Leelanau News and Events

Michigan Is First And Only State To Offer “Produce Safety Techs” And Leelanau Growers Can Glean The Benefits Now

By Emily Tyra | Nov. 2, 2020

The latest in the “who-knew” job department: Produce Safety Technicians. These techs work behind the scenes with local farmers to implement food safety practices, and they are completely unique to Michigan. Currently there are just six people with this job title. Michelle Jacokes, the tech for Leelanau County farmers, is among them.

“I like to think of us as growers’ go-to person for fresh produce safety. Our visits to their farm are completely free, voluntary and confidential,” she says.

“That we’re the only state that has technicians,” Jacokes adds, “stemmed from us being such an agriculturally diverse state and one with many fresh produce farms.”

Jacokes explains that the Produce Safety Technician program started four years ago — the same time the FDA’s Final Rule on Produce Safety was put in place under the new Food Safety Modernization Act.

That Produce Safety Rule (PSR) established, for the first time, science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption.

Jacokes — whose role is funded through both the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) and federal dollars and is housed in the Manistee Conservation District — is here to help Leelanau growers at farms of all sizes navigate the rule, how it’s applicable to them (or not) and what needs to be documented along the way. “I work with local produce farmers to implement best practices to reduce risks of microbial contamination — disease-causing E. coli or Salmonella — of the products they grow,” says Jacokes, “And I can provide relief and support in covering a sometimes-challenging topic.”

She says the Federal Produce Safety Rule was in part precipitated by multiple nationwide outbreaks of disease from fresh produce in the last two decades, most notoriously the bagged spinach scare of 2006.

“Those rules are written in a way that speak directly to large farms,” she says, “where much fresh produce in the U.S. comes from. These farms are doing monocropping on a large scale — all lettuce, or all melons — and are highly mechanized.”

She continues, “That is why it’s difficult to navigate the rule in Northern Michigan, where we have large farms but not like on the scale of those out west. I can help a small biodiverse farmer know how the rule applies to them. And I want to support them with tools and resources for safe food for many years to come.”

Those tools include a Produce Safety Risk Assessment, and an On-Farm Readiness Review to help farmers prepare for inspections. “We go with an MSU Extension agent and walk through with the farmer — kind of like a mock inspection. We will guide you as to what the inspector might see.” 

Jacokes says that though the Produce Safety Rule is federal, it is regulated at a state level. “The FDA appoints an organization from each state to perform these inspections. Michigan currently has four inspectors who do Produce Safety Rule inspections — all employees of MDARD.”

Noel Weeks of family-owned and operated La Casa Verde Produce in Cedar did an on-farm Produce Safety Risk Assessment with Jacokes to tailor an action plan for his farm. 

The Weeks family uses organic (non-certified) practices to grow a diverse variety of produce — bok choy, lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, kale, green beans, tomatoes, squash, carrots, onion, garlic, mint, berries, and fruit, along with flowers and farm-raised pastured pork.

“By working with Michelle, we were able to take steps and make goals to help our farm be in compliance with Federal food safety guidelines and feel confident that we are providing clean and safe produce to our customers,” he tells the Leelanau Ticker.

Weeks was gung-ho to work with Jacokes. But Jacokes says one challenge to her job is making sure farmers who have many moving parts at once on their farm don’t feel overwhelmed, and that they know this program is available year-round. While some assessments need to happen during harvest, “now is a great time to reach out so they can prepare and it’s not during their busiest season.”

She adds, “Breaking down stigma is another challenge. We want growers to know we have no bias and we are not regulators. This can come into play with multigenerational farms that have been doing things one way for ‘x’ amount of years. Most of the time, it just takes a small adjustment or change to make good improvements to protecting the health of those eating the food.”

Those small tweaks are often surrounding water, which is a major contributor to microbiological risks in fresh produce. “That applies to irrigation, production water as well as post-harvest water such as wash water.”

Soil amendments can also be an active biological hazard. “We show how to compost in a manner that is safe, with scientifically valid methods,” she says.

Jacokes shares that though the federal rule went into effect on January 26, 2016, complicating this in real-time for farmers are staggered compliance dates based on farm size. “In addition, there are currently some 'enforcement discretions' under the PSR, meaning the FDA is revisiting certain parts of the rule. The Produce Safety Alliance breaks this down really well,” says Jacokes.

She says certain farms are not eligible for inspection for various reasons, such as revenues from fresh produce under/over a certain amount, whether or not farmers raise other commodities, and whether they grow a raw commodity sent to a wholesale distributor. “We really look at each farm individually to know if they qualify,” she says. “I call this how a farm fits within the rule.” 

Bottom line, says Jacokes: “Produce Safety Techs are here to help guide ANY farm that is growing fresh produce that is going into the market as a raw commodity.”

Patti Travioli, proprietor and horticulturist at Heartwood Forest Farm in Cedar went through an on-farm assessment, and agrees.

Travioli has a USDA Organic Certified farm where she primarily grows culinary and medicinal herbs, as well as flowers and vegetables, and has two acres dedicated to pollinator habitat. She is a vendor at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market and provides on-farm pick up and sales through her website.

She says most worthwhile was the ability to look at her farm with a different set of eyes.

“It was at no cost to have this done and I was very comfortable working with Michelle,” she says.

“Even though you may think you are doing everything as safely as it should be done, it is very helpful with elevating your farm practices by having a professional come see your place and offer suggestions. This definitely helped to make improvements to my business and in safety here at my farm,” she says. “My processes became more clear.”

One concrete takeaway? “I used a very simple plan that I got from Michelle for additional hand washing stations. I was able to set up a better flowing operating system.”  

Jacokes adds in describing her uniquely Michigan career path, “Overall, everyone wants to keep their customers safe. Farms want to do their best to do all the right things, and generally are. In doing this work, I have found a deep connection to the earth and to the hardworking people that take care of it, and feed people. I love what Michigan has to show in terms a strong agricultural model, and I want to provide tools of continued resilience and transparency.” 

Photo: Patti Travioli, Proprietor/Horticulturist Heartwood Forest Farm at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market with Gabby Mills from SEEDS.  

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