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May 2, 2008

Sustainability Expert Provides Insights To A Similar Industry

Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit
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Here at the Pundit, our work on sustainability has been extensive. We have published many pieces, including an important letter from Tim York of Markon Cooperative under the title of, A Call For An Industrywide Sustainability and Social Responsibility Initiative.

We also ran a series of pieces addressing a proposed sustainability standard for the industry; these included:

Sustainability Being Steamrolled — Does A Sustainable Vision Encompass only Organics

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Icon DiMatteo Weighs In On Sustainability Standard

Pundit’s Mailbag — SCS Takes Exception To Analysis of Sustainability Standard

Following this dialogue, Tim York wrote a letter jointly with Jeff Dlott of SureHarvest; we published this under the title, Sustainability Goes Beyond Best Practices. The letter included this paragraph:

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Program is ahead of most when it comes to sustainable practices, and an example for the produce industry to monitor.  Made up of more than 1,200 wine grower and vintner enterprises, the program is looking at quantitative performance measures including water use, energy use, water quality, air quality and greenhouse gases.  The goal is to enhance competitiveness and sustainability of individual companies and the California wine sector as a whole.

As the produce industry analyzes how best to incorporate sustainable principles in its operations, learning more about this program in the wine industry seemed imperative. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Jeff Dlott
President and CEO
SureHarvest
Soquel, California

Q: How did you become an advocate and innovator of sustainability practices?

A:  I started out as an academic, received a PhD from UC Berkeley in the Department of Environmental, Science, Policy and Management in 1993. I did all my work out in the Central Valley with peaches, plums and nectarines, studying the efficacy of improving pest management as well as environmental performance, not theoretically, but by working with growers in the fields.

I then spent two years researching similar products in the Salinas Valley. On leaf miner, I analyzed how to optimize controlling this pest, while minimizing environmental impacts and worker exposure. We’re asking questions about performance. What are those practices that are most economical resulting in the least environmental impact? The important point is we’re not talking organic; we’re taking a much broader definition of sustainability.

Q: Let’s go into this in more depth later, but for now, could you explain why concentrating on organic limits and sidetracks sustainability goals?

A: On organic, at this point there’s a legal definition from USDA. The principle focus is on what products you can’t use and the requirements are generally around the farm planning, and some soil management practices. What it doesn’t really address is the actual performance of agricultural systems, including energy use, water use, and actual water quality questions; these aren’t measurable components we would know about as outcomes of organic production.

Q: Where did this broader pursuit lead you?

A: From that work, I was recruited by Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to help build an organization that could provide support to private and public partnerships for sustainability projects around the country. I had the opportunity to work with grower associations, as well as universities to provide technical assistance on how to design, implement and evaluate results of a sustainability program. To realize these large scale programs, we brought in environmental scientists, survey experts, and economists.

Q: Did any of your projects involve the produce industry?

A: My work with Pew Charitable Trusts led to the formation of the Center for Agricultural Partnerships, based out of North Carolina.  I worked with pear growers in the Northwest, and peach growers in the Midwest, with dairy producers in the Northeast, and raisin growers in California, and actually did do a project in Salinas in vegetables on integrated pest management. Our goal was to design, put into practice and evaluate these large scale projects. The key was to get growers involved in adopting and executing these sound practices.

I went on to form my own company in 1999. I founded Sure Harvest to basically continue this type of work and add information technology.

Q: What do you mean by information technology?

A: During the work I had done through the 1990s, most of the growers were collecting information on pieces of paper, and it was difficult to aggregate that data and evaluate progress. Sure Harvest set out to further refine the system, and figure out how to develop specific, measurable, verifiable practices to track, and give tools to growers to track progress. We build the software and information tools to do this. We’re like architects who design the building you want to live in.

Q: When did you begin your work with the wine industry?

A: In this case, in 2001 the Wine Institute and California Association of Wine Grape Growers (CAWG) hired us. They contracted me as a consultant to take them through the strategic planning process for the Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP). It was launched in 2002 to give growers and vintners educational tools to increase adoption of sustainable practices and to measure and demonstrate ongoing improvement. California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) was formed in 2003 to help implement SWP.  The SWP is based on the concept of a “Cycle of Continuous Improvement”

We built a comprehensive Code of Sustainable Wine Growing Practices Workbook, and facilitated more than 100 workshops with growers and wine makers; both the growing and production side.  We weren’t looking at how efficient the distribution center or trucking fleet was, just really focusing on the supply side.

