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Food Safety News

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Food Crop Safety After Irene’s Floodwaters

Last Friday and Saturday, the crew at Roxbury Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley prepared for the hurricane by stowing machinery and hay bales above the floodplain. Jean-Paul Courtens and his workers harvested ripe delicata squash, secured tomato plants against the wind, and pulled irrigation equipment from the Kinderhook Creek. However, there was no way to prepare for the floods that resulted from the storm, which was downgraded to Tropical Storm Irene.

“I was surprised to hear that it affected growers as far north as Burlington, (Vermont),” said Courtens, whose farm runs on a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription model and serves 1,100 members in New York City and upstate New York.

 

Courtens feels fortunate in the aftermath, yet the 300-acre Roxbury Farm has lost a lot of food, with no crop insurance to cover it. The farm’s fields are half upland and half lowland, and many of the lower fields flooded. Even food from the lower, unflooded fields is lost. 

 

“The advice is to destroy any food that came in contact with floodwater.  We’re going to follow that advice, even the stuff (on the lower areas) that wasn’t flooded, we’re calling it condemned,” he said because “you have to go through contaminated fields to get to them.”

This scene is being repeated throughout the path of the storm, which flattened cornfields, waterlogged pumpkins and squash, and knocked fruit to the ground. Crops that were nearing fall harvest are now submerged, or have been submerged, in floodwaters that could possibly contain pathogens and toxins. The uncertainty alone creates food safety concerns.

  

“We don’t really know much about the microbiological quality of the waters,” said John E. Rushing, who is retired from the Food Sciences Department at North Carolina State University. “We also don’t know what has washed onto the land.  Is it pesticides from a cotton crop?”

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, floodwater can carry sewage, chemicals, heavy metals, pathogenic microorganisms or other contaminants. The  FDA’s notice on handling food from flooded fields explains:

“If the edible portion of a crop is exposed to flood waters, it is considered adulterated and should not enter human food channels. There is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety.”

  

Extension agents are assembling information and distributing fact sheets on food safety advice, like the one for home gardeners from the University of Wisconsin-Extension, “Safety Using Produce from Flooded Gardens.”

Ginger Nickerson works on extension at University of Vermont, and her advice for commercial growers is being circulated to farmers in that state and surrounding states as well. One guideline:  “Leave a 30-foot buffer between flooded areas of fields and adjacent areas to be harvested for human consumption; this is to accommodate a generous turn-around distance for equipment to prevent contact with flooded soil and avoid cross-contamination of non-flooded ground.”

Other recommendations include wearing protective clothing in flooded areas, and not feeding livestock crops that came in contact with floodwaters because “the plants could have pesticides, pathogens, mycotoxins or other contaminants.”

Steve Reiners, associate professor at Cornell University, put together “Dealing with Flooded Vegetable Fields,” which deals with plant survival under water and flooding and soil fertility, as well as flooding and food safety.

“There are two types of flooding,” wrote Reiners. “The first is more typical and occurs after a heavy downpour when fields become saturated and water pools on the soil surface.  This type of flooding can reduce yields and even kill plants but usually will not result in contamination of produce with human pathogens.” 

 

The second type of flooding, from rising creeks and rising rivers rather than a deluge of rainwater, is affecting many farmers in the aftermath of Irene, although some farms might be dealing with both types of storm water.

“Unless you are absolutely sure that flooding is not from streams and surface water, do not use fruits and vegetables that were at or near harvest at the time of flooding,” he writes.

He notes that produce that such as melons, eggplant, sweet corn, or winter squash may be contaminated on the surface, but for melons “this is a major concern as pathogens on the surface are moved to the edible part as the product is sliced and eaten raw.”

Reiners details how to properly wash produce to reduce post-harvest losses. But he adds says vegetables that have come in contact with stream and river overflows should not be harvested or consumed, adding that, “Chlorinated wash water will not eliminate likely human pathogens on their surface.”

Each farmer has several different assessments to make based on fields, water and the type of crop. These assessments are informed, at times, by consulting with extension agents.  Some farmers also have training as part of certification for the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) Program.

