New Ventures | GAP Connections

A graduate and former employee of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Jane Chadwell has linked hard work and a niche need in the tobacco industry to forge her own future. As executive director of GAP Connections (GAPC), Chadwell and her colleagues seek to provide resources to tobacco growers that promote sustainability of crops, the environment, and labor rights.

Chadwell’s first association with tobacco was on the production side, when she worked on her parent’s dairy and tobacco farm. She later reconnected to tobacco on the policy side when she worked as a UT student assistant at the UTIA Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC) during the years leading up to the tobacco buyout of 2005. In 2012, her career as a policy researcher continued after she took a position with the UTIA Center for Tobacco Growers Research (CTGR).

It was with CTGR that Chadwell began working with company and industry players on research in the area of tobacco sustainability. The industry was already progressive with their production practices, and companies required producers to adhere to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). One practice that many producers struggled with was that each company implemented its own GAP Program, and often producers were required to contend with multiple contracts, maintain different sets of books, and were required to keep several sets of records.

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture spearheaded an effort to develop a standardized US Tobacco GAP Program for the tobacco industry in 2012. Chadwell became involved in those meetings, and soon she was editing documents, identifying duplicated efforts, and finding commonalities between the various GAP Programs. Once standardized, CTGR used a grant to pay for the printing and distribution of the first year’s set of guideline booklets.

The next question was how to sustain this type of program; guidelines and regulations would continue to change as the industry evolved. Additionally, there were questions of how the program would be funded. Chadwell saw an opportunity to develop an organization that could provide structure to the program and serve as a platform for collaboration between industry players. The idea for GAP Connections, a 501(c)(5) organization (nonprofit agriculture organization), was born.

With the support of industry players and multiple letters of intent, Chadwell took entrepreneurial leave from UTIA to pursue her idea. Armed with one other colleague, retired Agricultural and Resource Economics Professor Paul Denton, and an office in the UTRF Business Incubator, GAP Connections worked feverishly to get the project off the ground.

GAPC’s first success came in the middle of winter 2013, during the holiday season, when the group launched a scratch-built Grower ID System. There was much to celebrate, and GAPC has continued to evolve and add additional components including a compliance verification program, grower HR/legal hotline, a worker concern helpline, on-farm compliance and safety events, and training resources. The next step is to implement a certification program, allowing tobacco growers to be evaluated on their compliance with GAPC certification standards by a nonbiased third party and receive a label of being GAPC Certified. Chadwell says that this is a challenging space: “Every time you think you have it figured out, a new project comes along. You want to be seen as a resource, that GAP Connections can tackle this, and we can deliver. You are constantly shifting your needs, resources, and time management.”

With history in the land-grant system, GAP Connections never strays far from the world to research, teaching, and extension. Trainings are held in partnerships with extension, and last year 120 meetings were held in eleven states; more than 9,000 growers participated. Research also plays an important role, allowing producers to grow more with the acres that they have. Experiment stations also host on-farm demonstrations, field days, and farm tours. AgResearch Dean Bill Brown says that he is proud of the organization that GAP Connections has become. “The public expects their land-grant institutions to be a source of new ideas and technologies to enhance the state’s economy. GAP Connections is an excellent example of moving an idea to the market to assist the tobacco industry.”

And the future? Chadwell says that for her next project, she will likely have to focus her attention on the changing industry landscape now that the Food and Drug Administration is involved in tobacco regulation. Eventually, she would like to see GAP Connections move into other labor-intensive commodities. Regardless of what commodity the group will support next, GAPC’s focus will remain on helping agriculture producers tell a strong story of practicing sustainability, caring for the land, treating their employees fairly, and ensuring a safe working environment.