantro, and green onions, have been on the outbreak list. Many consumers are unaware that produce is the number one source of foodborne illness—it is more likely to be associated with foodborne illness than meat, poultry, fish or dairy products.

A series of programs and laws were developed to bring consistency nationwide and reduce the number of foodborne illness outbreaks. These include: Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)—a voluntary audit program, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.

The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule (PSR) was passed in 2011, implemented in 2016, and establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, pack- ing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. The PSR is aimed at reducing

foodborne illness from fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers that are not exempt from the rule must attend approved training. UConn Extension Educator Diane Hirsch offers the Produce Safety Alliance course, and GAP audit preparation courses.

Case Study: Gresczyk Farms LLC

First of all, I deeply appreciate everything Extension educators do for us as farms. I give credit to Extension forBruce Gresczyk Jr. talks about food safety on his farm everything I’m good at growing. I think the only way agriculture can be strong in this state is if we all do a good job at it. Part of this is food safety.

Admittedly, the part I knew the least about was food safety. The produce rule and FSMA kind of scared me, not knowing anything about it. It’s a very complex law. Plus, our farm also wanted to achieve voluntary GAP certification. Essentially certain buyers on the wholesale level require you to be part of GAP so they can meet the qualifications of their food safety program.

At Gresczyk Farms LLC in New Hartford we grow 130 acres of vegetables. We also have 3⁄4 acres of greenhouses, with vegetable crops grown inside, and 600 laying hens for egg production. I became a course instructor for the Produce Safety Alliance Course, working with Diane.

I like learning and talking about stuff. I figured the best way to handle food safety on our farm is to learn how to teach it. I’ve always been very open with other farmers, and happy to talk to anybody about grow- ing. It gets back to my theory of if we’re all good at farming, it helps agriculture in general. That was my motivation to become a trainer.

I recommend anyone take the class, even if you’re just doing a little bit of farming. It doesn’t matter if you’re growing an acre or 200-acres. The FSMA class can really help farmers improve their decision making.

It’s helped me address the food safety practices on our farm. A lot of what farm- ers are already doing is right, I found it was tweaking more so than anything else. It definitely raised my awareness. We were GAP certified in summer of 2017, and changed a lot of things, but in a good way.

and exclusions in FSMA should take the training we offer through Extension. I always say that if everyone can take a food safety class it will go further than all of these rules, and this even applies to consumers.

If you touch food, you should have some basic knowledge of food safety, and really most of us don’t. And that’s okay too, but the biggest thing you can do is just go through a class. It’s really handy to learn some of these basic practices. Then you’re aware as you’re doing things, it literally can save somebody’s life. It’s a way to think about it, and just to be aware.

Our farm, we’re always growing, we’re trying to get bigger and better every year. We love doing that, and we love growing. Most of all I want to circle back to thanking Extension. Without Extension’s resources’ we wouldn’t have access to science-based, unbiased information. It really helps us incredibly.

Even farms that have a lot of exemptions and exclusions in FSMA should take the training we offer through Extension. I always say that if everyone can take a food safety class it will go further than all of these rules, and this even applies to consumers.

If you touch food, you should have some basic knowledge of food safety, and really most of us don’t. And that’s okay too, but the biggest thing you can do is just go through a class. It’s really handy to learn some of these basic practices. Then you’re aware as you’re doing things, it literally can save somebody’s life. It’s a way to think about it, and just to be aware.

Our farm, we’re always growing, we’re trying to get bigger and better every year. We love doing that, and we love grow- ing. Most of all I want to circle back to thanking Extension. Without Extension’s resources’ we wouldn’t have access to science-based, unbiased information. It really helps us incredibly.