 

“With the food safety emphasis that’s been going on, some of them have been through trainings and have a much better idea of what risk assessment looks like from a food safety perspective,” noted Elizabeth Bihn, coordinator for the National GAPs program, and a Senior Extension Associate at Cornell.

Ginger Nickerson, in addition to her work at cooperative extension, is an outreach coordinator for GAPs, and finds her outreach work in this crisis dovetailing with other GAPs efforts.

“Even though not all of the growers in the state are GAPs-certified,” she said, “they’re all wondering what do I need to do to handle my crops appropriately in this situation.”

In many cases in Vermont, Nickerson said, the water did not touch the edible parts of the plant, or the edible part of the plant hadn’t yet emerged.  These foods will likely be edible and saleable.  

Still, Vernon Grubinger, also of University of Vermont’s extension, estimated the total loss at millions statewide.  “Few growers have insurance,” he noted.

  

Farmers are being encouraged to document and report damage to the Farm Service Agency, regardless of whether they have insurance.  The information is being collected in case it may be possible to gather emergency grants or loans.

 

Bihn said she didn’t yet have a clear picture of the extent of the damage. 

“I know where I’m getting questions from, and I know where we’ve heard reports (about) flooding, but I don’t have in my head who exactly is affected,” she said.  She is hearing mostly from extension agents, who are fielding questions from farmers. “In the next week or so I think I will have a better handle on exactly who and how many people are underwater, and what crops are most affected.” 

Asked to comment on flooding and food safety, she said, “The flooding does represent risk, and understanding where the risks are coming from, whether they be microbial or chemical.” While it’s important to assess that risk, she said to have such a storm inundate fields is simply “awful.” 

“All the time, all the energy, all the seed, all the protective sprays,” continued Bihn. “To lose it in the end is awful.”

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    This event highlights an interesting aspect of CSA schemes; the very real risk of loss and who bears it.
    If CSA patrons generously pay up-front for a share of produce resulting from the grower’s efforts and crops are destroyed by flooding (or any other imaginable calamity or carelessness) the patron is simply SOL.
    The producer has no worries, though — he/she can easily afford to be pretty philosophical about any destruction, waste or inefficiencies in their market gardening operations.
    Seems like this should be a make-or-break consideration for people purchasing any CSA subscription: is the producer operating on a flood plain or otherwise attempting to farm marginal land, is the grower competent and truly dedicated…even when the chips are down? Perhaps another grower is better situated to manage the very real risk that too many weeks your CSA box will contain little more than “$50 worth” of zucchini, cucumbers, bug-chewed chard and empty promises served up with a never-ending series of heart-wrenching sob stories.
    Another question; if the CSA grower wrangles any sort of post-disaster insurance settlement does that get divided up among CSA members too, just like the knobby tomatoes they would have received, but didn’t?

