Western Growers' Dennis Nuxoll and Matthew Allen Discuss Buyer-Driven Sustainability Initiatives
- by Anne Allen
BAKERSFIELD, CA - As we continue our series with Western Growers addressing the impacts of climate change, the association takes a beat to share insights on sustainability and the buyer-driven initiatives behind many decisions impacting the growing community. I spoke with Dennis Nuxoll, Vice President of Federal Government Affairs, and Matthew Allen, Vice President of State Government Affairs, to learn more.
“There is a specialty crop group called the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC), which is designed to develop tools for measuring sustainable performance across the specialty crops supply chain. Retailers like Costco and Walmart and a number of other buyers were interested in that years ago, so that really jump-started the sustainability effort,” Dennis explained to me, noting that buyer requirements around sustainable initiatives have increased and become more complicated.
Matthew added that one of the complications stems from the word itself, given that the definition of sustainability is incredibly broad.
“It really comes down to the eye of the beholder, and what was sustainable last year might not fit within the sustainable definition today,” he noted. “What is sustainable changes in a number of ways, whether that’s due to laws and regulations or water and energy efficiency. What Dennis and I do with our membership is identify what those new sustainability initiatives are and how we can make them effective and efficient for our industry. What overlays that conversation is the fact that the laws of economics still apply.”
As an evolving space, the issue of sustainability for growers is a constantly moving target.
“It’s one thing at the federal level, as there is legislation that has been proposed to have the USDA help create those standards. There is a baseline, at least for carbon issues, regarding what is sustainability, what are we trying to measure, how is it measured, and what metrics companies are trying to reach,” Dennis commented.
The federal government is trying to get resources to growers to help facilitate sustainable production practices. The struggle for many growers, however, is that even with government subsidies, appealing to buyers means upholding these standards no matter what—and the production cost to meet this becomes a concern. Then there is the added layer of international complexity, as countries across the globe also have differing sustainable standards.
“The concern we see in California is that the sustainability question is not always identified with parameters, and one definition of sustainability is the ability of your operation to be sustainable and successful into the future,” Matthew added. “We don’t want to find ourselves in situations where economics is being completely discounted in that conversation. It needs to be something that we can do effectively and efficiently.”
Creating reasonable standards is another part of the equation that further tangles the challenges growers face. Ag is not monolithic, as both men point out. What’s sustainable for an almond grower is different for a leafy greens grower.
“Our growers’ No. 1 job is to grow food. If there’s a better way to do it, a cheaper way, an environmentally sustainable way to do it, our guys will do it,” Dennis emphasized. “But let’s make sure the science is there, the requirements are reasonable, and that the alternatives are practical and can accomplish the same objectives for, relatively speaking, the same cost point.”
Another issue to be considered is that funding for such initiatives remains sustainable in and of itself so that the government can maintain the subsidies and research necessary to uphold standards.
“At the federal level, the proposal in the current reconciliation bill is to provide $30 billion around climate issues for agriculture, with an additional $10 or $20 billion for research,” Dennis said. “On the ground, the federal government plans to spend tens of billions of dollars to help farmers execute on some of these climate-friendly practices, and then allocate tens of billions of dollars more around research into the next generation of these practices.”
One of the interesting elements of sustainable initiatives is that it deepens the relationship between buyer and grower, and ups the industry’s overarching commitment to adapting to the latest technology.
“These best practices do get carried on within the industry, but on the buyer’s side of the fence, I think the important thing to keep in mind is patience. Implementing these new practices will not happen overnight, but we can work through the issues of new standards of processing, shipping, and trucking, to find a solution together. It’s up to the buy-side to make sure there’s awareness of all of the portions of the grower’s portfolio that they have to meet,” Matthew stated.
As you might imagine, this conversation was a boon of industry knowledge. For the next installment on California’s water issues, you won’t want to miss it—so stay tuned.