Charting the Course of Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Food

Interview with NRDC President Frances Beinecke about the "Growing Green Awards"

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00:04:41 - Uploaded by Essinova on May 19, 2010

NRDC Growing Green Awards Promote Sustainable Agriculture Stewardship

(This article below is Part Two of a two-part report highlighting innovations and best practices in sustainable agriculture and its role in countering the environmental impact of industrial-scale agriculture. Click here for Part One, Agriculture 2.0 Conference Focus on Sustainable Agriculture.

Nicholas Sarkisian, the author of the report, is an Essinova contributor covering international sustainability issues.)


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the leading U.S.-based environmental organizations, honored and awarded the recipients of its Growing Green Awards at its benefit, entitled “From Water to Farm to You,” held at Yoshi’s Restaurant and Jazz Club in San Francisco on April 29, 2010. This was a premier social and environmental event attended by NRDC’s President, Frances Beinecke, flying in from NRDC’s New York headquarters, author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), and Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, both of whom are highlighted, along with Michael Pollan, in the recent documentary on industrial agriculture, Food, Inc.

To its great credit, NRDC is addressing the significant role that current industrial agricultural practices are contributing to environmental degradation, and to global warming. NRDC has established the Sustainable Agriculture Project, with Jonathan Kaplan leading this effort as the Project’s Director. Jonathan cited U.S. EPA’s own estimates that green house gas (GHG) inputs from farm and food processing contribute approximately 12% of total U.S. GHG emissions. According to Al Gore’s latest book, Our Choice, “The second most powerful cause of the climate crisis is methane…. More than half of human-caused methane releases occur in agriculture.” And “Industrial agriculture is also the largest source of nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).” Given such significant GHG inputs from industrial agriculture, Jonathan stated that the NRDC’s Sustainable Agriculture Project promotes standard-setting processes for sustainable agricultural practices, holds the EPA accountable for registering pesticides, works on climate policy, which includes agriculture, and in collaboration with the produce industry, is developing a system for measuring sustainability in the marketplace, to be called the “Stewardship Index” for specialty crops.

Essinova was privileged to attend the press event for the Growing Green Awards benefit where it had the opportunity to interview several of the award recipients and NRDC President Frances Beinecke, along with Jonathan Kaplan. In addition to the video interview of Frances Beinecke on this page, a video interview of Mike Benziger, the Water Steward Award recipient, can be accessed here. He is also highlighted below in this article along with the other awardees.

The award recipients were selected from a pool of 170 candidates by an expert panel consisting of Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Susan Clark, Executive Director of the Columbia Foundation, Nora Pouillon, organic chef, and A.G. Kawamura, the California Secretary of Agriculture, as well as policy and science staff from NRDC.

The Growing Green Award Recipients

Business Leader Award: Karl Kupers, Shepherd’s Grain, Harrington, WA. Mr. Kupers received the Business Leader Award as an “entrepreneur who effectively use(s) the marketplace to promote sustainable food systems, develop infrastructure that enables producers to be more sustainable, or advance sustainable innovations along the [food] supply chain.”

Karl states that, “Shepherd’s Grain started with two traditional Pacific Northwest wheat growers. We raised commodity wheat and sold it by the bushel to the commodity market, where it was mixed with anonymous wheat from all over the U.S. and exported to countries along the Asian rim.” From that starting position within the commodity-based wheat marketplace, and with a passion for introducing sustainable growing practices, Mr. Kupers and his partner, Mr. Fred Fleming, started Shepherds Grain, a company that now successfully connects 33 eastern Washington sustainable and organic grain growers to an existing distribution system and provides a unique producer model within the wheat marketplace.

Mr. Kupers explained the evolution of his business model: “Shepherd's Grain has taken a very idealistic approach and broken away from traditional commodity marketing. We are a ‘price maker’ instead of a ‘price taker,’ setting the price of our flour based on the cost of production, not fluctuations in the commodity market. We are honest with our customers about what it costs to grow our wheat, all environmental costs included. And we have seen year after year that consumers like this clear pricing. Demand for our environmentally-sound wheat continues to grow.” Mr. Kupers stressed that transparency of Shepherd’s Grain production costs is key to acceptance by the market of a “cost plus” pricing model, supported by the knowledge by buyers that they are “making an investment” in a quality product grown in a sustainable manner. That knowledge is itself supported by another innovation adopted by Shepherd’s Grain, the decision to incorporate third-party certification, selecting Food Alliance as its certifier (see more about Food Alliance in Part One of this report). “From the farm to the table, our production cycle is transparent,” says Kupers. “Our growers can learn where their wheat goes and our consumers know that they are feeding their families food that they can feel good about.” Mr. Kupers made the point that third-party certification also helps open doors and establish credibility with its distribution channels. While Shepherd’s Grain to date is marketed only regionally in the Pacific Northwest, the Food Alliance certification can extend nationally when Shepherd’s Grain is ready to expand its market.

