by John Berry, Extension Educator, Lehigh County
Most farmers are on the lookout for ways to generate more net revenue. The question is something close to “What can we do to utilize our resources to their best advantage?” Many opportunities exist, but in order to be feasible they must match the values of the farm family. One common method is the move to identify farm crops as being sustainable. The challenge is how to verify claims and meet the documentation requirements to satisfy buyers. There are several competing verification systems in place that are trying to address this very concern. Some are driven by a singular philosophical mission and others are more inclusive of all those businesses along the chain from farm to fork.
As an example, individual farm operations within the specialty crop supply chain are experiencing increasing demands to demonstrate "sustainability" to their customers. These demands have resulted in a growing number of certification and/or supplier education programs and thus the potential for redundant or even conflicting requirements. Most of these programs focus on a niche market, a limited set of crops, and/or a specific link in the supply chain, and thus are not designed to provide the specialty crops industry as a whole with a comprehensive system for measuring sustainable performance. However, The Stewardship Index aims to provide such a system.
The StewardshipIndex for Specialty Crops project is a multi-stakeholder initiative developing a system for measuring sustainable performance throughout the specialty crop supply chain. The project offers a suite of outcomes-based metrics to enable operators at any point along the supply chain to benchmark, compare, and communicate their own performance. The Stewardship Index does not seek to provide standards, but instead provides a yardstick for measuring sustainable outcomes. In the future, the project may also provide tools and resources to help specialty crop companies advance sustainability goals.
For this project "specialty crops" is defined broadly to include fruits, vegetables, nuts, and horticulture. The founding members of the project regard sustainability as an ongoing process to advance environmental, socially responsible, and economic values. The project does not aim to identify a level of performance that is "sustainable," but instead to provide measures to help all participants implement sustainable values.
Quantitative sustainability metrics, developed collaboratively, can offer significant benefits to specialty crop industry participants, and the eventual consumer. As envisioned, this project will:
· Help operations across the supply chain (farms, distributors, processors, retailers, etc) identify opportunities for increasing efficiency and reducing costs;
· Provide a standardized system for measuring performance, thus reducing the potential for duplicate monitoring and reporting systems;
· Allow individual operators to engage in the sustainability journey starting at (and regardless of) their current level of performance;
· Address the unique needs of the specialty crop industry while demonstrably improving environmental and social impacts;
· Enable verifiable marketing claims backed by measurable performance data;
· Help reduce the likelihood of future industry regulation by solving problems and demonstrating improved performance to regulators.