By Teri Rakusin, Farm Program Intern
The third Farm Walk of 2019, hosted by Spoon Full Farm in Thorp, WA, emphasized regenerative agriculture and no-till practices. The tour also served as an engaging outlet to explore how produce safety is incorporated on an operating farm. Karen Ullmann, Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) Produce Safety Program, served as a produce safety expert, highlighting protocol and answering questions about produce safety regulations.
What are Farm Walks?
Farm Walks, presented by Washington State University (WSU) and Tilth Alliance, are a series of farmer-led tours designed to facilitate farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing. Farm Walks promote the sharing of best practices and experiences to generate new ideas in management practices. Each Farm Walk has a specific theme based on the setting and focus of the host farm.
Welcome and Introductions
The Farm Walk began with clear skies and warm temperatures as everyone gathered around the farmhouse for introductions. During this time, participants and hosts could grab information from the resource table, with publications like the new Handbook for Small and Direct Marketing Farms supplied by the WSDA Regional Markets Team, and produce safety materials from Tilth Alliance and WSDA. After everyone got checked in and settled, we circled up and each attendee introduced themselves and explained what they were hoping to learn at the Farm Walk.
A Focus on Soil Health
After introductions, Spoon Full Farm managers Geoffrey and Mericos led us through a beautiful forested trail arriving at the Yakima River. Here, they explained the farm’s motto, “Loyal to the Soil,” highlighting the farm’s focus on soil health. The five managers at Spoon Full Farm (also known as the “Spoons”), consider themselves to be “soil farmers” rather than vegetable or animal farmers because they believe that soil health is the basis for quality production.
Thorp, WA has a long history in the production of Timothy Hay, a popular feed for horses and domestic pets, which was grown on Spoon Full’s land before their residence. This type of farming degraded the land over time, so now the Spoons are utilizing regenerative no-till practices to improve the soil structure while also hoping to increase soil carbon sequestration. In March 2019, Spoon Full Farm received a grant through the Washington State Organic and Sustainable Farming Fund — a program run by Tilth Alliance and the HumanLinks Foundation — that will be used to finance the application of compost to their pastures. This project is informed by the Marin Carbon Project, which succeeded in increasing soil organic matter, soil carbon sequestration and water retention. The Spoons have been working with Dr. Carey Gazis and her students from Central Washington University, studying carbon data from their vegetable plots after compost application. From these measurements they have observed improvements in their soil and hope that the application in the pasture yields similar results.
Produce Safety at the Wash and Pack
Leaving the river, we made our way back through the trail to Spoon Full’s wash and pack area. Outside, they have a shaded space with tables for washing produce and packing. Spoon Full is truly dedicated to current produce safety standards. They ensure that equipment is always cleaned and sanitized, and they test their well water every few years. Defined as a “very small business” under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, Spoon Full technically has until January 26, 2024 to comply with the FSMA agricultural water requirements. Find out if your farm is covered by the Produce Safety Rule here!
A layer of fresh wood chips covers the wash-pack area, improving drainage by increasing soil filtration . The prevention of standing water reduces the potential for disease development. Geoffrey emphasized the importance of separating field equipment from the packing area. They use two different colored bins — one color for field harvest only and another color for market packing. Differentiating the bins through color-coding reduces contamination risk before even entering the packing area. When not in use, the bins are kept in an enclosed garage to prevent interaction with pests.
Refrigeration and Value-Added Products
Spoon Full Farm works to keep produce fresh by limiting its exposure to heat. They currently have one walk-in cooler that has been inspected by the WSDA and a refrigerated truck to transport produce to Seattle Farmer’s Markets. The truck has been outfitted with an air-conditioning unit which can be plugged into their building’s electricity so that no diesel is consumed while the crew is packing for market. In the future, they hope to build another walk-in cooler to store their value-added products, like Geoffrey’s famous hot sauce. He currently makes it at a commercial kitchen in town, but would soon like to have their wash-pack certified as a commercial kitchen.
Moving on to the vegetable fields, we met the garden manager, Phoebe, and her intern team. They were working hard to clear weeds around the summer squash. To minimize the amount of hand-weeding and to avoid tilling, Phoebe uses a method called tarping. Tarping involves laying a black tarp over a section of land for a certain period of time, allowing the heat from the sun to kill existing weeds and prevent the emergence of future weeds.
The day of the Farm Walk was an unusually calm day. The property normally undergoes consistent, strong winds. To combat this, the Spoons have installed pallets to act as a wind break and prevent damage to the more fragile crops.
Produce Safety in the Field
It is crucial to mitigate and deter any contamination during harvest. Spoon Full emphasizes hand-washing, especially after applying sunblock and using the restroom. According to the Produce Safety Rule, farms should have designated hand-washing stations that are easily accessed by employees. The Spoons also require any person harvesting to wear clean clothes. It is often difficult for a worker to stay clean while in the field, but clean clothes are necessary to prevent contamination when directly dealing with produce.
We let the vegetable crew get back to weeding and found Anna, the livestock manager, and her intern among the cows. Anna implements management-intensive grazing and has been varying the number of days she allows the land to rest between grazing. She has noticed a difference in vegetation growth with even just a day’s variance. Eventually the Spoons will have an integrated system, in which the animals will graze on the vegetable plots before planting. This practice would provide the soil with manure as fertilizer, negating the need for excess inputs.
When they are ready to move their animals to the garden fields, they will have to comply with the application interval rule. The FSMA Produce Safety Rule reads, “Untreated biological soil amendments of animal origin must not be applied in a manner that directly contacts the harvestable portion of the crop and must be applied in a manner that minimizes the potential for contact with covered produce after application (§ 112.56(a)(1)(i)).” Because Spoon Full Farm is working towards organic certification, they adhere to standards outlined in National Organic Program application guidelines that farms can use to help minimize potential contamination.
Spoon Full Farm is currently employing four interns and encourages them to work on projects they are passionate about. Luca, their livestock intern, is experimenting with fermented chicken feed that acts as a sort of probiotic for chickens. Because it is very nutrient dense, you can feed them less. It is also heavier so it will not blow away as easily with the strong winds.
After a quick visit to see the chickens, we gathered again near the farm house where attendees filled out evaluations and gathered resources. Learning all about Spoon Full Farm’s driving principles and practices was a wonderful way to spend a Monday afternoon. We were grateful to have such wonderful hosts!
A big thank you to Spoon Full Farm for welcoming us onto their farm and sharing their knowledge!
Interested in future Farm Walks? Check out the 2019 schedule: http://www.tilthalliance.org/about/farm-walks