Potato farmers are on the front lines of sustainability initiatives sweeping across mainstream agriculture today. Driven by heightened consumer demand for more information about how their food is produced, key players up and down the supply chain are adapting to sustainability requirements that are now a cost of doing business. While complying with the new audits required under the Potato Sustainability Initiative are costing farmers time and resources, the effort is paying off — for the environment, for consumers and for farmers’ bottom lines.
Mike Wind has been out of school for awhile, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the pressure to produce a passing grade.
In fact, this Taber, Alberta-area farmer was one of the first to undergo new sustainability audits being rolled out for potato producers across North America. Windiana Farms, which grows 850 acres of potatoes on its 3,500-acre operation, passed with flying colors.
“We did very well,” says Wind. ìIt was lengthy and detailed. These guys are tough — if you can’t prove you’re actually doing what you say you’re doing, you flunk.”
The pass/fail audit, which took about four hours to complete on Windís farm, measures specific sustainability outcomes such as pesticide use, greenhouse gas reduction, nitrogen use efficiency, waste management and water conservation.
Wind, who is one of the grower representatives on the Potato Sustainability Initiative (PSI) North America board, says the audits are not just good for consumers and the food processors governed by sustainability goals, they’re also good for farmers.
“A lot of the things on the checklist are things we have always done, we’ve just never put pencil and paper to it,” says Wind. “At the end of the day I think we will not only be better growers, we’ll also know what we’re good at and what we need to work on. We’ll have not only a sustainable operation, but one that will be in much better shape when it comes to passing it along to the next generation.”
Wind says tracking data is becoming a larger part of his farming operation; he employs someone full time to handle reporting requirements for PSI, CanadaGAP and other food safety programs.
“Agriculture could do a better job of showing consumers that we’re just as concerned about food safety as you are,” says Wind, who believes that one day soon, such audits will not be restricted to potato sales. “We are leading in this area, but I believe anyone producing food in time to come will be doing what we’re doing now. People want to know how you’re producing food, so it’s just a matter of time until it spreads.”
Sustainability Initiatives On The Rise
PSI is the leading program in North America for growers producing potatoes for the processing market, with more than 500 potato growers participating, along with six major processors, key buyers including McDonald’s and Sysco, and the National Potato Council and Canadian Horticultural Council.
Potato processors Basic American Foods, Cavendish Farms, Heinz, Lamb Weston, McCain Foods and Simplot — along with McDonald’s and Sysco — fund the collaboration, which includes an annual grower survey, reporting on key performance measures including Integrated Pest Management, nutrient and irrigation use efficiency, energy use, recycling and labor practices.
The PSI survey must be completed every year by all farmers selling into the potato processing market, whose end product is sold by McDonald’s or Sysco, which together account for the vast majority of processed potatoes consumed in North America.
In the U.S. alone potatoes have a farmgate value of US$4 billion a year.
John Keeling, Executive VP and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Potato Council, says the PSI began as an effort to come up with risk mitigation practices with respect to pesticide use, and has now expanded to include other sustainability outcomes.
The industry is aware that PSI compliance means added time, money and paperwork for farmers. “We’ve tried to be careful that we’re not driving costs into the system,” says Keeling. “For us the end goal is to have a set of metrics and practices that will demonstrate the good job that growers are doing and allow us to communicate that in a credible way. We do see that consumers are seeking more information about their food and we want to respond positively to that.”
As do the shareholders and investors of the corporate giants selling the vast majority of processed potatoes around the world.
Kendra Levine, Supply Chain Sustainability Manager with McDonald’s USA, says programs such as PSI help the company manage certain sustainability risks connected to protecting water resources and reducing practices that could impact climate change. PSI is only part of the equation, she explains.
“Stakeholders want to know that we’re engaging in our supply chain working all the way to the farm and that best practices to mitigate risks associated with the use of pesticides, water use and water quality, as examples, are being used,” says Levine, from McDonald’s U.S. headquarters outside Chicago. “PSI is helpful because it gives us a baseline around practices. Yet we also need to identify where the greatest environmental impacts are in our supply chain. So when we are talking to our suppliers, we’re asking for a sustainability impact assessment — what are your greatest sustainability impacts, how do you deal with them, and can you develop a program.”
