For more than three years, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops has been releasing metrics designed to support sustainability efforts throughout the supply chain.

Developed with collaboration among growers and buyers, these metrics provide a "science-based yardstick" for assessing grower performance in numerous areas.

In November, for example, the initiative published metrics for habitat and biodiversity, adding it to a list that already included metrics for water-use efficiency, energy, nitrogen, phosphorus and soil organic matter.

Project director Alison Edwards said a finalized metric for irrigation efficiency is expected later this year, and a metric for greenhouse gas is in process.

Although developing metrics is a key function of the organization, the initiative took things a step further recently when it released guidelines for supply chain partners regarding collecting, sharing and comparing metric data.

Edwards said supply chain partners already share information about price, volumes and food safety, but the existing model doesn't allow for data regarding sustainability, which a growing number of buyers want.

"We tried to get out ahead of that and tried to figure out what the supply chain needs to feel confident and rewarded for sharing information that results in actual better stewardship," she said.

"A retailer can't just say, 'We want to reduce water use' and set standards. If they want to do that, they have to work with supply chain partners."

So with support from a California Conservation Innovation grant, the SISC started a two-year project.

"The idea is to bring together stakeholders who wouldn't normally be in the same room but who all touch points in the same specialty crop supply chain," Edwards said.

"We wanted to know what guidelines need to be in place between supply chain partners for metrics information to be collected, shared and compared in a way that works, and to support collaboration in a way that everyone feels safe with how buyers use information, and buyers understand growers' concerns. We brought together a working supply chain to have them collect data and share it in real time with the knowledge they were creating a model for the supply chain. It's a new level of communication and collaboration."

For example, if a packer collects data from multiple growers, the guidelines state that aggregated data should be anonymized before it's returned to growers.

Individual growers then are able to view their own data points in relation to their peers, but those competitors are not identified.

"That's really good information for growers to see," Edwards said. "They unanimously said that's interesting and valuable for them."

The guidelines are available online.

Edwards said the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops has been approached by the Sustainability Consortium, which is interested in "building on it and making it as useful (as) possible for retailers and brands."

Partners involved in the development of the guidelines:

  • Foodbuy/Compass Group
  • Pro*Act
  • Rio Farms
  • D'Arrigo Bros.
  • Rio Farms/Gill Ranch Co.
  • Willoughby Farms
  • Merrill Farms
  • Huntington Farms
  • Church Brothers Farms
  • Taylor Farms
  • USDA - Natural Resource Conservation Service
  • Sustainable Conservation
  • Western Growers Association
  • Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Resource Conservation District Santa Cruz County
  • Resource Conservation District Monterey County
  • Measure to Improve LLC