TALKING SHOP: The Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference

Food safety, business planning, and local food advocacy take center stage
PFI speakers call for scrupulous post-harvest handling to keep food safe, careful planning to guide farm entrepreneurship and persistent advocacy to re-localize community food purchases.

By Darcy Maulsby

Creating sustainable space in the national agenda

Judy Heffernan urges farmers to lead policymakers through positive examples of moral and ethical decision making that brings life to farm communities.

By Darcy Maulsby

When you talk about sustainable agriculture, you’ve landed deep into moral and ethical issues. Are you ready to meet the challenge?

“When we lift sustainability up as an alternative vision, we’re entering a raging debate on values and visions of the world,” said Judy Heffernan, a Missouri rural sociologist and executive director of the Heartland Network for Town and Rural Ministries (

In her PFI keynote, Heffernan emphasized that the dominant system of food production cannot--and should not—go on.

“We can change the direction of agriculture, but we need guidelines,” she said. “A new system must be just. The people affected by the system must be part of the decision makers. And the system must be sustainable.”

Spreading a value system
She highlighted current dominant themes of monoculture, rural impoverishment and dysfunctional urbanization, and ecological dead zones caused by ag pollution. But these trends affect more than rural residents, now that a handful of large corporations are gaining control of food production, Heffernan noted. “Folks who aren’t elected but run giant entities are deciding who will grow food, where it will be grown, and how it will be grown and processed.”

This value system is being proselytized around the globe, Heffernan added. “It has a focus on the bottom line, the quick fix, and the commoditization of everything. Is this the value system we want trumping all other value systems?”

Creating spaces in agriculture
To counter these trends, U.S. agriculture could take a lesson from the total quality management (TQM) philosophy that swept the business world during the 1980s.

“To challenge the system of modern food production is seen by some as unpatriotic, even immoral,” Heffernan said. “But TQM says if you want to change the results you’re getting, you have to change the system.”

By living out an alternative vision, sustainable farmers can create spaces in which other people can act, Heffernan emphasized. “When there’s no alternative vision, the politicians who can make a difference in public policy can only listen to the drumbeat that comes into their offices daily in expensive suits.”

In the end, creating these spaces requires action.

“You need to keep living out alternative visions and realize you’re not alone,” Heffernan said. “There are a lot of groups who feel the same way you do, including the faith community. Only when we work together do the pieces all fall into place.” dm


Business training options abound

Live, in-person courses in business planning – as well as distance learning options -- are available at many community colleges and land-grant universities. For other avenues: “By entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs” the site offers many articles on business skills and analysis. The first entry under “Publications” at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture Web site includes a farmer and specialist crafted business planning package developed over a period of years.

Make small farm business plan
a “living document” to bring focus

Tim and Maureen Daley from New Hartford, Iowa, can attest to the power of a good business plan. The couple runs Shamrock Acres Farm, an acreage where they raise sheep and chickens. “Your business plan is a living document,” Tim said. “Get your ideas down on paper, and fine-tune them as you go.”

The Daleys knew planning their business would be important, since they both have off-farm jobs and are raising young children. “At first we weren’t putting any numbers to all the plans we were coming up with,” Maureen said. “We were thinking about growing and maybe adding more land. But we knew we needed to create more structure first.”

After taking Huber’s business planning course in Des Moines, the couple learned some important lessons. “It taught me you have to focus,” Tim said. “It forces you to figure out your cost of production up front so you can figure out if your ideas will pay.”

As they developed their business plan, the Daleys developed a mission statement. “We want to help people connect with local foods,” Maureen said. “Creating a business plan helped us decide how we wanted to do this and how to measure if we were successful. It helped us define the right questions and gave us the resources to answer them.” -- dm


Events ranging from a small-business planning seminar to a buffet of Iowa-grown food brought nearly 400 farmers and consumers together in Des Moines for the 2004 Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) annual conference on Jan. 9-10. For information on PFI:

Following a theme of “Sustainable Farms, Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Lifestyles,” the event focused on the growing movement toward a food system that supports local farmers, rural communities and a healthy environment.

“Many of us have an idea what sustainability looks like on the farm level,” said PFI Director Robert Karp. “But what does it look like within our families and our communities? How do we bring the same innovative thinking from our farms into our communities and the wider world?”

To make this happen, many PFI workshops focused on ways farmers can improve their production and marketing skills to establish strong, dependable connections with more people. Targeted topics were on-farm food safety, basic business planning, and making the argument for local foods.

