By Teri Rakusin, Farm Program Intern, Tilth Alliance, with support from Allison Kaika, National Farmers Union Intern
Tilth Alliance is a non-profit organization based in Seattle, Washington that focuses on organic gardening and urban ecology. They provide classes, learning gardens and farms, and community programming for the purpose of building an ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially equitable food system. The work described in this blog post is supported in part by the Local Food Safety Collaborative.
What are Farm Walks?
The farm walk program, presented by WSU and the Tilth Alliance, is a series of farmer-led tours designed to facilitate discussion between farmers, producers, and agricultural experts about food safety practices and other topics. Farm walks promote the sharing of information and experiences to generate new ideas in management practices. Each farm walk has a specific theme based on the setting and focus of the host farm.
The third farm walk of the year, hosted by Spoon Full Farm in Thorp, WA, emphasized regenerative agriculture and no-till practices. Karen Ullmann, from Washington State Department of Agriculture, served us as the produce safety expert, highlighting protocol and clarifying produce safety rules and practices.
Introductions and Check-In
The farm walk at Spoon Full Farm began with clear skies and warm temperatures as everyone gathered around the farm house for check-in and introductions. During this time, farm walk participants and hosts could grab information from the resource table, with publications like the new Handbook for Small and Direct Marketing Farms supplied by WSDA, and produce safety materials from Tilth Alliance and WSU. After everyone got checked in and settled, we circled up and each attendee introduced themselves and explained their purpose for being at the walk.
A Focus on Soil Health
After introductions, managers Geoffrey and Mericos led us through a beautiful forested trail arriving at the Yakima River. Here, they explained the farm’s motto: “Loyal to the Soil,” highlighting the farm’s focus on soil health. The five managers at Spoon Full Farm (also known as the “Spoons”), consider themselves to be “soil farmers” rather than vegetable or animal farmers because they believe that soil health is the basis for quality production.
Thorp, WA has a long history in the production of Timothy Hay, a popular feed for horses and domestic pets, which was grown on Spoon Full’s land before their residence. This type of farming degraded the land over time, so now the Spoons are utilizing regenerative no-till practices to improve the soil structure while also hoping to increase soil carbon sequestration
Produce Safety at the Wash and Pack
Leaving the river, we made our way back through the trail to Spoon Full’s wash and pack area. Outside, they have a shaded space with tables for washing produce and packing. Spoon Full is truly dedicated to maintaining required produce safety standards. They ensure that equipment is always cleaned and sanitized, and they have been testing their well water for years. Defined as a “very small business” under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule. Spoon Full technically has until January 26, 2024 to comply with the Food Safety modernization Act agricultural water requirements. Find out how your farm qualifies here!
A layer of fresh woodchips covers the wash-pack area, improving drainage by increasing infiltration. The prevention of standing water reduces the potential for disease development. Geoffrey emphasized the importance of separating field equipment from the packing area. They use two different colored bins–one color for harvest only and another color for market packing. Differentiating the bins through color-coding reduces contamination risk before even entering the packing area. When not in use, these bins are kept in an enclosed garage to prevent any interaction with pests.
Refrigeration and Value-Added Products
Spoon Full Farm works to keep produce fresh by limiting its exposure to heat. They currently have one walk-in cooler that has been inspected by the WSDA and a refrigerated truck used to transport produce to Seattle Farmer’s Markets. The truck has been outfitted with an air-conditioning unit which can be plugged into their building’s electricity so that no diesel is consumed while the crew is packing for market. In the future, they hope to build another walk-in cooler to store their value added products, like Geoffrey’s famous hot sauce.
Moving on to the vegetable fields, we met the garden manager, Phoebe, and her intern team. They were working hard to clear weeds around the summer squash. To minimize the amount of hand-weeding and to avoid tilling, Phoebe uses a method called tarping. Tarping involves laying a black tarp over a section of land for a certain period, allowing the heat from the sun to kill existing weeds and prevent the emergence of future weeds.
The day of the farm walk was an unusually calm day. The property normally undergoes consistent, strong winds. To combat this, the Spoons have installed pallets to act as a wind break and prevent damage to the more fragile crops.
Produce Safety in the Field
It is crucial to mitigate and deter any contamination during harvest. Spoon Full emphasizes hand-washing, especially after applying sunblock and using the restroom. According to the Produce Safety Rule, farms should have designated hand-washing stations that are easily accessed by employees. The Spoons also require any person harvesting to wear clean clothes. It is often difficult for a worker to stay clean while in the field, but clean clothes are necessary to prevent contamination when directly dealing with produce.
We let the vegetable crew get back to weeding and found Anna, the livestock manager, and her intern among the cows. Anna implements management-intensive grazing and has been varying the number of days she allows the land to rest between grazing. She has noticed a difference in vegetation growth even just with a day’s variance. Eventually the Spoons will have an integrated system, in which the animals will graze on the vegetable plots before planting. This practice would provide the soil with manure as fertilizer, negating the need for excess inputs. When they are ready to move their animals to the garden fields, they will have to comply with the application interval rule. The FSMA Produce Safety Rule reads, “Untreated biological soil amendments of animal origin must not be applied in a manner that directly contacts the harvestable portion of the crop and must be applied in a manner that minimizes the potential for contact with covered produce after application (§ 112.56(a)(1)(i)).” Because Spoon Full Farm is an organic operation, they also adhere to standards outlined in National Organic Program application guidelines that farms can use to help minimize potential contamination.
After a quick visit to see the chickens, we gathered again near the farm house where attendees filled out evaluations and gathered resources. Learning all about Spoon Full Farm’s driving principles and practices was a wonderful way to spend Monday afternoon. We were grateful to have such wonderful hosts!
A big thank you to Spoon Full Farm for welcoming us onto their farm and sharing their knowledge!
Farmers interested in signing up for a future farm walk with Tilth Alliance can view our opportunities here: http://www.tilthalliance.org/about/farm-walks