Yuma Ag and You: Is the Sustainability Trend Sustainable?

Bobbi Stevenson-McDermott       Jan 3, 2016 publication


The world of fresh fruit and vegetable production keeps getting more and more complicated for the agricultural industry and farmers. An article posted Dec. 7, 2015 by the California Farm Bureau, shows the extent to which agriculture is subjected to consumer whims.

Growers increasingly face requests to document that their fruits, nuts and vegetables are produced using sustainable practices, in addition to being safe and of the highest quality. The impact of consumer desire to know more about how growers use their water, energy and fertilizer has reached the largest corporate retailers, and from them back down the supply chain to the farmers that supply them.

‘Groups like Sysco and Whole Foods have sustainability questionnaires they ask their suppliers to fill out,’ said Andrew Arnold, sustainability senior associate at SureHarvest, a Soquel-based consulting company. “you as a grower have to supply information to your buyer, who then has to satisfy these initiatives. Arnold discussed the influence these campaigns have on growers during the annual Central Coast Vineyard Team Sustainable Agricultural Conference in San Luis Obispo.

The ability to document efforts to irrigate and fertilize efficiently, and to protect the environment is becoming a regular part of the business of farming.

‘We at SureHarvest are working with a table grape grower in the central Vally on how to fill out the questionnaire from Wal-Mart on nitrogen, water and energy,” Arnold said. “Wal-Mart is asking suppliers how much fertilizer they are applying, and they are using this information to rate their suppliers. This is new territory for some people, and there is a lot of anxiety over.

The concept of ‘audit fatigue’ is very real, Arnold said.

‘Before, it was just food safety audits, but now we’re also adding audits related to sustainability,” he said, adding that major retailers find that more of their customers want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced.

Sustainability has become an increasing part of corporations’ stories and their reporting. Wal-Mart, for example, announced that they had reduced greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chain and their own operation by 28 million tons. They are setting these goals and reporting on them.

As the largest retailer in the country, Wal-Mart has the market power to require sustainability reports from corporate processors, who can then pass the new requirement down the line to farmers.

Daniel Sonke, manager of agricultural sustainability programs at Campbell’s Soup Co., said Campbell’s receives a questionnaire from Wal-Mart each year.

“They compare us with other companies in the category,” Sonke said. “It is driving action internally; I will give them credit for that.

The nation’s largest food service distributor also asks growers to answer questions about how their crops are produced. “We have a sustainable agriculture IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program with more than 11,000 growers involved” said Georgiann Miller, Quality Assurance Department management at Sysco. “Our suppliers submit an IPM program, which is evaluated and scored. We report to our customers on pesticide usage and programs growers have in place to reduce that usage. We report water conservation efforts. Last year was the first we asked for data on fuel and energy use reduction.”

Miller said Sysco hears requests for information about farming practices from its restaurant and institutional customers. “Our customers ask questions of us on a daily basis; they want to know where their food comes from,” she said. “It is incumbent on us to get to know you. Our program was one of the first, and is hopefully one of the simplest to respond to. We want you to have a story that we can tell our customers. We also want you to have metrics, so that we have a verified story to tell.”

A number of the first farming operations to document and report their efforts at sustainability to the public are in the Central Coast region.

In addition to satisfying the demand for transparency, Arnold said there may be ways to recoup the time and money it takes to document efforts in sustainability. “It may save you on inputs and maintain or improve your market access,” he said. “We think of this as integrating sustainability into your business thinking. There are some examples of markers where growers are being paid for what they are doing on the farm.’

Sonke said a number of global companies have joined together to develop commonly accepted definitions of what is meant by ‘sustainability’ as it applies to different products.

“The Sustainability Consortium was founded to promote simplicity and transparency in reporting on sustainability,” Sonke said. The consortium includes entities varying from Wal-Mart to the World Wildlife Federation, and from Syngenta to the Natural Resources

Defense Council. The Sustainability Consortium has agreed on standards for sustainability for 117 products, including 45 within the food, beverage and agricultural sector, according to Sonke.

How many products that we use on a daily basis: vehicles, appliances, tools, equipment are subjected to the intense scrutiny that the agricultural industry has to endure? It is a wonder that producers can do anything for the paperwork, and common sense seems to have been lost in the process!

Bobbi Stevenson-McDermott is a soil and water conservationist. She can be reached at rjsm09@msn.com.