As more sustainability demands are thrust upon the fresh produce industry, innovators are stepping forward with solutions that not only appease the environmental set, but also make good business sense and even lead to new profit centers.
More than ever, doing what's right by the environment is becoming ingrained into produce industry daily operations, said Nichole Towell, marketing development manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Oviedo, Fla.
"The business environment requires that you pay attention to sustainability,” Towell said. "In farming, stewardship is part of taking care of the land.”
To put economies of scale to advantage, some produce associations are beginning to research best practices in sustainability for their members.
Perhaps no effort is as significant as the new Center for Global Produce Sustainability, organized by the United Fresh Produce Association, which received a $1 million grant from Bayer Corp.
But other, smaller, organizations, such as the Washington Horticultural Council, the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association and the Hazelnut Association of Oregon, also are in the beginning stages of developing sustainability initiatives, said Barbara Meister, marketing and communications manager for SureHarvest, Soquel, Calif., which has been involved in the sustainability consulting business since 1999.
The California Pear Advisory Board, Sacramento, is well along on establishing its own sustainability program, which began with a survey of growers, she said.
For many, the rush to become more sustainable brings up more questions than answers.
"Sustainability is like motherhood and apple pie. Everybody's for it, but how do you get there?” asked Dan Dempster, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Ottawa.
"There has to be an element of profitability. If you can't make a little money on a project, it's not sustainable in the long term,” Dempster said, adding that in Canada, more thought is going into environmental impact assessments as new regulations are put into place.
But at its heart, the move to sustainability is driven first by consumers, then by retailers.
"Some buyers are prepared to take the stance of requiring emissions cuts in order to do business with them, especially some of the national chains,” said Bud Floyd, vice president of produce marketing for C.H. Robinson Co., Eden Prairie, Minn.
J.D. Grubb, director of procurement for C.H. Robinson, estimated that perhaps 25% of customers are asking about emissions in the supply chain.
A few produce companies are in hot pursuit of LEED standards from the U.S. Green Building Council.
The Limoneira Co., Santa Paula, Calif., has the only LEED-certified building associated with a solar field in the city, said Alex Teague, senior vice president and chief operating officer.
OK Produce, Fresno, Calif., did a remodel using LEED standards and is shooting for platinum level certification, the highest, said Brady Matoian, chief executive officer.
"Our goal is platinum, but I'd be happy with any certification because we have none so far,” Matoian said. "This sets us on a really good path for the future.”
In general, Matoian said that having a sustainability program doesn't open doors to new customers, but it does help once you're in the door.
"When I first started telling people about our green efforts, I think I had to force them to listen,” Matoian said. "Now, as time has progressed, the trend has caught up. It's not just popular — it's the way to go.
"It's like food safety. If you didn't have a food safety program 10 years ago, it was a problem. If you didn't three years ago, you were out of business.”
After all the platitudes have worn away, there is a strong business case for adopting sustainable methods, shippers say.
"Aside from it being the right thing to do, you save expenses over the long haul,” Teague said. "We're finding that buyers are more eager to buy from us because of our sustainability efforts. That far outweighs the benefits from cost savings.”
And even after the carrot of profitability, there will be the stick of government.
"In five to 10 years, sustainability will be even more important,” said Bill Warmerdam, owner of Warmerdam Packing LLC, Hanford, Calif. "There will be more government regulations that call for it.”