Focusing on food safety

As a producer, what are your chances of causing a foodborne illness outbreak?

“The chances are low, but the consequences are significant to both consumers and your business,” said Jason Ellis, an Iowa State University Extension specialist. “Your longevity in the business without any food safety problems doesn’t ensure you won’t have problems in the future.”

The key is to focus on risk reduction, not risk elimination. Start with cleaning and sanitizing, Ellis said. “A lot of people consider these to be the same, but they are two different stages. Cleaning means removing visible soil and other debris. Sanitizing destroys disease-causing microorganisms.”

You can get four- to 10-fold reductions in microbial numbers by cleaning with tap water. But washing with tap water alone has its limitations. “There’s no sanitizing, and washing can spread microbial contamination in some cases,” Ellis said. “If you’re using a large tub of water to wash produce and the first batch is contaminated, you’ll make a microbial soup if you don’t change the water for the next batches.”

Sanitizers you can use on fresh produce include chlorine (household bleach), hydrogen peroxide, acidified sodium chlorite, and peroxyacetic acid. Acidified sodium chlorite products like SanovaTM are similar to chlorine but include an organic acid. “You get a synergistic effect and more effective sanitizing this way,” Ellis explained. “Adding an organic acid lowers the pH of the water, which means the sanitizers don’t get bound up in the water.”

Peroxyacetic acid provides a powerful combination of acetic acid and peroxide. It is marketed under the trade name TsunamiTM. “This product is widely available through dairy supply stores,” Ellis said. “You can also get a lot of these sanitizing products from pool supply stores.”

Be aware of the concentration your sanitizer. “If you are over a certain level, you may be required to do a follow-up rinse,” Ellis said. “If you have more than 200 parts per million of chlorine in your water, for example, you’ll need to do a follow-up rinse.”

Temperature variables problematic

When working with foods like eggs or apples, be aware of how temperature differences impact the sanitizing process. “The rule of thumb is that there should be no more than 10 degrees differential between the food item and the temperature of the sanitizer,” Ellis said.

If you put an apple that’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit into water that’s 45 degrees, the apple will shrink. “This will suck water into the fruit,” Ellis said. “This can draw bacteria into areas that the sanitizer can’t reach.”

Maximize the benefits of these products by cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces properly. “Anything that touches the food is a potential contamination source,” Ellis noted. “This includes harvesting containers, since they accumulate soil and microorganisms and can spread microbes to freshly harvested produce.”

When you clean the surfaces that come in contact with food, use a little elbow grease. “Microbes form a goo that creates a shell around them,” Ellis said. “Friction will help crack that biofilm and will allow you to sanitize to get down into the pathogens.”

Good agricultural practices that promote on-farm food safety include:

  • Composting manure properly, especially if you use the material for fertilizer. “Focus on achieving high temperatures, good moisture, proper aeration, and mixing,” Ellis said. “Also, exclude animals from the compost area to prevent recontamination.”
  • Know the quality of your water source. “If you are using groundwater, test it quarterly, especially if you are pumping a lot out and the well is recharging often,” Ellis said. “Maintain good records of the results. If you don’t record these things, it’s like they never happened.”
  • Promote cleanliness. Workers should wash their hands before harvesting, after harvesting, before processing, and after taking breaks. Provide clean, convenient restrooms, soap, clean water, and single-use towels.
  • Consider developing an on-farm food safety plan. Identify high-risk areas, plan economical modifications that will reduce the risks, and document your progress.

“Be proactive rather than reactive,” Ellis concluded. “It will be a lot better that way.”

How to develop a workable business plan

When you run your own farm, you’re an entrepreneur as much as a producer. That means you need to understand business planning 101, said Penny Brown Huber, program administrator for Iowa’s Growing Your Small Market Farm Business Planning Program.

“Entrepreneurs are innovators,” Huber said. “They have a strong desire to create something new. They also have a vision of how their business will grow and a plan to make it happen.”

She presented these contracts between popular misunderstandings, and what she knows about farmers and entrepreneurs:

Myth: Entrepreneurs are born, not made.
Fact: Almost anyone can learn business skills.

Myth: Entrepreneurs are their own bosses.
Fact: Entrepreneurs work for many people, including investors, bankers, customers, employees, and family.

Myth: Entrepreneurs set their own hours.
Fact: Entrepreneurs work long and hard for their success.

Myth: Entrepreneurs love high-risk ventures.
Fact: Entrepreneurs look for ways to minimize risk.