Food Producer Award: Russ Lester, Dixon Ridge Farms, Winters, CA. Mr. Lester received the Food Producer Award as a “farmer who employs innovative techniques to sustain agriculture, the natural environment, workers and community.” Russ Lester is co-owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, located in Winters, California, and the largest handler of organic walnuts in the United States. Mr. Lester has directed Dixon Ridge Farms to ever more sustainable and organic practices since he and his wife purchased their farm in 1979, gradually reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, and finally phasing out all such chemicals in part based upon the revelation of his father’s emerging cancer after years of chemical use on his own orchards. Mr. Lester writes about the decision to go organic, stating, “Although research couldn't directly link my dad's cancer to the chemicals used in his prune orchards, watching his disease progress made me reconsider even the few pesticides that we still used. My wife and I decided, for our young family's health, to take the next step. My father's death in 1989 marked the end of our use of conventional chemicals.” Mr. Lester did not stop there, though, and has led the way as a food producer in striving to be not only an organic producer, but a fully sustainable one. Dixon Ridge Farms’ sustainable practices include the introduction of no-till cover crops to reduce soil erosion and run-off, promote beneficial insects and wildlife (that take the place of some chemical treatments), retain soil moisture and thus reduce water use; the introduction of overhead watering creating efficient water delivery compatible with organic farming practices; the introduction of recycled materials for packaging; use of solar panels for the Farms’ electrical generation; and even recycling the discarded walnut shells to generate sustainable bio-fuels and electrical power.

In interviewing Mr. Lester, it became apparent that all the theories and ideals of producing sustainable and organic food take on a very hands-on practical reality down at the farm. For example, when asked if it might be possible for Dixon Ridge Farms to become a truly net-zero GHG emitter, or fully generate all its energy use, Mr. Lester commented that this issue is a “very complicated question” that “depends on a lot of definitions and conditions. However, that is what we are trying to achieve.” Mr. Lester expanded on his response using as an example the Farms’ water and energy usage. “We use ground water above what we get in rainfall, but this is made up for in our area by the watershed above us. If we had to live on rainfall falling on our orchards alone, our production would fall to about 1 ton/acre [a 50% reduction], which is not economically viable. We are working toward ‘net energy self-sufficiency’ which means that we will still need to buy some gas, propane and diesel, but we hope to be able to produce more electricity than we use in both the walnut processing as well as the growing. If we had to produce all our own liquid fuel, we could but it would take land out of food production, use resources, and cost a lot. If we can find a technology that would allow us to replace this liquid power with a sustainable, renewable source, then we would be able to eliminate these [gas, propane and diesel] as well.” It’s a testament to Mr. Lester’s integrity that he is approaching his practices so transparently and fully accounting for all these inputs, including mentioning that Dixon Ridge Farms is “sponsoring research that we hope will verify and quantify our GHG reductions.”

Being the largest producer of organic walnuts in the United States involves participating in a large marketplace, and so Essinova asked Mr. Lester about its transportation-related energy usage. Mr. Lester revealed that “our exported walnuts go via ship which is a relatively low GHG way to travel. These [ship-transported] walnuts are probably responsible for less GHGs than the ones we ship via truck within 150 miles of our plant. The walnuts for our customers probably produce less GHG than walnuts sold at farmers markets as we ship large quantities at any one time. It is not a simple issue. Having said all that, we are working to make this impact even less, especially where we have control over transportation.”

Finally, Essinova touched on the question of food safety, and Mr. Lester revealed the very real impact of the costs associated with this issue, stating, “Food safety in the U.S. is a very big issue. Walnuts have not been the subject of a food safety recall, but the industry is taking a very pro-active stance. We have adopted the ‘GMA Nut Safety Handbook’ and it is understood that the FDA will inspect most (65 out of 67) walnut processing plants this year. We will probably spend over $100,000 in 2010 to meet those standards, mostly to pay for a written plan and testing protocols. This cost will significantly affect our production costs and will be difficult, if not impossible, for other small processors to meet. Organic walnuts are required to meet the same standards as conventional walnuts, while also meeting the USDA NOP Standards for organic [certification which don’t allow] fumigants or any other synthetic chemicals. As such, organic walnuts will not contain residuals of chemicals such as methyl bromide, propylene dioxide, chlorine, formaldehyde, and others.”