Article by Bruce Gresczyk Jr. and Diane Wright Hirsch

CT Food Justice VISTA Project is Recruiting

VISTA flyer recruiting services members for 2018-19 for food justice projectsThe CT-Food Justice VISTA Project is recruiting for the 2018-2019 year, and we are also seeking a VISTA Leader to help manage the project with our Project Assistant. Our project is sponsored by UConn Extension, in partnership with some of the most effective and innovative nonprofit organizations in low-income communities in Connecticut, is leading a multi-site project with 16 VISTA members in 2018-2019. This project is designed to strengthen programming and improve coordination among similar food security programs seeking to empower communities to create positive change in their food environment and improve access to healthy food.
VISTA Members help to build the capacity of their host site organization. Together, we strive for a multi-generational, racially and economically diverse group of leaders with the skills to move communities across Connecticut towards a just food system. With VISTA Member support, host sites commit to empowering their communities to have impact on food-related programs and services, and the food system in Connecticut as a whole.
 
Please see the links to the sites we are looking for both VISTAs and VISTA Leader:
 
For the VISTA Leader the applicant has to have served as an AmeriCorps Service Member or Peace Corps here is the listing for the VISTA Leader. The VISTA Leader will serve out of the UConn Extension office of Tolland County and need a car to travel to our partner organizations for site visits and member support.
 
Below you will find the listing to the sites we have across the state that are recruiting for VISTA Service Members:
 
Visit our website for more information on our project: https://sustainablefood.uconn.edu/ctfoodjustice/

Put Local on Your Tray Sign Ups for 2018-2019

put local on your tray image with apple for connecticut farm to school programVERNON, CT, (June 13, 2018) – UConn Extension and the Connecticut State Department of Education is currently inviting school food service professionals across the state to sign up for the Put Local on Your Tray Program in the upcoming 2018-19 school year. Schools and districts that sign up will get help increasing fresh, locally grown products in their cafeterias. Sign ups will be open until the new school year starts in September.

According to USDA’s 2014 Farm to School Census, over 70% of schools in CT are offering farm to school programming, which might include hands-on activities in school gardens, cooking classes after school, and/or serving local food in the cafeteria. CSDE and UConn Extension are now partnering to increase school commitments to more purchases from local farms. Districts who sign up for the Tray Program will pledge to feature local ingredients at least twice per season(s) of their choice. Schools choose the Farm to School promotional activities that fit their needs. For example, activities might include: hosting a special taste test in the cafeteria (e.g. kale chips), marketing the products they regularly get from local growers (such as milk), using a holiday or celebration day on the calendar to feature local produce (e.g. new varieties of apples promoted during CT Grown for CT Kids Week), or integrating a recipe into their regular menu that relies on local ingredients for several months (e.g. winter root slaw).

Last year, there were a total of thirty four districts who took the pledge. The program is in its second year and continues to learn, grow, and adapt as Farm to School grows. We hope to see an increase this year, with a goal of fifty school districts. Yolanda Burt, Senior Director of Child Nutrition for Hartford Public Schools and contributor for the Program’s suite of tools, thinks districts need to define ‘local’ for themselves. She states, “Our definition of local includes what is grown and processed within 250 miles of Hartford, and/or purchasing food from small businesses to support Hartford businesses and further job creation for Hartford residents.” Districts who sign up and take the pledge are encouraged to define the criteria for local products based on what is possible and meaningful to their community.

Food Service Director for Avon, Canton, and Regional School District #10, Maggie Dreher, says, “I believe we should provide our students with the freshest, tastiest ingredients possible. An apple is not just an apple, but a story – a potential place to connect to the community.” The Program welcomes those who are not a part of school food service to tell that story with Put Local on Your Tray communication materials, when educating children about local food. There is a materials request sheet available online, for interested school community members (teachers, parents, volunteers, etc.) to ask for any hard copies of our posters, bookmarks, stickers, etc. at http://putlocalonyourtray.uconn.edu.

Contact your school administrator or food service director to encourage them to sign up and be recognized and promoted as a Tray district! Many schools already supply local products, without necessarily promoting it as such (in items like milk, or certain produce from their distributors). Put them in touch with Put Local on Your Tray for credit to be paid where it’s due!

For more information please visit http://putlocalonyourtray.uconn.edu or call 203-824-7175. Put Local On Your Tray is a project of UConn Extension, in partnership with the CT State Department of Education, FoodCorps Connecticut, and New England Dairy & Food Council (NEDFC).

2017 Highlights of Extension

Highlights report thumbnail image
UConn Extension is on a collaborative journey. We co-create knowledge with farmers, families, communities, and businesses. We educate. We convene groups to help solve problems. Connecticut is a small, diverse state with urban and rural spaces. We understand that because we live and work here. Extension educators are ready to connect you with our knowledge and help you to improve your community.
As part of a nationwide network through the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Extension professionals and trained volunteers engage the state’s diverse population to make informed choices and better decisions. The partnerships enrich our lives and our environment. The report highlights program achievements from the past year.
Originating from eight Connecticut Extension Centers, the Sea Grant program at Avery Point and the UConn Storrs campus, programs use various educational methods to reach individuals and groups. UConn Extension partners with nonprofit organizations and state agencies, training volunteers and staff. This magnifies the scope and impact of Extension’s outreach. We have no fewer than seven programs in every town in Connecticut, with some towns having over twenty-two Extension programs. Thank you for your support in helping to make these programs possible. To see UConn Extension’s latest updates, read the Highlights of Extension or visit the web site at www.extension.uconn.edu.

Patriotic Smoothies

serving smoothies in Meriden schools

In Meriden schools, they served Red, White, & Blue Smoothies in honor of the winter Olympics and local dairy in February. What a cool idea! And one that you can replicate at home in honor of Memorial Day. It’s a fun and delicious smoothie. The layers were strawberry, banana, and blueberry served at breakfast with graham crackers. 

Put Local on Your Tray is a farm-to-school program helping Connecticut schools serve and celebrate regionally grown food.

Can I Water Vegetables with my Rain Barrel Water?

By Joan Allen

Originally published by the UConn Home & Garden Education Center

rain barrel against side of house in with shrubs
Photo credit: CT DEEP

Collection of rain water from roofs using rain barrels is growing in popularity because of its many environmental and practical benefits. It can help the environment by diverting water that might contain contaminants away from storm drains and the natural bodies of water that those empty into.  Depletion of well water can be a benefit when this non-potable water is used instead of the tap for things like washing cars, irrigation of plants, and flushing toilets. If you’re on a city/public water system, it can save money to use rain water where you can, too. But is using rain water to irrigate vegetables and fruits safe? Are there contaminants in it that could make people sick? Let’s take a look at what’s been studied.

A few universities in the U.S and abroad have done some work to look at potential contaminants in roof run-off water including heavy metals like zinc, copper, lead and others as well as bacteria such as E. coli and other pathogens. Testing done so far has shown low risk from these, but there is some. And of course, it depends on the type of roofing material, the environment (ie acid rain, urban vs. rural, etc) and possibly other factors. In one study, most of the metals tested the same in rain barrel water as in rain water before it hit the roofs, so little to no concern there. One exception was zinc, and elevated levels could lead to build up of this element in soils. At high enough levels, this can cause injury to plants and those plants should not be consumed (1). Monitor for this by having the soil tested.

While risk appears to be low, there were a few samples in studies (1, 2) where E. coli or total coliform bacterial levels exceeded official standards for some uses. Rain barrel water should NEVER be used for potable purposes such as drinking water, cooking or washing. Where do the bacteria in run-off come from? The main sources would be fecal matter from animals such as squirrels and birds that land and move around on the roof.

But if you’d like to water your vegetable garden with rain barrel water, are there ways to do it safely?

Dr. Mike Dietz, Assistant Extension Educator at UConn with expertise in water management recommends “not using roof water on anything leafy that you are going to eat directly. It would be OK to water soil/plants where there is no direct contact”. This is consistent with recommendations from other experts who suggest applying the water directly to the soil and avoiding contact with above-ground plant parts. An ideal set-up would be to hook up a drip irrigation system to your rain barrel(s). Pressure will be improved when they are full and if they are elevated. A full rain barrel can be pretty heavy, at about 500 lbs. for a 55 gallon unit, so make sure they are on a solid and stable base such as concrete blocks.

If possible, and this is done in larger collection systems automatically, don’t collect the ‘first flush’ of water off the roof. This would be the first few gallons. In a ¼” rainfall as much as 150 gallons can be collected from a 1000 ft2 roof surface (3). The first water to run off tends to have higher concentrations of any contaminants because of them building up on the roof since the previous rainfall event.

Another more practical way to minimize risk of pathogen/bacterial contamination is to treat the collected water with bleach. Rutgers University recommends treating 55 gallons of water by adding one ounce of unscented household chlorine bleach to the barrel once a month (or more often if rain is frequent). Allow this to stand for 24 hours before using the water for irrigation so the bleach can dissipate.

Apply collected water in the morning. Wait until leaves dry in the sun before harvesting. Ultraviolet light from the sun will have some disinfecting effect.

It is recommended to have the rain barrel water tested for E. coli. Be sure to follow the testing lab’s instructions for collection, storage and time sensitivity of the samples.

Thoroughly wash all harvested produce. In addition, you should always thoroughly wash your hands with warm, soapy water after they are in contact with collected water.

In summary, there are risks to using collected rain water for irrigation of food crops. In most cases, the risk appears to be low, and using the above sanitation practices can reduce risk.

References:

  1. DeBusk, K., W. Hunt, D. Osmond and G. Cope. 2009. Water quality of rooftop runoff: implications for residential water harvesting systems. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.
  2. Bakacs, M., M. Haberland and S. Yergeau. 2017. Rain barrels part IV: testing and applying harvested water to irrigate a vegetable garden. Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Fact Sheet FS1218.
  3. Rainfall as a resource. A resident’s guide to rain barrels in Connecticut. CT DEEP.

Lettuce Learn a Bit About E. Coli

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

romaine lettuce
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Recent news reports regarding the romaine lettuce outbreak have, yet again, raised concern about pathogens in our food supply. In particular, leafy greens continue to show up as a source for outbreaks. Two outbreaks since late fall have implicated romaine and/or leafy greens. In both outbreaks, E. coli O157:H7 was the culprit.

What exactly is E. coli?

Escherichia colior E. coliis a group of bacteria, some of which are harmless, and some of which are pathogenic, or disease causing. These bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment: they can survive in water, soil, on plants, and in the intestinal tracts of people and animals. Some types of E. colicause diarrhea, some cause urinary tract infections, and other may cause pneumonia or other diseases.

If you have a well, you are likely familiar with the term “generic E. coli.”  Generic E. coli(sometimes referred to as Biotype I), is found in the intestinal tracts of animals. Therefore, the public health and regulatory community use the presence of generic E. coliis an indicator that some type of fecal contamination (poop) is present. A test for generic E. colican determine if well water is drinkable, if food processing environments are clean, if meat is potentially contaminated with fecal matter or if irrigation water is safe to use on crops.

Generic E. coli, because it is found in fecal matter, may also indicate the potential for the presence of other pathogens that can be found in feces: bacteria such as Salmonellaand pathogenic types of E. coli; viruses such as hepatitis A or norovirus; and parasitic protozoa including Cryptosporidium parvum. All of these microorganisms have been associated with foodborne disease outbreaks.

While there are a number of pathogenic strains, it is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli(STEC) or enterohemorrhagic E. coli(EHEC) that is identified most often as a cause of foodborne illness. O157:H7 is one of several STEC strains. Hamburger, spinach, lettuce, sprouts, unpasteurized or “raw” milk and cheeses, unpasteurized fruit juice including cider, and  flour have all been identified as food sources in O157:H7 outbreaks.

