Food Safety on a Pick Your Own Operation

By Heather Bryant, Fruit and Vegetable Field Specialist and Jessica Sprague, Food Safety Field Specialist

This past winter many of you participated in a farm food safety information needs assessment. On behalf of both our Fruit and Vegetable and Food Safety teams we would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the time you put into that survey. We are sure to have more questions for you as time goes on, but we wanted to take a moment to update you on how we are responding to the suggestions you already gave us.

53% of you requested more twilight meetings and direct teaching workshops on farm food safety issues, so we have incorporated the subject into two of our twilight meetings and we are planning a farm food safety workshop for this coming winters programming. You will also see a session on Food Safety at the New England Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Manchester in December.

We received a great deal of suggestions on specific topics you wanted addressed in our programming, factsheets and articles. One that came up multiple times was how to encourage good food hygiene among pickers on pick your own operations, so we decided it was a good place to start.

We all recognize this is a sensitive topic. Pickers are customers and the customer is always right, and yet at the same time the customer may not know everything you know. Some will appreciate your suggestions and tips while others may be offended by them. One suggestion we can offer is that you model the behavior you would like your customers to use while visiting your operation. Providing clean facilities for your customers and encouraging them (and your staff) to practice good personal hygiene is essential. Communicating these ideas visually and verbally will help maintain a safe, healthy and enjoyable environment for everyone.

Hand washing is one of the most important practices to keep visitors safe at your farm. Thus providing an appropriate number of handwashing facilities in convenient locations on your farm is strongly recommended. This is especially important if you have livestock or animals that can be fed or pet. While farm animals are a great attraction, visitors should wash their hands after coming in contact with livestock and before handling food. If you provide portable toilets for your customers, these are often equipped with hand sanitizer. However, hand sanitizer does not remove bacteria and dirt as effectively as soap, water and drying with paper towels. Handwashing stations can be a very low-tech, low-cost investment, which allows for them to be placed in any location on your farm.

A low-cost but effective hand washing station for a small PYO operation. Liquid soap is used but not shown in the photo.

A low-cost but effective hand washing station for a small PYO operation. Liquid soap is used but not shown in the photo.

The important components of a handwashing station include a table of adequate height, potable water, soap, a bucket to catch waste water, single use paper towels and a trash can with a lid. Five gallon containers that have a spigot to allow for a continuous stream of water are best. These are often available at camping supply stores. Use a bungee cord to secure the container to the table. Liquid or foam soaps are more sanitary than bar soap. A five gallon bucket should be adequate to catch waste water. Placing a rock or brick in the bottom of the bucket will keep it steady and upright in case of windy weather or uneven ground. The single use paper towels should be kept somewhere sheltered, like on a shelf under the five gallon bucket. A trash can with a lid will help keep litter out of the field. Of course, maintaining the facilities is just as important as setting it up in the first place! Make sure there is enough water, soap, paper towels as well as enough space in the waste water bucket and trash can.

Signage around your operation is also helpful to inform visitors of your policies on the farm, and especially in PYO operations. Asking visitors to leave pets at home is recommended for PYO operations as animals could contaminate fresh produce in the field and may disrupt other visitors. If possible, state this policy on your website or advertisements so that customers are aware that they should leave their pet at home before they arrive. If you have other activities at your location like walking trails or a picnic area where you are comfortable permitting pets, it is best to require that animals be leashed at all times.

Signs on your property that may be relevant and helpful for visitors include directions to the restrooms and/or handwashing stations, reminders to wash hands, and to use the trash cans provided. If you would prefer that visitors use only designated containers for harvesting, put up notices asking them to only use the collection containers provided. Make it clear where the designated containers should be picked up and whether they should be paid for ahead of time, or by weight at the end of picking. Regardless of how you choose to handle the issue of containers we recommend you discourage re-use of single use cardboard fruit containers. Cardboard containers cannot be cleaned and sanitized so there is no way to control the growth of potentially harmful microorganisms on the container’s surface. Cardboard containers are a great option as long as they are treated as a single-use item.

A final suggestion we have is to couch some food safety recommendations in the form of tips. Providing information in this relatively informal way can help customers use good practices while visiting your farm and can also help them get the most out of their purchase. Tips could include encouraging customers to bring a cooler for transporting their berries or other produce, general storage temperature guidelines for your products, and tips to increase shelf life like washing fruit just prior to use. These suggestions could be placed in high visibility areas in your farm stand or near the cash register. They could also be included in brochures or cards with every purchase. Whatever approach allows you to reach your customers in the most convenient, effective way.

The Fruit and Vegetable and Food Safety teams would like to once again thank you for your time completing our survey this past winter. We will continue to reach out to the agricultural community of New Hampshire to better understand your needs and plan our programming to meet those needs. If you have any questions about this article please don’t hesitate to contact one of the UNH Cooperative Extension’s Food Safety Field Specialists.

Jessica Sprague in Grafton County: jessica.sprague@unh.edu, (603) 787-6944.

Ann Hamilton in Coos County: ann.hamilton@unh.edu, (603) 447-3834.

Alice Mullen in Rockingham County: alice.mullen@unh.edu, (603) 679-5616

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