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Salinas growers tweaking operation to comply with leafy greens agreement

Following the E. coli (O157:H7) tainted spinach outbreak tied to a Salinas Valley, Calif., farm last September, the California vegetable industry has jumped through hoops to further tighten already stringent production standards and win back consumer confidence in the safety of green veggies.

Leafy greens grower Greg Lazzerini, a partner in Mills Family Farms at Salinas, is adamant about the need to reassure consumers about food safety. Yet he realizes that further safety-escalated upgrades entail mounds of paperwork, adhering to new required food production guidelines, and mega-compliance costs across the agricultural sector, including his ranch.

Lazzerini grows iceberg and leaf lettuce, spinach, spring mix, kale, parsley, cilantro, and rapini on 3,000 acres for Taylor Farms, Fresh Express, Cappro and Sons, and Metz Fresh.

“We have to assure consumers that everything out here is safe,” he says. “We're doing everything possible to make sure the product is safe. We're going up, above, and beyond what is being asked — the leafy greens industry can't afford to have another food safety issue.”

Lazzerini is fully participating in the industry-developed California leafy green products handler marketing agreement that officially took effect April 1. The agreement requires statutory signatories (handlers) to accept leafy greens only from growers who have followed a 50-page laundry list of approved best agricultural practices.

“We already had 47 pages in place before the agreement officially began,” Lazzerini says. “We are now busy implementing the remaining guidelines.”

Higher costs are how the agreement will affect Lazzerini the most. To fully meet the standards, he must beef up water testing for generic E. coli. While the farm has tested water every six months in the past, the new requirement requires monthly checks.

New fencing mandates could dig the deepest into the ranch budget, with about 6.6 miles of new fencing required.

“The fencing will cost about $100,000,” he says. “Much of it is 36-inch nylon mesh to fence off fields from reservoirs, housing, and tree lines and to keep out animals, slugs, snails, frogs, lizards, snakes, and garbage.”

A costly two-mile-long eight-foot fence was installed near the San Juan Bautista part of the ranch to keep deer and hogs at bay.

The required food safety paperwork could fill the backseat of a car, Lazzerini says. Although much of it was in place before the agreement, he realizes the paperwork yields protection for growers.

“These days we're all freaked out because of last year's E. coli ordeal when the federal government came in. The feds want to see paperwork — if it's not written down, it means nothing to them. Now we're doing all the paperwork to cover ourselves.

“If the Food and Drug Administration came on my farm about an issue — and hopefully there never is one — I don't have any worries, because it's all documented. I have no second thoughts. But for those who didn't have documentation, it sounds like the FDA wants to start hanging people and pointing the finger at somebody.”

A new $30,000 budget item is the farm's new food safety employee-training program. A third-party consultant was hired to develop the program and train the farm's 49 employees on hygiene and awareness, such as scouting for animal tracks, feces, and trash. That training has been completed.

Maintenance costs for fence repair will be incurred, plus daily tractor inspections for fluid leaks, paint chipping, or broken parts that could fall into the vegetables.

“My tractors have ‘diapers’ on them to make sure fluids don't leak onto the produce,” Lazzerini says.

Other costs will include pre-plant and pre-harvest environmental assessments on each block, looking for animal tracks, droppings, or foreign objects.

Four new employees will be hired to help maintain the food safety program, adding about $72,000 to $80,000 in annual costs to the ranch budget.

“We can't have any weeds, so we're constantly spraying or mowing, and checking the bait traps for rodents. It's requiring more manpower,” Lazzerini says.

Necessary computer upgrades will also push up the food safety price tag.

The regulations will remove 14 to 16 acres from food production. For example, to meet one shipper's guidelines planting is not allowed within 600 feet of an existing unused reservoir.

“While we may have farmed up to a ditch before, we now may have to be 25 to 50 feet away. That's a chunk of money lost that I have to eat.”

Absorbing the additional costs will be a tough financial burden, but there's no other option, Lazzerini says.

“It comes down to: either you do it or you get out of the business — it's as simple as that. All we can hope is that the market will reflect the increased costs, but I doubt it will.”

In the Salinas Valley, Lazzerini says, the grower's iceberg price is about $6 a box (24 heads). To break even, he needs about $8.50 per box. The break-even might be $9 per box with all the regulations factored in.

“The consumer is willing to pay the extra dollars for food safety,” he says, “but how the grocery industry marks it up is the problem. What happens in our industry is, if we mark up an extra $1 per box for consumer safety, the grocery stores will increase it $2 to $2.50.

“Will consumers pay that much extra? Probably not.”

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