Greenhouse fans whir at Mike Calhoun’s hydroponic lettuce-growing operation while workers harvest the four varieties grown at Stover Shop Greenhouses in Churchville, Virginia.
Calhoun’s farming operation is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program, an initiative that requires an internal audit of bookkeeping, growing, and production operations. Once growers pass the audit, they can apply for a GAP logo to display on packaging.
Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Fresh Produce Food Safety Team can help growers earn the certification, which sends a message to consumers and big box store clientele that they use practices that reduce the risk of contamination within the supply chain.
Annually, about 750 Virginia growers train through Virginia Cooperative Extension in GAP and more than two dozen growers obtain GAP certification or recertify, said Amber Vallotton, Virginia Cooperative Extension’s fresh produce food safety coordinator. Additionally, Virginia Cooperative Extension’s fresh produce food safety initiatives, established in February 2014, provide assistance for GAP certification audits and other food safety training, she said.
Keeping produce safe from farm to market has become a bigger concern in the wake of increasing bacterial outbreaks that occur on farms and pose public health risks. A March 2013 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows that 46 percent of all foodborne illnesses that led to hospitalization or death between 1998 and 2008 were attributable to fresh produce.
With local foods becoming more popular and producers heeding the call to cater to regional consumers, the use of good agricultural practices — promoted by Virginia Cooperative Extension — is not only good marketing, but good sense, experts say.
Calhoun has been vertical farming green leaf, two types of red leaf, and romaine lettuce with his wife and two sons for about three years. He already has hit production milestones. In 2013, he said he grew about 17,000 heads of lettuce per month, and he plans to increase that to 50,000 once three additional greenhouses are ready for production.
Calhoun sells to the local school system and several food cooperatives. In 2014, he was in the process of becoming a regular grower for the high-end chain grocer Whole Foods.
“We couldn’t have accomplished what we did without Virginia Cooperative Extension helping us to get GAP-certified,” he said. “It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air to deal with people like this who have something in common, that want to help you. That goes back to the agricultural value system.”
Farmers don’t need GAP certification to sell produce, but most large retailers and big box stores require it. The GAP seal of approval means that the audit farmers pass for record keeping and on-farm compliance are agricultural practices specific to each farm. For Calhoun's operation, GAP requirements include keeping regular planting and harvest records to ensure traceability of his product, water testing, worker training, and developing written procedures and logs for the planting, harvesting, packing, and storing of his lettuce.
Vallotton helped Calhoun prepare for his GAP audit. “GAP certification presently is market-driven, yet even if a farm doesn’t need to get certified, implementing good agricultural practices on farm are important to ensure a safer food supply in Virginia,” Vallotton said.
Not all farms need to be GAP-certified to employ good agricultural practices.
Sally Walker and Jason Pall of Blacksburg, Virginia, own and manage Glade Road Growing, which is not GAP-certified. But they have employed good agricultural practices as they expanded. Glade Road sells directly to consumers at farmers markets.
“Because we sell direct to consumers, it’s important that our produce remain fresh after it’s picked,” Pall said. For example, once spinach is triple-washed and spun in an industrial-sized salad spinner, the bins of dark green spinach leaves go into cold storage where they await the trip to the farmers market.
Other practices at Glade Road Growing include testing well water to ensure it is safe for washing spinach and making sure that shoes worn for feeding and tending to chickens are not worn where produce is grown.
Walker and Pall said they have attended numerous workshops, collaborated with fellow farmers, and also consulted Virginia Cooperative Extension to gather ideas for implementing food safety practices related to picking and packaging their fresh produce.
Virginia Cooperative Extension is leading the effort to educate all Virginia growers about food safety risks and good agricultural practices that can be implemented on their farms.
“Virginia Cooperative Extension is fostering a fresh produce food safety culture in Virginia from farm to fork,” Vallotton said.
Virginia Tech alumnus Jason Pall gives a tour of Glade Road Growing as he harvests spinach.
Mike Calhoun of Stover Shop Greenhouses talks about his relationship with Virginia Cooperative Extension and some of the ways his farm demonstrates Good Agricultural Practices standards.
President Bill Clinton announced the Food Safety Initiative in 1997 to improve the nation’s food supply. Part of the initiative directed the secretary of health and human services and the secretary of agriculture, along with the agricultural community, to issue guidance on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Manufacturing Practices for fruits and vegetables.
In 2011, President Barack Obama enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act, considered by many to be the most sweeping piece of legislation to affect U.S. food safety laws in 70 years. The act builds on the Clinton administration’s work to make food safety a priority and enabled the Food and Drug Administration to establish science-based, minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of produce on farms to minimize contamination that could lead to serious health issues or death.
Though food safety laws have become more stringent, it’s still not a requirement for every farm to obtain GAP certification. Farms such as Glade Road Growing in Blacksburg, Virginia, that do not have GAP certification can consult key resources such as FamilyFarmed.org for training in fresh produce food safety, farm financing, and marketing.
An Virginia Cooperative Extension publication details how the organization leads the way in fresh produce food safety training and assisting farmers in acquiring Good Agricultural Practices certification in the commonwealth.