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Producers learn how to grow safe, healthy product

Mississippi's specialty farmers can grow their markets through USDA safe production and handling certification.

Mississippi’s specialty farmers can grow their markets through USDA safe production and handling certification.

With increased scrutiny on food safety, a recent event looked to give local growers the latest and greatest in the safe handling of their product from planting to harvest.

More than 20 fruit and vegetable growers gathered at Mississippi State University recently for an all-day workshop about food safety and best practices. Instructors from the MSU Extension Service, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, and Alcorn State University took attendees through an intensive course designed to introduce them to aspects of raising produce to sell to the public.

“This workshop helps producers prepare for certification,” said Eric Stafne, Extension fruit crops specialist. “While not all purchasers or farmers markets require certification, producers responding to market demand for locally grown produce in grocery stores will find certification is required.”

Stafne said the workshop touched on several topics, such as selecting sites; excluding animals; controlling pests; cooling, packing and storing produce; and managing worker health and hygiene.

“Many of these topics overlap with the Food Safety Modernization Act,” Stafne said. “Not all aspects of that law have been approved yet, but as people expand from backyard gardeners to farmers market vendors and beyond, they need to know best practices for handling products for consumer safety.”

Christine Coker, associate research and Extension professor at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said the larger-than-usual crowd reflected the importance of food safety.

“People know that food safety is not a fleeting issue,” she said. “If producers want to make a living selling fruits and vegetables, they need to make food safety a priority.”

One activity at the workshop drove home the importance of personal hygiene.

“We have a lotion we ask people to use, and then we tell them to go wash their hands,” Coker said. “After they wash them, they put their hands under an ultraviolet light connected to a projector. It’s immediately evident where the lotion wasn’t scrubbed away, and we use this process to make a point about proper hand-washing.

“It’s powerful for adults to see that bacteria are probably lurking under their wedding rings, bracelets, watches and fingernails. Handling food requires extra attention to sanitation,” Coker said.

One of the workshop’s goals is to encourage people to expand their growing operations to meet the demand for local produce.

“We want to help people develop successful small businesses, whether it’s an on-farm stand or a booth at the farmers market,” she said.

The workshop also helps producers with established, larger-scale operations stay up-to-date on regulations.

Bill Duckworth, president of the Miss-Lou Blueberry Growers Cooperative, attended the class to get the latest information on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s audit requirements.

“Our co-op’s blueberry growers have been complying with food safety regulations for years, and it’s great to see so many smaller growers interested in food safety,” Duckworth said. “Everyone needs to work to develop the reputation of Mississippi-grown produce as a high-quality product that is safe for people to eat. No matter how large or small the operation, basic principles of food safety and security need to be followed to give consumers confidence.”

The next good agricultural practices and good handling practices workshop will be March 11 in Biloxi at the Coastal Research and Extension Center, located at 1815 Popp’s Ferry Road.

Registration is free and open to all Mississippi fruit and vegetable growers who sell to the fresh market. Seating is limited to the first 25 participants to preregister. Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

To preregister or for more information, contact Barakat Mahmoud at 228-762-7783, ext. 301 or bmahmoud@ext.msstate.edu.

The workshop is funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture through the Southern Risk Management Education Center.



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