The University of Nevada-Reno’s Desert Farming Initiative sponsors a food safety program for farmers working in high desert.
Photo courtesy of DFI

by Enrico Villamaino

The University of Nevada-Reno’s (UNR) College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR) established its Desert Farming Initiative (DFI) in 2013. The mission of the DFI is to engage in education, research and outreach to advance and strengthen sustainable agriculture and food systems in Nevada. The DFI’s research can then be shared and utilized in other desert climates.

During the COVID-19 crisis, food safety is more important than ever. Believing that food safety begins with growers themselves, the DFI is actively working with local farmers and producers to develop and implement food safety education and action plans.

Charles Schembre, who has served as the DFI’s program director for the past two years, explained, Jill Moe is the education program coordinator at the DFI. Her focus is on the sustainability of local food systems. Local food systems provide a safer resource for fresh produce for a local population. Local produce is typically handled less, and this reduces potential contamination and the spreading of pathogens.

Schembre said normally, Moe would be able to conduct in-person workshops and seminars. In less hectic times, she organized produce safety trainings on the Food Safety Modernization Act. The current pandemic and its attendant shutdown have required the DFI to change its tactics. “We’ve really been using much more email and Facebook communications to answer questions about food safety,” Schembre said. “We try to be as available as possible.”

The DFI has also recently produced a short film about Nevada farms’ efforts to stem food contamination and illness. The film emphasizes the importance of correctly identifying harmful microorganisms like E. coli and salmonella, proper crop management and maintaining appropriate levels of worker hygiene. The DFI is also in the process of generating a list of helpful tips for producers to strengthen food safety goals and reassure consumers that protocols are in place.

Another measure the DFI is taking is in helping farmers in the community earn their Good Agricultural and Handling Practices certifications. Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP) certifications are a joint initiative of the USDA and the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA.) Schembre said, “We are actually contracted by the NDA to be an agent of certification for farmers looking for the GAP and GHP.”

GAP certification allows growers to verify and inform potential buyers that their production and handling practices align with recommended safety guidelines. GAP refers to farming methods that reduce the likelihood of contaminating produce. Implementation of GAP means that farmers’ practices address water quality, manure and compost use, worker health and hygiene and reducing contamination from wildlife, domestic animals and livestock.

GHP certification concerns post-harvest handling of produce and minimizing contamination. Practices include monitoring water quality, sanitation of packing houses, pest control programs and the sanitation of containers.

GAP and GHP are voluntary audit programs. Many produce buyers are now requiring that growers be GAP and/or GHP certified and may require their specific protocols.

Schembre said that the DFI is looking to beef up its food safety program. They are currently exploring the possibility of creating a dedicated staff position – a food safety specialist – to better facilitate these programs.

“We’ll keep looking at different ways to help Nevada farmers,” he said. “There are a lot of new challenges, but we can meet them. There is a lot of untapped potential in desert farming.” For more information visit