What started-out as a research center at the University of Tennessee (UT) about a decade ago has spawned a private, non-profit 501(c)(5) agricultural membership organization that serves more than 12,500 farmers in about 20 states with high-quality training to meet voluntary standards the buyers established for the farmers who sell to them.
The new organization – GAP Connections Inc. – is housed in the UT’s Business Incubator just off Neyland Drive. The tagline on its webpage says a great deal about the organization’s mission: “connecting farmers through environmentally and socially sustainable good agricultural processes.”
Jane Howell Chadwell, President and Executive Director of GAP Connections, says the funders of the old UT Center for Tobacco Grower Research (CTGR) were key players in launching the new non-profit entity. She was Director of CTGR for nearly five years.
“CTGR did somewhat morph into GAP Connections,” she says of the former organization founded to provide timely research in the areas of tobacco production, economics, and markets. The overall goal was to provide information to support the sustainability of U.S. production of burley, flue-cured, dark, and other types of tobacco.
The impetus for the GAP Connections was separate initiatives by several of the big tobacco companies like R. J. Reynolds and Philip Morris to establish “best practices” for the farmers who sold them tobacco.
“Each company developed its own requirements,” Chadwell explained. This was a challenge for farmers, particularly the smaller and less sophisticated ones, who served multiple tobacco companies and had to comply with somewhat different requirements and distinct records keeping requirements.
The requirements are outlined in the contracts that the buyers have with the farmers.
“In 2012 several of our industry leaders decided to develop one Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Program for the industry instead of continuing the redundancy of multiple programs,” Chadwell added. “It took about a year of talking and pitching to create the program and to secure the support we needed to give it a home at a private entity – GAP Connections.”
The new organization was launched in August 2013 with 10 founding members. Today, there are 17 companies, each having a seat on the entity’s board of directors. Farmers and farm associations also serve on the board.
“We began centralizing the training for the industry,” Chadwell explained of the initial focus. The work involved assigning a unique ID to each participating farmer so there was a central database that the buyers could review to ensure compliance with their requirements. Each farmer has a GAP card that has a unique QR code that is scanned at each meeting to track attendance.
From the outset, GAP Connections has provided training in three areas – crop management (quality and costs), environmental management (pesticides, water and soil), and labor (U.S. laws and best practices). The organization expanded its offerings in 2016 to on-farm safety training, covering topics like CPR, first aid, equipment and sexual harassment.
“After developing the centralized training, the next step was on-farm monitoring,” Chadwell says. “We contract with a third-party monitoring firm that visits our member farms to ensure compliance by the farmers.”
With so many non-English speaking farm workers, she adds that bilingual training and resources are crucial to success and have been adopted. .
“Continuous improvement is our driver,” Chadwell says. “We’ve begun work on a true ‘certification’ label and hope to have a certification program soon that will cover those three key areas – crop, environment, and labor.”
While the impetus for GAP Connections was the tobacco industry, expansion into other agricultural sectors is also possible.
“Any labor intensive produce crop is going to face the same issues and challenges,” Chadwell explains.