It is clear that being a leader in adopting sustainable and organic practices continues to require a lot of courage even in the midst of the significant support from environmental organizations such as NRDC.

Thought Leader Award: Fred Kirschenmann, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY. Mr. Kirschenmann received the Thought Leader Award as a “visionary who advances sustainability as it relates to food through creative research, public education, and outreach.” Mr. Kirschenmann is President of the Board of Directors for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit that operates as a sustainable farm, kitchen, and teaching campus for nearby New York City residents. Mr. Kirschenmann is also a Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, where he has taught for many years, and was also the Center’s Director from 2000 through 2004. His appointments include the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production operated by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and he continues to find time to manage his family’s 3,500 acre organic cattle farm in North Dakota. Tom Philpott interviewed Mr. Kirschenmann for Grist.org on April 14, upon the announcement by NRDC of its Thought Leader Award. Mr. Philpott highlighted Mr. Kirshenmann’s leadership by asserting, “You leave Fred's talks awed at the vastness of the task ahead of us -- yet hopeful in the knowledge that change is afoot.”

Mr. Kirschenmann addressed the issue of transitioning to a sustainable agricultural model saying, “…what individual farmers are doing all around the world now [is] converting from high input/output systems of agriculture, the basic industrial model, to models that are based on what I call biological synergies, that is where they have a diversity of plants and animals in which the waste from one species becomes the food for another. And they're producing much more food because it's not a monoculture, so there are more food products [produced] per acre, and doing so at vastly reduced energy costs.” And on the issue of developing regional food production, Mr. Kirschenmann commented that, “I think that the food system is going to be more regionalized. I have to say I'm not a big advocate on the local food concept because it sort of limits you to a radius of, say, 150 miles. When you think about it as a total food system – [for example] NYC has some 30 million people – are you going to feed them all from 150 miles around NYC? Probably not. [On the other hand], North Dakota only has 630,000 people in the whole state. If they all ate from 150 miles, 90 percent of the farmland would probably lay idle.”

Finally, when asked what each of us can do to promote sustainable agriculture, Mr. Kirschenmann suggested that first, people recognize the power they have as customers and begin to ask the food retailers questions about the quality of our food and food sources; and second, that “they can also begin to think about producing some of their own food, turning part of their lawns into a garden, like Michelle Obama did. Whatever it takes to become more acquainted, take more charge, and more control. Almost everyone could do that.”

Water Steward Award: Mike Benziger, Benziger Family Winery, Glen Ellen, CA. Mr. Benziger received the Water Steward Award as a “farmer and food producer who has made extraordinary contributions in demonstrating water efficiency, sustainable water use and the protection of water quality.” In 2000, the Benziger Family Winery became the first winery in Sonoma and Napa counties to be certified as Biodynamic®. It is difficult to imagine a greater honor than achieving that certification, which is a more demanding bar than CCOF or USDA organic certification; Mr. Benziger’s selection by the NRDC as recipient of its Water Steward Award only adds to this achievement. The principles of Biodynamic® agriculture were developed in Europe almost 100 years ago by Rudolf Steiner who also started the Waldorf educational system. Biodynamic® agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms. Mr. Benziger states that, “When you look at something as if it were alive, you think about it a lot differently. You become really obligated to take care of it.” The transition to Biodynamic® farming, however, came after many years of conventional farming methods which turned their land into “an ecological desert.” The Benziger family had to make “some big changes,” but, according to Mr. Benziger, “the results were miraculous: the birds and the bees returned. We let nature back in.” With respect to Mr. Benziger’s water stewardship practices, the Benziger Family Winery recycles an average of 2 million gallons of water per year using an innovative wetland and pond water treatment system. In Essinova’s video interview (click here to watch), the winemaker, one of eight brothers and sisters in the family business together, discusses the Biodynamic practice and the water treatment process in further detail, as well as the family’s vision for their winegrowing in the future.

In conclusion, NRDC’s Growing Green Awards is a boost to the leaders who are charting a new, sustainable pathway for growing our food, mitigating the health and environmental impact related to industrial agriculture. Each of these recipients has an equally inspiring personal story behind their exceptional achievements.

Tags: NRDC, Natural Resources Defense Council, Frances Beinecke, Growing Green Awards, sustainable agriculture, Karl Kupers, Shepherd's Grain, Russ Lester, Dixon Ridge Farms, Fred Kirschenmann, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Mike Benziger, Benzige

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