BURLINGTON — Farmer Amy Frye snipped flower stems one late summer afternoon inside Viva Farms' newly upgraded washing and packing station.

Another farmer worked nearby, packing lettuce.

"It used to be really crowded in here but this new wash-pack shed has opened capacity for more farmers to work at a time," Frye said.

Along with adding space, the upgraded station has enabled Viva Farms to obtain a Good Agriculture Practice (GAP) certification, opening new markets for its growers.

For instance, Viva Farms will be able to sell its farmers' produce to schools, hospitals and higher-end grocery stores such as Whole Foods.

Viva Farms is a nonprofit that provides land, infrastructure and training for beginning farmers.

The organization has been aiming for the certification for about four years, said Rob Smith, operations and incubator manager. The upgraded washing and packing station was the impetus for obtaining it.

"A big part of (GAP) is postharvest handling," Smith said. "It makes sure things are done in a way that minimizes food safety risks and risks of contamination."

GAP certification is voluntary and requires a State Department of Agriculture audit of the washing and packing station to ensure it meets certain standards.

Many wholesale buyers require GAP certification, so Viva Farms now has access to a larger market to sell its growers' products, Smith said.

The certification also keeps Viva Farms ahead of safety standards that will go into effect in the next few years.

Before the remodel, the old washing and packing station had gravel floors that sometimes became muddy when it rained. There was also little space for multiple farmers to work.

The upgraded station is 1,728 square feet and includes a covered roof. It has concrete floors, stainless steel spray tables and a new sanitizing system.

The project cost about $50,000.

Frye, co-owner of Boldly Grown Farm, said the new washing and packing station will be a big help during the winter.

"We do a lot of fall and winter storage crops so we are out here a lot from November through March in the cold and rain," she said. "We've been packing carrots in windstorms and rainstorms and having this gives us great covered space."

The washing and packing facility upgrade follows years of recent growth for Viva Farms.

Along with infrastructure and program improvements, the facility earlier this year purchased 45 acres of nearby farmland. It already had 33 acres at its Port of Skagit location.

"We've really hit our stride in the last number of years," Smith said. "We have the infrastructure to really support the next generation of farmers."

— Reporter Aaron Weinberg: 360-416-2145, aweinberg@skagitpublishing.com, Facebook.com/byaaronweinberg

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