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Grow Smart: Keep Food Safe

When you grow your own food, you can take steps to prevent food-borne illness from creeping into your crops. Here’s how.

By Sharon Biggs Waller

Lettuce rows
Courtesy Polka Dot/
By growing your own fruits and vegetables, you have better control over your food safety.

When it comes to food safety in 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 and the 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 size of the garden or field.

"Most home gardeners are very cavalier about food-borne illness in the garden,” Ballard says. "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 manure or manure tea or perhaps let a dog or cat or chicken 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 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 organic or conventionally grown is not the issue. Ballard says those are somewhat irrelevant terms when discussing food safety.

"Microbes really 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 horse or cow manure. Compost is a great soil amendment, but compost must be done in a controlled and monitored way to assure that the material actually heats up and becomes pasteurized. Just piling up manure and leaves and kitchen scraps for a few months is not composting. That is manure and not compost.”

Microbial contamination is the main safety concern when growing and harvesting crops, Ballard says.

"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 the production, harvest and preparation process. That chain of quality, safety and cleanliness has 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 prior to the harvest the next growing season,” Ballard says. "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 uncomposted 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 in 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. Use supports for crops to raise them off the ground. Any crop that has direct contact with the soil or soil splash or flood waters is at a 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,” Ballard says.

5. Harvesting Tools 
Use clean, dedicated, sterilized buckets for harvesting, not ones that had hydraulic fluid or paint in them. Use clean knives and scissors when harvesting, avoid wounding produce at harvest, and discard any produce with damage or bird droppings. "If in doubt, throw it out,” Ballard says.

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. For more information on washing and handling produce, consult the University of Minnesota Extension’s "Washing Fruits and Vegetables—Why and How” by Debra Stolpa and the Food and Drug Administration’s "Produce Safety: Safe Handling of Raw Produce and Fresh-Squeezed Fruit and Vegetable Juices.”

About the Author: Sharon Biggs Waller is a frequent contributor to Hobby Farms and Hobby Farm Home. She is the author of Advanced English Riding (BowTie Press, 2007) and co-author of The Original Horse Bible (BowTie Press). She lives on a 10-acre hobby farm in northwestern Indiana. Read her blog about farming life at www.sharonbiggswaller.com.

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Grow Smart: Keep Food Safe

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Reader Comments
Some of what the author says makes sense. Applying manure in the fall is a good idea so it decomposes a bit more in the winter before planting. I put 40 tons on my garden last year.
As for keeping animals out of your garden, ya, right, good luck there my friend. The veg and fruit skin protects you from bacteria in bird droppings. Wash it off.
You should always use clean water to irrigate with. For those lucky enough to have a pond, pump water from there. Maybe some could set up a big tank to trap rain water from a roof. I think the majority of e-coli problems comes from big commercial farms spraying sewage effluent for the whole growing season.
The part about harvesting tools and not using oil buckets is just crazy. You clean an old oil bucket about 4 times and you are fine. If you accidently stab a potato with a potato fork, use it first and quickly and you're fine.
Wash your produce in clean water. Makes sense, I've dipped a pail of water from the pond to clean a few potatos. But use clean water. Wash everything well and you'll be fine.
I think the author should spend more time out of the office and in the real world
Allen, Kipling, SK
Posted: 1/28/2012 9:52:59 PM
Can anyone help explain to me what point #4 - Irrigation means.
Derek, Chicagp, IL
Posted: 12/22/2011 7:18:27 AM
I also use well water, as the amount of chemicals in our municipal water doesn't seem safe to me, either. And I'll take the risk with my compost, vs the commerical fertilizers that are on the market. I think most serious gardeners take pride in their vegetables, and already watch their produce very carefully. After all, a lot of work went into it in the first place.
julie, Social Springs Community, LA
Posted: 10/11/2011 5:24:04 AM
most of what the author says makes a lot of sense HOWEVER "Use potable water to irrigate. “Municipal is best, groundwater second-best and then surface water,” Ballard says." Our Municipal water has so much chlorine in it that it smells like a swimming pool. it is also significantly higher in salts which over time is terrible for the plants. Our well water is very clean (and yes, we do get it periodically tested). Just as a person should handle their produce carefully, one should also be aware of how their water is handled. Clean water is one of those issues that most people in the US take for granted. not everyone is so lucky.
Rebecca J, Hannibal, NY
Posted: 10/11/2011 4:49:56 AM
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