March 23, 2020

Proving our Environmental Case

Miriam-Webster defines “environmentalist” as an advocate of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment or one concerned about the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (such as climate, soil, water, air and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival. Especially with respect to the control of pollution.

Farmers claim to be the “original environmentalists” and in my three decades of service to the agricultural industry I have often heard that claim, in many settings and from many people. It is a common theme in agricultural discussions (and the theme of this issue of Western Grower & Shipper), particularly when the conversations turn toward policy proposals that will restrict a farm’s activity to achieve some environmental goal or another.

But the claim is not frequently recognized by those in a position to regulate agriculture whether they be from government, the marketplace (buyers) or the NGO (non-profit, non-government organization) community. These days, it takes immutable data to prove the case that farmers are practicing environmentalists and that as an industry we are preserving, restoring and improving our natural surroundings.

Unfortunately, it is seldom the case when the industry can step forward with quantitative data that demonstrates environmental performance, improvements, progress, etc. Representatives of the industry continue to lead with anecdotal information—like “farmers don’t apply too much (pick your input—water, pesticide, fertilizer, etc) because it is too costly” or “farmers control (pick your input—water, pesticide, fertilizer, etc.) through technology (pick your technology—drip irrigation, electrostatic sprayers, timed release fertilizers, etc.)” or “we are a (pick your generation) 4th generation farming operation and are obviously taking care of our environment.” Our failure to prove our case seems to spawn more and more top down control (read increased cost and reduced flexibility) and greater interest in “sustainable,” “regenerative,” “indoor” and other agricultural systems.

This is precisely why Western Growers has been working with a small group of dedicated organizations for the past decade to develop a system of performance indicators that will allow industry to quantitatively demonstrate environmental performance. The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC), consisting of growers, grower groups, NGOs and buyers, is slowly but surely publishing metrics that will provide a common language to demonstrate (document and prove) “environmentalism.”

These metrics established by SISC are now being adopted more broadly by buyers and others as a means of communicating “environmentalism” throughout the supply chain, and they are beginning to be recognized by regulators as meaningful methods to demonstrate performance. Today there are metrics for applied water use, habitat and biodiversity, energy use, nitrogen use, phosphorus use, soil organic matter and simple irrigation efficiency. Each is an important environmental consideration. The metrics establish a common language for measurement and allow for industry to document where they are today, how they are improving and to tell their story with hard data that cannot be disputed. This pays dividends to growers both in the marketplace and in the regulatory arena and, when complemented by a data aggregation and shared, can empower your advocates to push back on draconian and top down requirements.

This is the crux of Western Growers interest. First and foremost, we wish to equip growers with tools and methods that will assist them to document, benchmark, improve and communicate their performance. In early tests, member companies who have piloted the metrics have identified operational efficiencies that have led to decreased costs of production. One example is a recent conversation with a company representative who was trialing a simple irrigation efficiency metric. Through its use, the company identified a potential 30 percent savings in water that could be gained within the operation, translating into both water and energy savings.

Individual operators who measure quantitatively can gain insights into where opportunities exist to optimize and gain efficiency (save money). In that discussion, we also talked about the costs associated with collecting the information, which requires technology and people. These costs are not insignificant and are the next piece of the puzzle your association is working on.

How can we reduce those costs? One way to reduce data collection costs is to roll out tools to record information and provide analysis to growers. Western Growers has recently engaged Supply Shift to provide a free online tool to growers to confidentially record SISC metrics and receive feedback on performance. While there is individual benefit, some of the most powerful value will only come through aggregated data shared through a trusted source. The Western Growers sponsorship of the Supply Shift tool allows us to anonymously collect data and reflect it in meaningful ways to member companies and to communicate industry wide progress and performance. This empowers Western Growers to advocate with real data in forums like the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. It affords us an opportunity to sing the praises of the industry’s environmentalism and it backs up with immutable data our claim that growers are environmentalists.

I urge WG members to reach out and actively engage with Western Growers, Supply Shift and the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. I believe growers have a great positive impact on the environment and together we can prove it.