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February 23, 2011

Sustainability isn't new

Dave Eddy, Western Fruit Grower
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Merlyn Garber, like a lot of veteran growers, was initially skeptical when he learned of the Almond Board of California’s drive toward sustainability. But while sitting in on his first California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP) workshop, he was struck by a couple of realizations. The first was that sustainability wasn’t something new or unfamiliar. As the board’s Gabriele Ludwig put it, “You can’t be a third, fourth, or fifth generation almond farmer without already being sustainable.”

Indeed, thought Garber, who shared his workshop experience with those attending a session on CASP at the annual Almond Board meeting in December, this is what he’d been doing all along in his Modesto-area orchards. “Our farming practices — what we’d been doing for years — fit the definition of what they gave us,” he said. “The Webster’s definition of ‘sustainable’ gives ‘sustainable agriculture’ as an example.”

Then came the second realization, and if anything, it was even more gratifying than the first. “If this helps convince people to buy more almonds,” he recalled thinking, “let’s all do it.”

Documentation Pays

Garber is just one of more than 100 almond growers who’ve participated in CASP, said Dan Sonke, a senior scientist for SureHarvest, which is working with the Almond Board in implementing the program. Buyers of almonds around the world are asking if the almonds they buy are grown sustainably, so it’s incumbent on growers to provide assurances. CASP, a self-assessment program, is designed to help growers do just that, he said.

Sonke shared a few of the questions designed to evaluate the sustainability of various practices. One focused on water usage, for example: “I’m using historical evapotranspiration tables to determine when to irrigate.” The possible responses: “Current Practice, Tried It, Haven’t Tried It, Not Familiar With It, Not Applicable.”

Garber was joined on a panel by two other growers, Gary Martin and Matt Angell. Angell, who farms near Madera, said that not only will CASP provide valuable information to reassure buyers, but it’s a valuable educational tool because it gives insight into other growers’ practices. “I get to peek over the fence at my neighbor,” he said. “This conference — isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Martin, who farms near Firebaugh, said that after coming to the realization that they’d been practicing sustainability all along, CASP participation seemed like a natural. It’s great to practice sustainability, he said, but it’s another thing to prove that you are actually doing it. “It seemed like a good way to document what we’re doing,” he said. “Because we’re already doing it, we’d like to get credit for it.”

Growers Get Credit
Growers at the sustainability forum hosted by the Almond Board of California (ABC) said that they are always jumping through hoops to assuage environmentalists, but never get credit. They would like to see this effort publicized in the media, because ordinarily the consumer media only portrays agriculture as having a negative impact on the environment.

They might get their wish because this sustainability effort, in which growers’ efforts are documented, is different. ABC President and CEO Richard Waycott said the reason he expects to see this laudable effort get publicized is because of who is driving it: mainstream food companies and retail chains. Unlike past efforts, which at best relied on bare-bones marketing and public relations campaigns, this sustainability effort is being championed by behemoths like General Mills and Wal-Mart, and they have huge marketing budgets.

Waycott said that last year he visited Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, AR, and learned of the company’s sustainability initiative. Wal-Mart plans to save from $20 billion to $40 billion in efficiencies it realizes from its sustainability program. The company obviously is going to champion its sustainability push, and consumers should hear the message that almond growers are playing a role.

“We need to engage these retailers to be that mouthpiece for us,” he concluded.