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November 30, 2009

Sustainability ranks high among citrus growers' priorities

Tom Burfield, The Packer
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California citrus growers are taking the sustainability movement seriously.

Most say they have long been practicing sustainable growing methods, but some are taking a new look at the issue and seeking innovative ways to implement a sustainability program.

Delano, Calif.-based Paramount Citrus Association Inc. gets questions about its sustainability efforts from customers all the time, said Scott Owens, vice president of sales and marketing. And he is ready for them.

“We have established what our carbon footprint is,” he said. “We spent part of last year analyzing our entire business — from the field all the way through shipment to the customer — on sustainability.”

The company has determined its own carbon footprint and shares with individual customers the steps it is taking to ensure a sustainable operation.

But Owens won’t get too specific.

“It’s part of the competitive advantage we have in the marketplace,” he said. “Other people have not done that.”

He will say measuring the company’s carbon footprint was no small task.

“It’s a very large undertaking, and it’s not free,” he said. “It was a comprehensive look from field to the customer’s back door.”

Moonlight Packing Corp. in Reedley, Calif., has been well ahead of the sustainability movement, said president Russ Tavlan.

“All of a sudden, sustainable farming practices have become trendy, but we were already employing those responsible methods for many years,” he said.

The company long ago implemented practices like pheromone mating disruption and cretaceous insect releases and has not changed anything as a result of all the recent talk about sustainability.

“We’re not doing anything different today than we did 10 years ago,” Tavlan said.

But SunWest Fruit Co. Inc., Parlier, Calif., is doing things differently, said sales manager Doug Sankey.

“We’ve really changed the way we are farming culturally,” he said.

Protected Harvest, a Soquel, Calif.-based third-party certifier of sustainably grown food products, certifies almost all the acreage on which the company grows its products.

The nonprofit organization monitors air, water and soil quality and looks for evidence of contaminants and pollution, Sankey said.

The company ships in sustainably produced cartons and last year launched its Zeal label, which is now up to full speed, and certifies the product as sustainably farmed.

Sustainable growing practices are just a matter of common sense, said Fred Berry, director of marketing for Mulholland Citrus in Orange Cove, Calif.

For example, most growers don’t use more pesticides than are necessary. if for no other reason than their high cost.

Mulholland encourages its growers to keep pesticide use at a minimum and to use biological inputs to control pests whenever possible.

At the same time, he said, determining one’s carbon footprint or the carbon footprint of a specific commodity isn’t always easy.

The locally grown factor usually plays an important role in determining a product’s sustainability, but in the case of citrus, California and offshore growers are about the only source of quality product, he said. That rules out the locally grown aspect for most U.S. consumers.