The word “sustainability” is on the lips of almost everyone in the produce industry these days, and it is something that more and more retail and foodservice customers are asking for from their suppliers.
“There is an undercurrent of concern at the customer level,” not among consumers but among retail and foodservice people, “about this issue called sustainability. They don’t know how to define it. They just like to use it so that it differentiates themselves in the minds of consumers,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, a trade industry group representing the interests of citrus growers primarily in the Central Valley.
Unfortunately, “there is a lack of understanding of what the producer does to strengthen the environmental quality of our way of life in farming areas,” he said.
To address that lack of understanding, California Citrus Mutual “put together a three-pronged approach and sent it to our marketers for them to use in conjunction with customer concerns about sustainability,” he said.
CCM put together a four-color booklet “that talks about the sustainability practices that producers use,” Mr. Nelsen said. “These are “things that most people are unaware of.” They include “how specific we are in utilization of resources, whether it be maintaining our viable soil to reduce pesticide use” or the use of foliar application of nutrients and other components of farming. That extensive brochure is available for CCM’s member shippers to use to help educate the customer.
In addition, Mr. Nelsen said, “we partnered with the San Joaquin Valley Air Resources Control Board” to produce a film “interviewing a multitude of companies in the industry and individual growers” regarding industry efforts in conjunction with the air board “to enhance air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, he said. That film demonstrates that “where we can make improvements, we have been willing to do so at considerable cost.”
The film has been disseminated to the industry’s shippers and marketers on flash drives “for them to distribute to the customer base,” he said.
“The third leg of our sustainability program was a research project” in conjunction with the University of California-Berkeley “in which the university’s researchers “clearly identified [that] the California citrus industry specific to the San Joaquin Valley is a net benefit to air quality by absorbing over 9,000 tons of pollutants a year,” he said.
Those “three legs of our sustainability story” should give customers “a better understanding of what we are doing” so that they do not “attempt to put a myriad of demands at considerable costs on our industry where it is not warranted,” he said.
“As a sidebar to that, we are sitting down with the United Sustainability Consortium and helping draft a set of practice-based matrices that can be adopted within the fresh produce industry at the production level” by all commodities, Mr. Nelsen said. “We each do farm differently” depending on crop and location, “but there are certain dynamics and characteristics that are common to all of us, and hopefully with the adoption of this United Sustainability matrix we can have one standard within the industry to satisfy customers and activists.”
In the final analysis, he said, “producers are actually environmentally sensitive and environmentally conscious. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in farming for as long as they have been. But the fact is that we need to do a better job in explaining what is being done and telling the story, and here at Citrus Mutual, we decided to make it a priority.”
On the morning of Oct. 18, a handful of producers in California “had a 90-minute breakfast with the governor,” he said. “We talked about the dynamics affecting our industry as we move forward into the next legislative session. We talked about the water bond” and about “regulatory demands that are in existence.” Gov. Jerry Brown “has made some very difficult decisions in reducing the size of government.“
The cost of doing business in California “is of extreme importance” to producers of permanent crops, such as citrus, Mr. Nelsen said. “Our growers can’t move their trees.” The delegation at the breakfast told the governor that “somebody needs to sit down and connect the dots,” he said, “and he is willing to work with us as we go forward in that direction.”