In the end, she says these efforts help the company connect with its customers on an emotional level. “Sustainability is a factor to an increasing number of consumers when they consider companies and products. They expect it, and they want to feel good about it.”
Levine applauded the way the PSI survey has moved away from just a checklist, toward more outcome-based results. “For example, if there’s nitrogen runoff that is ending up in local waterways, the goal would be working with growers to develop plans to use practices that would prevent this,” she notes. “I don’t think anyone is interested in putting more of a burden on farmers — we know they are the base of our supply chain. What we’re aiming for is something I think they are interested in, and that is protecting the resources and people in the supply chain. And I’ve never talked to a farmer who doesn’t care about water.”
Wind echoes this sentiment, adding that for farmers itís not just about meeting consumer demand. “The environment is what we are, it’s what we work with every day,” he says. “So whatever mess we make on our farms on on our land, it’s something we’ve got to clean up and it’s going to cost us. So it behooves us to do a really good job.”
Farmer Input is Key
According to Dr. Tom Green, president of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America, the independent nonprofit group responsible for facilitating the PSI program, oversight has always been set up to fairly represent all members of the supply chain.
“It’s a collaboration, so PSI has a governance committee made up of half growers and half processor members. They’re directing the program.”
While the initiative was sparked by questions about pesticides from McDonald’s shareholders, it also reflects consumer trends across the marketplace.
“Farmers in general has been frustrated by misperceptions in the marketplace and see a benefit of communicating what’s actually going on,” says Green. “They’ve invested time and energy into identifying best practices and implementing those, now there’s also a way to credibly measure outcomes of those practices — how they make a difference in terms of keeping nutrients and crop protection chemicals on croplands and out of waterways where they are not intended.”
While the program is voluntary, Green says farmers see a huge incentive to comply given that it’s a requirement of the industry’s biggest buyers, such as McCain’s, Lamb Weston and Simplot, who are working to satisfy their customers, ie McDonald’s and Sysco.
While potato farmers have been tracking their practices via the annual 100-question PSI survey, the new audits will give processors the confidence the data in those surveys is accurate. “This way the retailer can have confidence about the information they are putting out about the sustainability practices,” notes Green.
The surveys include information on fertilizer applications, irrigation use, recycling and labor practices. Participating growers also provide data on irrigation, fertilizer, pesticide and energy use, including greenhouse gas emissions. Of the 556 growers who completed it last year, 10 percent were selected for pilot audits. This year, Green says that has been increased to 20 percent and will continue at that rate each year.
Green says sustainability initiatives such as PSI are not limited to potatoes, and will continue to expand to other crops. “I would say it’s already there, with programs such as ‘Field to Market’ that provide opportunities for growers to generate those outcome-based metrics” that can satisfy buyer needs for information.
While currently, PSI is a cost of doing business for potato growers selling into the processing market, as well as food processors selling to McDonald’s and Sysco, it is also an opportunity, says Green.
“When you look at consumer surveys of agriculture, they can be very negative and inaccurate about what’s really happening,” he notes. “There’s a recognized need to communicate a more accurate story of what farmers are actually doing in terms of delivering on these things consumers care about in terms of health and the environment. We all need to eat, and agriculture has impacts, but you can minimize those by following the practices in the PSI survey. Most growers are doing many of these things already, and this is a way they can communicate that.”
As consumers and other stakeholders continue to push for greater food transparency across all commodities, software companies are ramping up their offerings to farmers, crop consultants, ag retailers and food processors alike.
Matt Denninger, Director of Customer Engagement with Trimble Ag Software, says the right software can help growers quickly and efficiently comply with audits such as PSI, without disrupting the farm operation or taxing limited resources.
“I’ve heard from several farmers how much easier they found it to use a native mobile app in the field to record and share data, information and images with others, instead of relying on multiple paper notebooks,” says Denninger. “As the season went on, they were impressed with how much more quickly they gained visibility and could take action — all without the common concerns and limitations of phone calls and spreadsheets.”