Closing the GAP on Certification

Meet Chambrea Yohner (Chamee) West Pak’s resident GAP Coordinator. She’s the North Country native with an eye for detail and a penchant for paperwork, and she’s here to make sure growers have what they need for GAP certification. In a recent interview, Chamee discussed the certification process and how she works to help California growers succeed.

What did you do before joining West Pak?

I used to do a lot of paperwork for gun purchases, building guns, and running a retail store. I worked with the Department of Justice for the state of California and the ATF on the federal side – the paperwork for that kind of goes hand-in-hand with the paperwork that it takes to become GAP certified. I did that for about eight years at a local shop in Temecula. One of my current bosses said that if I could do the paperwork for the feds that I could do GAP paperwork for them (at West Pak).

What is GAP?

It stands for Good Agricultural Practices, and it certifies that everything a grower does is proper and regulated. It certifies that their avocados are produced and handled as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.

Why so much buzz about GAP recently?

Ever since the 26th of January, 2020, FSMA Produce Safety Rule took effect. The rule requires that every ranch above $25,000 be GAP certified. However, if under $25,000, the grower is free and clear under the exemption code. But not everybody is exempt, so we’re just trying to get growers done as fast as we can, and the best we can. To get them certified so that they can continue growing. It sounds easy, but there’s so much work to do.

What is a typical day like for you?

It’s split in two: half of my day is obtaining documents and going through the paperwork trying to get each grower done individually and obtaining documents from third party companies such as letters guarantee and certifications. The other half is meeting the growers and walking the field. Doing everything that I can to make sure that these groves get certified. And if they can’t, and something happens, then it’s on me to figure out a way to fix it for the next time.

How much time would you say that you spend in the field?

Some days I’m in the office all day. Some days I’m in the field – so I’d say maybe a 70/30 because there is a lot of paperwork that takes a while to complete. And a lot of it is spent up north too. I try to be in Ventura every two weeks or so, but it depends on timing and other audits. When out there, I’m usually accompanied by one of the guys up north, and we will try and do four and five, six different ranches in two or three days and get all of the information that we can, and then I come back down the hill to complete the process.

How long does it take to get a ranch certified?

There’s a lot of little tiny details that make up the GAP certification, and the amount of time it takes depends on the actual grower. Some are very well organized, and we can quickly get them done, while others that are less organized can take longer.

I have done ranches with large management companies that have obtained most of the certifications previously, so our process is much more efficient, and audits happen quicker. In that rare case, we can do it’s super-fast: start to finish maybe a couple of weeks. If the growers are not ready, I’m stuck in a hard spot. Like if they don’t have the needed documents or they can’t get to their grove to fix some sort of problem, then I am waiting on them… those audits can take three or four months. The longest part can be the scheduling of the inspection because there are so few auditors that they have to book them out three to four weeks in advance.

What’s involved with the audit itself?

There are two parts there is the paperwork part and then the grove part. I meet with the auditor in the field and walk the grove. We will walk the perimeter, which can take 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the ranch. They look to see the water sources, chemical storage, bathrooms, and animals or anything that could affect the handling and safety of their crop.

Once we do a walk-through, we’ll go to a separate location and do all the paperwork, and that can take hours. For example, one I did just last Friday took me four hours for just the paperwork. You leave those audits exhausted.

Once we finish the paperwork, there may be a set of corrective actions – say, maybe we were unable to obtain a particular document, or there were some wild animals on the premises, etc. The auditor will write those down and will give them to me, and then the audit is complete. From there, we have about two weeks to submit the corrective actions. Once those are submitted, the auditor can choose to approve our corrections and give us our final score and certificate.

What happens if a grower requires fixes?

It depends on what the problems could be. For example, most corrections can simply be as easy as missing a No Trespassing sign. The grower would then go out, hang up the signs, take a picture, and that would be sent in the documentation electronically on the corrective action form.

What’s it like preparing for an audit?

Preparation is key. Every day I am preparing for an audit. From obtaining the documents, filling out mountains of paperwork, conducting test and grower training, and days before I am doing my own pre-audits – walking groves and giving the paperwork one final inspection. The last thing you want to do is to tell a grower that they failed an audit, so I try and keep close contact with them and make sure that they are ready.

What would you consider to be the hardest part of what you do?

The hardest part is always the audit day. It’s not that it’s hard; it’s just that it’s time-consuming and can be really stressful for myself and the grower. Each grove is different, and you’ve got to roll with the punches.

What do you like best about your job?

The beautiful thing about it is that all of the growers I have met so far have just been the kindest of people. Everyone is happy because we’re trying to help them. I also like that I get to be in the office and do some paperwork, which I am good at. It sounds kind of strange, but I like to do paperwork. Who says that (laughing)? And then the other half I get to be a part of the outside world, and that’s always nice too.

How did you get your nickname?

My parents thought I was going to be a boy, and my mom was going to name me Crew after the American Crew hair care line since she does hair. Now my cousin, who is six months younger than me, is called Crew – so my aunt essentially stole the name. That same aunt was studying French when I was born and came across La Chambre- a small French village located in the Rhone-Alpes. But my mom did not like how the name sounded in French. They came up with Chambrea to Americanize it, and like 30-seconds later, they felt that it was just too long of a name. That’s when they came up with Chamee and, it stuck.

Tell us about what others don’t know about you.

Well, my favorite holiday is Halloween, and I love the dark murder mysteries and stuff. And you will never see me wear pink!

What do you do in your off time?

I am building a cookbook right now. In high school, I thought I would be a cake baker, but I decided that I didn’t want to do it as a career. However, I will do wedding cakes, pastries, and baked things like that, which is funny because I absolutely hate cake and cookies. But I am good at baking them. Everybody else loves it…

So, the most important question: any avocado recipes in your cookbook?

Not yet! We’re working on that….