The Food Conservancy is partnering with small-scale Northwest Arkansas farmers to expand access to local food through the state’s first Group Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With the nonprofit’s support, McGarrah Farms, Rivercrest Orchard and the Center for Arkansas Farms and Food (CAFF) recently completed the voluntary audit program, allowing them to sell to schools, grocers, wholesalers and other entities that require products to be GAP-certified.
The Food Conservancy of NWA is focused on reestablishing the region with small and mid-size diversified family farms and food producers to create economic opportunity and provide all residents with healthy food.
“Growers are eager to meet the demand for high-quality, locally grown food,” said Diana Endicott, executive director of The Food Conservancy and founder and director of Good Natured Family Farms. “By providing technical assistance and removing the financial burden of the certification process, we can help them bring more products from their farms to families and businesses’ tables.”
GAP is a voluntary, user-funded food safety program established by the USDA to verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored in accordance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations. Due to its high costs, small fruit and vegetable growers are often unable to participate, limiting their access to retail and institutional markets. Under the Group GAP program, piloted by Endicott in Missouri, farmers, food hubs and related organizations can pool resources and share the certification costs.
“The GAP certification process can be daunting to navigate, particularly for those new to the field,” continued Endicott. “Along with the farmers who are currently undergoing the certification process, we are pleased CAFF has the approval it needs to equip the next generation of farmers with the knowledge and real-world experience to be successful.”
Since 2012, the number of farms growing fruits, nuts and vegetables in Benton and Washington counties increased by 45 percent. The Food Conservancy is supporting Group GAP training and audit costs through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, as part of Northwest Arkansas Food Systems, which launched in 2020. The initiative provides land, technical assistance and capital to new and existing farmers, so they can grow their ventures and access new supply chains.
“Rivercrest Orchard has become the region’s ‘Place to Pick’, but we also want our offerings to be available beyond the confines of our acreage and local farmers’ markets,” said Dennis McGarrah, Jr., owner and operator. “With this Group GAP certification, we can scale up to bring our quality produce to new markets across Northwest Arkansas.”