Q: How did you go about determining what practices needed to be included? Are there basic production/operational procedures and tactics commonly employed by winemakers? How many of these measures would be relevant or applicable to the produce industry? 

A: I believe there is significant overlap between the wine industry and produce industry in terms of measures. Based on my knowledge, I’d estimate 70 percent of these measures are common across all sectors of agriculture. You want to look at water usage, pest management, and energy efficiency. You want to assess solid waste management and reduction, as well as community issues. All these things are common whether you’re producing wine, broccoli or Georgia peaches. These measures are foundational to a sustainability program. Obviously there are some unique issues to produce, and wine quality would be unique to the wine industry.

There is an opportunity to apply sustainability programs in the wine industry to produce because a lot of these performance measures are similar across any crop. But the key is for individual groups to make their own decisions on what works for their particular circumstances.

Q: Are these measures formulated through scientific analyses? Do you have a method for validating the criteria set forth in the workbook?

A: We got the book peer-reviewed, an important step on the scientific side.  We put together the collection of sustainable practices and sent it out broadly to academic scientists, members of the environmental community, executives involved in corporate social responsibility and the social equity community. We sought input from those that advocate on behalf of sound corporate practices and bridging community relationships.

Q: Are you engaged in childcare issues and worker rights?

A:  People get nervous when labor issues are brought to the table. We had the document reviewed by a labor lawyer and farm employees. We address sound human resources practices ranging from best practices for recruiting and retaining employees, to working on issues including housing, childcare, benefits, and other matters important to employees.

Q: What comments did you receive? What were the key areas of concern and how did you tackle them?

A: We had a range of feedback. There was no problem about the breadth of what we were addressing in so many different areas.  There were concerns about the depth of specific issues around water quality. And some issues on conservation of biological diversity; are we doing enough to protect endangered species, enough to build habitat? We incorporated a chapter on ecosystem management into the program to respond to these anxieties.

We serve to negotiate those discussions.  By and large, we were able to address the majority of those concerns.  There were some cases where, based on the level of detail requested, we deferred. We are doing a statewide book, so if the level is so specific to a region it should be addressed on a regional basis. Can we build relevance on the state level and on a small geographical scale?

Q: Have you experienced resistance from companies receiving mandates to implement more sustainable practices?

A: Mandates elicit confrontation and resentment and can appear daunting and infinite. At the same time, the concept of sustainability remains ambiguous without a plan to quantitatively measure and validate the program. Does the company have a plan, an implementation timeframe, are they collecting data and are they using that data to make changes? That is a different prescriptive practice than, ‘You need to do this.’ To grow the best grapes in an environmentally and socially responsible way—that is what farmers and winemakers do.

We can put in processes to maximize those efforts. Then we can hone more specifically to individual cases and devise a program of best practices that makes sense.  No one has all the answers. It is extremely challenging to assess the most effective strategies. We’ve continued to focus on the best available science.

Q: I assume science is only one component of creating a workable sustainability program.

A: That’s a point I need to emphasize. Making sure practitioners are able to implement the program is paramount. The way we ground truth that is by reviewing all sets of best practices with growers and winemakers.

The science alone doesn’t tell you what to do; it points you in the right direction. What makes sense and is feasible and easy to do? And does it do what you want it to do? 

Will it improve your economic, social, and environmental performance?

One of the important lessons learned in straining the information through practitioners, growers and winemakers is to know your target audience. The workbook needs to be written for them. If you’re communicating with consumers or regulators, the information and style needs to be adapted to their perspective. If you say you’re doing this for consumers, growers don’t understand why it is that way.  Going to other target audiences like consumers and regulators can be done later.

Q: How do you assess progress, what works and what needs improvement? Do companies share results to help the industry at large move forward?

A: We do workshops with growers and winemakers to collect information. In turn, if they voluntarily submit data, they get to see the benchmarks. The grower associations have utilized that data and published the 2004 and 2006 benchmarks as tools in public relations and in setting internal goals to improve the practices. 

There was a great concern that people wouldn’t want to do this workbook and deal with a lot more paperwork; the response to that was exemplified by the more than 1,000 vintners and growers who have self-assessed their operations. If it wasn’t adding value, we wouldn’t get the investment of these two- to three-hour workshops. [Editor’s Note: The California Wine Community 2004 Sustainability Report, authored by Dlott, provides an overview of the strategy, implementation and results of the program up to that point].

Q: Who attends the workshops?

