How Precision Agriculture Is Helping Farmers Win Over Consumers
“Your Food, Your Farmer” is a simple mantra, but one that resonates loudly with many of today’s consumers. With an eye on a burgeoning demand for locally grown food produced in an efficient, sustainable, and responsible manner, a new Florida-based group has formed to help deliver to the market what it desires.
The International Responsible Farming Council (IRFC) is a not-for-profit organization comprised of farmers and qualified consumers that aims to shine a light on the use of precision agriculture and its wide-ranging benefits. The growing adoption of horticulture technology products and labor-saving practices are not only helping growers overcome modern-day production and farm management challenges, but also conveying a positive message of stewardship that so many shoppers are seeking.
Nick Larsen, Executive Director of the IRFC, says inspiration to start this organization came from a need to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers in regard to production practices. “In the past few years, technology — especially precision agriculture — has advanced to the point where it allows farmers to be transparent about what they do on a day-to-day basis. With this transparency, we think we can give the consumer confidence in what they are buying.”
Bolstered by support and guidance from Mulberry, FL-based Highland Precision Ag, the IRFC formed. As of this posting, the IRFC featured nine board members, each serving three-year terms. According to Larsen, members were chosen based on their roles and life experience. “The board consists of farmers and qualified consumers,” he says. “A ‘qualified consumer’ is someone who is not a farmer, but also is not ignorant of how farming works. The goal was to find people with jobs or interests in food, labor, sustainability, and the environment. On the farmer side, I wanted to pick a diverse group.”
To facilitate a sounding board for interested growing operations to prove commitment to sustainable practices, IMPAC.org was launched. The online home for IMPAC (International Member of the Precision Ag Community) serves not only as a showcase for forward-thinking growers, but also welcomes visitors to learn about new-and-improved farming standards and certifications for today and tomorrow.
“IMPAC is a way to show consumers you care,” Larsen says. “The audits and sustainability metrics that a grower performs for retailers are primarily about keeping the retailer happy. We are targeting the consumer, letting them know that you as an IMPAC member can be trusted to provide a product that was produced in a manner that is good for the environment, good for the worker, and safe to eat.”
Virginia Barnes, Food Safety Manager and Public Relations Specialist for Barnes Farm, a 5th-generation family cabbage operation in Hastings, FL, says all growers should want their buyers, sellers, and consumers to know they are doing things right, from start to finish. “We have so many challenges, and any kind of a seal of approval is really to our benefit, and to the consumer’s benefit,” she says.
Among the many challenges is overcoming misconceptions the public might have about irresponsible farmers/farming practices. While Barnes (who also is on the IRFC Committee) has noticed a change lately in those conceptions thanks in large part to the local food movement, she knows there is still much work ahead to convince otherwise stubborn attitudes. