….be sure to grow with food safety in mind
By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD
It is hard to believe that spring is just around the corner. Though we in Connecticut were all teased with 35-degree temperatures, we are quickly back in the deep freeze, surrounded by ugly, dirty snow piles that are just not going away.
But go away, they will…and it won’t be long before many churches, schools, community organizations and day care centers are planning, digging and planting their vegetable garden. Gardens have become very popular. It seems like everyone has or wants one: to teach kids about where their food comes from, to grow food to donate to food pantries or community organizations, to save a little money on the ever increasing food budget, or simply for a little outdoor exercise. The locally grown movement has also helped to fuel the garden trend.
If you are working with a group of folks on a community/school/church garden, have you thought beyond the seed catalogues, watering schedules or how you are going to share your bounty? Will this bounty be grown, harvested and handled post-harvest in a way that will minimize the possibility of contamination with the microorganisms that might cause foodborne illness?
Did you know that fresh produce is the number one food source of foodborne illness in the US? The Centers for Disease Control found that 46% of all foodborne illnesses from 1998 to 2008 were attributed to produce and 23% of deaths from foodborne illness (meat and poultry contributed to more deaths-29%).
And yet, few think as they are growing produce to be shared with school children or those with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables that they might want to consider the fact that there are microorganisms in the soil, in bird poop or on the hands of the harvesters that could, in fact, make someone sick—especially those that may have a compromised immune system such as those that have a chronic disease, are pregnant, or are malnourished.
So what should you do? By using good gardening and harvesting practices, you can help to reduce potential food safety risks from the food you grow.
When planning your garden…
Locate vegetable gardens away from manure piles, garbage cans, septic systems, run-off from any potential sources of contamination, and areas where wildlife, farm animals, or pets roam. Test soil for contaminants, particularly lead, prior to planting. If lead levels are greater than 100 ppm, precautions should be taken as outlined in the document, Soil Lead Interpretation Sheet, available from the University of Connecticut Soil Laboratory at 860-486-4274. Do you want to use compost? To be safe for gardening, your compost must reach a temperature of at least 130°F. Check the temperature with a compost thermometer. Don’t use untreated manure in a garden that feeds a community group, school or neighborhood.
Know your water source and its potential for contamination. Irrigate using water from an approved public water system. You can be sure that water from a municipal or public water system is safe and potable (drinkable). However, water from lakes, ponds, rivers and streams can be polluted by human sewage or animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farm fields, or chemicals from industry and is more risky. Even water from a rain barrel can be contaminated – best to save that for non-edible plants. If well water is used, be sure to test it at least annually to ensure its safety. During the gardening season, keep cats, dogs and other pets out of the garden, as animal waste can be a source of bacteria, parasites and viruses. Curtail nesting and hiding places for rats and mice by minimizing vegetation at the edges of your fruit and vegetable garden. Fencing or noise deterrents may help discourage other animals.
During harvest time…
People who are sick, particularly with vomiting or diarrhea should not work in the garden or harvest produce. Everyone should wash their hands with soap and water before and after harvesting fresh produce. Do you have hand-washing facilities nearby? Harvest into clean, food-grade containers. Food-grade containers are made from materials designed specifically to safely hold food. Garbage bags, trash cans, and any containers that originally held chemicals such as household cleaners or pesticides are not food-grade. If children are helping out, be sure they are supervised by adults who understand safe harvesting practices. It is best not to let them eat fresh picked food before it is washed. If tools are used for harvesting (knives, clippers), make sure that they are cleaned regularly and designated only for garden use.
If you choose to wash fruits and vegetables before storing, be sure to dry them thoroughly with a clean paper towel. (NEVER wash berries until you are ready to eat them). If you choose to store without washing, shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Store unwashed produce in plastic bags or containers. Keep fruit and vegetable bins clean.
When washing produce fresh from the warm outdoors, the rinse water should not be more than 10 degrees colder than the produce. If you are washing refrigerated produce, use cold water. Fresh fruits and vegetables needing refrigeration can be stored below 41° F. Those that are safe to store at room temperature (onions, potatoes, whole, uncut tomatoes) should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.
The UConn Extension Master Gardener Program is an educational outreach program that started in 1978 and consists of horticulture training and outreach component in the community. Master Gardeners are enthusiastic, willing to learn, and share their knowledge and training with others. What sets them apart from other home gardeners is their special horticultural training. In exchange for this training, Master Gardeners commit time as volunteers working through their local UConn Extension Center and the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford to provide horticultural-related information to their communities.
Signature outreach projects are determined by the County Master Gardener Coordinators and are carried out by Certified Master Gardener volunteers and interns. Through these outreach programs, the UConn Extension Master Gardener program has a tremendous impact on the communities across Connecticut. In 2013, over 23,500 hours of community service were donated by our Master Gardeners with a value of $664,110 to the communities and citizens served. Signature outreach projects for 2015 include new and ongoing projects.
In Fairfield County, the Master Gardeners installed and maintain exhibition gardens of primarily native trees and shrubs. Plantings were selected to attract birds and butterflies, and the Master Gardeners provide docent walks and special events. The garden includes foundation plantings, a pollinator garden, a vegetable garden and orchard. Signature outreach includes initiatives and activities that help preserve, restore, maintain and protect the natural beauty of the grounds as a cultural and ecological resource to the community. Other signature events in Fairfield County include: the Bethel Garden Fair and the Farmers’ Market Mini-Plant Clinic.
Master Gardeners at the Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens focus on a number of projects. On the grounds of the Arboretum several teams of mentors run the perennial, herb, cottage, sundial and vegetable gardens. The Native Plant garden and Fern garden have been designed, installed and are maintained by dedicated crews of Master Gardeners. In the larger community Master Gardeners support the Gardening Initiative in Vegetable Education (GIVE) program. The goal is to set up and maintain vegetable gardens in schoolyards. A Master Gardener started it four years ago at one school; now there are 19 schools with vegetable gardens in Stamford. In Norwalk, Ryan Park was renovated by a few Master Gardeners and developed into an urban oasis. Gardens are flourishing and activities for children and parents are held to offer the community an outdoor place to play, gather and learn.
In Hartford County, Master Gardener volunteers helped plant and maintain a garden on the grounds of the Burgdorf/Bank of America Health center, a clinic for the underserved in Hartford’s North End. The garden is used to teach nutrition to clients and also provides healthy produce for residents living in a food desert. Along with keeping the garden healthy and productive, Master Gardeners also help educate area residents about the ability to grow their own healthy food, even with limited space.
Master Gardeners also helped start the Community Court garden in Hartford. The 100 x 100 foot garden is part of the court diversion program, working with first-time and non-violent offenders to keep them out of the larger court system. As part of their community service, these individuals help maintain the production garden, providing food for area organizations and learning horticultural skills in the process. Master Gardeners assist with crop selection, garden maintenance practices and problem solving.
At Brooker Memorial Child Care in Torrington, a multi-generational group worked with Litchfield County Master Gardeners to install a raised bed children’s garden. The garden had been a goal of Brooker Memorial’s for years, and the help of the Master Gardener program saw this realized in 2014. The children are very interested in watching the plants grow and take their jobs, like watering, very seriously. Parents and community members are also involved with the garden. Other signature outreach programs in Litchfield County include the Northwest Conservation District Plant Sale and the Master Gardener booth at four local fairs.
Middlesex County Master Gardeners have a focus group and community garden. The focus group presents opportunities for Master Gardeners at all levels to teach and learn in a collaborative environment, provide forums for researching and experimenting with organic gardening, and enhances sustainable living practices through community outreach and education. The model community garden delivers all fresh produce to community food banks and soup kitchens during the growing season, and offers the community an ongoing teaching and learning tool for organic horticultural practices throughout the year.
Master Gardeners in New Haven County focus on two different signature projects. They maintain the shrubs and perennials on the grounds of the UConn Extension Center in North Haven, and revived an herb-teaching garden. Interns and volunteers are also providing maps and cultural information on the plants, and work on the insect collection and other office projects. An umbrella project, New Haven Urban Agriculture covers a group of interrelated activities in the city of New Haven. Master Gardeners collaborate with the New Haven Land Trust Community Gardens, New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, Marsh Botanical Garden, New Haven Farms, Urban Resources Initiative and Common Ground High School. Each volunteer is asked to devote at least five hours of their time commitment to one or more of these signature projects.
New London County Master Gardeners have their signature project at Camp Harkness in Waterford. This educational outreach project puts into practice the concept of horticultural therapy. Every summer the camp welcomes adults with disabilities who participate in activities such as planting and maintaining planters, working with herbs, and more, working with a dedicated group of UConn Extension certified Master Gardeners and interns. During winter months Master Gardeners work with seniors in the greenhouse. Master Gardener and Horticultural Therapist Julia Griswold established the program, which has been ongoing for many years.
Nine different signature outreach projects keep Master Gardeners in Tolland County engaged in community activities. These include: the Tolland youth garden, Belding Wildlife Management Area, Wasp Watchers, Strong Family Farm, Wind Hill Community Farm, Hartford Summer School Garden, Pascal Lane Community Garden, South Windsor Farmer’s Market and the Hebron Harvest Fair. Each of these projects provides opportunities for children, youth and families to discover the joys and benefits of gardening, environmental stewardship and community service. Produce that is harvested through the Tolland Youth Garden is donated to the Cornerstone Soup Kitchen in Rockville. At the Wind Hill Community Farm in Glastonbury, produce from one 40-acre field is donated to Foodshare.
People’s Harvest in Pomfret is one of the signature projects in Windham County. This half-acre vegetable garden and educational project has been run by the Master Gardeners for more than ten years. The produce is donated to local soup kitchens. Many area youth groups visit People’s Harvest to learn about their connections to the environment, raising vegetables using sustainable techniques, and food security issues. Windham County Master Gardeners are also active with: a demonstration garden at the Extension Center in Brooklyn, the Palmer Arboretum in Woodstock, Our Companion Animal Sanctuary in Ashford, and Goodwin Conservation Center in Hampton.
To find out more about the UConn Extension Master Gardener program and our outreach efforts, please visit www.mastergardener.uconn.edu or call State Coordinator Leslie Alexander at 860-486-6343.
CONNECTICUT FEDERALLY FUNDED STARTUP AIMS TO BRING OUT-OF-SEASON FARMING TO FINANCIALLY STRESSED NEW ENGLAND GROWERS; Connecticut Tech Business To Introduce Year-Round Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) To Area Strawberry Farmers; Recent CBS’ 60 MINUTES Segment Highlights California Drought Impact on Local Food Availability
December 15, 2014 — As the outdoor farming season in New England is shut down for the winter, Connecticut-based technology company, Agrivolution LLC, is about to open up a research project on how farmers can extend the growing season into the winter months using special indoor farming techniques popular in Europe and Asia.
If successful, the research could create a new revenue source for farmers in harsh weather states who go mostly dormant in the winter months. It would also mean more farm jobs, greater levels of locally grown produce for consumers, and protection against the impacts of drought conditions in California where most of the produce available in the northeast is grown.
“Experience outside the U.S. shows it is possible with controlled environment agriculture (CEA) to grow pesticide-free fruits and vegetables year-round,” said Richard Fu, Agrivolution president who recently returned from Japan where he toured indoor CEA facilities and met with operators. “If we can prove that controlled environment agriculture is economically viable for farmers here in the northeast it could have significant implications for the farming industry. We want to help northeast farmers and others claim a larger market share during colder weather months when upwards of 90-percent of fruits and vegetables are trucked in from warm weather states or flown in from outside the U.S.”
CEA refers to the production of plants in protected indoor structures such as a greenhouse or a warehouse that maximizes the productivity while being benign to the environment. Agrivolution uses an irrigation technique called hydroponics which involves growing vegetable plants indoors with their roots suspended directly in nutrient-rich water rather than soil.
A USDA funded Specialty Crop Block Grant offered through the Connecticut Department of Agriculture was awarded to Agrivolution to investigate farming methods that could be used to help farmers produce out-of-season strawberries, the fifth most consumed fresh fruit in the United States. It’s the first time the state has funded indoor, or, CEA farming research.
State data shows that the number of strawberry growers in Connecticut is on the decline. Several berry growers still operating though have already expressed interest in partnering with controlled environment agriculture system provider Agrivolution.
Sandra J. Rose, manager of Rose’s Berry Farm in South Glastonbury — one of the largest berry farms in southern New England — is one of the farmers interested in the Agrivolution pilot.
“Strawberries are in high demand all year long,” Rose said. “Our normal growing year produces great fruit here in Connecticut. The season is however, very short and we are picked out in about 3 weeks. Year-round growing will help farmers expand their operations, create jobs, and help compete for shelf-space in grocery stores who would otherwise support us but import berries during the colder months instead because our harvest is depleted.”
The majority of the estimated 437 million pounds of strawberries consumed annually in the northeast region alone are transported across the U.S. in a 5-7 day period before reaching the hands of local consumers. When the domestic products from local growers are seasonally unavailable, strawberries are flown in from Mexico and South America in order to ensure constant availability. Because of its fragile nature (i.e., bruising) and short shelf life, strawberry is an ideal crop for local hydroponic production.
Drought conditions in California, now in its 4th year, have forced farmers to cut back on the acreage dedicated to farming according to news reports. These production shortages have triggered price hikes in regions of North America that have become dependent on California-grown crops. CBS’ 60 MINUTES broadcasted a segment (aired on November 16, 2014) “Depleting the water” that focused on drought conditions in California and groundwater depletion in the aquifers there that supply irrigation water to grow 25-percent of America’s food.
“Relying on California growers to produce and deliver a significant amount of the food we consume in the northeast has consequences,” says Agrivolution’s Fu. “If the California drought continues to be a problem we can expect product shortages and price volatility. But growing more locally produced food ensures that there is volume, quality and price protection we can count on.”
Indoor farming is common in other parts of the world where the percentages of locally grown foods are much higher than they are in Connecticut and other regions of the U.S. While many parts of the world’s strawberry production have transitioned to CEA for years, its adoption in the U.S. has been slow. Approximately 90 percent of strawberries in Japan are grown in greenhouses whereas nearly 100 percent of U.S. strawberries are grown in open fields.
With uncertainty looming with the ongoing extreme drought in California, it is an opportunity for the growers in the northeast to recapture the local market share using the CEA technique Fu said. He considers CEA technology to be a necessary component in the nation’s agricultural base to build a more resilient food supply network.
“We’re under tremendous pressure to keep our workers on the job and our businesses in the black,” said Joe Geremia of Geremia Greenhouse in Wallingford who has investigated the Agrivolution technology. “Indoor farming is something that can change the region’s agriculture landscape. It will help the whole economy.”
Agrivolution, which began as a company in the Technology Incubated Program at the University of Connecticut, will begin examining the quality of the strawberries grown indoors by local farms participating in the research project in early 2015. The company will then determine how the CEA production is viable for larger facilities in the other regions in the U.S.
Agrivolution partnered with Mary Concklin from the University of Connecticut (UConn) Extension on this project to help increase awareness with local growers about the business opportunities presented by indoor farming. UConn Extension supports the Connecticut greenhouse industry with information and educational programming on sustainable production methods.
Agrivolution was named to the CT Innovation Summit’s “Tech Companies to Watch” list in 2012 and 2013.
Funding has been provided by the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded and administered by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.
For more information, please visit the UConn Home and Garden Education Center, or call 877-486-6271.
Photo: Jude Boucher, UConn Extension
By Dawn Pettinelli for UConn Extension
Community Gardeners Reap Bountiful Harvests While Average American Family Tosses 25% of Food Purchases Each Year!
A couple of weeks ago, the Connecticut Community Gardening Association partnering with the community garden at Manchester Community College held a Summer Celebration of the gardens, the dedicated gardeners, their bounty, composting efforts and the desire to learn more about growing one’s own food. I just learned from an on-line article that only 5 % of Americans garden! That is really depressing to me (not only as a soils and horticulture educator) but because gardening affords me such a pleasant escape from my every day, real-world trials and tribulations. I look at it as free therapy – often with culinary benefits!
A moderate sized group of local, interested folks showed up for a tour of the gardens and an informal but insightful presentation by CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s (CT DEEP) Sherill Baldwin. Some of the statistics that Ms. Baldwin presented us with were truly amazing. Food waste is apparently the largest component of municipal solid waste that goes to landfills and incinerators. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that food wastes made up 21.3 % of the total national municipal solid wastes generated in 2011. Amazingly that amounts to 36.31 million tons of wasted food each year! This represents major inefficiencies in our food system!
Not only are our valuable natural resources (soil, water, nutrients, etc.) wasted when edible food products are tossed into the trash but there is a monetary loss (estimated $1,365 – $2,275) when food is discarded and not eaten and if food ends up in a landfill, methane gas is produced as the food decays underground and it is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Even if the food waste is burned for energy, it still could often be put to better use, according to Ms. Baldwin.
A recent UConn study found that 12.7% of Connecticut residents from 2008 to 2010 were living in a household which was deemed ‘food insecure’. The USDA’s definition of food insecurity is ‘access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life”.
So Connecticut gardeners, what can you do if you have extra produce to share? Actually there are a lot of options. Contact one of the following organizations:
Or call 2-1-1 http://www.ct211.org
Many of us gardeners produce more that we can freeze/can/dry/giveaway before our harvest starts to lose its freshness and nutritional qualities. For those not able to grow food crops, think about planning meals to avoid waste and purchasing nutritious vegetables, fruits and meats produced locally.
Do consider finding a community garden in your community if gardening space is limited at your residence. The CT Community Gardening Association can help find suitable space in some areas of the state.
Growing one’s own food can provide a great deal of satisfaction and sustenance. While it can be challenging at times, acquiring knowledge at events like this one or contacting the horticulturists at the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (860) 486-6271 or Master Gardener volunteers at your local UConn Extension Center will help you grow healthy and productive crops.
As far as what else to do with food waste, many gardeners add kitchen wastes to their compost piles. Composting is a time-honored method of disposing of a large amount of kitchen and yard wastes (no fats, grease or carnivorous animal droppings) and recycling these items into a wonderful soil amendment. Just so happens that UConn offers an annual Master Composter Program and this year it will be held in Stamford at the Bartlett Arboretum in October.
And on a totally different topic, I went to Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in Deerfield with a friend while on vacation and purchased a Monarch butterfly chrysalis thinking I could blog about it hatching. Well one vacation day another event was planned and I noticed the chrysalis becoming transparent. I left it attached to the porch railing in case the butterfly emerged before I got home and low and behold it did! So much for that idea, but some compensation. The next day was my sister’s birthday (she lives a short distance from me) and she told me she was so excited to see a Monarch butterfly in her garden – the first one she saw all year. Maybe it was the one that emerged from my chrysalis. But even if not, I will wish it an uneventful journey to its Mexican wintering grounds.
1. Get a jump on next year’s lawn and gardens by having a soil test done through the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory.
2. If the pH of garden and flower beds needs to raised, wood ashes may be used. Wood ashes have a pH of 11.0 and also contain phosphorous, potassium, and calcium. Use at 1 ½ times the suggested rate of limestone. (So if 5 lbs of limestone are called for, use 7.5 lbs of wood ash).
3. Apply fall fertilizer to lawns between Sept. 15th and Oct. 15th.
4. Watch for frost warnings and cover tender plants to extend the season.
5. Rake up leaves, twigs, and fruit from crabapple trees to control apple scab disease. Do not compost.
6. Remove the pesky seedlings of woody ornamentals such as maple or elm so that they don’t take over gardens and other landscape plantings.
7. Continue to water any new shrub or tree plantings until the first hard frost.
8. Plant asters and chrysanthemums for fall color in the landscape.
9. Plant/transplant peonies now. Plant the crowns to a depth of one and a half to two inches below ground level.
10. Stop by theCornucopia Festat the UConn Storrs campus on Sunday, September 21st, from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. to get answers to your gardening questions. Bring a half-cup of soil for a free pH test.
For more information, please visit the UConn Home and Garden Education Center, or call 877-486-6271.
Photo: Delaware Extension
The graduates had community “problems to solve” projects:
Connecticut State Representative Dan Carter was our special guest at the Robotics and Technology recognition night. Two groups of children and youth from Danbury completed a 10-week pilot program. Participants built and programmed robots using laptops and artificial intelligence bricks. Before this program none of the participants was a 4-H member. At the end of the program nearly 30 children and youth became new UConn Extension 4-Hers.