The need for a parallel universe in food is becoming more and more apparent. In other words, rather than trying to get into supermarkets, create an alternative. Rather than trying to get into McDonald's, create an alternative. Rather than trying to get into school lunch programs, create an alternative.
The reason is GOOD AGRICULTURAL PRACTICE CERTIFICATION, otherwise known as GAP certified. It sounds wonderful. Why wouldn't anyone want to participate in good agricultural practices? But like all things driven by mainline government, insurance, medicine and agriculture, it's not quite as reasonable as it sounds.
I had a wonderful conversation with a fellow a couple of days ago who is close to getting his vegetables into one of the local school systems, but it all hinges on whether the school system will insist on GAP certification. No doubt, the school's decision on whether or not to demand it lies with their insurance underwriters. If they accept food that is not GAP certified, that will be the first thing anyone will notice if a child has a reaction to the food. And if a parent sues the school for anything related to food, failure to be GAP certified will be the first argument toward negligence and liability. An institution willing to step out from under GAP certification is a game changer.
This farmer was GAP certified several years ago but finally dropped it because it hurt his ability to be successful. How so? Well, he doesn't use chemical sprays or poisons. He counts on a couple of cats to keep vermin out of his gardens--like moles and voles off his squash. But under GAP certification, no dogs or cats may have access to any of the food production areas. So poison is fine; cats aren't.
He needed potable water stations for employees--yes, drinking fountains throughout the gardens. His gardens are less than an acre. Nobody is more than a couple hundred yards from the house, but that's not good enough. What if workers are happy to carry water bottles, or happy to walk over to a water hydrant? No, potable drinking fountains must be installed.
Here's a fun one: designated smoking areas. Yes, you must have designated, marked off smoking areas for workers. It doesn't matter if no one smokes. I suppose if you refused to hire a smoker you'd be accused of some sort of discriminatory labor practice. This smoking area, of course, must be commodious; it can't just be a spot.
Each plot must be identified by number and each item of produce must be labeled with a 6-figure tracking number and the plot number. The sheer paperwork to maintain all of this in a small operation can never be recovered by the limited volume of sales. This kind of nonsense goes on and add ad infinitum, for pages and pages and pages. The only folks willing to do this are large-scale operations, non-profits, or people who are more bureaucrat than entrepreneur. And is that who we really want growing our veggies?
One of our former interns and now a culinary instructor at Valley Vocational Technical Center, Leah Pfeiffer, says it well: "certification is a handicap disguised as empowerment." Well said.
So here at our farm, whenever someone asks if we're certified, whether it's humane, GAP, organic or whatever, I always wonder if they really want a farmer who just likes paperwork and couldn't care less about whether the plants and animals have been looked at today. I know nobody thinks about it like this, but it's time to recognize the prejudicial nature of these certifications. Remember, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Are you willing to certify your farmers, or is the soccer tournament and hot sit-com more important?