Social distancing guidelines to decrease the spread of COVID-19 have many people spending much more time than usual at home. Many may be drawn to the idea of farming in their backyard and need to be aware of the risk of contracting foodborne illness through unsafe preparation. Interior Design Program Coordinator and Associate Professor Lindsay Tan and Culinary Science Lecturer Ana Plana share their expertise with novice backyard farmers on how to cultivate a safe, healthy backyard garden.
What are some of the reasons people might be interested in backyard farming right now?
Tan: Right now, in light of the COVID-19 threat, a lot of people around the country are staying home. For some of us that means more free time—no commute, no travel for lunch and fewer interruptions from socializing with coworkers. For others that means less free time—homeschooling, home cooking and more interruptions from family and housemates. In both cases, backyard farming—growing fruits, vegetables, herbs and raising animals like chickens—is appealing to a lot of people because it can involve everyone in your household in a healthy and productive activity.
Plana: The first thing to consider is why you want to backyard farm and what you want to grow. Right now, you may backyard farm because you want to reduce exposure to COVID-19 by reducing the number of times you have to leave the house to get fresh food from grocery stores and restaurants. You might garden to get access to a greater variety or abundance of your favorite foods like tomatoes, greens or snap peas. And there is evidence that children assisting in the garden will be more open to eating the fruits and vegetables that they grow.
Tan: You might want to eat healthier. A backyard garden is one of the easiest ways for people around the world to get access to adequate macro- and micronutrients from non-staple foods like fruits, vegetables and herbs. And most backyards are large enough for a decent sized garden and a small flock of hens. In some cases, backyard farming can also save money. For example, families that have limited funds for food may find that they can grow specialty foods, like berries, at home for less than it would cost to buy those same foods in the store. On the other hand, some aspects of backyard farming, like raising chickens for egg production, tend to cost more than buying eggs in the store.
Plana: Knowing why helps you to decide what to grow and how to grow it in a way that is affordable, enjoyable and, most importantly, safe.
What do we need to know about safe preparation of backyard fruits and vegetables? What do we need to know about the safe handling of backyard poultry and eggs?
Tan: I think you should not be surprised that the number one thing we would tell you is to wash your hands.
Plana: That’s right. Even if you create an organic garden or use organic pest deterrents, it is still absolutely essential to wash your hands after working in the garden and to wash all of your produce before cooking or eating it.
Tan: Even a healthy-looking garden can be a reservoir for pathogens—bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, helminths. Some of these pathogens are part of a natural and beneficial ecosystem for your plants, but they can still make you and your family sick if the food from the garden is not handled properly.
Plana: Make sure to cook vegetables to an internal temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have a backyard flock, cook eggs that you will eat right away to 145 degrees and those that you’ll save for later to 155 degrees. Poultry must be cooked to 165 degrees.
Is there any difference in how we should handle produce, eggs and meat from the backyard versus from a grocery store or restaurant?
Tan: Have dedicated clothes and boots for poultry care and handling. Change your clothes and wash your hands after handling birds. And never snuggle or kiss your chickens—seriously. Even flocks that seem healthy can be a reservoir for pathogens that cause human diseases like salmonellosis or the flu. Commercial flocks and their eggs are managed following strict biosecurity protocols. In the backyard, even some basic commonsense biosecurity measures can make a big difference in safety.
Plana: Backyard flocks are not the only potential source of risk, either. Make sure your garden is not feeding or bringing other unwanted critters to your backyard by using organic methods to keep them away. And, again, wash your hands.
Tan: After working in the garden. After handling backyard animals. Before cooking or serving food.
Plana: All food from any source should be handled properly: Wash your hands, wash your produce and cook food to the minimum safe internal temperature. There are some differences, though, between the food we buy from the commercial food supply chain—food from the grocery store and restaurants—versus the food we grow right in our own backyards.
Tan: Grocery store eggs, for example, are pre-treated to eliminate pathogens, which is part of the reason they need to be refrigerated. Eggs from a backyard flock, though, come straight from the coop to the kitchen and that has benefits and risks. It is especially important to cook eggs and meat from backyard flocks to the minimum safe internal temperature.
Plana: Restaurants have rigorous protocols they must follow; for example, each must have a minimum of one employee that is ServSafe certificated. Additionally, restaurants, in most areas, have unscheduled health inspections to assure the community these public places are safe.
Is backyard farming worth the cost and potential risks?
Plana: Having a home garden can be a great idea and extremely rewarding if you truly know what you are getting into. Just like a new puppy, it might sound like fun, but it takes a lot of work and commitment. Caring for a garden isn’t just planting the seeds. You need to tend and care for your garden regularly.
Tan: Right! Backyard farming is “work, hard work” and I am incredibly grateful for the commercial farmers—locally and nationally—who work even harder every day to keep grocery stores full of all the foods we know and love.
Plana: If you are like me and don’t have a “green thumb”—you tend to kill most of the things you plant—it is best to leave it to the experts. In times such as these, we can support our local farming community by signing up for a community shared agriculture, or CSA, so that you have access to fresh, local produce and know that your money is being invested in local families and the local economy.
Tan: For me and my family, backyard farming is worth the work and the cost when we minimize the risks by following good safety protocols. I like that involving my kids in tending to the garden and our flock shows them the effort it takes to put food on the table at every meal. And I like that they get excited to eat new foods that they helped to grow.
Plana: Whatever you decide to do, whether you are shopping at the grocery store or growing food in your own backyard, getting takeout or—someday soon—dining in, remember that we each have a role to play in food safety. Wash your hands, wash your produce and cook food to the minimum safe internal temperature. And never, ever kiss your chickens.
What are some resources that backyard farmers/home growers can take advantage of during this time?
American Egg Board https://www.aeb.org/
Stone Barns Center: https://www.stonebarnscenter.org/engage/food-changemakers/
Activity book by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) http://www.fao.org/home/search/en/?q=home%20gardens
CDC’s Backyard Poultry page: https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/farm-animals/backyard-poultry.html?deliveryName=USCDC_485-DM25470
FDA’s Guide to Food Washing: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/7-tips-cleaning-fruits-vegetables
Don’t kiss your chickens: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/14/health/cdc-salmonella-outbreak-kissing-chickens-trnd/index.html