Farmer finds DATCP inspectors to be helpful partners in meeting FSMA requirements

Farmer finds DATCP inspectors to be helpful partners in meeting FSMA requirements

packing shed areaHarmony Valley Farm (HVF) is a 120-acre farm in Wisconsin that sells certified organic vegetables.  The majority of their produce is sold to wholesale and retail accounts, but they also have a large CSA (community supported agriculture) and sell at one farmers’ market per week.  During the peak of their season, they employ 45-50 people.  Richard de Wilde, who has been farming since the early 1970s, founded HVF in 1984.  Andrea Yoder began working at the farm in 2007 and was invited to be a partner and co-owner in 2009.

They have had food safety procedures on their farm for decades.  Richard has always seen investing in food safety as another layer of insurance for their organization.  They also invested in food safety to satisfy and keep their buyers.  When Andrea joined the farm, she took the beginnings of the food safety plan and continued to develop it.  This effort has continued as they comply with FSMA.  Implementing these practices makes the farm more aware, and they have worked hard to establish a culture of cleanliness on the farm.

In 2017, the farm started receiving notifications from the state explaining FSMA and inviting them to attend a Produce Safety Alliance training.  In the winter of 2018, Andrea and Simon Cervantes, a longtime HVF employee, attended a local training.  Following the training, the farm started using the tools and resources they had learned.

Andrea explained that they had trained their crew members every year prior to attending the PSA training.  After the training, however, their focus changed.  They no longer only explained that this is something they did on their farm, but explained that it is a “legal requirement” – not voluntary.  She added, “It added strength to the training and policies that we have.”

Having a farm employee attend the PSA training was also helpful.  Simon realized that they were already following a lot of the procedures.  As a leader on their staff, he reinforced that message with other crew members.

When Aric Sonnenschein, from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, contacted them about an inspection, they were expecting his call.  They had been prepared and knew it was coming.  Aric asked if they would like to have an On-Farm Readiness Review first, and Andrea replied, “Absolutely. We’ll always take an opportunity to learn.”

They already had third-party audits and organic inspections, but Andrea explained that you always get a little nervous before inspections, no matter how friendly the people are.  She shared her experience with the OFRR.  “On the day of the OFRR, Aric sat down with us first and reviewed some of our food safety policies, training records and other documentation.  While we were doing many things correctly, we did learn some small, but very important details that were necessary to be in full compliance.  Specifically, we had a daily inspection document that we were only verifying with initials, when we actually needed to include a full signature to meet full compliance.  We also did a facilities walk-through and a field tour.  On the field tour we stopped to look at one of our irrigation wells and learned more specifics about improvements we can make to our pre-season inspection procedures and documentation.”

A week after the inspection, Shawn Bartholomew (DATCP Produce Safety Supervisor, who was part of the inspection) asked if the farm would host the Wisconsin Produce Safety Advisory Council, a group of growers and educators who meet regularly in their state to work with the state regulators.  He wanted the council to see what an inspection looks like on a farm.  Andrea and her staff showed their farm’s daily practices, facilities, and record keeping.  They explained their food safety policies and how they impact the organization.

Hosting the advisory council was a positive experience, according to Andrea.  “It demonstrated to our crew members that this is important.  And it made our crew members look good, because they are doing the right things.”  She recounts a story about how the inspectors were driving up a steep field road and got to the top of the hill just in time to see an employee walk out of the portable toilet and wash his hands, using the proper procedure.  “His timing was impeccable.” 

The Wisconsin advisory council is composed of people from various parts of the produce industry (growers, processors, buyers, etc.), and Andrea sees that as a very wise decision.  “It’s great to have them all talking and see how we can bring all the parts together to be more encompassing.”

While Harmony Valley is doing a lot of things correctly, Andrea realizes there is always room for improvement.  They try to take another step each year.  She relied on the PSA Grower Training manual and other resources she received at the training.  She is also glad to know Aric and Shawn, so she can call them if she has a question.  The upcoming water regulations are the most intimidating part of FSMA to Andrea, so she’s grateful to have contact people as their implementation approaches.

As one of the first farms in their area to be inspected, Andrea has shared her experience with other growers.  “I let them know that inspectors are very friendly, and they want to help you get to where you need to be.  Shawn and Aric see this as an incremental process, so I try to share that with overwhelmed growers.  Pick the top things and get started on those.  Every year you can continue to build.”

Going forward, Richard and Andrea are hopeful that the gap between FSMA regulations and buyer requirements will close.  Some buyers require higher levels of inspection than FSMA, and it would be ideal to have one inspection that could serve both purposes. 

Andrea appreciates the way Wisconsin has handled FSMA implementation.  “Before FSMA, I went to food safety training where it was uncomfortable to be in the room.  Farmers were defensive about their practices, and the trainer was saying that you had to do this and that, but didn’t offer any support.  I appreciate how this approach has been taken.  It’s very focused on education.  Wisconsin has been proactive and positive handling the inspections.”