This can be an awful disease. This type of E. coliproduces a Shiga toxin, which can be associated with more severe disease, including bloody diarrhea and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure. The experience of an STEC infection can be different for each person. Contributing factors might include the age of the patient (very young or older people may have more severe infections due to compromised or undeveloped immune systems) and the general health of the person (again, if the immune system is already compromised, the disease may be more severe). However, a healthy adult can also experience more severe disease. Often, the symptoms include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Again, the CDC states, “If there is fever, it usually is not very high (less than 101˚F/less than 38.5˚C). Most people get better within 5–7 days. Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening.”

Life threatening complications can occur when the Shiga toxin latches onto specific organs, such as the kidney. HUS can result in short term kidney failure or may result in long term disability, or even death.

How does E. coli get into our food?

We have been aware of the risk of E. coliin animal products for years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “STEC live in the guts of ruminant animals, including cattle, goats, sheep, deer, and elk. The major source for human illnesses is cattle. STEC that cause human illness generally do not make animals sick. Other kinds of animals, including pigs and birds, sometimes pick up STEC from the environment and may spread it.”

It was likely the Jack in the Box hamburger related outbreak in 1993 that increased the awareness of both the public and the public health community of the relationship. After that outbreak, Rhode Island passed a law that does not allow restaurants to serve undercooked hamburgers to kids under 12 – a population that is at risk for the worst consequences of an E. coliinfection. At the same time, the recommended safe end-cooking temperature of hamburger was increased to 160 degrees F and sweeping regulation was passed that required meat and poultry processors, to develop food safety plans and be part of a food safety regulation program that included testing for generic E. coli,as well as pathogenic strains of the bacteria.

That makes sense to consumers. After all, if these pathogens are found in the intestinal tracts of animals and in fecal matter, then animal foods are most likely at risk for contamination.

So, how are fruits and vegetables contaminated with E. coli? As stated earlier, E. colican live in ruminants, including deer. Other wildlife may carry the bacteria after picking it up from the environment—the soil, dead animals, or contaminated water. The great outdoors is also the great toilet for these animals. Their feces end up in the soil and water or on the feed of birds or insects. Fruits and vegetables are grown in this soil. There is some risk of contamination as a result. Birds poop on tomatoes, apples fall on deer poop, etc.

Newer regulation target produce growers in an effort to reduce the risk for foodborne illness from fresh fruits and veggies. The Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule includes requirements to test irrigation water, keep records of sanitation practices in the packing house, and employee training concerning personal hygiene and safe handling of produce.

Leafy greens continue to be associated with more outbreaks than other types of vegetables, with the exception of fresh sprouts. First, we eat them raw. There is no kill step to destroy pathogens. Second, they are leafy and grow close to the soil. If contaminated, those leaves can harbor and protect the bacteria. If lettuces are cut and then washed, the contamination can spread to greens that have not been contaminated, making the problem bigger. Once cut or chopped, the greens have even more open surface area that may allow the bacteria to internalize.

Like meat and poultry, any food product that is grown in the field will never be 100% risk free. The industry is hard at work doing what they can to reduce your risk.

So what should a consumer do?

First, do not stop eating greens, tomatoes, or other fresh fruits and vegetables. The benefits of a diet high in fresh produce far outweigh the risk of contracting a foodborne disease from them. Learn how to choose, store, prepare and handle them safely.

Purchase your produce from a farmer that has instituted good agricultural practices and good produce handling practices. If you buy from a local farmer at the farm or at a farmers’ market, ask the farmer if they have attended a food safety course or if they have a food safety program on their farm.

When buying fresh produce, avoid those that are bruised or cut if you are going to eat them raw.  Openings in the skin or bruises may increase the ability of bacteria or other microorganisms to reach the flesh of the fruit or vegetable. Refrigerate produce that should be refrigerated (leafy greens, scallions, broccoli, cucumbers) to minimize growth of microorganisms. In addition, refrigerate all cut produce.

