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Farmers Communicating to Consumers about their Environmental Stewardship

IN THE YEARS AHEAD, many farmers can expect to be asked if they are using environmentally sound farming practices. These questions will come from consumers of the farmers' agricultural products. Farmers will be able to successfully answer these questions if they have documentation of their stewardship practices that can be shared with consumers. Recently, several consumer awareness programs have been initiated across the U.S. by grower cooperatives, supermarkets, and other organizations. They help farmers document their stewardship practices, and they actively promote the results of this stewardship with consumers through the marketplace. Consumer research has indicated that consumers want to know this information, though they rarely have the agricultural background to interpret it. Many of these new promotional efforts tell consumers about progress growers are making in adopting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) or Integrated Crop Management (ICM) practices. These promotions are making a claim of environmental responsibility to consumers at the point of purchase. Three of the programs require record keeping on the part of farmers in order to document the claims that are made to consumers. One requires a pledge. A few details on four of these programs follow.

New York Food Industry IPM Project - This program was begun as a result of a request by Wegmans Supermarkets to Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) for IPM educational outreach to its growers of fresh-market sweet corn. As the educational project progressed, participating growers and Wegmans sought to communicate their efforts to improve upon environmental stewardship to consumers. Wegmans began to advertise the sweet corn as IPM-grown. They noted a positive response from consumers in this initial phase of the project, and the project has been growing since then, with more farmers supplying more Wegmans stores with IPM-grown sweet corn.

In the past year Wegmans asked one of its canned vegetable suppliers, Comstock Michigan Fruit, if it could begin to can a line of IPM-grown vegetables. To set the stage for this request a group of growers, representatives of Comstock and Wegmans, and IPM staff at Cornell University met to identify sets of IPM practices, called "IPM elements," for growers to follow in producing crops for this type of marketplace identification. Documentation of the use of these elements is required of the grower participants. Wegmans and Comstock evaluate the documentation and verify that the records substantiate the claims both marketers are making on their labels.

Wegmans has used a marketing campaign about the IPM-grown products that includes in-store brochures, an in-store video, large in-store photos of the IPM growers, a column in their weekly advertisement, and radio, TV, and newspaper articles. Cornell Cooperative Extension has provided educational backup for growers and Wegmans and Comstock representatives and has assisted in achieving the established goals. The New York State IPM Program is allowing the use of its logo on the labels of products produced in the program. Currently this project is working with fresh and processed sweet corn, beets, carrots, snap beans, cabbage for kraut, and peas. Other processors and supermarkets have contacted CCE with interest in exploring possible future cooperative projects with other crops.

Partners with Nature - This program is conducted cooperatively by the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and the University of Massachusetts. Growers voluntarily enroll their crops and attend educational sessions given by pest management experts from the University of Massachusetts. Growers submit their records to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture for evaluation according to a point system that awards points for various environmentally sound practices. Growers who meet the standards are able to use the "Partners with Nature" logo to market their products. This program is available for several vegetable crops in Massachusetts.

Stemilt Growers Coop - A fruit growers' cooperative in Washington state, Stemilt has offered its customers apples and pears with the "Responsible Choice" designation. Responsible Choice includes documentation of ICM practices as defined by Stemilt and the use of a ladybug logo. Grower members who wish to have their products sold with the logo must document their practice of IPM and ICM techniques to ensure responsible environmental stewardship. Stemilt has provided some limited marketing information to its customers.

CORE Values - This project is a cooperative program between the New York and New England MacIntosh Growers and the environmental group Mothers and Others. A few years ago these two groups were adversaries over the Alar issue. Now they have joined forces to use the public relations abilities of Mothers and Others and the apple production abilities of northeastern apple growers. Notably, this is the only program of the four described here that does not currently require documentation of agricultural practices by growers. Growers sign a pledge card indicating their intentions to use only IPM practices that do not harm the environment.

All of these programs are reactions by farmers and marketers to the desire of consumers for information about the way farmers produce their crops. All except CORE Values attempt to document actual practices of growers in order to give credibility to the claim of environmentally friendly production. The programs are viewed by their participants as a positive way to talk to consumers about the use of pesticides in agriculture and the fact that pesticides are minimized by using IPM practices, while still enabling production of high-quality crops -something consumers want from the agricultural community.

Getting the complex messages of agriculture and integrated pest management across to consumers, who are bombarded with extensive information on a myriad of products daily, is no easy task. Participants in these programs intend that, over time, the message about environmentally sensitive agriculture will be delivered successfully to consumers while at the same time agriculturists will continue to do their best to minimize any negative environmental impacts from their agricultural enterprises.

Written by Curtis Petzoldt and J. P. Tette, NYS IPM Program