What’s the most effective way to communicate with your farmworkers? Is it early morning meetings? Flyers posted in a break room? Videos that take valuable work time out of the day?

Have you considered texting? Building a food safety culture requires repeated reminders about farm policies and procedures, according to researchers from Michigan State University Extension. Growers are often challenged to find time to provide these reminders, even though worker training and recordkeeping are critical for FSMA Produce Safety Rule implementation.

Discussing a “Farmworker Texting Service: Building food safety culture, one reminder at a time” through a poster presentation at the most recent Great Lakes Expo were Phil Tocco, Heather Borden and Alison Work, all of MSU Extension, and Micah Hutchison of the Genessee County Conservation District (GCCD).

Worker training and recordkeeping are consistently top concerns, and keeping records of these repeated reminders further complicates things. So MSU Extension and GCCD worked with a group of undergraduates in the School of Social Work at Ferris State University in Michigan to create a curriculum to train farmers on produce safety.

This group was encouraged to create a series of tweets or text messages that could be used to remind farmworkers of key produce safety messaging. To better understand who they were reaching out to, they all met with representatives of the Migrant Resources Council of West Michigan.

Their collaboration led to the creation of 12 text messages that were reviewed by MSU Extension and GCCD. Extension and GCCD then drafted an additional 20 text messages. Alison Work, the digital media designer at MSU Extension, then created a farm enrollment interface with push-to-text functionality using existing software.

The group was aware that this text service needed to be available in Spanish. They partnered with the Produce Safety Alliance Spanish language associates to translate the text messages and all the language used to sign up farmworkers.

The entire system is fairly simple: The grower registers with an email and then receives a farm-specific number. Then the farmworkers sign up by sending a text; they then receive a reply text. The farmworkers enter the farm number to confirm receipt. Each quarter, the grower receives a report of the workers receiving texts with their specific farm number.

“To further ensure that the nuances of a texting program would not face unforeseen challenges, the team at MSU Extension and GCCD met with Michigan Farm Bureau staff to walk through the design process,” the team reported. “Several significant issues were brought to light that led to alterations in implementation. Many workers in the H-2A program are required to be compensated for all work, including training, that takes place. This would include reading texts if it was considered part of their job responsibilities. As such, a text being sent outside of normal business hours would necessitate overtime pay.”

They also noted the H-2A program requires that any equipment that’s needed for employment of the farmworker must be provided for free to the worker. If personal cell phones are used for training purposes, employers must fund those phones. Thus, an alternative way for growers to participate would mean hanging hard copies of the text messages as posters in highly visible shared work spaces.

Implementing the Program

This farmworker-focused, on-farm produce safety texting service will help growers and farmworkers alike. Once a week during regular business hours, the workers who sign up for the texting service will receive a text to remind them of a core concept related to produce safety.

Making things easy, the texts are short, engaging and sometimes linked to short explanatory videos. The texts are currently available in both English and Spanish. The program is a simple and effective way to reinforce important produce safety concepts without spending a lot of time or money on additional training, according to the research team.

Because recordkeeping is required for training purposes, growers will have proof that food safety training has occurred, noted through the aforementioned quarterly email reports. These reports note which farmworkers opened the text messages and what messages they received. Signing up for this recordkeeping feature only requires an email address for the grower to which the farm-specific code could be sent.

After viewing each text, farmworkers are prompted to enter their farm’s code and their initials for proof it was received, and supervisors receive that quarterly report detailing their workers’ engagement in the training initiative.

The MSU Extension-developed service went live in September 2021; as of Oct. 25, 2022, 62 individuals were enrolled in the program. Want to learn more? Visit canr.msu.edu/agrifood_safety/texting-service.

by Courtney Llewellyn