GRCC aims to help farmers sell produce to larger grocers

By January 29, 2014Bigger Picture

Grand Rapids Community College wants to help satisfy West Michigan’s appetite for
locally-grown produce.

The college has created a program that aims to help farmers get the certification they need to sell their crops to grocers and wholesale distributors. Julie Parks, director of workforce training at GRCC, said some local farmers are unable to offer their products in spots beyond farmers markets because they lack Good Agricultural Practice certification, or GAP, a designation that shows growers are producing their food in a way that minimizes the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak.

The lack of farmers who have the certification has created demand from distributors like Sysco, which sells food to restaurants, healthcare facilities and schools, according to its website. “There’s a big need with our local stores to find locally-produced food and produce,” Parks said, adding that Sysco is interested in finding more locally grown blueberries and raspberries. The class, which costs $199 to attend, started earlier this month and consists of eight hours of classroom time, Parks said.

Phil Tocco, an educator at Michigan State University’s extension office in Jackson County, said while GAP certification isn’t required by law, insurance companies representing retailers typically don’t allow grocers to buy food that doesn’t meet the certification standards. “There’s a lot of wholesale buyers who say we’re not going to buy your produce unless you have the certification,” said Tocco, who helped design the curriculum for GRCC’s class.

Becoming GAP certified requires that farmers implement a system where they follow specific practices and document a variety of things, such as sanitation, what fields certain crops are grown in and water-quality testing, Parks said.The documentation helps show whether growers are following proper procedures and determine where tainted produce originated from in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak, she said.

Following the class, an instructor is available to go to a student’s farm and evaluate whether he or she has taken the necessary steps to implement a food safety system. To achieve GAP certification, a farmer must be audited by a third party, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s not rocket science,” Parks said of becoming GAP certified. “But you’ve got to document your crop.”

Tocco agreed, saying that while implementing a GAP program may be difficult for some farmers, “it’s the cost of doing business.” “I think it’s important for all farmers to be able to answer the question of what are you doing to keep my food safe,” he said.