Huber gave these steps, and comments, for successful business planning:

  1. The business owner assumes the lead in the business planning process. “You can’t expect an Extension agent or someone else to write your business plan for you.”
  2. The business planning process must involve everyone in the family and/or business.
  3. The business plan must reflect reality. “Interview other people already in the business to get their input.”
  4. Develop contingency plans for worst-case scenarios. “If you get sick, a building burns down, a hailstorm destroys your vegetable crop, or your livestock get infected with disease, you have to have a plan.”
  5. Set objectives and goals that are achievable. “Two to three strong, clear goals and objectives will really help you move along,” Huber said. “Your first goal can be, ‘I will write a business plan.’ Your objective can be, ‘I will write my plan by Dec. 1.’”
  6. Include innovative marketing ideas. “Developing recipes that feature the foods you raise can be a great way to promote your business.”
  7. Once your write your business plan, review it often and use it as a guide.

Ask for local food, provide names, then ask again

Will finding new ways to connect more consumers with your locally grown foods be part of your business plan, asked Connie Burns, a registered dietician and PFI member from Decorah, Iowa. She described an array of places to reach out to new consumers, including grocery stores, schools and universities, healthcare facilities, businesses, restaurants, and social functions.

“Know the produce/meat department managers at your area grocery stores, and establish a relationship with them,” Burns said. “Ask where the foods they sell originated.”

Request more local alternatives, and explain why carrying these products is important to customers and the store. Also provide the names of local farmers who can supply these foods. “I think it’s really important for store managers to hear this,” Burns said. “If customers ask over and over again, the stores will get the hint.”

The same idea applies to restaurants, caterers, and employee cafeterias at businesses in your area. “Ask what foods on their menu are locally grown,” Burns said. “If they don’t offer any, offer the names of local farmers who could supply them. Explain the taste and quality of local foods, so they understand what’s in it for them.”

Don’t overlook healthcare facilities as another outlet for local foods. At hospitals, get in touch with the food service director or registered dieticians. At long-term-care facilities like nursing homes, speak with the food service director, the consulting registered dietician, or the activities coordinator. “Assisted living is the big thing now, and it’s a great place for local foods to go,” Burns added.

Meetings in your area can provide an ideal venue to feature local foods. “When you or someone you know is planning a meeting, ask if the menu is flexible. Then offer the names of local farmers,” she suggested.

When supplying information to meeting attendees, educate them about local food sources, and list area restaurants that feature local foods. “Also, when you register for a meeting and list your meal preference, say you want locally-grown foods,” Burns said.

(For more guidelines to increase the use of local foods at meetings, visit the Society for Nutrition Education’s Web site at

Even if no major meetings are held in your area, many communities feature church suppers or supper clubs. “At the church suppers, talk with the people on the food committee,” Burns said. “Provide them with the names of local farmers and encourage them to invite local farmers to their meetings. At the supper club, talk with the owners and cooks about any upcoming special events like weddings or reunions. See if they would be interested in serving local foods.”

What about promoting local foods at area schools and universities? “These are more of a challenge,” Burns admitted. “The school year runs counter to the growing season in many areas. Plus, schools have contracts with big vendors and have to buy a certain percent of food from them.”

But often these contracts are 80/20, she added. “This means 80 percent of the food must be bought from the big vendor, but 20 percent can be purchased elsewhere. For a $100,000 budget, that’s a lot of money that can be spent elsewhere.”

Show school food-service directors, school administrators, and biology/ecology/health teachers how local foods can benefit students on many levels. “Don’t stop with explaining the taste, quality, and health aspects of local foods,” Burns said. “Show how local foods can help educate the students.”

Mapquest can be a good way to link local foods with the students’ education. “In my area they used this to show the distance that potatoes traveled,” she said. “Students saw how much further the potatoes had to travel from Idaho to Decorah versus Wisconsin to Decorah.”

Tours of local farms can also be incorporated into the learning process. “Offer seasonal visits so students get the big picture and get to know their local farmers,” Burns said.
For help, see Iowa State University Extension’s “Local Food Connections: From Farms to Schools” at

One of the most fun ways to promote local foods is to host a party. For inspiration, log onto and check out the “Local Foods Dinner Planning Guide.”

“Center the party around local foods,” Burns said. “It can be a potluck, a tasting event, or a progressive dinner. Be sure to invite your local farmers. This can be a great way to help get more people involved in a local food system.”

Darcy Maulsby, Granger, Iowa, is a marketing and communications specialist who was raised on a farm in the west-central part of the state.