A sustainable market

09/01/2007 02:00:00 AM

In hopes of a price premium, growers promote earth-friendly practices to buyers

By Marni Katz

An increasing number of fruit and vegetable producers who have adopted sustainable farming practices have begun to try to capitalize on their efforts in the marketplace.

One such group is Healthy Grown Potatoes, which consists of about a dozen Wisconsin potato growers representing about 10,000 acres.

Eleven years ago, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and the World Wildlife Fund began to develop sustainable practices for potato production. In 1999, the University of Wisconsin in Madison joined , and six years ago, the trademarked Healthy Grown potatoes name and logo were unveiled

Growers who meet the requirements and pass an audit by the San Diego-based independent certification firm Protected Harvest can affix the Healthy Grown logo to their bags of potatoes.

Although growers have yet to receive a premium for sustainably grown potatoes, they have seen sales increase, particularly this year, says Tim Feit, promotions director for the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association in Antigo.

“On the spectrum of traditionally grown to organically grown potatoes, Healthy Grown is somewhere in the middle and probably closer to organic,” he says. “I think a lot of consumers want to buy organic, but it’s also fairly expensive. They want produce that’s more environmentally friendly, but they still want it at a reasonable price, and Healthy Grown is a nice option for them to have.”

He says Healthy Grown potato growers hope that as sales and demand increase, they eventually can raise prices to recoup the additional expenses incurred in growing sustainably.

Wisconsin potato growers aren’t the only ones trying to capitalize on their sustainable farming practices. Protected Harvest also works with winegrape growers in California’s Lodi-Woodbridge area, California stone-fruit producers, California citrus producers and Pennsylvania mushroom growers.

The sustainable scorecard

The process begins when a commodity group approaches Protected Harvest about certification, says Andrea Caroe, executive director.

Because the definition of sustainable varies among commodities and even individuals, Protected Harvest works with growers, Extension specialists, processors and packers to develop a set of research-based best management practices.

To achieve and maintain certification, growers must earn a minimum number of points within each of nine different management categories. They include field scouting, pest management decisions, field management decisions, soil and water quality, and storage management. Growers also must stay below a set toxicity score, which is based on the environmental impact of each pesticide applied.

“We have practices listed and points associated with them so growers can see which practices are most valuable,” Caroe says. “In developing these practices, we take all the research that’s out there and distill it down into a reasonable approach for growers to use in how they farm.”

In addition to being environmentally friendly, the practices also have to be economically viable.

“If a practice is shown in research to be good for the environment but includes equipment that is more expensive than the farmer can purchase, we typically put those practices in the standards as a bonus,” she says. “It’s not reasonable for growers to achieve that practice right away, but it can be a goal worth working toward.”

Lodi Rules

Since the early 1990s, winegrape growers in the Lodi-Woodbridge region of California have worked to distinguish themselves with environmentally friendly farming practices. The next step was to develop sustainable practices, says Cliff Ohmart, research and integrated pest management director for the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

A group of growers, winery representatives, pest control advisers and Extension experts spent 14 months in 2003 and 2004 drafting Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing.

The recommendations include education, training and team building, soil management, water management, vineyard establishment, pest management and six sections dealing with vineyard ecosystems.

Unlike some programs that focus on practices that should be avoided, the Lodi Rules program promotes those that result in continual improvements in all aspects of a farming operation, Caroe says.

Protected Harvest then sent the rules to an academic peer-review committee for input.

Ohmart says sustainable farming has become a recognized lexicon for many Lodi-area growers and the certification program will allow them to receive credit for their efforts.

“The winegrape commission was formed by growers to help raise winegrape prices for Lodi growers, and one way to do that is to help them differentiate themselves from other regions,” Ohmart says. “That is one reason for doing the Lodi Rules certification.”

Whether that segues into a price advantage for growers remains to be seen.

“Market research by others and the Lodi commission in 2004 shows that people buy wine based on perception of quality and price,” he says. “The environmental message is important, but it is not the driver like it is in produce. However, there is a segment of the market that is interested. The program ultimately will only work if there is a pull from the marketplace, but it is way too early to tell.”

Already, one participating winery has offered a $50-per-ton premium for certified Lodi Rules grapes. Five wineries with Lodi appellations plan to incorporate the Lodi Rules seal into their label this year, and they also must be involved in the audit process.

In 2007, about 7,000 acres of Lodi grapes are expected to be certified sustainable through the Lodi Rules program, nearly a four-fold jump since its inception. And the number of participating growers has increased from six the first year to nearly 20 this year. There are about 100,000 acres in the Lodi-Woodbridge district.

To join, growers contact Protected Harvest, fill out a detailed application and questionnaire, and pay a flat application fee of $2,150 plus $1 per acre to cover the cost of certification.

‘Doing the right thing’

Aaron Lange, whose father, Randy, and uncle Brad helped pioneer sustainable practices in the area, sees certification as part of the evolution.

“Ultimately, Lodi Rules exists to provide recognition to the Lodi area of the sustainable practices we’ve been doing for a long time,” says Lange, who manages vineyard operations for LangeTwins Vineyards in Acampo.

LangeTwins Wine Estates will feature the Lodi Rules seal on the back of its LangeTwins and Circles Edge labels.

Lange says he believes consumers will ultimately support the Lodi Rules program once they learn the certification has teeth.

“I think it is important for consumers to see that the Lodi Rules Program for sustainable winegrowing is a rigorous, third-party certified program that’s peer reviewed by environmentalists, scientists, and academics,” he says. “However, I think that demand for Lodi Rules-certified wines will increase when consumers discover they’re grown according to values that closely match their own concerning environmental protection, social equity and economic sustainability.”

Ultimately, Lange says he hopes wineries will find a way to capitalize on that and pay a premium for the fruit.

“That’s the best way to encourage growers to produce the best possible fruit using environmentally safe practices and treating employees and the community right,” he says. “It’s about doing the right thing for the right reason.”

After going through certification, Lange says the vineyard has become more focused on holistic approaches, as well as the human resources[human-resources?] side of sustainable farming.

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