Audits for food safety… audits for worker welfare… testing for water quality, etc., etc., etc. Western Growers consistently trumpets the message that “farmers are the best stewards of the land.” After all, it is demonstrated by the generation-to-generation passing of their most cherished assets. We call out the fact that farmers treat workers fairly; use the best science available and state of the art technology to minimize our footprint on the land; and strive to deliver to customers nothing less that the safest, highest quality products — the same products they feed their families. Why can’t people see that and just take our word for it?
We can get away with telling good anecdotes about how responsible we are for only so long… and we have had a long run doing that. But today agriculture is beset on all sides by legislators and regulators, special interest advocacy groups, customers and our customers’ customers demanding that we prove ourselves. We can gripe all we want but the pipers aren’t going away, and they are not going to change their tune.
Trust, but verify, Ronald Reagan used to say, and he was right. People are decades and miles away from farming with no memory of what it takes to grow the food they eat. Our ability to maintain our agricultural vitality, especially in California and Arizona, rests today on our ability and willingness to do three things: improve our performance; communicate that superb performance and value to our customers; and defend and advocate for our best practices activities in the policy arena. To do that, we need good data and lots of it to back up our claims and communicate our inspiring stories. We need “big data.”
At a recent Western Growers board meeting one member shared his attitude about audits with his fellow board members. He said he pursues a 100 percent score on every audit, but recognizes that the utility of the process is not the 95 percent score he might get for all the things he does right. The value is knowing and understanding the 5 percent of questions he didn’t pass or do well on and being able to act on that 5 percent he needs to improve. How would he know what to work on if it weren’t for the audit? He says you can’t know and understand what to do without having the data at your fingertips.
Data also gives you the ability and veracity to tell your story to a regulator — the one that may claim you are wasting water. Or to a buyer whose customers want (demand) products grown with sustainable and ethical practices (as defined by them). As a producer competing in a challenging global market, you, the grower or handler, directly benefit from the collection and use of data about your operations. When you offer data (proof) it is not just an anecdote. Telling regulators that you are “a caring and concerned grower doing all I can to minimize my impact while producing more food at the same time,” is just not enough. You have to have the quantitative documentation to back up that statement to convince that regulator or customer you have knowledge about your operation that can be utilized to make improvements.
In addition to the individual benefit of having lots of good data to make informed decisions, there is also a huge benefit to the specialty crop industry as a whole. When each producer begins to actually develop discreet information for internal use and then elects to share it in an aggregated fashion through a trusted third-party partner, like Western Growers, we can begin to tell performance stories on behalf of the industry and engage with the regulatory community on policy with a foundation of fact behind us.
For example, we are told we need to be more accountable about nitrates, and face intrusive state actions if we cannot prove we are judicious and measured with fertilizers. We have known for a long time that we can contribute to the nitrogen in the environment while saying we are good stewards by citing the longevity of farms and listing the best practices and high expense of nitrogen fertilizers. But we are still facing onerous and intrusive policies ranging from taxing the sales and/or use of fertilizer to prescribing how much, when and how it should be applied. We are confronted by this principally because we have been unsuccessful in backing up our claims that we are good stewards and as our precision applications become best practices, our discharge has diminished. The data makes the difference here because we have been unable to provide it (under our own terms) to the regulatory community. Now, that community is beginning to demand it.
Our exemplary performance is necessary to maintain and improve our credibility and value to the world, but we must tell the world what we are doing. Immutable evidence yields credibility which yields trust. As more growers and handlers collect good data and find ways to digitize, store, sort, compile, retrieve and relate it in a way it can be shared in a meaningful way, the better our performance as an industry will prove our value to policymakers, regulators and customers. Western Growers is slowly but surely making inroads toward this end by developing and providing tools and technologies to growers and handlers — tools that aggregate data and information so when we advocate on the industry’s behalf, we can take quantitative and indisputable evidence into policy discussions and debates and better influence the outcome. As we battle with the EPA, DPR, ALRB, Cal/OSHA, state and federal legislators, or journalists, we need the tools to persuade others.
Big data gives us influence in the court of public opinion and also a strong standing in the lawmaking process. This is agriculture in the 21st century and if we want to be around for the next century, it is necessary to defend our industry in the policy arena today.
Join Western Growers
Western Growers members care deeply for the food they grow, the land they sustain, the people they employ, and the community in which they live.