By Treva Lind
Of the Journal of Business
More consumers today want to trace groceries back to the dirt and to buy produce grown as close to the plate as possible, say Inland Northwest farm leaders and food distributors.
To that end, a regional farm cooperative, Genesee, Idaho-based Pacific Northwest Farmers Co-op, recently passed a U.S. Food Alliance inspection as a sustainable agriculture food handler for its line of specialty legumes sold in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. They are grown on eight farms that also have the sustainable agriculture certification for practices that reduce use of chemicals, protect habitat, and conserve energy, soil, and water.
Additionally, large food companies that buy commodities from the region's farmers are taking greater interest in sustainable farming, says Bill Newbry, CEO of the organization, which got the Food Alliance nod for its PNW Co-op Specialty Foods.
"The food manufacturers have always had stringent rules on food quality," Newbry says. "The past three or four years, they want traceability back to the dirt, who grew it, under what circumstances. Not only do they want to know where the crop is grown, they want to know how it was grown."
"Each large food corporation, whether it's a Kellogg's or Nestle, they're getting 'greener' along with the rest of the world," he adds. "They are slowly demanding that their suppliers supply them with a product grown under sustainable practices."
These practices include less disturbance of the soil to reduce erosion, better machine technology that can plant seeds through residual crop material left after harvesting, reduced use of chemicals for insects and weeds, and rotation of crops to help nurture the soil.
"We want consumers to feel safe and have confidence in what the farmers are doing in their farming practices," says Kim Davidson, co-owner of Davidson Commodities Inc., a Spokane-based wholesale distributor and marketing partner for the PNW Co-op Specialty Foods. The company also markets a PNW Co-op cover-crop seed, named Mighty Mustard.
Davidson says that although many regional farmers have followed these practices for several years, consumers like seeing a stamp of approval, such as the one given by the Food Alliance, a Portland-based nonprofit that offers third-party inspections of sustainable growing methods. It has certified more than 300 operations.
More products are being labeled as sustainably grown, Davidson says, adding, "It's farming the old-fashioned way, marketing in a new way."
Soon, the sustainable agriculture certification will be noted on labels for six PNW Co-op Specialty Foods, sold in Spokane at Main Market downtown, at the North Division Huckleberry's inside Rosauers, and at Yoke's outlets. Sold in bulk and in bags for about a year, the Specialty Foods are Sunrise red lentils, Shasta yellow lentils, Spanish Pardina brown lentils, York white garbanzo beans, Pedrosillano garbanzo beans, and the green split peas.
"We try to keep everything as local as possible," Davidson says. "It's part of the whole sustainability picture. It starts with the farmers, and a lot of these farmers are on land that's been in their family for years. It benefits them to nurture the land."
Davidson Commodities distributes the PNW Co-op Specialty Foods to the stores and to regional chefs, and she adds, "We're really planning to go nationwide."
PNW Farmers Co-op has 750 members, but Newbry says that among that number, roughly 250 members have active family-run farms that range in size from about 2,500 to 5,000 acres. They are mainly in the Palouse area but some stretch to the Rathdrum Prairie and near Spokane.
Newbry says that although wheat remains the predominant crop, the co-op in the past four years has supplied more legumes to the U.S. market, including garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, which are rising in domestic popularity for use in hummus.
"If you ate hummus in the last four or five years, there is a 90 percent chance the goods you were eating all came from south of Spokane," Newbry says.
He adds that 10 years ago, the co-op sold 90 percent of its legume commodities overseas. Today, the split between export and domestic sales is about 50-50.
About 30 percent of PNW's farmers have adopted a sustainable agricultural practice called no-till farming, he says, which means soil isn't turned over to kill weeds and prepare it to plant seeds.
Jim Hermann, of RimRock Ranches General Partnership, a third-generation Genesee-area family business, is one of those farmers. In addition to wheat, RimRock grows PNW Co-op Specialty Foods crops, as well as garbanzo beans that are eventually sold to large food companies for hummus.
"We also do the no-till, and we keep all the (harvested crop) residue on top," Hermann says. "We don't burn. Ten years ago, there would be a lot of ditches filled with dirt that eroded from farms. We used to plow, and go over the ground, and turn over the soil. We don't do that anymore."
Although he says he misses seeing the rich, black soil, he also notes that tilling created "chocolate-covered streams," after tilled dirt eroded off the steep Palouse hills with rain or snow. Today, local streams are clear, "and that's huge for the environment," he says.
Hermann says another major component of sustainability is crop rotation.
"We don't put wheat on wheat," he says. After a field with wheat is harvested, the farm operation will next plant a legume crop, such as garbanzos or lentils. This naturally benefits the soil, because legumes pull nitrogen from the atmosphere, "and fixes it in the roots of the legumes," Hermann says.
He adds, "That leaves the nitrogen in the soil. When we follow that with winter wheat, then we don't have to put so much nitrogen in the soil because wheat requires a lot of nitrogen to get the high yield."
Sustainable doesn't stop there, he adds.
After combines harvest wheat, straw remains as beneficial ground cover. He says, "Now we have the technology, we can put the seeds in the soil without tilling it. We can go through high amounts of crop residue, then when we get snow or rain, the residue buffers the land and seeds. It's actually better for the crops and for the environment."
He adds, "There's a reduction of pests. When you're not disturbing the soil as much and there is coverage, it minimizes weeds. It's kind of like grass clippings, but you can get through that and put the seeds through and they grow up through that. By varying crop rotations â€¦ it confuses the weeds."
Larger food manufacturers will verify sustainable practices directly with commodity suppliers, including ones such as the PNW Farmers Co-op, says Marla Uto, who oversees quality assurance for the co-op.
Under the Food Alliance certification, the PNW Farmers Co-op is required to demonstrate such things as its documentation of commodities its members produce, food safety handling, safe working conditions, and clear tracking that each farmer's product remains identified as coming from that farmer, she says.
"Traceability, that's a big thing for the Food Alliance," she says. She adds that larger manufacturers ask for third-party audits and random sampling. The co-op also follows U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements, and it has FDA audits as well, she says.
One large food manufacturing company in the hummus market, White Plains, N.Y.-based Sabra Dipping Company LLC, uses PNW Farmers Co-op as one of its major suppliers of chick- peas, says Tom Romano, the company's director of purchasing and sustainability. The company verifies sustainable growing practices with its suppliers, Romano says.
Sabra, which produces hummus, salsas, veggie dips, guacamole, and vegetarian sides, is a joint venture of Israeli food manufacturer Strauss Group and Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo.
"Both companies are very much into the sustainable movement and looking at sources and supplies, not just for chick- peas, but other commodities," Romano says. "That is something we look for in suppliers. We seek out people who are green. We ask them what type of program they have."
Phil Egolf, a Sabra research agronomist, says consumers want to know more about their foods.
"They look into that more than they used to," Egolf says. "It seems like the industry is more focused now on where food comes from, how it's produced, and how many points of contact it goes through."
Romano says the U.S. appetite for hummus also has grown. "It's about a $419 million industry in annual sales of hummus in the total U.S. market," he says.