California Cut Flower Farmers Help Launch Sustainability Program

When it comes to regulation compliance, a lot of California flower growers might consider themselves to be at a disadvantage, compared to growers in other states and countries.

Mike Mellano, vice president of production at Mellano & Co. in San Luis Rey, Calif., says flower farmers in California have not received credit for the sustainability standards and upper-level processes that they’ve had had to comply with by law for many years.

“We felt that it was very important for us as an industry to start to document and highlight those activities that are common operating practices in California,” Mellano says. “From a larger perspective, it was important to start to set benchmarks to allow farmers to set goals and objectives to improve their operations’ sustainability footprint.”

Mellano is the current chair of the California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC) and the former chair of the commission’s Grower Research and Economic Development Committee. It was during Mellano’s term as committee chair that CCFC initiated a sustainability initiative.

This summer, CCFC released a sustainability workbook that will enable cut flower farmers to determine how sustainable their operations are compared to other cut flower growers in the state. Later this year, the commission will launch a sustainability certification program.



Developing A Relevant Program

Kasey Cronquist, CEO/ambassador at CCFC in Santa Barbara, says the decision to develop a sustainability program came after a thorough examination of current floral certification programs.

“We took a hard look at this because our farms had been discussing a need for a sustainability program they could adopt for a long time,” Cronquist says. “Some of the sustainability standards being used in other countries didn’t really have application to our U.S. farms. After looking carefully at these other programs, we determined that there needed to be a domestically focused sustainability program to help differentiate what our U.S farmers are doing.”

Many of the other programs had social-related issues that didn’t necessarily apply to U.S. growers, as American worker standards are already high, including wages. However, most consumers consider sustainability programs to be about environmental issues, not a country’s social standards, Cronquist says.

“Another issue is that in California, we have very strict government oversight that some other states and countries don’t have, including regulatory and compliance agencies like the California Coastal Commission and State Water Resources Control Board,” he says. “Part of our standard growing practices, due to regulatory oversight, wouldn’t be applicable in other states and to other countries.”

Mellano says the process to develop a sustainability program started about four to five years ago, but it has taken some time to progress because CCFC has taken a systematic approach to developing the program.

“The first question was, do we need to create our own standard? The last thing anyone wants to do is to spend the time and energy to create a new standard when there are so many out there already,” Mellano says. “After we went through all the currently available programs, we concluded that they all had inherent flaws that didn’t really fit our vision of what needed to happen. Ultimately we said, let’s start documenting what we are doing and put together our own standard.”

Trying To Hit A Moving Target

CCFC chose to work with SureHarvest, a California-based sustainability consulting company, to develop its program. SureHarvest has developed similar sustainability initiative programs for a number of crops, including wine grapes, almonds, cotton and dairy.

“We are fortunate in that we have a focused group of farmers in a fairly focused niche in the industry that we can lean on to hammer out details with,” Mellano says. “We know that the standard is not going to be perfect initially. It probably will never be perfect since sustainability is a moving target. More importantly, though, it is going to be an evolution and will most certainly place our farmers on a continuous path of operational improvement.”

Most of the sustainable practices included are not unique to cut flower farmers. They’re ornamental plant production practices, applicable to all types of growers, from cut flower farmers to nursery growers.

“What we are coming up with hopefully will have application across the board,” Mellano says. “It is not easy because the cut flower industry, just like our colleagues in other ornamental plant segments, utilize a diverse mix of production schemes. Some growers produce in greenhouses, others produce outdoors, some grow in shade structures, some produce in high tunnels and others are doing hydroponics. It’s a very diverse and complex methodology of production.”

Sustainability In Two-Parts

CCFC and SureHarvest have worked together to develop a two-part sustainability program. One part is an online, 13-chapter workbook. The chapters in the workbook include: production management, pest management, water management, energy management, postharvest management, resource and biodiversity management, materials handling management and social responsibility.

“There are 322 questions that have to be answered to complete the workbook,” Cronquist says. “A farm’s information then gets aggregated among its peers to determine how it stacks up in comparison to its peers across the state. This will also help to highlight what this organization considers to be standard practices for our industry.”

The second part of the sustainability program is certification. CCFC is currently looking at third-party certifiers for the program, for a total of three groups that will be responsible for making sure that the program is administered properly.

“SureHarvest is involved with the creation of the program, there will be an organization that manages the program and a third organization will be responsible for the certification of the farms participating in the program,” Cronquist says. “Recertification will occur annually.”

The workbook and the certification program will have two very different cost structures, including, “a full-blown audit and boots on the ground,” Cronquist says. Costs for administration and maintenance will apply and details are still being worked out, but CCFC’s program will be comparable in cost to the other sustainability program options.

“Of course, what we are going to offer our farms won’t be available from other programs,” he says. “This certification is designed to be unique and to differentiate our certified farms.”

Good Potential To Expand CCFC’s Sustainability Program

CCFC hasn’t approached any other grower groups in California about the program yet, because the commission wanted to be sure that it worked for its cut flower farmers first.

“We feel that the standard would be extremely applicable to other organizations, with nursery being one of them,” Cronquist says. “We expect to have those conversations down the road. Right now, it’s more important that we have a vibrant program that serves the interests of our farms.”

The sustainability standard CCFC develops also has the potential to be used in other states, Mellano adds.

“It’s going to come down to a management structure and the ability to continuously refine the standard as it goes forward,” he says. “We don’t want it to become too unwieldy, but there has to be enough participants and enough buy-in from a larger audience that it will have credibility and can be promoted and advanced as something that can hold up. We know the potential is there.”

Ideally, CCFC’s standard could be developed to apply to a variety of operations, to avoid redundancies that could be an issue if several customers or secondary vendors each developed their own standard, Mellano says.

“That would make it almost impossible for farms to comply,” he says. “Our objective is to highlight the good things that we are doing and put our farms on a defined path of sustainability that provides a positive contribution to the economy and the environment in California.”

Learn about the 3 Benefits To CCFC’s Sustainability Program.

To learn more, visit the California Cut Flower Commission website or call or eMail Kasey Cronquist at 916-441-1701; [email protected] EMail Mike Mellano at [email protected], or visit the Mellano & Co. website.

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