Farmers Training Farmers
Justin Chase currently grows mixed vegetables and berries (rhubarb, rasberries) on one of the oldest family farms in the country, selling his produce primarily to farmers markets in the northeast part of Massachusetts. Chase is a voting member of the Massachusetts Farmers Bureau, acts as the New England delegate to the National Farmers Union, and leads the Farmer Training Program run by the Tufts University New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which has been hosting student and beginner farmers for approximately twenty years. He recently became part of the Training Advisory Council (TAC), and presented at the February 2018 TAC meeting in Albuquerque, NM.
Chase says he learned a great deal at the TAC meeting, and upon returning home to Massachusetts soon signed up for a PSA (Produce Safety Rule compliance) course facilitated through UMass Extension and the MA Department of Ag Resources, and funded in part by NECAFS, the Northeast Regional Center. Chase calls the PSA course “extremely helpful” and relevant to the students, as it was taught by a Lead Instructor team familiar with the local area and the key players within the local food system.
Upon completing the course, Chase helped his whole farmer training team become certified, so they could help growers within the region “get out in front” of FSMA compliance by providing them with practical assistance on the farm, as opposed to having to sit through an eight-hour or so course offered in a classroom setting. “It helps if we can get out to the farms and let growers know what to expect during an inspection or during a readiness visit”, says Chase. “It helps calm farmers down if they know what to expect, and it helps limit any rumors being spread throughout the area related to impending rules and regulations.”
Chase says that there is a lot of confusion among local growers regarding the new FSMA produce safety rules, and that rumors are often spread among farmers, which only adds to the confusion. Examples of such rumors include a requirement related to sterilizing trucks and having to fence in certain crop lands. Farmers often believe such rumors are true, which creates an aura of fear and frustration regarding FSMA. However, being able to provide direct, face-to-face assistance to growers has helped local farmers get a much better understanding of FSMA and has helped them realize that FSMA compliance should not be looked at in a negative or fearful light. In fact, while at the TAC meeting Chase arranged to have FDA representatives travel out to New England and offer town hall style meetings, in order to help address questions and concerns from local growers. These town hall meetings, which will take place throughout 2018, are the direct result of the TAC meeting.
NECAFS, says Chase, has been extremely helpful within the region. The regional center has helped procure funding related to PSA Grower Certification as well as Instructor and Lead Instructor Certification. This will have a phenomenal impact on the region, largely through providing technical assistance via an alternate method i.e., helping growers on the farm, many of whom may be socially disadvantaged (e.g., language or cultural barriers) and may not be willing or able to sit in a classroom for an entire day.
NECAFS has also helped the Tufts New Entry with its incubator farm program, which comprises a collection of quarter-acre plots run by beginning farmers. “Although these growers are currently exempt from FSMA,” says Chase, “New Entry is helping develop a culture of produce safety awareness, so that when these individuals leave the incubator program and go off on their own – which many of them will - , they will not be blind-sided by FSMA. And the instructional resources provided by NECAFS are a big part of this.” Chase and members of the New Entry team will present an update on the project later this year, at the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative annual meeting in Colorado.
Helping small farmers get out in front of FSMA has become a passion for Chase. “Small farms often represent a family’s livelihood,” says Chase. “If a small farm goes under because it is unable to comply with certain regulations, it’s a huge deal for the family. So by helping these small growers directly, that’s a significant contribution.”