Small Farmers Can Make Food Safety Work: The Group GAP Pilot Project in Michigan's Upper Peninsula


July 10, 2015 - Author: Mary Zumbrunnen, <$authorEmail>, Michelle Walk, Phil Britton, Phil Tocco, Natasha Lantz

This case study provides an overview of the processes, challenges, benefits, and lessons learned from the Group Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) pilot project in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The project goal was to test how a group-based farm-based food safety certification process could benefit small farmers.

Report authors 

  • Mary Zumbrunnen, Director of talent initiatives, Prima Civitas
  • Rich Pirog, Director, Center for Regional Food Systems
  • Michelle Walk, Product Center Innovation Counselor, MSU Extention 
  • Phil Britton, Compliance Project Manager, Cherry Capitol Foods
  • Phil Tocco, Food and Animal Systems, MSU Extention
  • Natasha Lantz, Outreach Director, Marquette Food Co-op

Group GAP Study Press Release

Executive Summary

Due to changing federal regulations found in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act as well as pressure from larger food buyers to minimize the risk of legal action and food recalls, it appears that in the near future all farms (regardless of size) may need farm food safety certification to sell to certain markets. This pilot project investigated group food safety certification as a scale-neutral, cost- effective alternative to individual certification. This case study provides a brief background of the collective certification model called GroupGAP and an overview of the Michigan Upper Peninsula (U.P.) pilot project, including implications for small, rural farmers interested in exploring wholesale markets that require more robust food safety standards than direct markets currently require. The study found that collective certification is cost-effective, is scalable, and opened new markets for small and very small farmers.

This pilot study confirms that good agricultural practices (GAP) certification can meet group needs at an affordable cost working with small and very small farms. While there is not a direct farm or GroupGAP audit pricing comparison, had each participating farm been individually audited, the total price of certification would be significantly higher than the total $492 per-farm cost. Direct costs to each farm for individual certification can be estimated based on mileage and the hourly rate of inspection that necessitates a USDA inspector to drive to and tour each farm. For this project, that cost of USDA staff time and resources was significantly reduced. Including a quality management system (QMS) audit and the costs of four farms inspected, it is estimated that individual farm savings through GroupGAP certification versus individual certification is about $700.

It is important to note that each farm had group support and an internal system assisting to build its food safety plans. Accounting for the time spent in 1) pilot project meetings and calls, 2) creating the QMS and food safety manual, 3) audit and reporting, and 4) farmer mentoring and question and answer support, more than 1,000 staff hours were logged by the U.P. Food Exchange (UPFE) staff. Calculated at an average rate of $25 per hour, this local support cost for the pilot is $25,000.

Future GroupGAP programs based on the UPFE pilot or other pilot programs in Michigan, will likely not require as large a time commitment from collaborating partners because of the groundwork laid by this initial study. Specifically, trainings are already in development between USDA and pilot sites tailored to Michigan’s unique growing region. Additionally, the QMS and food safety manuals have been revised and streamlined to incorporate 2014 pilot farmers’ feedback, tailoring the manuals for more efficient use. Several U.P. GroupGAP graduates have also stepped forward to mentor future interested participants to create and implement farm safety and record-keeping practices. In spring 2015, Michigan local foods distributor Cherry Capital Foods, with support from the Wallace Center at Winrock International, joined the pilot and is assisting farms desiring GroupGAP certification in the Northern Lower Peninsula as they recognize food safety certification needs of their purchasers. A distributor of Michigan products, Cherry Capital has a compliance team in place and the capacity to offer internal inspector and farmer support as well as QMS and food safety manual development. Research will continue through 2015 by recruiting a cohort based in Mid-Michigan with emphasis on certification benefits and farmer participation. 



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