Innovative Programs in the San Francisco North Bay Help Urban Farmers and Backyard Gardeners Legally Sell Their Harvest

Sep 10, 2014

Innovative Programs in the San Francisco North Bay Help Urban Farmers and Backyard Gardeners Legally Sell Their Harvest

Sep 10, 2014

Produce Flowers JVanSoelen 9-10-14

Many urban farmers and gardeners are not aware that in order to legally sell their produce, they need to be an “approved source.” According to the California Retail Food Code (CalCode), "an approved source operates using current public health principals and practices, and generally recognized industry standards that protect public health." Luckily, there are many ways for producers to become an approved source—including some new and innovative programs in the San Francisco North Bay!

The core concept is simple: food sold to the public must be safe to eat. In order to ensure this, CalCode requires all retail food facilities to obtain food from an “approved source,” ensuring traceability back to the original producer so the origin of any contaminated product or unsafe food can be located. The most common ways to become an approved source are:

  1. Certified Producer's Certificate (CPC) for selling at farmers markets from the County Agricultural Commissioner's Office.
  2. Operator Identification Number for pesticide use from the County Agricultural Commissioner's Office.
  3. Organic Producer certified by an official third party organic certifier (if the expected organic gross sales exceed $5,000), registered with the California Department of Food and Agriculture Organic Program, and submitted to the County Agricultural Commissioner's Office.
  4. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) registered with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

However, many urban farmers and gardeners fall through the bureaucratic cracks. Disconnected from the farming know-how about how to become an approved source or too small to necessitate the traditional industry documentation, they unknowingly put themselves and the people who eat their produce at risk. Fortunately, three San Francisco North Bay Counties—Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma—have developed an innovative solution by creating their own Approved Source programs.

Designed with urban farmers and culinary, home, school, and community gardeners in mind, these Approved Source programs enable growers to legally sell or donate their produce to retail food and food preparation facilities such as restaurants, soup kitchens, food banks, and school meal programs. These voluntary, practical, and no-cost programs help growers meet the intention of CalCode's Approved Source through transparency and best management practices for food safety. Growers simply register online with their business name and contact information which provides the necessary traceability, and they self-certify that they follow common-sense best management practices that reduce food safety risks from contamination and the transmission of pathogens through water, soil amendments, worker hygiene, and post-harvest handling. Interested in learning more? Read on to hear how each of these programs developed.

Napa County's Best Management Practices Agreement for a Garden to become an “Approved Source” was developed in 2012 to address the growing popularity of culinary gardens popping up at Napa Valley restaurants and wineries. The NapaLocal Food Advisory Council worked on the topic, forming a subcommittee comprised of County staff from the Agricultural Commissioner's Office, Environmental Health, and the Planning Department, as well as community members. They hosted an approved source roundtable to gauge community concerns and interest. Then they reflected on how the Agriculture Commissioner's office might help culinary gardens attain the approved source designation through the Office's existing services, and they created their own working definition of what it meant to be an “approved source” since CalCode allows for Environmental Health to use their own criteria for determining the designation. From these early conversations, it became clear that there needed to be a different process for growers not served by the typical approved source designations that were already in place.

As a result, the Agriculture Commissioner's Office and the Napa County Environmental Health Department developed a self-certification process for growers based on a set of mutually agreed-upon Best Management Practices. Then the County's Information Technology Services created an online questionnaire that automatically populates the information into a publicly available online database. According to County staff, the development of the program took a cooperative effort between the Agricultural Commissioner's Office and Environmental Health, and by working together, they were able to develop something that meets the needs of local growers, protects public health, and is easy for the County to manage. Currently, the program has 26 producers registered, including culinary gardens at restaurants and wineries as well as educational gardens at schools, colleges, and nonprofit organizations.

Sonoma County Approved Produce Gardener Certificate was based on the success of Napa's program and developed by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner's Office, and UC Cooperative Extension, with assistance from the County's legal counsel and Information Services. The team met a half dozen times over a number of months to develop the program, test the website, and deliver two workshops to interested producers. Their primary challenges were how to develop and launch the new program without a budget, how to make the website simple to use and easy to understand, and how to make sure users would actually read the Best Management Practices and agree to abide by them. Based on the successful launch of the program, there are now currently 76 registered growers, with a total of 190 registered since the program was first rolled out in April 2013.

Mendocino County Approved Source(MCAS) was launched just this year and developed cooperatively with Mendocino County Environmental Health, the Agriculture Commissioner, Information Services, and the Mendocino County Food Policy Council. The goals behind the program were to protect food safety while opening new markets for local, small-scale produce growers in order to support local economic development. Interestingly, although their program is designed primarily for Mendocino growers, MCAS welcomes growers from neighboring counties to register, in hopes of fostering greater reciprocity between the other North Bay counties and enabling growers to expand to markets beyond county boundaries. In less than a year, the program already has 19 producers certified, including a couple from neighboring Lake County.

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