Other food safety tips:

  • Wash all produce prior to eating.
  • Use clean knives, cutting boards, hands and other utensils when preparing raw lettuce for a salad or cutting a melon for breakfast.
  • Don’t cross contaminate ready-to-eat fresh produce with raw meat or poultry. I always prepare the salad first, then the meat for my meal.
  • Store raw, ready-to-eat produce to protect it from raw meat, poultry or fish.
  • Place the meat on a plate if it must be stored above the veggies. (I can never understand why produce drawers are under all other shelves in the fridge, making it a bit easier for meat juices to drip down onto the fresh produce.)

Some folks may want to consider purchasing heads of lettuce rather than chopped greens, though even whole heads of romaine were implicated in the most recent outbreak. If you do purchase pre-cut greens, make sure they are of good quality without a lot of browning or slimy leaves in the bag. If they are washed it is best not to rewash as you risk contamination during the process. However, if there are beginning signs of wilting or mushy leaves, I would wash, dry and store the remaining greens in the refrigerator, wrapped in a clean paper towel.

Continue to enjoy salads, fresh fruit and other veggies on a daily basis. It is an important part of a healthy diet. Just be sure to pay attention good safe food handling practices as you prepare to enjoy your meal.

For more information about food safety, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out some of the links in the article, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Seedling Sales!

New Britain ROOTS summer program participants with vegetables they grew in the garden
New Britain ROOTS summer programming in 2017. Photo credit: Molly Deegan

Spring has sprung, and it’s time to get seedlings in the ground! If you are looking for locally grown seedlings for your garden, the following community based organizations are hosting seedling sales to support their work. See below for the listing of organizations in Connecticut who will be hosting sales:

New Britain ROOTS:
Thu, May 10th: Pulaski Middle School, 3pm-4:30pm

757 Farmington Ave, New Britain, CT 06053

 

Friday, May 11th & Friday May 18th: Gaffney Elementary, 3:30pm-5pm
322 Slater Rd, New Britain, CT 06053

 

Friday, May 25th: New Britain High School, 2:30pm-4pm
110 Mill St, New Britain, CT 06051

 

Common Ground:
Saturday May 12th, 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
358 Springside Ave New Haven, CT 06515

plants growing in a school garden
Photo: Molly Deegan

Fresh New London:
Saturday May 19th, 2018, 10:00 am – 1:00 pm

120 Broad St., New London, Connecticut 06320

 

New Haven County Extension Council

Thursday, May 10th, 2018, 2 pm – 6 pm

Saturday, May 12th, 2018, 10 am – 1 pm

305 Skiff Street, North Haven, Connecticut

Check out our two projects run out of UConn Extension that specifically promote local sourcing, both in the Connecticut community and in Connecticut Schools: Put Local On Your Tray and Heart CT Grown. Local sourcing includes local gardening supplies, both for school gardens or for home!

Put Local On Your Tray (Or Plate) In April

Put Local on Your Tray is a farm-to-school program helping Connecticut schools serve and celebrate regionally grown food. Even if you’re not a school, they have some advice for getting local onto your plate this season.

spinach and greens being grown in greenhouse
Photo: Molly Deegan

Days are getting slightly warmer and longer, the breeze is sharp, and the land is both awakened and nourished by fresh spring rain. Farmers are in a busy period of transition, from indoor planning and preparing for the height of summer – to the beginning stages of planting outdoors – making sure everything is ready to go. While there may not be an abundance of produce to choose from this month, there still are some special products to take advantage of for their especially sweet and distinct flavors of spring that they offer. For instance, mixed greens!

Spinach is our suggested local item to look out for – according to our Tray team Farmer Liaison, Shannon. After a long winter, the sugars stored in it’s leaves give it flavor hard to find any other time of year. Seen below, are rows of sweet greens growing at Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge.

Poop In The Garden

By: Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

insect on tomato in garden
Photo: Wes Kline, Rutgers University

Over the weekend, before the most recent snow, I looked out my kitchen window to see my dog squatting over the chive patch in our vegetable garden. It was too late to stop him.

