Agriculture gets a half-step greener

Nonprofit promotes new eco-label for crops grown with fewer chemicals

  • 'We want the farm to be productive 100 years from now,' says Bruce Rominger, a California tomato grower who is considering Protected Harvest certification

    Photo courtesy of Grants Environmental Organization, Grant High School students/www.eatfromthegarden.org
 

Anyone who buys organic produce is accustomed to grocery-store sticker shock. But the people behind a new eco-label believe that healthy food can be both sustainably produced and affordable.

Protected Harvest is a nonprofit that offers certification to farmers who are interested in adopting eco-friendly farming practices, but who are not necessarily willing to undergo the rigorous and expensive process of organic certification.

In 1996, the World Wildlife Fund teamed up with the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin potato growers to reduce the environmental impacts of conventional agriculture. The group wanted to reward growers with either better prices or new markets for their crops. Such incentives require independent certification; Protected Harvest was born in 2001 to fill that role. To date, it has certified 12 potato farms, all in Wisconsin.

Now, Protected Harvest is heading west to California. The nonprofit hopes to gain a foothold in the Central Valley, where farmers grow 95 percent of the country’s processing tomatoes, used in soups, ketchup and pizza sauce.

"Our main mission is getting as many acres of agricultural working land as possible under a sustainable plan," says Carolyn Brickey, Protected Harvest’s executive director.

Next stop: California

The Wisconsin researchers captured the relative toxicity of each pesticide and herbicide in a single number, or toxicity unit. They also assigned points for ecologically friendly farming practices. To qualify for the Protected Harvest label, farmers have to earn a certain number of conservation points, and they can’t surpass a maximum number of toxicity units per acre. It’s working: Participating Wisconsin farmers use 64 percent fewer chemicals than the industry average.

In California, Protected Harvest will work with local growers, watershed groups, and experts from the University of California-Davis to write processing-tomato standards. Those standards will require farmers to keep close tabs on weed, pest and disease problems by scouting their fields regularly. Instead of using blanket chemical control, farmers might release beneficial insects to deter pests, or plant "smother crops" to control weeds. And they may still use chemicals when other methods aren’t effective.

The California State Water Board recently awarded Protected Harvest $425,000 to begin working on the tomato standards. Water Board chair Art Baggett says that Protected Harvest’s presence in California will both encourage conservation and allow his agency to focus on the "bad actors": growers who aren’t complying with state environmental protection laws.

Baggett also thinks Protected Harvest’s standards could encourage a more holistic approach to environmental protection than do organic standards. "Just because you’re organic, just because you don’t use pesticides, doesn’t mean you’re sustainable," he says. Plastic mulch laid down in place of a synthetic herbicide and then torn up and trucked to the dump, for example, is organic but not environmentally friendly. Protected Harvest’s standards would be able to discourage such practices by assigning them fewer conservation points.

Selling new label is no simple task

There are plenty of hurdles to overcome if Protected Harvest is ever to enjoy organic’s success in the marketplace. In Wisconsin, certified potatoes, sold under the brand Healthy Grown, haven’t earned significantly higher prices than their conventional counterparts. A five-pound bag costs $1.79 — just 10 cents more than conventionally grown varieties. The same amount of organic spuds costs $4.99.

While that’s good for consumers, it’s disappointing to growers like Steve Diercks, who initially thought that his certified potatoes would fetch a better price. Diercks says he’s now hoping that certification will help his product stand out in a marketplace choked with competition.

Selling the label to consumers who’ve never heard of Protected Harvest and don’t know what it means — or how trustworthy it is — may be the organization’s biggest challenge. Rochelle Kelvin, Protected Harvest’s deputy director, says that for now, the organization will reach potential customers by partnering with grocery chains; for example, Whole Foods Market sells the Wisconsin potatoes in some of its stores. Whole Foods’ James Parker says the company may sell certified California crops in its Western outlets.

Laura Sayre of the Rodale Institute, an organization founded by organic pioneer J.J. Rodale, says that new labels like Protected Harvest may confuse consumers who are already bombarded by information. But, she says, they also provide an important middle ground for conventional farmers who aren’t quite ready to go organic.

Despite the obstacles, Kelvin believes Protected Harvest can succeed. The organization already plans to develop standards for wine grapes, peaches, nectarines, plums and strawberries. Eventually, it hopes to certify a wide range of crops. "We want to challenge conventional agriculture further to make improvements," Kelvin says, "and we need a new vehicle to do it. Organic isn’t appealing to a broad enough sector of agriculture."

The author is an HCN intern.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Congress loosens organic standards."

Protected Harvest 410-757-4234, www.protectedharvest.com

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