VT Vegetable & Berry Growers’ Association (VVBGA): Community Accreditation for Produce Safety

2015 Co-op Patronage Seedling Grants

VT Vegetable & Berry Growers’ Association (VVBGA): Community Accreditation for Produce Safety - Initial Grant Award: $9,500 (actual check: $12,700.55)

Launched in October 2014 by VVBGA and UVM Extension, CAPS is a voluntary, practical and affordable Produce Safety Accreditation for diversified Vermont farms. The Purpose of CAPS is to help the hundreds of VVBGA farmers reduce their risk of food-borne pathogens and maintain food safety credibility in the marketplace, even though they may be exempt from the anticipated final rules of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

CAPS provides an innovative on-line accreditation platform as well as education and technical assistance to help farmers integrate best-practices. On the CAPS platform, growers can learn about food safety practices, share information about their own practices, write their produce safety plans, and complete their Accreditation.  With their digital “Farm Folders”, growers can then share their CAPS credentials with buyers of their choice.

Over the next few years, the FSMA and its large-farm food safety credentials will drive fresh produce market standards and public perception.  But the majority of Vermont’s smaller and more diversified farms will be exempt from FSMA, and thus lack credentials in a changing market place. VVBGA’s CAPS will strengthen the local food system both by providing these needed credentials for Vermont’s diversified produce farms and by meaningfully reducing risk, without the large cost and regulatory burden of national programs.  CAPS, through its practical approach, further aims to increase farm efficiency and produce quality. Another large unforeseen strength is that the community-based approach of CAPS helps create buy-in and build farm-culture around practical produce safety.  Most farmers and buyers seem particularly motivated by the idea of shaping a practical and cost-effective accreditation that could help inform near-future market and regulatory changes, driven by the FSMA. 

2016 Update!

CAPS is a collaborative effort among the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association (VVBGA), the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, and University of Vermont Extension. The program is intended to help Vermont’s small and medium-size produce farms reduce food safety risks while maintaining credibility in the marketplace.

Early in 2016, a total of 85 farms created individual farm folders in the CAPS on-line platform and used the system to create produce safety plans for their farm. By the end of May, 68 farms took the next step and officially enrolled in CAPS as of May, 2016, paying a $100 fee to participate in the accreditation process. The 68 farms enrolled in CAP reported having 1,304 acres in crop production plus 715,442 square feet in greenhouse crop production. Based on 2012 Census of Agriculture data for field vegetables and greenhouse tomatoes in Vermont, these farms have annual produce sales of $12.44 million.

The 17 farms that used the CAPS platform only to write produce safety plans but did not wish to become accredited did not have to pay a fee. Farms were offered scholarships to fully participate in CAPS, if needed, and 5 farms paid a reduced fee of $50 for accreditation.

To earn accreditation, farms have to document the implementation of best practices required in the produce safety plans. For example, test results showing zero generic E. coli in water used for washing produce, employee signatures on produce safety policy forms, and written descriptions of standard operating practices applied to harvesting, washing and storing produce, along with images of the equipment used for these activities. 

All required documentation was due to be uploaded by farms in early November; 66 of the 68 farms met this deadline. Teams of two reviewers then scored each of the 66 on-line farm folders for completeness, using pass/fail for each required section, with comments required when a failing grade was given. There were 12 reviewers including the CAPS coordinator; 7 were farmers from the CAPS advisory board and 5 were service providers (3 from Extension and 2 from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.)  Two people reviewed each farm folder.  

Forty farms submitted complete and accurate documentation by the November deadline. Reviewers found some correction or addition needed by 26 farms. Most of these are minor issues, such as a missing photo or additional detail needed to fulfill a required description of a standard operating procedure. All farms with additional information needed have until December 19 to address the issues identified by reviewers. The program coordinator works closely with all farms by email and phone to assist them with completing their farm folders.

Three farms have submitted very little of the required documentation to date, and they are less likely to complete the accreditation process.

A few unique issues around accreditation were identified that will require discussion with the VVBGA Board. For example, CAPS requires a 3-4 month waiting period between application of manure and harvest of crops (identical to the standard for organic farm certification) and one farm did not meet that period but mitigated food safety risk in an acceptable manner by applying plastic mulch over the soil after manure incorporation and then growing greenhouse tomatoes that never came near the soil. This is a good example of where CAPS can provide flexibility – the goal is to reduce risk not rigidly adhere to a one-size fits all set of requirements. It will be up to the VVBGA board to make this determination.

Five of the CAPS farms also participated in a pilot this year with the Hannaford supermarket chain. This pilot used the CAPS program in place of GAPS (Good Agricultural Practices) audits by modifying a few documentation requirements, and adding an on-farm audit. The audits were conducted by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, providing corroboration of the documentation materials uploaded to the CAPS platform. This successful pilot will be continued and hopefully expanded next year, opening up new markets for smaller growers who previously could not afford the time and expense of GAPS. (Hannaford and other supermarket chains require fruit and vegetable farms that sell directly to them to pass GAP audits, or equivalent.)

All farms that fulfill the requirements for accreditation by December 19 will be awarded an electronic e-badge that can be used on their marketing materials. This badge is good for 2017 only, and must be renewed annually by completing the CAPS accreditation process each year. For 2017, we are aiming for 150 farms to enroll in CAPS, and for 125 to complete the process so they will gain accreditation for 2018.

Support for CAPS has come from Black River Produce, City Market, Hanover Co-op, the High Meadows Fund, Middlebury Food Co-op, University of Vermont Extension, USDA’s Northeast Risk Management Education program, and the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association.