Extension Logo
Extension Logo
University of Minnesota Extension

Talk with your produce farmer about food safety

Quick facts

  • When buying produce directly from a farm for your food business, ask farmers about their food safety practices. 
  • Food contamination risk cannot be totally eliminated, but it can be minimized.
  • A conversation is a good way to make sure you are getting produce that is grown, harvested and packaged using best food safety practices.
  • Farm visits are another great option for learning about a grower's food safety practices.

On-farm food safety practices

In Minnesota, schools, child and adult day care centers, senior living facilities, nursing homes, healthcare facilities, corrections facilities, restaurants and other institutions can buy food directly from local farmers and growers.

Food service managers and business owners are responsible for purchasing and handling food safely. Identifying local farmers and growers to purchase from requires due diligence on your part.

A way to find local farmers and growers is to ask other food service establishments who they buy from and visit farmer’s markets. The Minnesota Grown wholesale directory is another place to search for local farmers.

Before you have conversations with farmers or growers about their on-farm food safety practices, it is important to understand the requirements for farmers and growers. As you research buying directly from farmers, you may see references to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA) Produce Safety Rule.

The requirements of FSMA are mandatory for some farms, but many small and mid-size farms are not required to meet these rules due to their annual sales volume.

Following Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)

A farm food safety plan is based on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). GAPs are science-based best practices that can reduce the risk of microbial contamination in produce grown on a farm or garden.

Large grocery retailers and food distribution companies may require farms to pass GAPs and GHP (Good Handling Practices) audits.

The USDA maintains a list of farms that have passed a GAP and GHP audit. As this is a voluntary audit a farmer must pay for, many small and mid-size farms choose to develop food safety plans instead.

Talking with farmers about food safety

Most farmers are very committed to on-farm food safety and will not be offended if you ask them about their food safety practices. When contacting farmers and growers, be understanding if they are not able to respond right away, depending on the time of year, they may be busy in the field.

To start the conversation, let them know how you heard about their farm and what foods you are interested in purchasing. You can ask a general question such as “Can you tell me about your food safety practices?” or “How do you address food safety on your farm?” Listen and ask clarifying questions so you can make a confident decision to purchase from the farmer.  

Visiting the farm is a great way to build relationships and see food safety practices in action. So ask if the farm is open to visitors. 

Sample questions to ask farmers based on GAPs

These questions are meant to be a guide so you can start a conversation with a farmer. These questions do not cover all of the food safety practices that a farmer or grower may be using. 

Employee health and hygiene

  • Do you have health and hygiene training with farm workers? What topics does it cover?
    • Listen for topics like handwashing, not working while sick, clean shoes in the packaging area.
  • Are farm workers not allowed to harvest or handle foods if they are sick, or have a fever or diarrhea?
    • Farm workers should be excluded from handling food if they are ill.
  • Can you describe the farm’s handwashing station for me?
    • Water for handwashing must be drinkable (potable), with soap and single-use towels available. The handwashing station may look different than a handwashing sink in a food service operation.

Water source and testing

  • Do you use well water or surface water (steam, pond, lake, etc.) for irrigation, and how often do you have the water tested for contaminants? Would you be able to share a copy of your most recent test with me?
    • It is recommended to have well water tested once per year for E.coli. Surface water sources need to be tested more frequently.  
  • What water source do you use for postharvest and handwashing?
    • Untreated surface water cannot be used for these tasks. Only drinkable water such as municipal water, well water or treated surface water can be used for tasks like cooling harvest produce, rinsing produce, handwashing, and cleaning.

Animal and pest prevention

  • How do you keep farm animals, livestock and other animals out of packing areas?
  • If you have farm animals and livestock, how do you keep them out of produce fields when the crops are growing?
  • Can you tell me about the harvesting training for farm workers so they know how to spot animal feces or activity?
    • Farmer workers can be trained to not harvest foods that are visibly contaminated by or near animal feces.

Post-harvest food handling

  • Are there any crops that you wash before packing? How will you wash the crops (if you do)?
    • Farmers will remove as much dirt from crops as possible, but may not thoroughly wash all crops before packaging. The shelf life and quality of some crops will start to decline after washing, like berries and tomatoes. 
  • Can you tell me about how and where you pack produce?
    • Listen for details about the type of containers, how the containers are cleaned and sanitized, and packing location (pack shed or other area).
  • Can you tell me about the cleaning and sanitizing procedures used in the packing location and on food processing tools?
    • Packing areas should be regularly cleaned and sanitized. Sanitizer concentration should be tested and documented. Food processing tools should be cleaned and sanitized, and stored to prevent contamination.

Record keeping

  • Do you have a written food safety plan or standard operating procedures?

Reviewed in 2024

Page survey

© 2024 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.