By: Vern Grubinger, Billy Mitchell, and LFSC editor
After three years, the SCRUB project – formally known as Sanitization and Cleaning Resources for your Business – project has wrapped up. The project, funded by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) grant, was developed to support the adoption of improved cleaning and sanitizing practices on small, diversified vegetable farms that are not fully covered by the Produce Safety Rule (PSR) of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These farms, which primarily sell to local consumers, often need help implementing produce safety practices because they have limited financial and management resources. The project partners included the University of Vermont Extension as project lead, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Michigan State University Extension, and the National Farmers Union Foundation, and they used a pedagogy focused on co-learning with growers. This pedagogy was a key to the project’s impact. It included active listening to inform educational resource development, facilitating peer-to-peer sharing of experience and knowledge, capturing grower-driven solutions and “best practices,” and recognizing the unique needs, barriers, and mix of factors influencing grower decisions.
The project started with a needs assessment to understand the food safety perspectives of vegetable farmers. Key takeaways from this needs assessment revealed that growers are motivated to adopt food safety practices by a personal commitment to a safe, high-quality product and to meet regulatory requirements. Most growers said that they have, or intend to, implement new food safety practices. Two other key takeaways were that standard limits to implementing food safety practices are infrastructure and time and that growers are most likely to learn a new skill from websites, trainings, and videos.
The project also ensured that historically underserved audiences’ perspectives were represented and held Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion listening sessions. Key conclusions from those sessions included that people want to see themselves in materials and be able to identify with the types of farms and the farmers covered in educational materials and that farmers need and want low-tech, low-cost cost, durable solutions. It was also discussed that not all farmers are literate at the level of most published educational resources, and they may be unaware of what Extension is or what it does. Finally, it was stressed how important it is to maintain connections. These conclusions helped project team members consider more broadly how project outputs may land with different audiences, focus on capturing, curating, and sharing examples of low-cost, no-cost, and low-tech solutions, produce resources that emphasized visual and graphic presentation of topics, and build relationships and use approaches that make people feel welcome.
Peer-to-peer sharing and grower-driven solutions
Ten partner farms in GA, NH, NY, and VT were engaged early in the project to identify specific produce safety needs gaps in educational resources and to develop templates for future workshops. When meeting with the farms, team members focused on each farm’s unique situation and technical assistance needs. Over the next three years, the team members stayed engaged in working with each farm to plan and implement improved produce safety practices, address emerging needs, and incorporate lessons learned into new educational resources. A consistent theme was the need for advice on effectively and efficiently cleaning and sanitizing harvest containers, wash/pack lines, and other food contact surfaces.
Twilight Highlight webinars were developed to address the cleaning and sanitizing needs identified by SCRUB partner farms. Farmers with experience in addressing these needs were recruited as presenters. A few of the topics included systems for cleaning and sanitizing harvest bins, inexpensive improvements that growers made related to produce safety that had trade-offs of spending money (or not) to lower risks and increase efficiency, and strategies growers used to avoid inefficiency and food safety risks by hiring and retaining reliable and productive farm crews.
Growers also led food safety workshops and farm tours to highlight their experiences and allow other growers to share successful food safety strategies and ask questions. These included conference sessions on cleaning tools and wash pack design and on-farm workshops highlighting post-harvest practices and hygienic design principles.
Resources to meet needs and barriers
Most of the work has been captured on the SCRUB project website www.go.uvm.edu/scrub. An example of how growers led the development of resources is around cleaning tools. Many growers were looking for resources about different cleaning tools and the trade-offsof one tool or another, the same way a grower may want to compare the pros and cons of a seeder or tractor. In response to this need, the University of Vermont Extension Agricultural Engineering team tested a variety of brushes for design features that optimized on-farm cleaning. The SCRUB team also asked growers for photos and testimonials of cleaning tools used on farms – what was working, what wasn’t, and what lessons would they like to share with other growers? A blog post and six short videos were produced to share the results.
A total of 27 videos were developed and posted on a SCRUB YouTube channel. These included one-minute SCRUB videos on squeegees and quickly rinsing CSA totes at Root 5 Farm. The channel also featured many of the TwiLight Highlight peer-to-peer webinar recordings.
Ultimately, it’s the impact on the growers and the communities they feed that matters, and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Benard Farm “really enjoyed the deep dive and detail covered. Rarely do we get to the details of farming in workshops, and that really makes or breaks an operation.” Cardinal Farms found “the suggestions on workflow and placement of different parts of the process have really been a big help.” Perhaps most importantly, alongside improving food safety practices, the project also strengthened the sense of community among growers as they implemented the practices. Love is Love Cooperative Farm appreciated that the work “provided us a sense of camaraderie. It’s helpful to know that other people are facing the same challenges and be able to discuss solutions to those challenges with them… It drove home the importance of the need to be able to see other models (farms) to look to and learn from.”
For more food safety resources, visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website and 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 and Twitter 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 TBD 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.