October 30, 2010
California farmers answer retailers' requests
John Holland, Modesto Bee and Robert Rodriguez, Fresno Bee
Next time you lift a glass of Gallo wine, you might thank the owls that helped produce it.
E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto provides nesting boxes for the raptors to encourage them to prey on rodent pests in vineyards.
This practice reduces pesticide use and is an example of sustainable agriculture, loosely defined as producing food in a way that does not exploit the land or the people who work it.
An increasing number of retailers have been asking suppliers to adopt such practices. The largest, Wal-Mart, this month announced a plan to train a million farmers around the world.
"If you look at the Fortune 500 companies, they are responding to consumer pressures and global pressures for resources," said Barbara Meister, marketing manager for SureHarvest, a company that provides certification and other services for farmers interested in sustainability. "And they are responding to their stockholders who are asking about how a company is doing in the way of treatment of workers, its carbon emissions and use of water."
SureHarvest is based in Santa Cruz County and has a branch office on Needham Street in Modesto.
A few miles to the southeast, Gallo makes wine from California vineyards where water and pesticide use are carefully monitored. The site includes a bottle plant that makes heavy use of recycled glass and was revamped to reduce emissions by 80 percent.
"It's about trying to make decisions that balance environmental, economic and social equity issues," said Chris Savage, senior director of global environmental affairs for the company.
He is chairman of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which aims to spread sustainable agriculture practices. They include encouraging insects that prey on pests and planting cover crops between vine rows to reduce erosion.
Some practices can save farmers money and enhance the product. A well-timed cutoff of irrigation, for example, can boost the flavor of grapes or tomatoes and reduce water bills.
Relatively few consumers have been asking for wines made the sustainable way, Savage said.
"It's probably 5 to 8 percent that consider it as a buying choice, but certainly the retailers are concerned with it," he said.
Gallo has been involved in sustainability since the late 1930s. That's when co-founder Julio Gallo started the "50-50 give back" plan in Sonoma County, preserving an acre of wildlife habitat for each acre planted in grapes. That effort spread to wetlands and other habitat in the San Joaquin Valley.
The Wine Group, which operates near Ripon and elsewhere, is involved in sustainability, too. It markets boxed wines as a way to reduce the manufacturing and transport effects of the heavier glass containers.
Workshops, waste, water
Examples in other farm sectors:
• A statewide coalition called Dairy Cares has begun workshops for farmers on proper feeding, housing and health care for cows.
• Almond and walnut growers have adopted harvest methods that reduce dust clouds, and they chip rather than burn most of the pruned limbs.
• Foster Farms recycles water at its Livingston chicken plant, has reduced solid waste and is trying biodiesel in delivery trucks.
• Several food processors have installed solar panels to meet part of their electricity needs.
• Many farmers are part of coalitions that voluntarily monitor waterways for runoff that might contain pollutants, under state oversight.
• Sysco, a global supplier of food to commercial kitchens, has a sustainable farming program, as does Del Monte Foods, which cans fruit in Modesto.
Motivated by costs
Climate change and high energy costs have caused retailers to take a harder look at how they do business, said Gail Feenstra, food system coordinator with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program at the University of California at Davis.
"The sustainability of their own operations relies on them getting products from farmers," she said. "And that isn't going to happen if the soil and air are contaminated."
Fresno County farmer John Diener grows certified sustainable tomatoes. That means his farm is audited once a year by Food Alliance, a Portland-based nonprofit certification group.
He gets points for reducing water and pesticide use and providing his 20 employees with health insurance and a retirement plan.
"You could say that you don't want to go through something like this," Diener said. "But then who will you sell to? In some cases, we don't have a choice."
Advocates of sustainability say much work remains in the movement, including establishing a national standard like the one for organic food.
The cost can be a barrier, such as the $2,000 fee for a program at the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.
'Whole new world'
Modesto-area farmer Paul Van Konynenburg isn't sure what the future of sustainable farming will look like. All he knows is that much has changed in the 20 years he has been farming apples, cherries, peaches and apricots.
"We are dealing in a whole new world now where we have things like sustainability audits," he said. "And if a Wal-Mart or Costco or Safeway say you have to have it, you say, 'Yes, sir.' "
But Van Konynenburg said that may not be such a bad thing, "because what this comes down to for me is giving the consumer something they can trust. And that is going to benefit all of us."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.