MANISTEE — As one of the most agriculturally diverse states, Michigan has been no exception when it comes to the need for food safety programs.
As a result of the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, produce safety technicians began to be utilized throughout the state. The technicians provide education and resources to help farmers come into food safety compliance.
Manistee Conservation District recently welcomed Michelle Jacokes, a Michigan native who grew up near Lansing, as the region’s produce safety technician. There are currently six produce safety technicians in the state, housed under the Michigan Association of Conservation Districts.
“Our positions were created through grant funding administered by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to provide technical assistance and resources to farmers or others who are required to become compliant with the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule,” said Jacokes. “The intention is to assist and offer cost-effective strategies that can be easily implemented and maintained, and is small farm scale-appropriate to encourage adoption of these practices.”
The service area Jacokes will oversee is Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Antrim counties. With the other technicians, they cover over 36 counties in the state, and services are offered outside of those counties as needed.
Susan Spencer, MCD director, said Manistee Conservation District looks forward to expanding its service to the agricultural community, both within Manistee County, and throughout the five county service area.
“The Manistee Conservation District already does much in the area of forestry, and I’m excited to see our expansion into providing agriculture-related technical assistance,” she said. “Michelle’s background, experience and enthusiasm for food systems will, I believe, truly benefit area growers.”
Jacokes graduated from Michigan State University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Food Industry Management, and a minor in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems.
“The production side of the agri-food chain was what interested me most; the practice of growing food fascinated me, coupled with doing it in a way that cared for the land, and environment,” she said. “After graduation I moved to the east coast to work on a large-scale biodiverse organic fruit, vegetable and flower farm in western Massachusetts.”
Working as an assistant harvest manager, Jacokes worked with large crews to do daily farm tasks including things like propagation, production harvest and cultivation. She later moved back to her homestate in Michigan and served two terms as a Huron Pines AmeriCorps member for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC) as a stewardship technician, and worked at a local farm during those terms.
“My passion for natural resources started in regenerative agriculture, but it has since broadened to learning, promoting and strengthening conservation initiatives across many different facets,” she said. “I believe produce safety couples with conservation, directly and indirectly.”
Through the grant program, produce safety technicians provide voluntary and free services to all farms who grow, pack, process or sell fresh produce regardless of size, income or market reach. Assistance may include a produce safety risk assessment, on-farm readiness review, assistance on developing a food safety plan, technical on-farm advice and grower training through Produce Safety Alliance.
“It’s important to emphasize that the role of the produce safety technician is to expressly provide a resource to growers working to come into compliance with the Produce Safety Rule,” said Spencer. “Our job is not to regulate or inspect produce. The program is completely confidential and completely voluntary, and our job is to help make the process of coming into compliance with the new rule as painless as possible.”
Technicians are prohibited from sharing information obtained while offering services to state inspectors or others. Jacokes said she is excited to be a resource for farmers.
“I think what made me so interested in this role was the fact that I could offer resources and assistance to those who put food on others’ tables and work around the clock, and provide some sort of tangible way to give back to them,” she said. “Farmers take care of our land and feed communities, and being able to assist them to ensure and reaffirm produce safety practices they are taking on their farms is something I find super important, a lot of which are things they are already doing.”
Jacokes can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (231)889-9666.
“My goal is to be as readily available and proactive to being a resource to farmers for produce safety, as well as making the public aware of what is happening in regards to this,” she said.
Contact Jane Bond at (231) 398-3111 or email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MNA_Jane.