Is GroupGAP right for you?
What are the benefits of pursuing GAP certification as part of a group?
Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, is a voluntary audit that farmers can undertake to verify that produce is grown, harvested, handled, and stored as safely as possible to minimize food safety risks. Typically if a farmer is interested in pursuing GAP certification, they would create a farm food safety manual that outlines their standard operating procedures (SOPs) for how things occur on their farm. They would maintain appropriate documentation to show they are complying with standard practices as well as their SOPs. Annually the farmer can request an audit to have a third party come out and verify that they are meeting the standards set by the program. The USDA GAP & GHP Audit is just one of the programs available.
While this program was originally designed for large commodity producers, the increase in demand by institutions for local produce as well as the proliferation of entities such as food hubs, has seen an increase in the need for smaller diversified farms to consider pursuing certification. This can seem daunting to a small or very small farm that may have only themselves to rely on for all the tasks on the farm that need to be completed.
In April 2016, the USDA launched a new program called GroupGAP that makes this certification more accessible for smaller diversified farms. The idea is that by sharing in the costs of training and certification, farmers can work together to pursue certification as a group. The U.P. Food Exchange (UPFE) participated in a pilot of this program in 2014 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As outlined in the report Small Farmers Can Make Food Safety Work: The GroupGAP Pilot Project in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, published by the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, it was confirmed that small farms can comply with the standards without huge investments in additional infrastructure. The oversight and support of the group management structure, provides assistance and education to the farms on how to comply with the standards, how to complete their food safety manual and develop SOPs, as well as a walk through visit on their farm prior to an audit to help identify what areas may not be in compliance. While there are extra steps and documentation a farm needs to comply with to be part of a group, for the farms in the UPFE pilot, the benefits of GAP certification as part of a group outweighed the additional tasks they were asked to complete that would not be required if they had just pursued traditional GAP certification.