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Produce Safety Outreach to Plain Communities in Iowa

Plain community growers are generally concentrated in small areas. Bringing trainings to their communities can generate large audiences for trainings if an educator has built a relationship with the community.  By reaching out to leaders within three Iowa Plain communities, two previously un-planned trainings were held and 43 individuals were served.  These 43 individuals represent produce sold into three auction houses, statewide grocery stores, and one national grocery chain. Collectively, sales from these farms represent greater than $2,000,000 of produce sold into the Iowa and regional markets. ‘Plain’ is a catchall term used to describe communities such as Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, etc. 

Examination of the list of farmers served during the first 2 years of PSA trainings in Iowa revealed very few Plain grower participants despite the existence of several communities in the state. Reaching the growers of the Plain communities is critically important in Iowa as they represent a significant quantity of produce growers who will be regulated by the FSMA Produce Safety Rule.  Their products are primarily sold in auction houses and end up in many retail stores across Iowa and Minnesota.  These farms have unique production practices: for example, many Plain community farmers actively use working animals such as horses; do not have access to running water or electricity; and store surface water in catchment basins for irrigation.  Each of these activities present food safety hazards and through education, these growers can reduce many of the resulting risks. 

The Iowa State University On Farm Produce Safety Team encountered several barriers that limit communication and access to Plain community growers.  Typical advertising methods used by this team included email, radio, and social media campaigns that did not reach these populations. On the other hand, print and word-of-mouth campaigns did reach some individuals, who through their internal networks provided limited access to their larger communities.   Another barrier to Plain grower participation was that locations of the trainings were prohibitively distant from their homes. Since many Plain growers use horses and buggies, a distance greater than approximately 5 miles prevented most from attending. One more barrier was the technology used to present the course materials.  The typical delivery method for the materials is through a PowerPoint presentation and many Plain communities prefer non-digital based methods for education.  To accommodate this, our team utilized a paper flip chart developed by Penn State University to display the printed PowerPoint slides.  The final and most important barrier was that these communities operate on trust and relationships.  To work with these communities, a positive relationship must be developed with one of the leaders of the community.


In order to include and serve these growers, Dan Fillius, a Food Safety Educator from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, reached out to leaders of these communities via handwritten letters and, when possible, by direct phone calls.  Several back-and-forth correspondences occurred before access was approved and trainings were scheduled.  In cooperation with the community leaders, three methods were used to reach Plain grower communities during the winter 2018-19 meeting season: 

  1. Hiring transportation for the training in Leon, IA: A large community of Amish growers lives in Lamoni, IA, roughly 15 miles away from the training site. Initially, the growers asked if a separate training could be scheduled in Lamoni but due to the close proximity, efforts were made to enable transportation to the existing location in Leon instead. Coordinating rides in vans was decided mutually to allow more members of the community to attend the existing training. Shuttling participants in a University vehicle was proposed, but the community already had relationships with local drivers and coordinated the shuttles themselves. Consequently this training of 35 participants had roughly 70% Plain growers in attendance.
  2. A produce auction-house training in Southeast IA: Many Plain growers in Iowa sell at their local auction houses and have the transportation means to easily get there regularly. At least one more training like this will be held in the winter of 2019-2020 for an estimated 30 more growers in Kalona, IA.
  3. An in-home training in a large centrally-located home in Granger, MN: Though the business address of this grower co-op is in Iowa, the community straddles the border with Minnesota. Consequently, the training was held ½ mile over the state line on the Minnesota side. Dan Fillius from the Iowa team coordinated this training and was joined by Shannon Coleman and Teresa Wiemerslage from Iowa and Annalisa Hultberg, Lillian Otieno and Lebo Moore from the Minnesota team.

Custom training materials

Beyond the differences that distinguish an Amish community from a Mennonite one, each local community sets its own rules regarding the extent to which they utilize technology. Different standards and conditions in each community required different presentation styles for each. The training held in a household was required to be strictly analog (see description of Slide Set Binders below) both by grower preference and because there was no electricity on site. The training in Leon displayed the materials using a computer and digital projector. The training at the Southeast IA Produce Auction was analog, but the community was open to borrowing a generator for powering a computer and projector if needed.

PSA manual in a binder Luke LaBorde and the team at Penn State University produced Slide Set Binders for times when analog presentations are required. These 3-ring binders contain all of the PSA training slides printed out in full color on sturdy sheets and formatted for easier reading with enlarged pictures and text. They are quite nice to use, and work for 2-3 growers to share. It was important for the presenter to announce the transitions to subsequent slides so participants could follow along. At one training, module 5.1 was presented early to avoid the after-lunch lull; unfortunately it was confusing when the modules were presented out of order and growers needed extensive coaching to find the proper tab in their binders.

At the in-home training, there was not enough room for the presentation binder and the note-taking binder on the same table. We opted to have idle presenters hold the presentation binders along the side of the room for participants to view. In practice, participants rarely looked at them. At the auction house training, presentation binders were shared between 2 participants and binders were stood on end or laid down. Since then we have invested in ‘easel binders’ which prop up easily and sturdily, holding the materials at a comfortable viewing angle.

The two groups who hosted private events (in-home and auction house) decided to prepare all meals in-house and thereby forgo the $20 registration fee that Iowa charges to cover meals. Lunches for participants and trainers alike were prepared and provided by the families in the communities. At the auction house, a hat was passed between community members to collect some payment from participants. All trainers commented on the indulgence of these meals and how superior they were to the typical catered box lunch. The custom of ‘saying grace’ was observed at both trainings, with a quiet 20 seconds of unguided personal reflection. Notably, the community which held the in-home training said grace both before and after the meal. Again, close coordination and conversation allowed for tailored experiences in all of these trainings.


Additional Logistics        

Distance is not the only consideration to make for travel. Since PSA trainings happen in the winter in Iowa, daylight hours are shorter during training season. Some buggies have lights for night travel, but it is still best to travel during daylight. The start and end times were adjusted so that transportation would occur during daylight hours. One participant noted that he traveled 5 miles, but that still took him 1 hour to make the trip. The typical timing of 9-5 was shifted to 8:30-4:30 in mid-February to allow safe travel.

Iowa uses an online registration system that produces auto-filled forms with farmer names and addresses that are used to send course certificates. The Plain communities did not use the online registration system which necessitated completing registration forms prior to the start of class.  This caused small but significant delays. It is advisable to send paper registration forms for the group to fill out ahead of time in order to minimize this time. Sending these at least a few weeks early is recommended since the community members don’t always see each other frequently. Registration forms should be reviewed prior to leaving the training site as any corrections needed or follow up questions are difficult to address later.

Materials that are given to other growers on USB drives were printed out and displayed on a table for participants to take as they pleased. Additionally, since the UC Davis Excel sheet for calculating Microbial Water Quality Profiles (MWQP’s) relies on computers, groups were given print-outs of the “calculate MWQP’s by hand” document developed by Don Stoeckel of the Produce Safety Alliance.


Building on the trust established through these courses, the Iowa team has since been invited to three farms in Plain communities to conduct detailed onsite support through On Farm Readiness Reviews (OFRR).