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February 13, 2011

Soquel software company sowing sustainability

Jennifer Pittman
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SOQUEL -- As the idea of environmentally sustainable agricultural practices gains traction worldwide, SureHarvest, a small Soquel-based technology and services company, is celebrating the close of its best year ever and is looking forward to increasing sales by as much as 20 percent this year.

"We're optimistic," said Jeff Dlott, company founder, chief executive officer and board chairman. "The market is responding to the whole issue of sustainability. We're at the right place at the right time."

When Dlott, an entomologist by training, founded SureHarvest in 1999, he introduced pest management software and systems that helped winegrowers and vineyards compile data around some of their agricultural practices. Dlott, however, says he soon realized the complexity of sustainability in the agricultural industry and broadened the company's focus to meet the growing demand for information at all steps of the growing business.

Today, the company is on the front lines of sustainability, helping growers of specialty crops, distributors, associations, government agencies and even global corporations measure and track the complex details of bringing a seed to the shelf. The goal is to reduce negative environmental impacts, increase efficiencies, and meet growing demands of consumers and governmental regulatory agencies.

"There are forward-thinking companies and organizations that see this as a strategic initiative to be out front on improving their environmental footprint," Dlott said. "Some companies see it as a defensive strategy, but most are looking at opportunities."

Consumer demand is pushing companies to quantify just how green they are.

"I think we really are on the verge of consumers having access to information about where their foods are grown and the impacts around their food choices," Dlott said. "That is going to become more and more mainstream. We will see a lot more people asking, what is the carbon footprint? There will be companies that will start to brand on that."

In the company's early days, Dlott and a team of scientists helped develop the Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices for the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. It was a novel, Web-based self-assessment to improve sustainable practices and measure them to get an industrywide snapshot. Today it covers more than 68 percent of California's 526,000 winegrape acres, and that technology has been tailored to numerous other specialty crops throughout the country. SureHarvest has created tools for numerous specialty crops such as almond growers.

"One can't have fourth and fifth generations of almond farming without a long-term perspective," said Jenny Konschak, industry relations coordinator for the Almond Board of California. Data from almond growers will be anonymously compiled to document the extent to which they implement sustainable practices and where additional research or education may be helpful. The data will also augment marketing efforts.

Last month, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation named SureHarvest one of six Innovator Award recipients for their efforts in 2010 to reduce risks associated with pesticide use. In November, the California Department of Food and Agriculture awarded SureHarvest several sizeable grants including $404,505 to expand the California Almond Sustainability Program, $360,000 to advance a self-assessment and benchmarking sustainability initiative involving 12 specialty crops and $74,000 to assist the California Cut Flower Commission catalog the environmental benefits of buying California grown flowers.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance received $824,171 in grants to strengthen its sustainability efforts which have been shaped in large part by SureHarvest.

"He definitely had vision of where things were going," said Deana Knuteson, program coordinator for the Healthy Grown Project with the University of Wisconsin. Knuteson worked with Dlott and SureHarvest to incorporate sustainable practices in the Wisconsin potato growing community. There, the company launched its first farming management information system involving pest, nutrient, irrigation, planting, tillage and harvest management. "I think the company is definitely on the right track and has hit it right when sustainability in agriculture is becoming an important issue."

SureHarvest is extending its self-assessment model to almonds, pears, pistachios, walnuts, tomatoes, peppers, stone fruit, raisins, table grapes, carrots and other specialty crops. In January, the company announced its first foray into the citrus industry with Booth Ranches one of California's largest citrus growers. The National Grape and Wine Initiative is studying the California program as a model for adaptation to other winegrowing areas throughout the country.

"We're pretty confident that this year it's going to be a good year in agriculture," Dlott said. "Generally commodity prices are up."

The economic slump has also caused many companies to delay technology investments and SureHarvest expects to benefit from the delayed demand. "In 2010, we had our best year ever and we still had a lot of people in the fence," he said. "I think 2011 is going to be a breakthrough year."