Env Sci, Policy and Mgmt
Non Technical Summary
Title: How do California produce farmers put food safety pressures into practice, and at what cost to themselves and the environment?Summary: Fresh produce is increasingly linked to foodborne illness in the US, leading both government regulators and food industry leaders to put pressure on farmers to prevent pathogens from contaminating crops at the farm level. The management practices that farmers feel they must adopt in response to intensifying pressures may result in unintended impacts on the viability, sustainability, and resilience of their farms. Yet the current prevalence and costs of on-farm food safety practices are largely unknown.This project will fill this knowledge gap by studying:Which practices, specifically, do farmers use in response to food safety pressures?How and why do the practices used in response to food safety pressures differ among farmers?How much time and money do these practices cost farmers?How do practices intended to improve food safety impact farmers' sustainability goals?These questions will be addressed through site visits, surveys and interviews with produce farmers in four California regions. As a leader in fruit, nut and vegetable agriculture--and food safety reform--California is an ideal location for this study. Lessons learned here can illuminate opportunities for broader synergy between AFRI's priority to improve food safety, nutrition and health and its priorities to sustain rural communities and the environment. Specifically, results will inform more sustainable and equitable food safety policy; support the ongoing development of strategies to co-manage food safety and environmental protection; and identify which agricultural communities are most in need of training and outreach support for food safety and conservation.
Animal Health Component
Research Effort Categories
Goals / Objectives
This project responds directly to the AFRI food safety, nutrition and health priority area while also examining overlaps and interactions with the well-being of rural communities and the environment. While it is imperative to "improve food safety for all Americans," as stated in the RFA, the US must do so while also maintaining (1) the competitiveness of American farmers/agriculture, especially with respect to local and organic markets; (2) the vitality of rural communities, especially with respect to underrepresented minority and immigrant groups; and (3) ecosystem services and general ecological resilience in the face of climate change, agricultural pests and other environmental pressures.It is therefore urgent - especially in light of the recent finalization of FDA's Produce Safety Rule which seeks to standardize on-farm food safety management nationwide - to understand how food safety standards and practices are influencing the viability, sustainability and resilience of produce agriculture in the US. The best way to understand this interaction is through observing whether, how and why farmers are changing their on-farm operations and land management practices in response to food safety pressures. Adopting or discontinuing specific practices has clear and measurable implications for farm operating costs and environmental impact (or benefit), and can illuminate both tradeoffs and synergies between food safety and other priority areas for making American agriculture sustainable, including enhancing environmental quality and the quality of life for farmers and rural communities.While previous studies have focused on leafy greens growers in the Central Coast region, who were among the first produce farmers to experience a ratcheting up of food safety pressures, little is known about the status of growers of other commodities in other regions with respect to food safety and its costs. With this gap in information in mind, the project proposes a rigorous and empirically-grounded assessment of four research questions, or goals:Which practices, specifically, do farmers use in response to food safety pressures?How and why do the practices used in response to food safety pressures differ by farm size (annual sales), crop type, geographic region, market channel, and certified organic status?How much time and money do these practices cost farmers?How do practices intended to improve food safety impact farmers' environmental stewardship and sustainability goals?
