A number of growers near produce auctions are expressing interest in getting GAPs certified. A grower can do this on their own or partner with some other growers. The experience at Rich Hill is that if a community works together beforehand, it makes it easier. There is a formal way to do this, using the GroupGAP process (discussed in a sidebar of the January MPG Bulletin issue). Another option is to work with several growers to be audited at the same time. This past year growers in Rich Hill did both these options, so this article is to review their experience, with as much detail on the process and cost as possible. For the 2016 growing season, about 30 growers were GAPs certified in the Rich Hill area.
Let's first consider organizing a few growers to get audited at the same time, as it is simpler. That is one advantage. These growers don't need to grow similar crops or market in a similar fashion; both of which may be required for GroupGAP. One needs to be harvesting a crop or crops to be audited. So that may complicate things if growers using greenhouses want to get audited early in the season and they partner with field growers. The driving reason to organize a small group is cost savings, and an inspector can do 3 or 4 growers in one trip.
Last year 8 growers in the Rich Hill were inspected this way. It took the auditor 2 trips to accomplish these audits. The average cost per grower was about $300 (in 2014 it was $370). One individual called the auditor and arranged the date and time. The cost of mileage for the auditor was averaged evenly across those audited for the day and he drove about 1½ hours each way. The growers were charged differently if the auditor had to spend more time at their farm. The growers were billed individually for the audit and there were 4 to 5 per day. They had worked with the USDA before so chose to work with them again; although they didn't know for sure which auditor they'd get, thought they'd get the same as before. They'd found him positive to work with. [Another company for auditing has been used in the past. Several negatives were cited: tended to switch inspectors around, auditors had less 'common sense', and an expectation for farms to be 'one size fits all']. None of the growers required a 2nd visit, but it is in the contract that the auditor can do an unannounced visit at any time (which would include a charge). All the growers certified in 2016 were planning to repeat in 2017 and they used the same company for their water testing (Midwest Labs in Omaha, NE).
The primary advantage cited for this arrangement (versus GroupGap) was increased marketing options and ability to take your product to whatever buyer might be interested. Another benefit was feeling more confident about their operation, through the process by engaging directly with auditor (learning some things) and knowing they would pass or fail or their own, not be dependent upon others to also get things right.
The GroupGAP process at Rich Hill is organized by Good Natured Family Farms (see sidebar) This company provided the 'internal auditor' for the Rich Hill Farm Group. One grower was selected from the Rich Hill Farm Group to work with Good Natured and the GroupGAP process. The internal auditor visited each of the 18 Rich Hill GroupGAP farms and it took four partial days. In addition, the internal auditor had previously conducted training for the Rich Hill growers. The internal auditor is not compensated directly, rather Good Natured collects a marketing fee for any sales it organizes. [Growers are responsible to pack their product and purchase their own boxes or containers when marketing through Good Natured.]
Good Natured contacted the USDA auditor to arrange for his visit and it was the same USDA auditor as discussed earlier. Good Natured paid for all of the USDA fees or expenses. The 'group' passed on the first visit, so no follow up visit was required. These growers all used the same company for water testing (Midwest Labs in Omaha, NE). A 'Mock Recall' was conducted that growing season and Good Natured organized it.
All the growers in this GroupGAP are planning on certifying again in 2017, and additional growers are expected to join. GroupGAP facilitated 'growers learning from growers', but the primary reason cited for using it was being cheaper. [Since a marketing fee pays for the expenses, and it covers additional benefits (like customer access) the Rich Hill growers could not estimate what their actual 'cost' was.]
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REVISED: February 21, 2017