  • Steve

    Sigh… while no longer surprising, Muddd’s ever-ready and ever-nasty spin demonizing small scale agriculture always amazes me — when in this case the reality is there’s 1,000’s of farmers suffering hurricane crop damage and major farm structural and equipment losses right at the middle harvest time…
    So… cutting through the oft slung-mud, what is Community Supported Agriculture — CSA — ACTUALLY about?
    Briefly, this is the tried and true food CO-OP model applied to membership in a farm. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture or Community Shared Agriculture) is based on an informed, wholly voluntary agreement where member/shareholders/sharers join the farm for a regular share of the harvests and in so doing agree to also share in the vicissitudes and risks of the growing season with the farmer. In return Members receive a weekly share of fresh local food at near-or-below wholesale prices as well as direct connection for them and their kids to life on a farm and how their food is grown –tt’s always amazing how many otherwise intelligent people act like food comes from supermarket shelves…
    Many CSA farms offer a choice of individual or family size shares and also working memberships — where shareholders can put in time on directed farm tasks in exchange for membership discounts. Depending on how the individual farm’s CSA contracts are constituted, members pay a lump sum up front, essentially bankrolling the farm (as we all know how “helpful” the Banks are these days, especially for small business) by helping the farmer cover start-up seed and soil amendment costs, etc. before the cash crops come in.
    However, CSA subscriptions only go so far in covering the annual direct costs of growing, harvesting and distributing crops (seed, soil prep, planting and harvesting, labor, etc) –they generally do not cover capitol expenditures and the farm infrastructure costs such as greenhouses, packing sheds, roads, barns, tractors and equipment, etc. And in most areas now, CSA farms are highly competitive — leading to price cuts that stress real farm budgets. This competition also keeps CSA farmers honest, as shareholders can always move on. And, as opposed to the big industrial ag producers who despite contamination outbreak after outbreak are still in business — local farmers and CSAs are only as good as their last sale at the Market or CSA sign-up.
    Far from loading up shareholders with overgrown zucchini, CSAs stock-in-trade is successive cropping systems — one farm may grow some 200 varieties of vegetables over the course of a season to keep a lively variety of delicious fresh produce constantly coming in. Indeed, that’s the saving grace for CSAs impacted by this hurricane — they’ve already supplied a summer’s worth of produce — and shareholders have already gotten a good part if not all of their money’s worth by now.
    Still, as opposed to pontificating smug eaters — farmers have LOTS to worry about. Few small producers can not afford crop insurance like the subsidized commodity farmers have access to. And In addition to their infrastructure losses the loss of fall storage crops is disastrous, especially for CSAs offering Winter Shares. Farmers will also have to re-think their use of bottom-land. It traditionally has the richest soils but in just the past 5 years some northeastern farmers have experienced three 100 year floods, with surely more disruption to come on this overheating planet.
    Finally, eaters should look around and take notice about the security of their food supply. Food really doesn’t come from supermarkets. The deep drought in Texas farm country is the other side of the coin of the tremendous flooding in the Midwest and now the Northeast. Putting all your eggs in one basket has never been a good plan — and the move toward the centralization and consolidation of agriculture is just as non-sensical and dangerous.
    As always, food security strength and resiliency lies in diversity…

  • Pawpaw

    Doc,
    When our home was the pickup for a local CSA, I didn’t see the substandard produce you describe above. Find another CSA or shop at a producer market where you can select produce to your liking. Or buy direct at the farm, even pick your own there. Does the pejorative ‘scheme’ really fit for such horrific events as hurricane Irene? The CSA participants freely entered into their arrangements, with little or no coercion. Many CSAs have opt-out clauses. How many meat or egg consumers are welcome to observe or help on the farms producing that segment of their diet? CSAs/farm stands are among the most open and transparent of all food production models.
    The ‘fine print’ in some CSA contracts include the possibility that ‘acts of God’ may affect what’s in the weekly basket, beyond normal seasonal variations. The CSA I know best buys quality produce from other farmers when theirs does not come through, and they build that into their business model. Have heard of CSAs who offer a pro-rated refund to their customers after unforeseen calamities. And hardly any customers took this cash back, knowing the farmer, and other locals, could not plan for such catastrophes.
    As for knocking farmers for growing on floodplains, this was a 100-year flood in some regions, and as a taxpayer, I’d rather have crops on occasionally flooded lands instead of buildings. Have heard of businesses whose buildings were picked up and moved, or otherwise destroyed by Irene. These small manufacturers, restaurants, caterers, etc, you going to call any contracts they have ‘schemes’ as well?

