Fresh & Local
The First Signs of Spring
Column #19, Published Jan 27, 2012

There are some signs that spring is not far away.

The days are getting longer. In fact, the daylight is now about a half hour longer now than it was on Christmas. That is big deal. Itís depressing when it starts getting dark at 4:30 in the afternoon.

We had snow and sleet this last weekend, but we couldnít have asked for a nicer day on Wednesday.

I discovered daffodils this week breaking out of the ground.

I was in Clarke Hardware last week and Claude Minnich has a complete line of seedling flats and trays in stock. That is a sure-fire sign of spring, so I stocked up. Pepper plants take a long time to get started, so last weekend while it was snowing, I planted 144 pepper plants. I put them under fluorescent lights in the basement. Whenever I feel the need for reassurance that spring really is coming, I go down and look at them even though nothing has sprouted.

I also know spring is near because Missy Vesuna from Culpeper Renaissance, Inc. (CRI) has started meeting with the vendors to discuss the plans for the Culpeper Farmersí Market.

And finally, spring must be near because Virginia Cooperation Extension and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) hosted an all-day class here in Culpeper on Wednesday on food safety regulations. I counted at least 40 local market farmers who paid $20 per person to spend the day keeping current with food safety issues.

As regular readers of this column can probably guess, two of the sessions were on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification. In recent years, there have been a large number of serious cases of food-borne illness in produce from huge mega-farms. In response, the USDA and the FDA have published a series of guidelines for growers to reduce the risk of pathogens in fresh fruits and vegetables. Collectively these guidelines are referred to as Good Agricultural Practices or ĎGAPí.

The USDA and private third-party companies will perform audits for a fee to certify GAP compliance. Right now, GAP compliance is mostly voluntary. But growers are being told that one day GAP certification is likely to become mandatory.

I donít have a problem with the food safety GAP guidelines. We already adhere to many of them. We store our packed produce in a walk-in refrigerator kept at 38 degrees. We wash every surface that comes in contact with the produce, including the buckets and washing sinks, every harvest day. We clean and sharpen all the cutting knives every time they are used. We chlorinate our irrigation water.

The big problems are all in the certification. First, as the speakers said over and over, ďif you canít prove you did something, then you didnít do it.Ē So GAP certification requires a huge administrative effort to implement.

Second, the farmer pays all of the certification costs, and the process itself can cost thousands of dollars and take hundreds of hours of time. And after all that, the certification is only good for one year.

Since the GAP certification process is so expensive both in terms of time and money, it only makes sense if local market farmers can charge more because of the certification. So far, there is little evidence that is true.

The current GAP certification process was written to cover huge mega-farms and is a financial and administrative nightmare for small local market growers. There needs to be a separate GAP certification process that makes sense for us.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at