GI Smith of the Zanesville Times Recorder says when it came time to replace some of his farming equipment two years ago, local grower Mike Siegrist decided to buy something that would ensure his produce reflected his high standard of quality and the agriculture industry’s growing concern with food safety.
The equipment included a washing mechanism that would help clean harvested produce before it was sold at Siegrist Farm Market, which he co-owns and manages.
“We wash all our produce on our grater/washer before it’s sold,” he said.
He farms a 35-acre fruit orchard north of Dresden. The market is open from mid-June through November.
Mark Mechling, the Muskingum County extension agent for the OSU Extension Office, said most local farmers sell their produce locally, not to large retail stores. Those large retail stores are encouraging their produce suppliers to invest in new technology that would enable farmers to track their supplies by using bar codes and scanners.
“Most of our produce grown here is sold in a fresh market,” Mechling said. “It doesn’t go through that packing and shipping process. There may be a couple of larger farms that do ship (their produce) but by and large most of our produce is sold fresh.”
For larger produce suppliers, there has been increased scrutiny on food safety because of the risk of contaminated food-born illnesses, which could cost growers and wholesale buyers millions of dollars.
A hepatitis outbreak two years ago was traced to Mexican-grown green onions.
Four people who ate at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant near Pittsburgh died and 600 others got sick. The restaurant chain settled hundreds of lawsuits – with more still to come – for more than $21 million.
But locally, most growers continue their same produce cleaning methods.
Wilma Prater, co-owner of Prater Farm Market on Raiders Road, buys most of her produce from suppliers in Columbus and Mount Hope.
“We don’t really do anything to our produce,” she said. “We get (the produce) in daily and there’s such a fast turnover. We’ve rinsed off apples for customers who wanted (to eat them) right away.”
The market operates from March through December.
“We clean our produce by hand,” said Myron Paul, co-owner of Paul’s Farm Market on South River Road. His family farms about 8 acres of land for vegetable crops plus additional land for fruit orchards. The farm also operates greenhouses.
The market, started by his father in 1948, opens in April and closes in November.
George McCoy, owner of the McCoy Farm in Coshocton County, operates a community supported agriculture business. Families buy into a planting season each year and, during the growing season, will receive weekly supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables grown naturally by McCoy and his family.
“We don’t use chemicals or spray on our food,” McCoy said.
His produce is picked when it’s ripe and delivered to families shortly thereafter.
“You’re inspected by your customers. That probably keeps you on your toes as much as anything,” said John Wargowsky, executive director of Mid American Ag and Hort Services, whose organization works with Indiana and Ohio growers on food safety.
The increased scrutiny with food safety has coincided with an increase in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. Consumption is up about 25 percent since 1970.
An increasing percentage of food-borne illnesses, however, has been linked to fresh produce, according to federal statistics.
About 12 percent of food-borne illnesses in the 1990s were blamed on fresh produce, up from 4 percent in the 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated.