Nothing is better than something, where sustainability is concerned, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director at Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., which has been engaged in the issue for years.

“The land we grow on is our biggest asset,” Pepperl said about Stemilt’s philosophy about sustainability.

A company that degrades the land soon goes out of business, Pepperl said.

“That’s even truer today,” he said.

That means making the most of resources and achieving zero-waste goals.

The right thing to do at Stemilt

For several years, Stemilt has operated a composting facility near downtown Wenatchee, and the company not only ships its own biodegradable waste there, it invites the community to do the same with lawn clippings, Christmas trees and other applicable materials.

Sustainable practices often have been linked to organic produce, but that’s not necessarily the case, said Pepperl, whose company grows organic and conventional tree fruit.

“When you look at the way farmers have embraced sustainability, from erosion control to irrigation, some of it is cost control, but they also know it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

It’s also prudent to stay on top of the latest regulations, Pepperl said.

Common sense has driven the produce industry to become more sustainable, Pepperl said.

“Years and years ago, when you had a problem, you sprayed,” he said.

Stemilt and other growers would do spot applications to deal with the problems that cropped up, Pepperl said.

Things are different now, and often growers will make every attempt to allow “nature to take care of” the problem, he said.

“Sometimes letting nature play out is going to work,” he said.

“Today, you’re not spending anywhere near what you used to put on an orchard, and that’s happened without regulation,” Pepperl said.

He said Washington state is expected to set a record for apple production in 2013 on fewer acres than it has had 10 years ago.

“That’s the most sustainable action you could take is producing 80 bins of apples on what used to produce 40,” Pepperl said.

A combination of efforts, including more prudent water applications to wiser use of fertilizers and other chemicals, plus advanced techniques in harvest management, have created a more sustainable industry, Pepperl said.

Stemilt isn’t the only industry participant with such initiatives in place.

Zero waste at Datepac LLC

Yuma, Ariz.-based Datepac LLC, for example, has similar measures in place, said Ed O’Malley, president and chief executive officer.

“In the field, Bard Valley growers are already at a zero output level,” he said.

“We use no pesticides, limited fertilizers, have a very tightly controlled water usage program in place, 100% composting and reuse of culls,” he said.

Zero waste is ideal but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, said Burleson Smith, vice president of environmental affairs and sustainability for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“Zero waste is an attractive goal but it is difficult to achieve in a consumer-driven society where convenience, freshness and availability are demanded,” he said.

Efforts to reduce packaging have to be balanced with the need to protect the product from damage in transit while remaining attractive to the consumer, Smith said.

“An area to watch is the use of recycled materials to reduce waste,” Smith said.

A 'journey' at Black Gold Farms

Eric Halverson, executive vice president of technology, Black Gold Farms, Grand Forks N.D., described zero waste as a journey.

“I think many people are learning many things that get us closer to zero waste, but we have to be careful about what our real expectations are,” he said.