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Ag Alert: New Tool May Help Farmers to Assess Stewardship Work

Christine Sousa, Ag Alert


While farmers will tell you that they’ve been sustainable for generations, they face increased demands to demonstrate sustainability as customers express interest in where their food originates and how it is grown. To measure sustainability, a group of about 30 representatives from the nation’s agricultural, food production and nonprofit sectors formed the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, a voluntary, pilot program to develop metrics to benchmark, compare and communicate performance.

Noelle Cremers, California Farm Bureau Federation natural resources and commodities director, said the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops has received mixed reviews, but signifies an effort to create a workable program for farmers.

“The Stewardship Index is not a standard, so no one is required to meet anything; it is just a way to measure your operation. There may ultimately be a standard that retailers impose, but at least it will have been done in a way that is thoughtful, that works for farmers, and farmers are able to participate in its development,” Cremers said.

Jessica Siegal, program director for the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, said the goal is to develop a set of performance metrics that will work for the entire fruit and vegetable sector.

“The work that we’re doing will be one set of metrics, one system that all the actors can turn to collectively because it will have been developed collectively,” Siegal said. “There is a wide scope in terms of opinion: Some people are really enthusiastic and others are a little bit more hesitant.”

Bob Martin, general manager of King City-based Rio Farms, maintains an interest in the process to develop metrics and said he realizes that there will be more pressure placed on farmers to comply with sustainability-related guidelines.

“The urgency is not as crucial as the food safety metrics were, but eventually we’re all going to be filling out forms,” Martin said. “Because it is such a consolidated marketplace, there are only so many people to sell to. If you say no to one buyer regarding sustainability, you are probably going to lose 20 to 30 percent of your business. You can’t afford to do that.”

Performance metrics currently being examined cover energy use, water use, soil health and nutrient use.

“We’ve taken those four metrics and built them into an Excel calculator. The grower receives this Excel document and they can look back at their records and pull information from their bills and all different types of records,” Siegal said.

The calculator offers immediate and specified results about a grower’s operation that he or she may not have had before. For the long term, the grower information, which is strictly confidential, is submitted to the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops Coordinating Council, a governing board of about 30 representatives. The council will review all of the information and make decisions about what the information means and how it should be used.

Hank Giclas, Western Growers senior vice president and a member of the council, said a key goal is to measure what matters to producers and minimize the proliferation of sustainability specifications from buyers.

“This is a voluntary effort intended primarily to give producers a methodology to benchmark their current efforts, compare those efforts with others, and allow them to choose methods that work for their operation to make the improvements they deem important or prudent,” Giclas said.

Molly Watkins, a member of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment in her role as president of the San Joaquin County Resource Conservation District, compares the Sustainability Index for Specialty Crops to the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing program started by grape growers in San Joaquin County.

“With Lodi Rules, they got all of the growers to participate and share production information and then they learned from each other. That’s what this Stewardship Index is trying to duplicate,” Watkins said. “Through Lodi Rules, growers have been able to reduce their pesticide use and share production information that has made their bottom line better. If it only takes you 20 minutes, it might be a good thing.”

Martin said he believes farmers will see little direct financial benefit from taking part in this type of sustainability process.

“We’re not going to get more money for our crop; we’re just going to be able to compete with everybody else,” Martin said. “Eventually, if producers want to sell their product, they are going to have to join the gang and be part of the solution.”

The Sustainability Index for Specialty Crops is looking for growers to pilot test metrics on fruit and vegetable operations of all scales, with a focus on citrus, potatoes, strawberries, processing tomatoes, winegrapes and romaine lettuce. For more information, contact Siegal at or 707-331-1810.

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at