Nearly all growers say sustainability is important, but many say buyers are not rewarding them for their efforts.
Those are two research findings revealed at a grower-focused panel at The Packer’s Sustainable Produce Summit on Sept. 22.
Moderated by The Packer’s Editor Tom Karst, the panel included sustainability research by The Packer, conducted by Aimpoint Research and supported by Apeel Sciences and Emerald Packaging.
The Packer’s survey of specialty crop growers found 81% believed sustainability is their responsibility. Ninety percent of fruit and vegetable growers said sustainability was very important or extremely important, said Scott Caine, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Aimpoint Research.
Growers associated words like profitability, consistency and longevity when talking about sustainability, Caine said.
The survey indicated growers don’t think they need the government to set sustainability standards, he said, Top sustainable practices, they said, include soil and water conservation and precision agriculture.
The survey found that growers believe they are accountable for sustainability, There is room for improvement, growers believe, in the language used to define sustainability and what it actually means to be sustainable.
It is not a new concept for growers, said panelist Amy Duda Kinder, vice president of food safety, worker safety and sustainability for A. Duda & Sons Inc.
“We are about to enter our 55th year at this specific branch in Florida,” she said. “That’s half a century of growing and scratching the same dirt, so obviously it incumbent on us to manage our nutrient input, manage our water and soil quality, because it’s our goal to sustain our legacy and our stewardship of the land that we grow on.”
While sustaining the future of their farms has always been a part of a grower’s mentality, panelist Louis DeMaso, sustainability and operations analyst for Lipman Family Farms, said communicating sustainability progress and being transparent about the effects of an operation is a newer concept.
DeMaso said that modern concept of sustainability is being driven by consumer interest, funneled through retailers and communicated to growers.
Besides responding to requests from buyers, panelist Alison Edwards, director of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, said growers can improve their farming operations and stewardship of the land by measuring water and other inputs.
According to The Packer’s research, about 5% of growers said they believed they were compensated “very fairly” by buyers for their sustainability efforts, and 32% said they were compensated fairly. In contrast, 49% of growers said they believed they were compensated unfairly and 14% said they were compensated very unfairly.
Panelists said looking at sustainability issues in the context of market rewards only is short-sighted.
Kinder said retailers share in the responsibility of sharing growers’ sustainability stories with consumers, so partnership in the process with suppliers is a given.
Edwards said there are other motivations beyond higher commodity prices to implement sustainability measures.
“If you are an owner, improving resilience is good for the long-term health of your operation and your ability to grow food,” she said.
Ultimately, that fact will be important to buyers.
Panelist Jessica Vieira, director of sustainability for Apeel, said progressive retailers can give incentives to buyers to take risks on sustainable products that may show better returns to the grocery organization in the long term.