KSU program offers much needed water testing to farmers


Kentucky State University provides a much-needed water testing service to Kentucky’s fruit and vegetable farmers as these producers work to successfully meet the water quality standards set in the Food Safety Modernization Act.

The FMSA sets specific vegetable and fruit production standards, and water usage is a crucial component. Up until the passage of the FMSA in 2015, producers were encouraged to follow voluntary FDA guidelines. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is legislated as the regulatory agent for the FMSA.

There are two water quality standards for agricultural water within the FMSA, water that touches the surface of produce or where the surface might become wet is considered agricultural water. Agricultural water then falls into two categories: production and post-harvest. 

Production water is used to grow and care for plants and includes any water with direct contact with the produce before harvest. This includes irrigation, fertilizing, pest and chemical sprays, and even water that protects plants from freezing. 

Post-harvest is just as its name indicates; water used to wash the produce after picking. 

To comply, a grower must know where their agricultural water comes from to test the amount of generic Escherichia coli (E. coli) and document those results in a water quality profile. The amount of E. Coli indicates the sanitary quality of the water. There are four primary sources of production water:

•Groundwater (wells)

•Surface water (ponds and streams)

•Reclaimed water

•Public or municipal or drinking water  

Compliance with FMSA is based on a sliding income scale. Growers who have income of over $250,000 currently must be in compliance. Those from $25,000-$250,000 must comply in 2024.

Getting their water tested is a major stumbling block for farmers in this income category.  Kelly Jackson, Christian County Extension Agent for Horticulture, said local produce farmers want to have their water tested to ensure their products are safe. Jackson said securing a testing source was very difficult. The Christian County Health Department declined to test the samples, while the Todd County Health Department did test, but was overwhelmed with the number of samples submitted.

Dr. Avinash Tope, Associate Professor for Academic Affairs in the Kentucky State University College of Agriculture, Community and the Sciences, recognized the critical need for water testing. In 2017, Dr. Tope, who specializes in chronic disease prevention and food safety, began work on a water testing program, especially Kentucky’s produce farmers who have income in the $25,000 to $250,000 and those with less than $25,000. Tope wanted to include those producers with less than $25,000 income, even though they are exempt from the testing requirement because of their commitment to ensuring their products are safe. 

“I knew that Kentucky is a state of small farmers, and we had a critical mass of farmers that needed help to ensure that they could put their produce in the market, and I worked on a program to make water testing easy and available to the small farmers of the state,” Tope said. 

As a land grant university, Tope knew KYSU was a logical fit to receive a USDA Grant for research proposals and ideas, especially for small farmers and the needed water quality testing, since no other entity was willing to offer the required service. 

The 2017-18 research project tested water samples and found that 17-18% were “too hot,” meaning the samples’ E. Coli levels were too high.  

“This data helped us a lot in making an argument when it came to applying for the farmers market promotional program,” Tope noted. He said this data helped back their claim that there was a need for statewide testing, and he felt it was a big start in getting the 2020 proposal funded. 

The program received nearly $350,000 from a 2021 USDA grant to provide water testing labs across the state. 

Currently, there are four statewide water testing labs: Frankfort, Whitesburg, Bowling Green and Hodgenville, making labs accessible to the entire state. 

The first lab opened was in Whitesburg, just in time to provide testing after the devastating Eastern Kentucky floods.  

Tope provides farmers with a detailed brochure outlining the exact procedures for collecting water samples. Currently, there is no limit to the number of tests the labs can do.  

Tope is obviously excited about the how the water testing program will contribute to a safe food source.  But he is even more excited about the willingness of produce farmers to have their water tested, no arm twisting is needed.  He said farmers are more than forward-thinking, they are proactive, have accessed their needs, and their willingness is the driving force for the water testing labs and the work that Tope and his team is doing. 

Tope quickly gives credit to the several partners providing funding and expertise who helped make the water testing program a reality. 

He noted Cindy Finneseth with the Kentucky Horticulture council who helped identify farmers to participate in the initial research student which lead to the final grant funding as well as KCARD’s help with the proposal development with the USDA funding.  He singled out CANE Kitchen in Whitesburg who stepped up and provided a location for the first lab in Whitesburg. 

“It was like being on the journey all by himself, but picked up friends along the way, just like a Middle Eastern caravan.”, he concluded. 

That caravan provides a much needed avenue for a predictable safe food source from the many Kentucky fruit and vegetable farmers. 

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