August 30, 2018|By Eric Wuestewald| Food

Dana Boyle and William “Bernard” Boyle Jr. clearly care about their food. As owners of Garner’s Produce, LLC, a family-owned and operated Virginia Century Farm, their roadside stand promises a freshly harvested cornucopia of watermelons, cantaloupes, sweet corn, 10 varietals of heirloom tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet peppers, eggs and other local products including beef, pork, cheese and regionally roasted coffee beans. Their farm offers an additional 100 acres of seasonally rotated plants, including strawberries, zucchini, squash, figs, Asian pears, flowers, herbs, broccoli, cabbage and soybeans.

Garners Produce Roadside StandGarner's Produce roadside stand in Westmoreland County, Virginia. © Sam Levitan

Though based in the Northern Neck of Virginia off a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, their vegetables have made it into the homes and stomachs of countless people in the region. Currently, they sell from their roadside stand, local farmer’s markets in the Northern Neck, regional markets in Northern Virginia and FRESHFARM markets in Washington D.C. They’ve also made a large stake in the restaurant scene. Perhaps most notably, you can find their produce at celebrity chef Jose Andres’ string of award-winning restaurants.

As a small, family-run farm with a large reach, having certifiably safe, fresh and quality products is essential to their success, and that’s where the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) designation comes into play. 

GAP is a voluntary audit that verifies fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled and stored as safely as possible to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. Many restaurants, retail stores and school systems ask for GAP certification. Wholesalers often demand it. The trouble is: farms can have trouble paying for it.

Even when farms are successful, finding the margins and extra time to prepare for an audit can be exceedingly difficult. A GAP audit will check water management plans, preharvest risk assessments of food and water safety, postharvest handling practices, traceability procedures, documentation of all practices, and every step from seed to store. The process can be costly and time-consuming.

Because GAP certification often acts as a critical step toward farm viability and encourages the responsible use of land and soil, The Conservation Fund has partnered with FRESHFARM Markets to promote GAP certification and healthy, sustainable food systems in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. As part of that process, The Conservation Fund worked closely with the Virginia Fresh Produce Food Safety Team from Virginia Cooperative Extension through funding from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) to give Garner’s Produce a mock audit of GAP criteria for their farm. 

Conducting a mock audit allows farmers to save money and resources by walking them through the process step-by-step, clarifying the regulations and catching any potential issues before the actual audit. This process spares the farm the double expense of failing an audit during a dry run.

Every farm has its own reason for wanting to be GAP certified. For the Boyles, it’s mostly about getting ahead of the curve. Food safety, responsible use of resources and quality go hand in hand, and GAP helps ensure this triple bottom line by mitigating risk.

“I think we all need to get on board in with food safety,” said owner Dana Boyle. “GAP keeps things in place for us as a team by giving us someone to answer to.”

Garners Produce Dana BoyleDana Boyle discusses the importance of proper food storage. © Sam Levitan

FRESHFARM Farmer’s Market Manager Justin Pletcher agreed.

“Being able to tell customers how food is handled at the source instills more confidence in our products. The better you’re able to explain something to someone in their words, the better you’re going to do,” Pletcher said.

GAP also creates access to new markets. GAP certification not only provides assurances to purchasers and consumers that healthy, local food has been safely grown and prepared, but further opens the ability to sell produce in stores or ready-made packages. This in turn makes local farmers more economically viable and better able to sustain local jobs and industry.

If you spend any time talking with Bernard Boyle, his passion for all of this is obvious. After meeting him for the first time at his FRESHFARM stand in D.C., my colleagues and I were about to head to see his farm in person. When he learned where we would be staying, his head tilted and his shoulders dropped. “You’re not going to eat at the Applebee’s, are you?”

Garners Produce William Bernard Boyle JrWilliam “Bernard” Boyle Jr. shucks freshly harvested sweet corn. © Sam Levitan

Following his advice, we stopped in at Relish Restaurant and Wine Bar, a small but buzzing eatery a few miles up the road from the farm. Relish prides itself on its locally sourced food and Garner’s offerings play a big role on the menu. After a delicious dinner showcasing some of the farm’s best vegetables, the owner, Carol Mead Smith, stopped by our table and talked to us about growing up with and now working with the Garner’s Produce family.

“Besides being wonderful people, they’re really good at what they do and they listen to their consumers,” Smith said of Garner’s. “I’m really lucky to be right there right beside them. I go every single day and I just really enjoy seeing what they’ve got out and what’s coming new…They support me and I support them. It’s a really community-driven process.”

This is the beauty of healthy food systems: done correctly, everybody wins.

Funding for this project was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service through grant 15-FMPPX-VA-0306. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA.