What will stay post-pandemic for food safety
by Enrico Villamaino
The world is finally emerging from the exasperating asterisk that was 2020. Reflecting on what they had to do to get by, agricultural producers are taking a look back at what worked, what didn’t, what they’re glad to see go and what they’d like to keep for the future.
“Cultivating Farm and Food Safety for Visitors,” an online workshop sponsored by the University of New Hampshire, gave participants an opportunity to share their insights on how best to conduct their businesses in a post-pandemic economy.
Mary Choate, a food safety field specialist at UNH, presided over the webinar. Choate invited a pair of New Hampshire farmers to give their own firsthand accounts of their trial-and-error-based experiences in mitigating how COVID-19 affected their operations.
John Moulton, of Moulton Farm in Meredith, and Nancy Fuller, of Riverview Farm in Plainfield, also answered questions from the seminar’s participants.
Choate stated that in many ways the coronavirus not only changed the way business was done for an entire year, but will continue to have an effect long into the future.
“Some of the things we did were pretty simple in hindsight,” Moulton explained. Moulton Farm, which operates year-round, found itself blanketed in new explanatory signs, with sanitation spray within reach wherever patrons might be. “A lot of our customers were more at ease when we put up a number of signs that took a lot of questions out of how to best to maintain social distancing and keep their hands clean. We’ll definitely keep our increased signage going forward.” Moulton also erected a curbside checkout station and dedicated a section of his parking lot to curbside services. While both measures were well received by customers, they did take up valuable real estate, and he is uncertain if it will become a permanent fixture at the farm store.
The farm’s CSA program, which boasts some 330 subscribers, traditionally had picked up their regular orders in a half-bushel basket. Moulton said that to address concerns over the difficulty in sanitizing the bushels, they began using plastic bushel liners with handles that CSA members could lift out of the bushels and take away with them. While effective, he expects that they will not need to use them in the long term. Jeff Mills, general manager at Moulton Farms, added that pre-wrapping items from their bakery in plastic, such as muffins, cookies and fruit pockets, has proven worthwhile. “It does eat up a bit more labor,” explained Mills, “but we’ve found that it keeps away the fruit flies and keeps the items fresher longer.” Mills expects Moulton Farm to continue this practice going forward.
Moulton added that while they had to scale back their offerings in 2020, in order to focus on their core business, this is most likely temporary. “We had to cancel all our farm-to-table breakfast events. We’d like to bring those back. And we’ve already purchased the corn maize seed for our corn maze in the fall,” he said.
Riverview Farm operates from August through October, and like Moulton, Franklin also had to make changes around the farm. “We used to be open every day of the week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Because of everything going on last year, we stayed closed on Mondays and were open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.” By keeping Riverview closed on Mondays, Franklin was able to dedicate those days to cleaning and sanitizing the farm as well as spraying for fruit flies. “We really liked having that time to do that. We’re going to stay closed on Mondays from now on.”
In order to keep up with the demands of social distancing, and with space at a premium, Franklin set up a “flex space” outside for refreshments and outdoor sales. She also had to use a new building that had been dedicated solely for housing the farm’s tractor as a satellite barn facility. “It’s where we’ve been keeping our jams, maple syrup, honey and bagged apples,” she said. As restrictions ease up, Franklin is hoping to return to something closer to her original setup.
School tours of the farm, once a very popular program at Riverview, were halted for 2020. Franklin is not sure at this time if they will take place in 2021, although she posited that with Mondays now clear, perhaps they could be held then.
While many changes have been well received and will be kept past the end of the pandemic, there is one pandemic-mandated measure that Mills said many will be glad to see go. “I know it’s quite a hot topic, and there are multiple points of view, but so many of our customers have said they’ll be glad to not have to wear masks anymore!”