Grower Doug Cole has been working closely with the Dutch to bring its successful MPS environmental certification to North American growers. Over the summer, D.S. Cole Growers in Loudon, N.H., became the first greenhouse operation in the United States to earn the MPS-ABC environmental certificate.Based in Holland, MPS is a nonprofit organization developed by the Dutch floriculture industry to respond to environmental concerns and has been active in more than 50 countries. Participating growers document their fertilizer, energy and chemical use and waste management and achieve an A, B or C rating on a 100-point scale. Cole shares his experience with the program to date:
GG: Why did you decide to pursue MPS certification?
Cole: A few years ago, sustainability certification became a hot topic. At that time, Walmart was considering requiring its vendors to be certified by Veriflora. I was president of OFA and I had a good knowledge of how European growers worked with MPS the last 15 years. MPS approached me about how they could get involved in the U.S. market. I decided to jump in with our company so we could see how it worked and to be able to compare the process with other certification choices available in the United States.
GG: What has your journey entailed from the beginning until now?
Cole: Since we were the first North American grower in this program, there was quite a bit of set-up work. Everything was done in European metrics, including weights, measures, greenhouse space, etc. Both MPS and we invested much time to convert the program to a more U.S. friendly platform. The same was true with pesticides. We have products they don’t have and many products have different names or forms. Most European growers don’t have as many crops as we do, let alone ways to grow crops. We take it for granted that in the same facility, we may grow on benches, on floors, with hand watering and with drip and with ebb-and-flow. We have hanging baskets, outdoor space and we may be a propagator part of the year and a finished plant grower the rest of the year. D.S. Cole Growers was a good trial site for MPS to get a feel for the U.S. grower.
With all that said, the program came together smoothly and will be easier for newer growers involved in the program.
GG: How does the program work?
Cole: Once we answer the questions related to our size, our crops and other basic questions, we start the routine of record keeping in four-week intervals, which goes into the MPS database, which compares our situation with that of other growers worldwide. These starting questions are critical since comparisons are made against growers who are producing the same product line. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to compare our inputs against a tomato grower from Holland, who may be organic and can tolerate a higher threshold of insects. Every four weeks, our growers are sending in the usage of all pesticides along with energy inputs, water usage, fertilizer usage and questions surrounding recycling. Once the plan for recording the inputs is in place, it is a fairly quick process. A Dutch grower once told me that it is about a 15-minute project each month. We aren’t that quick yet!
Pesticide usage is heavily weighted in the scheme. MPS breaks down all pesticides into five categories: black, red, amber, green and white. We are not allowed to use anything designated as black. These black chemicals are either illegal or not used by us anyway, so this is not an issue. The least amount of red pesticides used helps greatly in receiving a good score. Of course, the green ones are the best to use. White-labeled products (for example biological) give you the benefit within your qualification because they are not counted in relation to use.
Obviously, ebb-and-flow benching reduces water and fertilizer, just as heat curtains can reduce energy use. This helps a grower in achieving a higher score, but it is not necessary to get started with MPS. The goal is to start the project and become designated as MPS A, B or C. A is the best ranking. If a grower starts out at a C ranking, he can then work towards a B or A ranking. It is the ongoing process that makes MPS successful. Growers can have goals that management and staff work towards. Throughout the process, we found that our growers were challenging themselves to save on inputs, such as fertilizer, pesticides and fuel. This is not only good environmental practice, it is good economic practices.
GG: What’s next?
Cole: Working with MPS is an ongoing process. We report 13 times a year. Our goal is to raise our sustainability index as high as possible. We also hope to work on the MPS GAP (good agricultural practices) certificate next. That certification will address social issues, such as safety programs. Much of the GAP criteria is satisfied by the normal operating procedures in the United States.
GG: How much does the program cost?
Cole: The cost is over $3,000 per year. This includes all charge–a visit by the local coordinator, digital registration tool and help desk. The costs for the audits are also included. This is a big difference in comparison to other certificates.
GG: Are other growers in the United States also pursuing certification?
Cole: Yes, there are other growers who have started and there are growers who are about to start. Currently, MPS has 13 participants in the United States and Canada. Most are in the process of obtaining certification. MPS’ goal for 2010 is to reach a minimum of 15 participants in the United States.
GG: What are MPS’ plans for the North America?
Cole: Representatives from MPS have recently traveled from coast to coast in the United States and Canada meeting with some growers that expressed interest in the program. Due to time and logistics, they did not stop at all of the growers they would have liked to visit. One of the MPS reps is currently stationed in South America, where he handles both Central and South America.
GG: With all the Dutch-influenced operations here, why aren’t more of them pursuing MPS certification?
Cole: I will take a line from the Dutch Ag Ministry and mention how they feel about sustainability. It is all about the three P’s–People, Planet and Profits. To make sustainability run smoothly, you need all three. You need to take care of people, the planet and profits. If there is no way of continuing with a profit due to your actions, the process of sustainability will be hard to move forward.
Up until now, neither independent retailers nor box stores have been interested in paying more for a certified sustainable product. We are doing very little to market our certification. We are not growing in biodegradable pots and we don’t make a big deal to our customers that we are sustainable. On the other hand, Ball Horticultural Co. would like as many of its vendors to be certified. IKEA in Europe only buys from MPS-level growers.
What we have found is this process has saved us money. Our growers have taken on the program as a challenge and have realized they can use softer chemicals. We have grown our poinsettia crop completely pesticide free. We are able to recycle most plastics. This saves our company money.
GG: What needs to happen for MPS to become more established in North America?
Cole: To become firmly established, more growers need to take on the process. The more growers get involved, the more meaningful the data base will become. For example, northern growers use less water than southern growers, but fuel usage will be the opposite for these regions. MPS works best when the system sets ups standards based on the needs of growers in specific regions in the world.