By: Billy Mitchell and Kathryn Kavanagh
“Being outside and working with my hands – it’s the best thing.” The first year working on a farm is always going to be hard, but Katherine – a farmer who just wrapped up her first season – shared during a recent farmers market that, despite all the hard parts of farming, at the end of the day it can really be the best thing. To better understand what the first year of working on a diversified vegetable farm can be like, we asked Katherine and fellow first year farmer Alex to share the ups, the downs, and the lessons learned after a year growing, harvesting, packing, and selling produce.
One of their first suggestions was to make the time to walk around, be curious, and observe what’s happening on the farm. At the end of her first year, Katherine wished “that I had more time or prioritized walking around the farm at the end of every day and just taking it in . . . appreciating the work that we put in.” For Katherine, making the time to reflect is “a really powerful reminder of the importance of the work that you’re doing and also how cool it is to be able to work outside every day.“ That curiosity and reflection can also support food safety practices. Being curious and looking at your crops before harvest, paying attention to how they look and if they’ve been damaged by weather or animals, is one way to do a pre-harvest risk assessment. Reminding yourself of how important it is to grow food in a way that lowers risk and increases quality is a positive way to build a food safety culture on the farm.
That curiosity and engagement also helps with being organized. For Katherine, “I always write everything down.” She found that there are always moments when the crew will notice something or have a great idea and it’s so easy to forget those moments and ideas as you scramble to the next task. Katherine found writing things down helped to determine what’s “really important to prioritize.” This same emphasis on writing things down can help with food safety as well, clarifying training for employees or developing record keeping systems that help meet food safety requirements like those found in the Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule.
Not every farmer thrives by communicating everything in writing. At the farm Alex worked on, the manager “had a to-do list every day and we didn’t have a written system. It was all verbalized in the morning.” That system worked because the crew worked at having clear communication. But, Alex was also able to have positive communication with her manager about ways communication on the farm might be strenghtened. She said the farm now has “a written system with a whiteboard and a meeting.” Alex likes this system because “it gives people autonomy and it takes the burden away from us having to contact a manager throughout the day to see what’s next. We can just move on in our own time to the next task.” Katherine also said that her farm valued “open connection” and they would communicate verbally, with lists and weekly emails to the managers. This is a key piece of creating a strong food safety culture on the farm — allowing employees to provide feedback and incorporating systems that continually improve and strengthen based on who is working on the farm and what their communication and working styles are. It can help you develop the policies, standard operating procedures (SOPS), and corrective actions that a farm needs to be successful.
Communication is key at the farmers market as well, both between customers and among all the market employees. Before Alex worked on the farm, she said “most of my experiences in customer service was in restaurants and cafes, so for me it was the same energy.” She found it can be “really fun because then you get to see the customers.” The ability to work the soil, harvest the food and then see “it go into someone else’s hands is really special.” It also drives home the importance of taking steps, from seed to sale, of following food safety practices to take care of the food those customers are purchasing and sharing with their friends and family. Even if you don’t work the market, Alex suggested “go to market if you can in your first year.”
Katherine agreed: “I would definitely jump on that and say go to market!” She found it to be such a cool opportunity because of how curious the customers are about how the food is grown. “It’s really cool to say we planted these collards . . . and now they’re in somebody’s hands. I really, really love that.” It’s also a way to build relationships because each farm will have regulars, sometimes showing up before the market even opens. Katherine, like Alex, found that “it’s really high paced, high energy.” That can mirror the feeling of being in the field or being in the wash pack, with lots of things happening at once. Alex would pace herself and “go as slow as I need to go and I’m in control.” Rushing, either when you’re bagging or selling salad mix, can add risk. It’s always important to find a sustainable pace for yourself whether in the field or at the market.
Of course, there will be times when you might feel a little off – perhaps it’s not as easy to remember how cool it is to be feeding people because you’re stressed on a very hot day. Alex said that you need to “definitely take care of your body” and Katherine quickly responded, “oh yes!” It’s a great point! It’s hard to take care of other people by following good agricultural practices (GAPs) if we aren’t taking care of ourselves first. Alex shared that you will “be creating all of this muscle memory using tools and harvesting. Think about how you’re using your body because it might be the way that you’re gonna do it forever.” Just like her farm switched up their ways to communicate, she suggested switching up how you work in the field “to try to see what works best.” Often, a food safety plan is referred to as a “living document” because it should change as your practices change. Neither you nor your food safety plan should be caught in a rut where nothing changes, but instead always adapts and improves.
They both highlighted stretching and other restorative practices. For the body, Alex liked yoga and Katherine is “a big fan of ice baths and ice packs.” For the mind, they recommended meditation and audio books. They both also exercised outside of work and loved being in the best shape of their lives. It might be following YouTube exercise stars like Chloe Ting or Yoga With Adriene or just going on long runs outside. This might surprise someone who has never worked on a farm, but after a long day it can be easy to forget to bring home the produce you are tending to. Alex said, and Katherine agreed, to “eat the food that you’re growing . . . because it’s amazing.”
The last piece of advice? Take the time to appreciate it. Those long days can go by fast! Katherine found that it’s easy to get caught up in “the minutiae of the day where another machine breaks” or that everything that you’ve “planned just completely gets thrown awry because an unforeseen problem came up” and you lose sight of all the hard work you’ve put in and how much you’ve accomplished. In a Produce Safety Alliance grower training, you’ll hear that it’s a best practice to review your water risk assessment once a year to identify what worked and what could be strengthened.
Katherine shared that “it’s really good to know where your food comes from, at least once in your life, and then you’ll be able to appreciate it more forever.” For her, you look back on everything you did as a producer and “you put in hard work and this is what we get out of it – this incredibly beautiful produce.”
For more producer focused stores and information, please visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website along with the Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse for a curated source of food safety guides, factsheets, templates, and more. Don’t forget to follow LFSC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on the latest food safety news.
This project website is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award 2U01FD006921-03 totaling $1,000,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.