How To Keep Your Garden Food Safe

How To Keep Your Garden Food Safe

These are some of the steps you can take to prevent food-borne illness from creeping into your crops. Here’s how.

When it comes to food safety growing fruits and vegetables, it doesn’t matter if you’re a commercial wholesale grower, hobby farmer, home gardener, or direct marketer. The risk of food-borne illness is the same. Precautions that need to be taken are very similar, says Roy Ballard, Purdue Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources in Greenfield, Ind. Good agricultural practices should be implemented by every farmer, no matter the garden or field’s size.

“Most home gardeners are very cavalier about food-borne illness in the garden.”  “People eat veggies right out of the field or rub off a tomato with a bird dropping on it and then eat it. Sometimes a gardener may side-dress crops with rabbit manure or manure tea or perhaps let a dog or a cat into the garden. All of these habits have the potential to make you very ill. Some who are at highest risk could even die from a related illness.”

Growing produce in your home garden or fields does not necessarily mean your food is safer than commercially grown food. Following the same bad practices will result in bad outcomes. And or conventionally grown is not the issue. Those are somewhat irrelevant terms when discussing food safety.

“Microbes don’t care which set of production practices you use,” he says. “They are opportunistic and will find places where they can flourish under either system. Manure is manure. Wild bunny manure should be considered the same as a horse, or cow manure is a great soil amendment. Compost must be done in a controlled and monitored way to assure that the material heats up and becomes pasteurized. Just piling up manure and leaves and kitchen scraps for a few months are not composting. That is manure and not compost.”

Microbial contamination is the primary safety concern when growing and harvesting crops.

“The key is to limit exposure of edible crops to microbes: Harvesting them in a way that keeps them clean, cool them to retard growth, and market or use them in a way that preserves the quality and safety until they reach the fork,” he says. “Really think about all the places where microbes can contact your food all along with the production, harvest, and preparation process. That chain of quality, safety, and cleanliness have to remain unbroken from start to finish.”

If you’re heading out to the field or garden, keep in mind these points for preventing food-borne illness in the crops you grow:

1. Manure Application

Do not apply manure to crop areas near harvest times. Several months should pass between manure application and harvest. “Ideally a fall application before the harvest the next growing season,” “Do not manure tea or manure side-dress.”

2. Flood Waters

Floodwaters can contain a host of bacteria that may make the food unsafe or cause spoilage. Soil contamination from flooding may be as high as un-composted manure so treat a flooded field as if it had a manure application. Allow a minimum of 120 days between the recession of waters and harvest to reduce contamination risk. When in doubt, throw out food that may have been damaged or spoiled by the flood. It’s risky to eat any of the produce, so discard it for safety’s sake.

3. Contamination Avoidance

During the growing season, take steps to limit your crops’ exposure to dangerous microbes. Keep animals—both wild and domestic—out of gardens to raise them off the ground. Any crop that directly contacts the soil or soil splash or floodwaters is at high risk for contamination, so use drip irrigation or soil-applied water. Avoid overhead irrigation.

4. Irrigation

Use potable water to irrigate. “Municipal is best, groundwater second-best and then surface water,”

5. Clean Equipment

Use clean, dedicated, sterilized buckets for harvesting, not ones that had hydraulic fluid or paint in them. When harvesting, use, and scissors, avoid wounding produce at harvest, and discard any produce with damage or bird droppings. “If in doubt, throw it out.”

6. Cleaning Produce

Rinse produce well with tap water. This removes soil and perhaps some attached pathogens but does not guarantee safety. Store fresh produce in cool conditions to reduce microbe growth.