A: The full spectrum of industry, from small/medium to the largest growers and wine companies. The Gallo’s of the world bring teams together — human resources, the facilities manager, the product people, etc., and tailor the program with internal workshops. Some 5,000 people have attended targeted education workshops to date.

At the end of 2006, we launched the online version of the workbook, an environment where companies can do all kinds of benchmarking on line, compare multiple fields, do scenario planning;  if I do these practices how do I compare to others in my area or to others in my size class?  Now we have some of largest wine companies using this as an internal resource — as a platform to measure and manage their own practices. 

Q: Is there a way a company can demonstrate its progress or compliance to customers or other interested parties? Have you created some kind of third-party audit and certification program, like what has been done in the produce industry to address food safety problems?

A: In the past, the program has been largely an educational process. It wasn’t initially a marketing campaign, and hasn’t been run that way until just recently. For six or so years, data has been self-reported. 

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, the non-profit organization that now administers the program, is in the process of developing a voluntary certification program. A joint committee of growers and wine makers is working to decide what makes the most sense in terms of a certification system. In 2002, people weren’t asking these questions. This sustainability workbook was designed to improve the whole overall positioning of the industry.

The key decisions around the type of certification program will be made in the next three to four months. The concept could be to verify where people are in meeting their objectives, not saying whether that’s good or bad. That would be up to the buying community to say, is this good enough or not?

Q: The concept of sustainability has been left open to much interpretation, misconception and confusion. Within the broad definition of sustainability, how many of these objectives are delineated in the workbook?

A: The workbook covers over 200 practices spanning 14 chapters. That’s the scope of sustainability. It’s not nebulous at all.  Energy resources, water, air, human resources, economic production of crop itself, how are you most efficient, the very nuts and bolts. What I find most satisfying is that you can go to any part of the state and ask people in the industry what is sustainability, and they’ll have an answer.

This helps us to be clear on our goals, and has driven efficiencies because all are working off the same page. With large operations, it is critical to put forth clear objectives, plans and measured results. Internal communication can be a powerful motivator.

Q: Do you weigh the value of these 200 practices to help companies prioritize what to embark upon first, second, third, etc.?

A: Comments of usefulness are discussed. A typical question: Do growers get paid more for their products if they implement these procedures. And have these practices substantially reduced costs? The first question hasn’t been a marketing issue and is not presented that way. The answer to the second question most executives keep close to their chest. I know that’s not a satisfactory answer.

Saving costs in direct energy and water use are key drivers; some companies see dramatic reductions.  Asking that question upfront is part of the work we do now.  What kinds of solutions would you see that could improve both economic and environmental performance for mutually beneficial results?

Q: What happens where there is a conflict between corporate interests and what is best for consumers?

A: When sustainability goals are in alignment with public and private benefits those are easy wins. Examples would be reduction of energy use and water conservation; these save growers and processors money and contribute to the greater public good. Basically, improved efficiency is good for business. Responsible employee practices lead to recruiting and retaining the best.

However, we do need to openly and honestly recognize when public benefits aren’t in alignment with private sector economic realities. For example, it will require investments in some cases to improve water quality or increase biodiversity, and in these instances we need to be realistic that the majority of benefits are for public good.  We need mechanisms in place and incentives for that to happen. These can be government incentives in the form of rewarding growers for environmental improvements, or as Wal-Mart has suggested, producers become preferred providers and it may even pay more.

Is the system functionally built to lead to business improvement and positive social and environmental outcomes?  Mostly, it’s about reducing liability and improving public perception, and if that’s the case, there isn’t much conflict there.

When there are conflicts we need to get them down in measurable ways and come up with the most favorable solutions.

Q: In the produce industry, heated congressional hearings reveal the conflicts of interest in bolstering food safety requirements.

A: The wine industry doesn’t have to wrestle with food safety issues like the produce industry. There has been discussion regarding the environmental pressure that food safety measures have put on the growers. Whether you agree or not, some argue that buyers demanding new food safety requirements are forcing farmers to poison ponds, remove animals, clear non-crop vegetation, and destroy areas that should be environmentally protected.  A company instituting higher food safety standards has reduced the habitat, while the other guy with lower food safety practices has maintained the habitat.

You have to approach these issues holistically; you can’t do food safety in a vacuum and you can’t do sustainability in a vacuum. That’s why you have to have all stakeholders in the room.

California laws prevent companies in the wine industry from using winery waste for composting, which is a great thing because it doesn’t go to landfill. You have integrated waste management requirements on the one hand and water board requirements on the other. I’m aware of at least one instance where a company was not composting on site but still got its contract denied because its actions created new conflicts with the Water Board.

What are the things we’re compromising? Does potential risk of reducing water quality outweigh greenhouse gases and use of diesel fuel?

If you stay away from these issues, you won’t be successful in building a meaningful sustainability program. We need to acknowledge philosophical conflicts between public benefits and private enterprise. It is unrealistic to expect companies to invest in certain practices. That’s why regulations are instituted, but clearly that approach doesn’t always work.  When Wal-Mart asks for things economically viable, what they’re really asking for is public investment.

Q: How can the produce industry translate what has worked so well in the wine industry?

A: If we could bring the PMA, United, WGA, FMI, GMA and NRA all into a big tent that would be by far the most efficient.

Q: Are you doing any work with individual produce companies or commodity organizations to build or expedite sustainability projects?

A: We’re starting the needs assessment and strategic planning work to design and develop sustainability programs with the Almond Board of California, the California Avocado Commission, and the California Pear Advisory Board. Because we go through needs assessments, their programs will look different than the wine industry; it’s a not a cookie cutter approach.

We need to get stakeholders in the same room and talking about a comprehensive set of practices and performance metrics. In the end, though, our clients have to reach their own decisions on what works for them. What I don’t want to do is say the Almond Board needs to follow what the wine industry did.

Q: What is your vision on a timeframe for hashing out the metrics and making a measurable sustainability program a reality in the produce industry?

A: There is real opportunity. Even though there is a lot of discussion on the metrics, the hard part isn’t building these, it’s instituting them. If there was a clear commitment, we could get this done in 12 months. How do you get hundreds of growers and processors to do this? It’s leadership.

We’d always seek a leader in the wine industry to push initiatives forward, a champion in a company to champion the industry. Ask the Joe Pezzini’s and Tim York’s of the world. Bring in Tom Stenzel and Bryan Silbermann to drive the point home. Without that full spectrum, it will be difficult.  How could the wine industry do this?  Very strong leadership throughout the organizations saw that everyone was better off by working together as a whole.

Ideally, if the stated goal is improving the industry, there will be agreement on the core principles; to come up with the best environmental, economic and social outcomes. We need the growers, processors and other members of the supply chain involved. If we’ve done that right, we should be able to come up with a robust set of best practices that emerge as the industry standard. 

In the wine industry, we don’t have Wal-Mart telling us what sustainability practices should be. Safeway isn’t saying how to make a good bottle of wine. Regardless, the better we do in raising standards and filling the voids, the better protection we have of something being imposed on us. I also know growers need to make there own decisions. Each group needs to settle on priorities, what they embark on first. This can vary based on commodity. Sustainability practices need to become part of the business process with clearly defined performance goals. There’s an old adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. 

A lot of people start out talking about sustainability and wind up acting like bullies – telling everyone what to do and how to do it.

Yet the very essence of sustainability is how to sustain a business and an industry. That doesn’t come from an outsider dictating “Best Practices” and demanding conformance. It comes from extensive stakeholder engagement that identifies real life obstacles and real life opportunities; the engagement defines priorities, discloses potential roadblocks and defines the road to be traveled.

Then everyone is able to move toward sustainability by engaging in a process of continuous improvement.

We’ve found that many growers take umbrage when we talk about sustainability, pointing out that they have often been multi-generational stewards of the land. Indeed, agriculture, going back to biblical admonitions has always been focused on sustainability:

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof;

But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.

That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land.

— Leviticus 25:3-5

Even the social aspects of sustainability were addressed biblically:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest.

And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.

— Leviticus 19:9,10

When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands.

When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing.

— Deuteronomy 24:19-22

Now in our modern day, we seek new expression for ancient principles. It has never been easy to balance the economic, environmental and social responsibilities we all bear. Yet sustainability offers a window to a vibrant way of living.

Sustainability doesn’t tell anyone what to do — how can it? Tradeoffs between food safety and environmental issues, such as those Jeff alludes to, aren’t resolved just because one has decided to embark on a journey toward sustainability.

But sustainability provides a framework for evaluating these issues and for insuring that the outcome is not inadvertent or accidental.

So sustainability offers a path to a more complete business assessment and a more fully engaged life.

Many thanks to Jeff Dlott and SureHarvest for sharing their wine industry initiative with the produce trade.