During a recent two-month stint in Germany, Sarah Reiter saw firsthand the next step in the green revolution.
“A lot of the grocers here are competing against one another based on low pesticide residues,” said Reiter, vice president of marketing for AgraQuest Inc., Davis, Calif., which develops biological and low-chemical pest management solutions.
While the development opens doors for her company, it’s a challenge for growers, she said, because it’s difficult to produce a zero residue of any kind.
It also points to the power of consumers who are still uneasy about what’s in their food and how it’s grown despite all the soothing websites, as well as sustainability committees, solar panels and green initiatives exploding in produce companies big and small.
“People are clearly voting with their pocketbooks, even in the recession, for organic and for lower-residue products,” Rieter said.
“For growers, distributors and people in the food value chain who can figure out how to meet what appears to be a long-lasting consumer demand for healthy food — however you want to define that — those kind of players will succeed,” she said.
Of course, growers will tell you they’ve always been sustainable out of necessity.
“The guys who haven’t practiced sustainability are gone, out of business,” said Bob Meek, chief executive officer of Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group. Meek jets around the world searching for potatoes that need less water and nutrients than current varieties.
“With expenses, the cost of crop inputs and prices going in the wrong direction, we have to conserve energy and water and optimize yields to lower our costs,” Meek said.
The ingenuity of companies knows no bounds. Processor Gills Onions, Oxnard, Calif., is creating energy from onion juice. Stemilt Growers, Wenatchee, Wash., has invited an entire city to donate its organic waste to nourish its cherry orchards. And foodservice distributors in the Monterey, Calif.-based Pro٭Act network are about to swap miles of shrink wrap destined for the dump with a new reusable mesh pallet wrap.
But it’s the little things that may truly save the earth, said potato grower Eric Halveson, executive vice president of technology at Grand Forks, N.D.-base Black Gold Farms.
Halveson agrees that farmers have been sustainable for years.
When people talk about sustainability, they often think about all the exotic things they can do,” said Halveson. “But often the real bang for the buck is staring you in the face. It’s not sexy or exotic, but there are things we can do that really make a difference.”
Things such as sensors to monitor every scrap of moisture in the ground and every drop of water used in the fields, or incentives that encourage drivers to burn less fuel.
“It comes down to tracking,” said Meek. “That which gets measured and tracked can be improved.”
Nikki Rodoni, director of sustainability for Gills Onions, said being able to validate sustainability claims also becomes a powerful marketing tool.
Gills has been invited to share the success of its sustainability initiatives at conferences, Rodoni said, and the company is invited to the table to discuss regulatory issues.
“We’re being seen as leaders, getting out there and sharing our stories about the new technologies and new practices we’re using,” Rodoni said.
Now it’s time for the entire industry to get over its natural shyness and get out and tell consumers about all the great work they’re doing, she said.
The news is positive, said Reiter, and green is definitely here to stay.
“There’s a lot we all can do to make agriculture more effective and safer at the same time,” she said, “Safer for the environment, safer for people who work in agriculture and safer for consumers.”