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The Grower: A Sustainability MPG Rating

Tom Burfield, The Grower


Specialty crop initiative aims to provide a single set of metrics used by all auditors

Growers tired of expending time and money to meet the varied requirements of multiple buyers and sustainability auditors are hopeful that the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops might bring some relief.

The stewardship index was launched to develop a system for measuring sustainable performance throughout the specialty crop supply chain, says Jeff Dlott, president and chief executive officer of Soquel, Calif.-based SureHarvest. The stewardship index will list metrics in 14 categories.

The metrics are akin to the Environmental Protection Agency’s mpg standard for automobiles. They’re numbers that are derived by a uniform process and easily understood by everybody, Dlott says.

Eventually, organizers hope that the metrics will be adopted by auditors, accepted by produce buyers and replace the need for multiple food safety audits.

Dlott credits Tim York, president of the Markon cooperative in Salinas, Calif., with being the driving force behind the stewardship index.

But Dlott’s company is coordinating a $630,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to pilot test the metrics.

Growers want a say

Growers generally don’t object to measuring their operations’ sustainability levels. But they’re not pleased with multiple buyers and auditors demanding that producers comply with differing standards.

“The whole notion of an auditor-driven standard made people angry,” Dlott says.

Those developing the index hope to come up with a standardized measurement system that can cut across crops and meet the requirements of any auditor.

“There would be nothing unique about an auditor,” Dlott says. “They all have to follow the same rule book.”

A 30-member coordinating council that drew members from organizations, such as the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association, the Wine Institute and the National Potato Council, oversees the stewardship index.

The council is composed of representatives of growers, buyers and non-governmental organizations. A majority of each group must approve any measure for it to be accepted.

Dlott describes the movement as a “grassroots, democratic process” and says anyone can express their opinions through those organizations. He expects about 400 people to provide input for the standards now in development.

Plans call for developing metrics for several areas, including air quality, energy use, nutrient management, pesticides, soils, waste, water quality and water use, all of which Dlott says should be ready for pilot testing this season.

Biodiversity, packaging and greenhouse gas emissions are some areas that will be included in the future.

Concept supported

A number of organizations have offered their support for the program, including the Washington, D.C.-based National Potato Council.

“We believe that supply chain requests for producing sustainable outcomes during the production process are there, they’re real and they’re ongoing,” says John Keeling, the potato council’s executive vice president and chief executive officer.

“You need to develop definitions and measurement tools for sustainability that are workable from the grower’s perspective. Hopefully, we’ll end up with a single set of standards that apply to the entire industry.”

When every produce buyer imposes a specific set of criteria on growers, he says, “It drives costs into the system, and it’s confusing to consumers and growers.”

Monitoring in Florida

The Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association is monitoring the steward index, since it is “an effort that has significant potential impact at the grower level,” says Dan Botts, vice president, industry resources.

Botts is a member of several workgroups but does not provide input. Instead, he monitors the activities and proposals and reports back to the organization’s membership.

The decision to abide by the recommendations will be up to individual growers.

Botts says he’s not pleased with the idea of marketing institutions and nongovernmental organizations that don’t have a vested interest in the production systems “trying to drive or determine which processes are the best processes used to produce a crop.”

“We are strong adherents to a continuous improvement process, but we want it to be driven by good science and the fact that the grower is usually the person who is in the best position and knows what he needs to do to produce his crop,” he says.

Each farm is unique, Botts says, and operates in its own environment and microclimate.

“For someone to try to come up with a system to judge one farm against another seems strange to me,” he says.

Botts cites an instance regarding food safety where Florida’s water management districts require that ditch banks be vegetated to prevent surface movement of nutrients into the canal systems that flow into the Everglades area.

At the same time, food safety programs require ditch banks to be free of weeds because they harbor wildlife.

“You put the farmer in the terrible position of having to make a choice of which one of the permit conditions required by a regulatory agency he is going to comply with,” Botts says.

Some are skeptical

Although the movement has met with plenty of support from throughout the supply chain, Bob Martin, general manager at Rio Farms in Oxnard, Calif., is skeptical.

Many growers already are doing everything they can to be stewards of the land, he says.

Martin compares the stewardship index to various food safety programs from some buyers and auditors that he describes as “window dressing,” “fluff” and “warm and fuzzy stuff.”

“I avoid those things as much as much as possible,” he says.

But Martin did not rule out Rio Farms’ support for the stewardship index.

“If there is something that is effective, will do something positive and won’t break our business, I think it’s worth pursuing.”

Cost effective

Dlott says he doesn’t want to see growers saddled with costs and time investments that won’t provide them any return.

“I do think, for some of the metrics, we will find positive outcomes related to profitability,” he says.

In other cases, the benefit may not be so clear.

“There are areas where you are doing it because it’s a public good, not necessarily a private good,” he says.

When growers produce public benefits that don’t help their bottom lines, they should get reimbursed in some way, he says, perhaps through farm bill allocations or directly from buyers.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, there’s no guarantee that, at the end of the process, the growers he represents will be willing to accept any metrics that are developed, says Keeling of the National Potato Council.

“But we think it’s the best process in which to try to ferret through all that and potentially end up at a point of agreement.”

“Is there efficacy to this whole program? I don’t know,” says Martin of Rio Farms. “I’m hoping that they will allow the public to review (the stewardship index) for a long time before they start pushing anything on people.”

For more information on the stewardship index, visit