Opinion: Growers Can Turn Green Into Green

When it comes to the concept of sustainability, a lot of growers look at it as an onerous set of restrictions, a host of headaches with which to struggle. But what if you looked at it as an opportunity? How about if you could turn the recent trend toward going green (environmentally) into green (dollars)? One of my favorite old sayings is, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” So I was happy to see that when I dropped in on the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, held in Sacramento, CA, in late January, one of the panel discussions was “How To Market Your Green Farming Practices.” (If you are prompted for a password, click “read only.”)

First off, while sustainability might be a new concept, it’s not really a new idea at all. In fact, as Toby Halkovich of Cakebread Cellar noted, it’s actually one of the oldest. Just think of another old saying: “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow.” Growing fruit sustainably means being proactive, said Halkovich, one of three California vintners or viticulturists on the panel, adding that it’s a problem only in the sense that there’s no room for complacency.

Second, when you really think about it, don’t you want your farm to be sustainable? Not just for this year or next, or next decade, but for your kids? Aaron Lange of LangeTwins Vineyards — we featured the “twins,” Aaron’s father Brad and his uncle Randy on the cover of our June 2007 issue — noted that they’ve long been interested in sustainability because their business is multi-generational.

The problem with sustainability is that too many growers think of the concept as it is framed by environmentalists, those who want to see it as purely an environmental concept. But that’s just one element, said Lange, who outlined the “three-legged stool” vision of sustainability that I favor. There are three “Es” to the stool: Environmentally sound, socially Equitable, and Economically feasible. All three legs must be present, not just the last, or you won’t have a stool to stand on.

A Family Tradition

At LangeTwins, they use sustainability as a way to help market their wine. In fact, on every bottle they put on the label: “A tradition of sustainable winegrowing.” That means many things to many people, and it’s difficult to communicate to consumers, said Lange. To help get the message across, he recommends that growers have a website. They have taken that idea to another level, as Lange said that on their website his brother writes a blog on the topic.

Communicating your sustainability efforts is critical, said Lange, and not just when it comes to consumers. Assuming you wholesale, you must communicate your efforts to buyers as well. For example, in the winegrape business, a winegrower who doesn’t use as many herbicides as he has in the past in pursuing sustainable goals must let his winery-clients know why he has changed his practices. “Your vineyards might not look so pretty if you forego herbicides,” he said.

Communicating with winery-buyers is indeed critical for the winegrower, said the third member of the panel, Steve Smit of Constellation Wines U.S. It’s important for the grower to realize that the wineries are facing pressure to be perceived as sustainable, the need to demonstrate a long-term “green commitment.” Growers need to make sure they understand the winery’s — or any other buyer’s — goals regarding sustainability.

For example, Smit said that in Europe, the chain stores want to know all about Constellation’s carbon footprint. Growers who understand what their buyers’ sustainability needs are will have a leg up — today and tomorrow. “Sustainability is here to stay,” he said. “Growers need to get out ahead of the issue.”

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