UW-led project will help growers and processors show sustainable production

Oct. 12, 2012

by Bob Mitchell

UW-Madison researchers are leading a new $2.1 million, USDA-funded project designed to help vegetable producers and processors get rewarded in the marketplace for producing their products in a sustainable manner.

Photo: Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell

Scientists in Minnesota, New York, Oregon and Washington as well as in Wisconsin will collaborate to create a system for reporting the sustainability of agricultural practices that will be credible to consumers and workable for producers.

The grant, funded through USDA's Specialty Crop Research Initiative, was announced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack during a visit to Madison on Oct. 1.

"We're trying to develop a system that's credible to consumers, but is grower-led and science-based," says Paul Mitchell, a UW-Madison agricultural economist who is coordinating the effort.

"Most existing and proposed systems have come from the city out to the country," Mitchell adds. "They're developed by well-meaning people who often don't understand the production realities as well as the growers. As a result, these systems have gotten little traction among growers. They want to be actively involved in developing systems for measuring sustainability."

The team will focus on processing vegetables such as sweet corn and green beans, but the methods will serve as a model for other crops, says Mitchell. Vegetable producers and processors are under pressure from their buyers — retail and wholesale food distributors — to document the sustainability of their production practices. Several large-volume buyers already require growers to explain how they grew the crop, but not all buyers accept the same documentation. Because many growers sell to multiple processors and retailers, some growers have to complete three or more different audits of their production practices for a single field to satisfy all potential customers.

"There is a universal system for documenting safe food handling, called GAP, for Good Agricultural Practices," Mitchell says. "The industry wants to have a similar system in place for sustainability."

“Most existing and proposed systems have come from the city out to the country. ... As a result, these systems have gotten little traction among growers. They want to be actively involved in developing systems for measuring sustainability.”

Paul Mitchell

Consumers also figure into the research. A University of Minnesota researcher will use consumer experiments and surveys to identify the production practices that resonate most strongly with people who want to buy sustainably produced food.

"Sustainability is a broad concept," Mitchell says. "We want to know what specific traits consumers are most interested in — is it reducing greenhouse gases, protecting wildlife, fewer pesticides? Growers will adopt the full range of sustainable practices, but which do you emphasize when you market your product? Consumers don't want to see a report with hundreds of numbers."

The project is already underway. The research team next year will begin testing a model system — patterned after the Healthy Grown label developed by UW scientists and Wisconsin potato growers — on commercial vegetable operations in the five states.

The project includes collaborators from a half-dozen UW-Madison departments as well as from Cornell University, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University.

Specialty crop production and processing is economically important in all of these states. Wisconsin has the nation's second largest processing vegetable industry. Specialty crop production and processing generates more than $6 billion each year in economic activity and almost 35,000 jobs.