With food safety regulations taking hold globally across the produce industry, Ohio is working to help growers and shippers understand that safety is as much a marketing opportunity as regulatory requirement.

The Columbus-based Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association was launched as a pilot program to demonstrate an extra level of commitment to safe practices, said Michael Geary, OPGMA’s executive director.

“Right now, we are working with the state legislature to get the concept of a voluntary marketing agreement codified into Ohio law,” he said.

The program started in January 2007, when memberships of the Ohio Fruit Growers Society, Ohio Vegetable and Potato Growers Association, and Direct Agricultural Marketers Association merged to form OPGMA.

Education emphasis

The new organization was formed to streamline the educational and promotional activities of the state’s produce growers and marketers. The organization says it was designed to aid in providing educational opportunities to business owners, employees and families associated with the production and marketing of the state’s fresh produce industry and promote the consumption of fresh produce.

“The program is voluntary, so it has an important distinction from compulsory marketing orders,” Geary said.

But, he added, there’s a payoff for participating.

“Farmers markets and others who would like to see the value in cooperating that way will reap the benefits because they’ll stand out among their competitors,” he said.

There is no standard assessment for participation, but members do contribute a yearly fee, Geary said.

Fees vary by the size of the operation, and any size operation may participate, Geary said.

Audits and inspections

The requirements include a third-party audit conducted by inspectors trained for the particular program, he added.

“We’re the first state that has created a set of standards like this in the context of a marketing agreement,” he said.

Growers and shippers are typically audited, anyway, under existing safety regulations, and participation in the OPGMA would require an extra inspection.

That’s a problem for some operations.

“We haven’t been involved in that because we sell to the major retail chains and we’ve been third-party audited with Primus for years, and we didn’t see any reason,” said Todd Michael, vice president of Urbana-based Michael Farms.

He said grower-shippers, as it is, often have to juggle numerous audits to meet varying requirements of different customers. Such companies are looking for less, not more, redundancy.

“I think it was primarily geared toward small and midsize farms,” Michael said.

Geary said there are no reciprocal agreements with private auditing firms, nor is there any plan for any.

“We’re not against other audits. The way we’re developing this program is consistent with other auditing programs,” he said.

OPGMA requirements differ in the sense that they meet international standards that other audits might not, Geary said.

There’s also an Ohio-specific component to the OPGMA, he said.

“This is being governed by Ohio farmers who understand the difference between growing in Ohio and, say, Florida, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all process,” he said.

From that perspective, OMPA is a good idea for the industry, Michael said.

“It’s a good educational tool, good for the industry when you get everybody playing on that field,” Michael said.

OPGMA was tested last year, so the program is only now in its first year of full operation, Geary said.

As of mid-May, OPGMA had certified one grower-shipper and was focusing heavily on bringing in more.

It’s not difficult to qualify for participation, Geary said.

“You just have to agree to the standards of the inspection, the criteria and all the various standards,” he said.

Standards touch on water use, inputs, traceability and other familiar safety criteria, he added.

“It’s great for the state of Ohio,” said Loren Buurma, co-owner of Willard, Ohio-based Buurma Farms Inc. “Hopefully, other states will jump on board.”

That’s possible, Geary said.

“Ours is based specifically on Ohio, but at the same time, it can be modified to other states,” he said.