The Inspector’s Notebook #7
Wash & Glow: The inspector's guide to post-harvest handling

Showcasing quality and guarding against contamination rank among the top priorities at this stage of certification.

By Jim Riddle

Editor’s NOTE:

Certified organic farmers do an odd thing – they pay people to visit their farms with a critical eye to assure they are adhering to every aspect of the USDA’s national organic standard.

The farmers should already be trying to produce, harvest and market their organic crops, livestock and related products by these rules. The on-farm review of fields, facilities and records by an approved inspector sent by the farmer’s accredited organic certifier is the critical point in confirming that the farmer and the farm meet the organic standards – and can prove it to anyone who needs to know.

The visits are pivotal for applying farmers to become certified, and for certified farmers to keep that certification. For the good of organics, we want to help build the foundation for effective inspection visits. We’ve asked Jim Riddle to provide an inspector’s inside view to help farmers understand an inspector’s role, responsibilities and limitations.

In the months ahead, Riddle will elaborate on many items to help farmers understand regulations that apply to them, and how to document their compliance.

Jim Riddle has been on hundreds of farms in the inspector role, and he’s been inspected himself during his time as a farmer. His leadership in bringing professional training to inspectors helped to earn greater acceptance of organic farming in the U.S. He serves as vice-chair of the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic agriculture policies and regulations. He has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer.

Jim Riddle serves as vice-chair of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and organic policy advisor for NewFarm.org. He was the founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).

December 6, 2004: “We want our carrots to glow!”

That’s what Chris and Kim Blanchard said at a recent field day at their Rock Spring Farm in SE Minnesota. During the day sponsored by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and Practical Farmers of Iowa, Chris and Kim showed off their four production greenhouses, wet and dry packing sheds, 5 acres of production beds and fields of asparagus, squash, and tomatoes. The Blanchard’s grow a large variety of gourmet vegetables, fresh herbs and flowers—which are sold through their CSA, a local farmers’ market and wholesale—but their hallmark vegetable is carrots.

The Blanchards used a barrel washer to remove most of the soil from their carrots, followed by a power washer spray as a final rinse when carrots come out of the barrel and onto the screen. They do this so the carrots “glow”.

As we discussed washing carrots and cleaning squash, I was reminded that quality is an important goal for post harvest handling, and that approved materials must be used.

Chris and Kim are careful in this regard—their wash water is sanitized with organic-approved Tsunami (peracetic acid), 1 cup per 150 gallons of water. (Please note that peracetic acid is a combination of hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid, both of which are allowed for post harvest handling of organic produce.)

When harvesting squash, the Blanchards wait until the underside of the squash is, what Chris termed, “Martha Stewart Autumn”, or the color of pumpkin pie with spices. Using pruning shears, each squash stem is cut individually, a portion of the stem remaining attached. Breaking stems off at the base of the squash can introduce disease areas and increase dehydration.

Squash are then carefully piled (never thrown) in the field where they lay for 2 nights after picking. Stems are arranged so they don’t poke each other. Every squash they pick is a good one. They leave unripe squash in the field to incorporate into the soil, and reduce the number they handle. Later the squash fields will be mulched with hay so the fruit does not lie directly on the soil.

The selected squash are carried from the field and moved to a dry packing shed, where they are packed in large crates. Each squash is carefully wiped down. No dipping or wash treatments are used. Chris warns washing squash could increase its susceptibility to rot, especially, if they are not allowed to thoroughly dry prior to stacking. The squash are then cured for one to two weeks which seals pores and “sweetens” the squash. After curing, squash are kept in dry storage at around 55ºF.

When inspecting vegetable packing operations, I evaluate the risks of contamination by prohibited substances and commingling with non-organic products.1 Of course, commingling with non-organic products is not a problem on this 100% organic farm. If your washing and packing equipment is also used for non-organic vegetables, process your organic vegetables first when equipment is clean to reduce the risk of contamination. Be sure to keep an equipment cleaning log to record when pieces of equipment are cleaned.

Water that comes in contact with organic products must be clean (potable). Get an annual water test to monitor your water quality. Make sure that all substances added to the water are allowed for organic production. If you have any questions, contact your certification agency before you use the substance. When in doubt, do without.

1 (National Organic Program rule §205.272)