A mixed-methods approach utilizing qualitative and quantitative methods can best achieve the project goals. A three-phase study is proposed, covering four agriculturally productive counties geographically dispersed across California: Ventura County, Moterrey County, Fresno County, and Imperial County. The first phase will entail site visits in each of the four study sites to conduct open-ended interviews with farmers about food safety and conservation on their land, and to directly observe the ways in which they implement on-farm management practices for both goals. The second phase comprises a mailed survey, developed based on insights gathered during Phase 1, to approximately 2,000 fruit, nut, vegetable and melon growers in these counties, identified through county agricultural commissioner records. The final phase comprises in-depth follow-up interviews with a random sample of 40 farmers--stratified by farm size, region and crop type--to gather qualitative information that will be difficult to capture quantitatively. All phases of the proposed study will be conducted in accordance with a research protocol approved by UC Berkeley's institutional review boardand in ongoing conversation with collaborating mentors at key stakeholder organizations.Phase 1: Site Visits and Direct Observation.In the first phase of the project, the PD will conduct farm visits and open-ended interviews with farmers in each county. The purpose of this phase is to determine the range of food safety pressures experienced, and the types of operations and land management changes that farmers have made in response in order to develop a more targeted, efficient, and powerful survey instrument for Phase 2. Key objectives for Phase 1 include determining the appropriate person to interview in large operations, how best to pose questions about practices so that the questions are clear and unambiguous to farmers, what demographic and operational information to collect so that comparisons can be made in later project phases, identify potential pitfalls and sources of confusion, and catch any latent problem areas related to food safety and conservation at the farm level that have not yet been documented.The PD will visit a target sample of eight farmers in each county to allow for a range of farm characteristics spanning farm size, crop type, market channel (e.g. direct marketing, wholesale, retail), and organic status. During field visits the PD will directly observe farm management practices in order to validate survey questions about these practices against what is actually happening on the ground. The field visits will also allow for open-ended, informal conversation with farmers. Example exploratory questions for these conversations include: "Can you show me specific things you are doing to improve food safety on your farm? Can you show me how you practice conservation or improve sustainability on your farm? Why have you adopted these practices? Did someone recommend these practices to you? Do you think that other farmers you know are also doing the same things?" Responses to these questions will be categorized and used to inform decisions about question wording, language, and range of possible answer choices in development of the survey questionnaire for Phase 2.Phase 2: Mail Survey.In Phase 2, the PD will conduct a mail survey among produce growers in the four counties covered by the project. The survey will seek information on, (1) farm characteristics--e.g. annual sales, crops grown, harvested acres, certified organic status, market channel; (2) implemented conservation practices, beginning with the 27co-management practice resources(with NRCS codes) identified by the UC ANR Food Safety Program; (3) steps taken to implement food safety; (4) sources of food safety pressure (e.g. government official, private third-party auditor, customer); (5) the costs of implementation for these practices in dollars and personnel time; and (6) opinions on conservation and food safety on the farm, through Likert-scale questions.The survey questionnaire will be developed based on insights gained during Phase 1, and with input from key stakeholder collaborators. To test the questionnaire and weed out common survey pitfalls, the PD will first seek feedback from a small focus group of farmers convened from each county. Based on their input, the questionnaire will be revised for clarity, length, consistency and content. The survey instrument will then be piloted with a larger group of 20-30 farmers selected from existing interview contacts and as identified by key stakeholder collaborators. The instrument will again be revised based on their experience and the quality of the data collected during the pilot.The final survey questionnaire will be mailed to all known produce farms operating in the four counties covered by this project. Mailing addresses will be identified through publicly available registries of certified organic growers and pesticide use registrations maintained by the county agricultural commissioners. A cover letter will accompany the survey instrument, and two reminders will be mailed by post-card to every farmer at two and four weeks after the first mailing. The survey will be mailed fully blind to protect participant anonymity. To proactively mitigate the possibility that the wrong person fills out the survey, the cover letter will suggest that the survey be filled out by the owner-operator, growing/harvesting manager, or specific food safety manager; the survey will also ask respondents to report their role on the farm so that this variable can be accounted for during data analysis.Survey responses will be digitized for statistical analysis to assess whether and to what extent farm characteristics (annual sales, crop type, certified organic status, market channel, county, source of food safety pressure) affect: (1) the likelihood that a farmer reports using a given conservation practice or (2) has taken a given management step to improve food safety; (3) the costs of these management practices, in both time and dollars; and (4) responses to the Likert-scale opinion/attitude questions. These analyses will provide insight into the extent to which interpretation and implementation vary among farms; to understand why these variations exist requires qualitative methods, to be undertaken in Phase 3.Phase 3: Semi-structured Follow-up Interviews. The purpose of Phase 3 is to gather additional qualitative information that cannot readily be ascertained through a survey instrument. The goals are to: (1) generate insight into farmers' motivations for and attitudes toward food safety and conservation; (2) shed light on the ways in which on-farm management practices have changed over time, and why; (3) explain the differences in interpretation and implementation of food safety pressures within the employee structure of a farm, especially for large operations; and (4) elucidate farmer outlooks on the future of food safety, environmental sustainability, and agricultural resilience.?Integrated Analysis. These qualitative insights will be integrated with quantitative findings from Phase 2 to comprehensively explain in what ways California produce farmers interpret and respond to food safety pressures in their on-farm management practices and why. The goal is to identify opportunities to shift--through policy and/or outreach--the most economically and environmentally costly responses to food safety pressures toward more benign alternatives.