Sustainability metrics too tight for every farm

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The measurement of sustainability from one farm to the next farm seems almost impossible based on a single set of metrics or a tightly written definition. A large-scale potato producer brought the problem home better than any row-crop producer, although the problem persists for all farming, during the recent Bayer CropScience 2012 Ag Issues Forum. 

The potato producer based in Idaho, talked about sustainability and how his operation is trying its best to be sustainable within the definitions being thrown at it by different retail potato marketers. I listened intently during the forum in Nashville, and came away thinking that the producer brought up some really important ideas.

Bob Meek, chief executive officer of Wada Farms Marketing Group, explained that applying the same sustainable techniques on every potato farm will not work. Each farm has to be handled differently to grow potatoes.

“Our five farms in Idaho, each of which is drastically different, requires different farming techniques, different inputs and totally different measurements,” Meek said. He then noted that “you cannot measure us compared to Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington or California for potato growing because they require different inputs.”  

He said the Wada Farms Marketing Group has a large operation in growing and marketing potatoes, and at least three different retailer chains have asked for cooperation in how “we define and establish a system so that we can rate our suppliers and be assured that we are buying from the most sustainably active suppliers.”

Meek said there are so many voices about defining sustainability. “How do you get 10 different languages to become a common language? It is very difficult. I think that is one of the greatest challenges we face as an industry, especially on the retail side of the market. How do you define what is good, what is acceptable or not acceptable?”

The most important aspect of sustainability is what farmers have said. “A good grower is not in business today unless he is sustainable,” he said. And operating their farm with a “clear conscious” is what a farmer needs to do.

Precision agriculture technology is the way to become even more sustainable in agriculture for the foreseeable future. “Whether there is new technology or no technology, we need to think of improvements so that we can do something better today than we did yesterday,” Meek said.

There are activist groups that seem to think that improvement should be continuous, and they aren’t really assisting in the overall solutions.

Appropriate cooperative efforts by the ag industry and various informed groups can help operators do better. “It is part of the ballgame and good pressure makes for a good ballgame,” he said. And he accepts “good pressure” from supportive food retailers, food service or other businesses when the overall concept is to make things better.

The biggest problem might be that consumers are defining sustainability as organic production. 

Meeks said, “We are trying to reach out through social media networks. I think it is important. … We are having a PR problem in this industry and that is why we get involved in many of things that we do. We want to tell our story rather than have our story told for us.”

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Chris Paterson    
Calgary  |  March, 23, 2012 at 02:52 PM

I am preparing an in depth feature article on "sustainability" from a farmers perspective, and a food processor perspective. If anyone has any insights they'd be willing to share, that would be great, and it could be done as a quote, or anonymously if you wish. Thank you, Chris

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