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Lessons learned: A view from my garden

A farewell to horticulture - but not to Extension

It’s with mixed emotions that I write my last Yard and Garden News article as an Extension educator in on-farm food safety. On August 3, I’ll be starting a new position as an Extension educator in water resources, working on watershed-based outreach and education to improve water quality statewide. I’ll certainly miss my work in horticulture, but I’m excited to enter this new chapter in my Extension career.

For my last Yard and Garden News article on produce safety, I wanted to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned and changes I’ve implemented in my garden at home. Perhaps this will inspire you to do the same, whether in your home, school, or community garden.

Produce safety - what and why?

Raised bed garden with parsley, basil, and peas. In the foreground is a small metal sign shaped like a dog pooping and the word “No!” is written on the front.
Cute, but not effective for keeping dogs out of the garden.

As a reminder, produce safety means taking steps to prevent contamination that can cause foodborne illness from fresh produce. For example, just last month an outbreak of Cyclospora infections were traced back to mixed bagged salad, affecting more than 500 people nationwide, including more than 60 in Minnesota. Cyclospora is a parasite found in the feces of infected warm-blooded animals and humans, and it can contaminate produce through dirty water, sick workers, or dirty tools and equipment. At this point, the FDA does not know exactly where the contamination came from. The investigation is ongoing.

And while we hear about big outbreaks in the news, that doesn’t mean that small growers of fruits and vegetables are off the hook when it comes to making people sick. Foodborne illnesses are very hard to trace, so we may not know whether or not our produce has ever made anyone sick.

GAPs are for everybody

That’s why everyone who grows fresh fruit and vegetables for other people to eat should take basic steps to keep that food safe from contamination. These actions are called GAPs, or Good Agricultural Practices. GAPs are science-based risk reduction practices that can be implemented on the farm or in the garden. Even simple changes can greatly reduce risks.

To be honest, I didn’t think much about risks from my own garden produce until I applied for this position, which also coincided with having our first child. Children are among those most vulnerable to severe foodborne illness, along with older people, pregnant people, and those who are immune-compromised. This led me to think about the things I do in my garden, not just to protect my son, but also to protect other friends and family with whom I share my produce.

Until that point, I hadn’t fully realized that harvesting produce from the garden means touching someone’s FOOD. It seems simple, but like many gardeners, I was used to thinking of the garden as an outside place with dirt and bugs - not as an extension of the kitchen. But, when we are harvesting food for someone else to eat, we should do unto others’ food as we would have them do unto ours. I’ve since made several simple and inexpensive changes to reduce food safety risks in my garden; changes that most anyone can make.

So, what are some of these changes?

Easy hand washing

A blue jug of water, hand soap, and paper towels in a container on top of a potting bench.
A potting bench can double as an outdoor handwashing stand.

Good personal health and hygiene for anyone handling produce is a basic GAP. This means that people should never harvest produce when they’re sick, and should always wash hands before touching produce (or any other time they may be contaminated during harvest, such as after using the bathroom).

So, one of the things I’ve done in my garden is to create an easy-access outdoor handwashing stand. It’s really handy (no pun intended) for washing between weeding and harvesting or if I accidentally touch something icky, such as bird poop or rotten produce. My handwashing setup consists of clean (drinkable) water in a jug with a stay-on spigot (jugs can be found online or in hardware or camping stores for $15-$20), soap, paper towels (and a container for dry storage), a bucket to catch the water, and a bucket for paper towel trash. Easy, peasey! And be sure to empty the water catch bucket onto the grass or other non-produce area.

Bonus #1: Outdoor handwashing means not having to fight with my toddler about going inside to wash hands before we pick cherry tomatoes or blueberries. Mom win!

Bonus #2: Also helpful for outdoor social distance gatherings during COVID.

Watch out for droppings

A weather vane in a vegetable garden and small plants below. A yellow circle is around the plants and an arrow points from the circle to the adjacent picture, showing a close-up of bird droppings on carrot greens.
Garden decor can provide perches for birds, but birds can contaminate produce with their droppings. For best results, keep the decor in the flower bed.

I love my garden decor. It looks cute, but it also provides a place for birds to perch. And birds mean bird poop. So, I’ve since moved my decor from the vegetable beds to the flower beds.

I’ve also become much more vigilant about looking for signs of animals during the season and while harvesting. It’s really important to do your best to not harvest any produce that may be contaminated, whether that be from feces, bite marks, or trampling. Animals may carry germs that can make people really sick.

I also used to think that bird poop could be washed off of produce like tomatoes, but that’s just not true. Washing may remove what we can see, but it won’t remove all of the germs. Germs can hide (think about folds in lettuce or tiny spaces around strawberry seeds) and they are sticky. Bacteria, in particular, secrete sticky carbohydrate substances to help them adhere to surfaces and they are not easily removed.

Last year, for example, I found bird droppings on my blueberries just as I was about to pick them. Thankfully, I didn’t touch them, but if I had accidentally picked them, I would have disposed of them properly and then washed my hands before resuming harvest. That’s another reason I love my handy outdoor handwashing stand - no need to go in the house.

A small bunch of blueberries have bird droppings on them. The droppings are partially hidden by a weed.
It’s not always easy to spot contamination in the garden; look carefully to see the bird droppings on the blueberries.

Keep it clean

I used to have one-size-fits-all buckets that just lived outside and I would use them for anything under the sun: weeds, potting soil, picking up sticks, catching rainwater, catching drips in the attic from my leaky roof, and ... harvesting produce. Yuck. Germs can hide in and on soiled equipment, such as harvest bins or tools, and unless they’re cleaned and sanitized* regularly, they could be a source of contamination.

Thankfully, I now know better. I finally bought myself some simple bus tubs (available online) that are inexpensive, durable and can be easily washed inside. These I use only for harvesting, and I make sure they’re clean before I take them out into the garden. I also avoid setting them on the ground while I’m harvesting; I use an old milk crate to keep them off of the soil. I store them upside-down in the garage, to keep dirt, dust, or the occasional mouse out. I’m also much more proactive about pest control in places where I store garden tools. We now have traps in the garage that we regularly check.

I also finally bought some kitchen shears and a knife that are dedicated to harvesting produce. These can just go through the dishwasher for cleaning and are stored inside. Much better than that old knife that I stored in my outdoor shed and rarely (if ever) washed.

A rectangular, gray plastic tub sits on top of a plastic milk crate next to a bed of onions. There are a few onions in the tub.
A simple bus tub makes a great harvest container. Keep harvest totes off the ground to keep soil from the bottom of the bin, particularly when bringing them in the house or stacking them.

Parting words

As I think about my time as a produce safety Extension educator, I’m grateful for the wealth of knowledge I’ve gained about GAPs, foodborne illnesses, and food safety more broadly. I feel very fortunate to have made so many wonderful connections with gardeners and farmers around Minnesota, from school gardens to large commercial growers. But most of all, I’m grateful to have worked so closely with such amazing colleagues in Extension horticulture. Minnesota is lucky to have all of you.

The practices outlined in this article represent just a handful of GAPs for gardeners. To learn more, please visit Extension’s GAPs education web page.

Happy gardening!

*Make a simple and effective sanitizer for food contact surfaces using 2 teaspoons 5.25-6% regular household bleach (unscented) in 1 gallon of water. Spray on a clean surface (one that’s been scrubbed with soap and water; sanitizers won’t work on dirty surfaces) and let air dry.

Anne Sawyer, Extension educator, on-farm food safety

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