Our Farm Operations Manager (Rachael Warner) explains how standard operating procedures (SOPs) can ensure a uniform, continuous workflow, and allow for indoor farming facilities to seamlessly expand their operations, while maintaining overall product quality.

Q1. How do Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) contribute to producing a high-quality and safe food product?

A1. Indoor farms offer high levels of environmental controllability and a highly sealed envelope to reduce pest and disease load. Well designed SOPs help to take advantage of these aspects of closed farms. Good crop management practices take advantage of the ideal growth environment and lead to a high quality product. These management practices include continual crop monitoring and diligent record keeping, on top of standard growing procedures. Further, integration of biosecurity in SOPs ensures pests and diseases are kept at bay and prevents crops from damage.

Q2. What role do the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and a food safety plan play in achieving a CEA food safety certification?

A2. Food safety certifications around produce production and processing ensure all people, materials or equipment coming into contact with the product meet high sanitation standards. These certifications also account for the fact that issues will arise, and expect farms to have procedures in place to deal with a variety of potential issues. SOPs are vital in the development of a food safe farm as they not only outline stand alone cleaning procedures but include biosecurity and hygiene practices within procedures not directly connected to cleaning or sanitation.

Q3. How do Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) ensure that the highest-level of biosecurity is adhered to within the farm?

A3. SOPs and biosecurity should not be separate entities. Rather, SOPs should be steeped with elements of biosecurity required for the procedure at hand. When followed correctly an SOP should not only outline how to perform a task, but how to perform it in a way which protects the health of the crops and the farm as a whole.

Q4. What direction do Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) provide for record keeping within an indoor farm?

A4. SOPs outline detailed steps for carrying out a myriad of tasks on a farm, and record keeping should be included within those steps. Data is a powerful tool for producers and consistent record keeping may be tedious but can provide invaluable feedback over time. Although, the feedback provided can only be as good as the data collected. Having well outlined procedures with clear expectations of how and when growers should take various measurements ensures a clear snapshot of a farm can be taken with data. Having well outlined procedures is especially important when working with larger teams; if data is not being collected consistently user caused deviation will impact results.

Q5. Using a hydroponic system as an example, how can Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) improve crop management?

A5. As a majority of hydroponic systems in indoor farms are recirculating, and so shifts in nutrient solutions properties are expected. These systems are small ecosystems which are being managed with consistent monitoring and inputs. SOPs allow for consistent management of shifts in the nutrient solution, especially across a team of growers. They outline how to manage and monitor solutions day to day but also how to respond to shifts outside of normal ranges, indicating a potentially exceptional change in the system needing to be addressed.

Q6. What is the advantage of structuring Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as a well-designed flowchart, rather than listed as linear steps?

A6. Farms involve many living organisms, including plants, the microbiome and even the human growers. As this system is alive, it can sometimes be unpredictable. For example, a shift in crop health could be caused by a huge array of factors and troubleshooting is often not straightforward. Using flow chart designs for SOPs provides much more guidance for growers when issues arise, and increases the overall usability of the document. Flowcharts innately integrate the complexity of indoor farms and can be developed to address a wide range of possible events in a farm.