GAP certification voluntary but becoming necessary for produce growers

HILLSVILLE—Farmers who wholesale their produce, and even those who sell directly to the public, are seeing more reasons to become Good Agricultural Practices-certified.

GAP is a U.S. Department of Agriculture audit verification program that focuses on best agricultural practices to verify that farms are producing fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.

The certification program currently is voluntary.

“GAP certification for farmers is not a regulatory requirement per se, but the marketplace and some marketing orders are requiring producer certification,” said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing expert for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Each year more of our producer members are attending training and seeking certification.”

Wythe Morris, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Carroll County, has developed training materials that Extension staff use to help train and prepare farms for GAP certification and USDA audits.

“All of this is driven by buyers. If they tell you, ‘You need to be GAP-certified or we won’t buy from you,’ then the grower either has to sell to someone else or get on board and become certified.”

Morris has conducted training for operators of 230 farms across Virginia. Farmers who sell directly to the public at farmers’ markets or roadside stands and those who have pick-your-own or community-supported agriculture operations are not required to go through the audit process.

“Most producers are realizing that this may eventually become mandatory, and that by becoming trained and certified now they’ll be ahead of the game, so they’re working toward this or are already in the process,” Morris said.

In 2011, Wilbanks Farm in Orange County passed the USDA audit and became GAP-certified. The farm produces pumpkins, ornamental squash and miniature gourds for wholesale.

“We are proud of this accomplishment,” said producer Bob Wilbanks. “Being GAP-certified has been good for our operation and has helped us keep closer tabs on production.”

Wholesalers like Produce Source Partners in Ashland are offering GAP classes for their suppliers.

“We have offered these classes for the past two years and plan to continue to offer these classes, because we feel it is the way of the future,” said Dan Budi, director of retail sales. “I think local foods will continue to be popular as long as it is deemed healthy, and one way to do that is to make sure our local farmers are GAP-certified.”

Contact Morris at 276-730-3110 or Sara Owens, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1133.

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