I spend a lot of time with Connecticut farmers, talking about producing safe fruits and vegetables. We always talk about how animal feces can affect food safety. Animals and birds are often the source human pathogens or microorganisms that can make us sick. Some examples of those pathogens include E. coli O157:H7 (associated with many outbreaks tied to meat, poultry and fresh produce, most recently lettuce); Salmonella (eggs, poultry, pork, sprouts, cucumbers and cantaloupe); and Listeria monocytogenes (all types of foods, including processed meats, cheese, cantaloupe, apples, and frozen vegetables).

Wildlife can spread human pathogens by depositing feces in fields or water sources and spreading fecal contamination as they move. This is very difficult to control. Complete exclusion may not be possible, depending on the species of wildlife. It can be a tough job for farmers to exert any kind of control over geese, other birds, deer, or rodents.

Generally speaking, a home garden is a more manageable space. There are things you can do to discourage the presence of wildlife, though nothing is fail-proof. The first thing you may have to do is to identify the pest. Once you know which animal is eating the lettuce or leaving droppings around, knowledge of their habits and food needs can help you choose the best method to deter them. The University of Connecticut www.ladybug.uconn.edu site has fact sheets that give advice regarding control of wildlife in your yard. In addition, take a look at http://npic.orst.edu/pest/wildyard.html for additional suggestions on specific species.

Here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Fence your garden. Fences can make for good neighbors, they say, and this is certainly true of fences that keep animals away from your tomatoes. The fence can be as simple as a strong wire mesh. You may have to bury the fence several inches into the ground to prevent creatures from burrowing under the fence. Some animals are perfectly capable of climbing the fence to get to the other side (did someone say, “squirrel”?). A metal shield at the top of the fence might be useful.
  • Be careful where you hang your bird feeders/houses/bird baths. If birds are feeding or nesting at the bird feeders or houses you have purposely added to your yard, they will be more than happy to poop on your plants as they fly back and forth. This is a lesson easily learned as our birdhouse attracts lots of birds and their droppings on our patio furniture and patio tomatoes alike.

In addition, do not let garden trash build up—dropped fruit and pulled weeds can feed and shelter small animals. Cover trashcans, compost bins and other potential sources of food.  Remove pet food or birdseed from the yard.

  • Use decoys or other deterrents. While these can be effective on a variety of wildlife, it is important to move the decoys every few days. Deer, birds and rodents may be smarter than the average bear: they can figure out when a fake coyote is fake.

One of the most difficult “pests” in the backyard vegetable garden can be Fido or Fluffy—resident dogs and cats. Fencing is most likely to help keep the dog away. Of course, you need to remember to close the gate. An open gate turned out to be how my dog got into the chive patch.

Cats love the soft soil of a garden and WILL use it as a litter box. Of course, the best course of action is not to let your cat out at all. There are too many ways they can get injured, sick, or worse whether you live in a city, suburb, or on acres of land.

If the dog gets through the gate or over the fence and poops on your edibles, there is little you can do. If it is early in the season and the plant has no edible parts, you can wait 120 days to harvest, treating the feces like raw manure—feces from another species. If harvestable or close to harvestable produce is affected, it is best to leave it on the plant. Do not harvest, do not eat; do not harvest, wash and eat. It is just too risky.

This would be true if you see signs that indicate the presence of other wildlife as well. Bird poop on the tomatoes or lettuce leaves; mouse droppings in the herb bed; or evidence that rabbits have been gnawing on the cucumbers. You really should not eat any fruits or vegetables that have been pooped upon. Washing is not necessarily going to totally eliminate any risk from human pathogens that might have been left behind. Do not toss affected produce in the compost bin either. Animal feces should never be added to compost that will be used on edible plants.

This advice is especially important if you have kids, seniors or others in your family who might have a compromised immune system. It is just not worth the risk.

For more information about food safety and controlling wildlife in your back yard, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out some of the links in the article, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.