  • Doc Mudd

    Thank you, “Steve”, for confirming patrons of CSA bear the brunt of any cropping risk while the CSA owner perches safe on the high ground to count his/her money and wax philosophical about “…hurricane crop damage…right at the middle harvest time” and pointedly (if not subjectively) conclude “…they’ve [CSA operators] already supplied a summer’s worth of produce — and shareholders have already gotten a good part if not all of their money’s worth by now.” regardless of “the loss of fall storage crops…”
    “Competition”, as you say, works to “keep CSA farmers honest, as shareholders can always move on.” The ‘cash-paid-upfront’ feature does mute the competitive spirit from a daily or weekly pace to, at best, an annual one but as you so helpfully point out, from one season to the next CSA shareholders are free to go pound salt anywhere they choose.
    Natural disasters are commonplace in farming, as some Northeastern CSA shareholders are now learning the hard way, and your mention of the “deep drought in Texas farm country” nicely rounds out that reality. It must suck to be an orthodox locovore in Texas this year, eh? There may even be some locovore belt-tightening in parts of Vermont and New York State, too, unless the sacred “local” criteria is stretched to more than 50 – 100 miles or so, wouldn’t you agree?
    You stopped short of remarking about insurance payments, whether those cash proceeds would be distributed among shareholders. Am I safe to interpret your aloofness as a “no”?
    Oh, well. Kumbaya, campers, kumbaya!
    P.S. — for you CSA shareholders left holding the empty bag, you can take comfort in being just like professional farmers when they optimistically remind their family and their banker: ‘maybe next year will be better, we’ll make out better next year, probably’. Welcome to the club, girls.

  • Rosemary Fifield

    I have no idea who DocMudd is, but since I currently am living in the middle of all this destruction and loss and witnessing it firsthand, I’m amazed at this statement: “The producer has no worries, though — he/she can easily afford to be pretty philosophical about any destruction, waste or inefficiencies in their market gardening operations.”
    What do you even know about what’s happened to our farmers? They didn’t have to be located in floodplains. The destruction occurred everywhere that running water was coming down off our mountains and foothills to turn little meandering brooks into roaring streams that tore new pathways into people’s yards, homes, garages, barns, and businesses and took out entire roads, bridges, and railroad beds.
    And for those who weren’t personally affected by localized damage, the losses are coming from the closing of the restaurants, stores, and markets that were their customers. Who do you want to blame that on? Stupid consumers who buy stuff in stores and restaurants?
    As I said, I don’t know who you are, but your ignorance is enormous. And I’ll use my real name to tell you so.

  • C is for Community

    As a long time member of a very well-run CSA in New York City, I’m well acquainted with the significant commitment and the risks we share with our farmer.
    Farming is not for the faint of heart. Having grown up on a farm, I would know.
    It requires optimism, good planning, patience, diligence, and follow-though along with sufficient distribution channels to reach your market. And then, of course, it requires enough days of sun, enough inches of rain, and enough crop diversity to balance out the few crops that disappoint or yield too much in any given year. And perhaps most of all, it requires a spirit that is willing to accept the unpredictable, a spirit committed to the cyclical nature of life and all that it demands. It requires a spirt that is up to the challenge.
    Our members are shocked and disappointed that the rest of our season was effectively canceled by Hurricane Irene. Our farmer has built up a tremendous amount of good will over the years from delivering outstanding value in the quality and quantity of produce year after year. Our farm is in fact a model of responsible agriculture and sound business practice.
    Yes, our farm is situated on the edge of a flood-plain, as many farms are. That’s because that is where they could afford to purchase land, or generations ago, where they decided to clear and settle the land because fresh running water was close by. A flood plain is indeed where the fertile soil is often many feet thick. It was placed there by many floods in ages past!
    Our members are eager to “lend a hand” during our farm’s hour of need – in some cases literally clearing the storm rubbish and rebuilding, while others are clamouring to make their deposit for next year’s share of the bounty.
    The C is for community.
    Those who think C stands for convenience can keep their convenience market of food of uncertain origin. They will never know what they missed.

  • Doc Mudd

    OK, the C is for Community. Thats OK.
    And if your members, as orthodox locovores were entirely dependent upon local market garden sources to sustain them, the S would be for Starvation like in Somalia.
    Lucky for you your members kept their day jobs and enjoy, as an elite hobby, getting kicked in the A in the name of Community.
    The O is for Oh, crap, if it isn’t drought its flooding, if it isn’t hail it’s locusts.
    The K is for Kumbaya, campers, kumbaya!