The general notion of sustainability, once used as a nascent buzzword in a rapidly growing environmental debate, has evolved to mean much more to farmers today.
There are now two key aspects to the topic - one from a business perspective, the other from an environmental perspective - said Justin Roberson, manager of production systems and sustainability at Immokalee-based Lipman, North America's largest field grower of tomatoes.
"It's really a matter of using resources effectively and efficiently," Roberson said. "But part of that is keeping growers competitive and in the game."
Lipman has taken a high profile and innovative approach to sustainability. "We look at it from a value added, integrated standpoint," Roberson said. "That is somewhat different from some other companies that look at it as a compliance-based or regulatory issue. We believe that sustainability carries with it an intrinsic value. It means you can naturally build efficiency and savings into your operations."
In order to accomplish that on behalf of its growers in Florida, along the Eastern seaboard and in California, Lipman has relentlessly focused on innovation and constant process improvement.
But the critical importance of sustainability is not lost on small growers who have no relationship with Lipman or who produce other crops.
"For us, the issue is that we've been farming the same land for 50 years, said Hank Scott, president and general manager of Mount Dora-based Long & Scott Farms, which grows pickle cucumbers, cabbage and watermelon on 1,200 acres in Lake and Orange countries. "And in order
to be able to do that, you have to be good stewards of the land."
Like most other farmers today, Long & Scott plants cover crops in the summer and uses crop
rotation to maximize the health and productivity of its land.
Scott also stays abreast of the latest seed technology as a business-related sustainability issue. "The yields that we get today, compared to 20 or 30 years ago, are double," he said. "And we understand that we have to accomplish that kind of increase again before 2050. So we are always searching out and trying new varieties and seeds and doing trials."
Scott talks to seed salesmen and reads farming journals to learn about the newest breakthroughs in seed technology. "We're always asking, 'What's new? What's out there that could help us do better in terms of yield and quality?'" he said.
Lipman has been an industry leader in breeding research and development that has developed new seed varieties that optimize yield and fruit quality while also increasing resistance to diseases and pests.
The company recently expanded its research and development team to include three Ph.Ds.
The company has also focused on water conservation, an issue regularly cited by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam as critical to the state's agricultural industry and broader economic interests.
Lipman's efforts focus on using rainwater from reservoirs, rather than pumping from Florida's dwindling aquifers, to irrigate crops, as well as the use of modern, sophisticated tools such as phytomonitors to measure plant growth and irrigation needs. Lipman also assists its growers in the use of so-called ET-adjusted irrigation.
Last year, the company's progressive initiatives saved about 66 million gallons of fresh well water by managing water resources efficiently, Roberson said.
Scott also focuses on water conservation as an important sustainability issue.
Long & Scott Farms uses ponds around their land to collect and re-use tailwater. The company also uses a plastic-and-drip irrigation for watermelon production and recently installed a 100-acre, low-pressure, low-volume pivot. "That will also help us save more water," Scott said.
While such innovative practices benefit the environment, the message today is that they also carry a broader business benefit, Roberson said.
"The real issue for small growers is to leverage the benefits of sustainability as a means to growing their bottom line," he said. "It's really a matter of integrating best practices in a way that allows you to grow your business. For example, if you're looking at ways to reduce your fuel consumption or ways to make more efficient use of water, those things all roll together into cost savings that improve the performance of your business. But at the same time, you're conserving natural resources and serving as a good steward of the environment."
The key for small growers, Roberson said, is to look at sustainability that way, rather than as a regulatory or compliance issue.
To help educate the general public, Lipman conducts tours of its farms. Called "Access to the Acre," the program takes adult and school groups on educational tours of Lipman farms to show modern practices, including sustainability.
Long & Scott does the same thing.
"Agritainment," as it's now called, is also a revenue producer for the company, Scott said. But it's real value is in educating consumers, especially school children, about their food and where it comes from.
"And the larger point is that farmers are taking good care of the land," Scott said.