By Hunter Free, National Farmers Union Intern
Are you a farmer looking to lower your farm’s capital costs? Do you need help staying up to date on food safety best practices or regulatory requirements? Cooperatives across the country are fulfilling these needs for their members!
For the last 55 years, October has been celebrated as ‘Co-op Month’ in the United States. Cooperatives1 are organizations or businesses that are democratically owned and operated by members for the purpose of providing benefits to or sharing profits among those members. Agricultural cooperatives are incredibly diverse in structure, scale, and in the services they can provide. National Farmers Union’s Local Food Safety Collaborative (LFSC) explored some of the different ways that cooperatives might be able to help their members when it comes to produce safety.
FSMA Produce Safety Requirements
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed in 2011, is a transformative law that focuses on the prevention of foodborne illness. The Produce Safety Rule (PSR)2 in FSMA establishes science-based minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fruits and vegetables grown for human consumption. The PSR went into effect in 2016 and inspections associated with the PSR began in 2019. FSMA PSR requirements and compliance dates vary depending on a few factors, like the size of your operation or the type of produce you grow. To gauge where you and your farm operation may fall under these regulations, visit the Final Rule on Produce Safety2 or the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA)3.
Meeting Requirements from Buyers
It’s important to understand the difference between what the government requires and what your buyer requires. Whether a cooperative is selling produce wholesale or directly to consumers, different buyers may demand different produce safety standards. For example, grocery stores, schools, and hospitals may require produce suppliers to obtain Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) certification. Again, produce safety requirements from buyers can differ from what your operation may be legally required to do for the FSMA Produce Safety Rule. Interested in learning more about how GAPs and FSMA can intersect? Check out this blog post!
In a podcast by Global Growers, Darryl Copeland from West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative (WGFC) discusses the requirements from their various buyers and how the co-op responds to them. At the time of the podcast release, WGFC was working to obtain GAP certification and was months away from its first member becoming certified. WGFC established food safety standards and record keeping practices to improve traceability of the co-op’s produce.
Similarly, the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative (WFHC) requires that all farmer members be GAP certified in order to sell through the co-op. The requirement was instituted in 2015 after their wholesale buyers (primarily grocery store chains and distributors) required that their suppliers be certified. Before WFHC can sell their produce to buyers, they are required to upload all certification paperwork to the buyer’s systems.
Cooperative Cost Sharing
One common benefit that co-ops provide to members is access to essential services and supplies at lower costs. For instance, when cooperatives purchase seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides in bulk for their members, the cost that each farmer pays is lower than what it would be if each farmer purchased their supplies independently. Lower input costs mean that farmers get to keep more of their revenue. Through cooperative cost sharing, co-ops could also lower the cost of food safety related expenses, such as buying cleaning or sanitizing materials in bulk!
The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative reduces the cost of voluntary GAP certification and auditing for their members by operating a GroupGAP program. GroupGAP is a certification program that enables grower groups (co-ops, food hubs, etc.) to comply with buyer requirements for on-farm food safety certification6. This program allows all members of WFHC to come under one food safety system. They have their own dedicated Food Safety Manager, trained as a USDA auditor, who acts as WFHC’s internal auditor and helps farmers meet the GAP certification requirements. If members choose to be part of WFHC’s GroupGAP program, the Food Safety Manager works with them to develop their own farm food safety plan and then conducts a voluntary on-farm audit. The cost of a GroupGAP audit to members costs less than if each paid for individual audits. According to Sarah Lloyd of Wisconsin Farmers Union, this service typically saves members of the WFHC co-op several hundred dollars!
In addition to helping farmers meet GAP requirements, the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative also helps members prepare for FSMA’s agricultural water testing requirements. WFHC staff works with farmers to help them meet the standards that apply to their specific farm operations. It works closely with a statewide water testing company to help coordinate group drop off/pick up locations for water testing kits and water samples then also helps distribute the results to their members.
More Shared Benefits
Some cooperatives invest in centralized storage and processing facilities. Farmers can share the co-op’s equipment and facilities for the storage, washing, processing, packaging, and transportation of their produce. Shared physical capital gives farmers access to resources that may be too expensive to build or purchase independently.
For example, La Montañita is a cooperatively structured food hub and grocery chain centered in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While the co-op is predominately owned by customers rather than farmers, La Montañita’s Cooperative Distribution Center (CDC) provides local produce farmers with a large distribution facility and a dedicated produce cooler for storage. The shared facility saves farmers the capital costs they would incur if each were to buy or build their own produce cooler.
Fifth Season Cooperative, centered in Viroqua, Wisconsin, is a multi-stakeholder cooperative with six membership classes that share ownership of the co-op. The membership classes include Producers, Producer Groups, Processors, Distributors, Buyers, and Workers (read more about the co-op’s structure and bylaws here). Fifth Season works with its distributor members to reliably transport a large portion of the co-op’s produce to processors and buyers. In this case, when vehicles are only used to transport produce, the cooperative is making an effort to reduce the risk of contamination from other sources like animals. By using transportation provided by member distributors, Fifth Season also lowers capital costs by not having to purchase delivery vehicles.
Potential Risks of Shared Equipment
It’s important to acknowledge that with any shared use equipment there can also be risks. Using a centralized facility may also create new safety risks and hazards. If produce from different farms are mixed and processed at the same time, there is potential for cross contamination when produce from one farm comes into contact with produce from another farm. However, risks of cross contamination can be mitigated through cleaning and sanitizing co-op equipment in between use and establishing “clean breaks”5.
Food Safety Awareness & Education
Cooperatives can help members stay up to date on food safety best practices and requirements from the Produce Safety Rule (PSR). Some cooperatives have helped their produce farmer members subsidize the cost attending PSA Grower Trainings3. Other co-ops hold food safety educational sessions, specialized workshops, and one-on-one consultations for their members!
West Georgia Farmer’s Co-op sent members to attend trainings run by the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA). WGFC holds regular meetings for their members to talk about food safety best practices. In 2018, they hosted an educational, mock audit of one member’s farm in preparation for a real inspection pursuant to the FSMA PSR2. Afterwards, co-op members reported feeling more confident in their ability to meet produce safety standards required of their operations. And their customers reported more confidence in the products purchased from them!4
The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative staff helps farmers complete Standard Operating Procedures and record-keeping logs to track and document their food safety practices. Co-op staff also communicates FSMA-related updates to their members.
Produce safety compliance is complicated and can be tough to tackle alone. Cooperatives have the potential to provide farmers with additional support in education and cost-share initiatives.
To learn more about cooperatives, visit https://nfu.org/cooperation/
- National Cooperative Business Association: What is a Co-op? here.
- FSMA Produce Safety Rule here.
- Produce Safety Alliance main website here.
- Global Growers podcast featuring Darryl Copeland from West Georgia Farmer’s Co-op here.
- Information on “Clean Breaks” from University of Florida IFAS Extension here.
- USDA voluntary GroupGAP certification here.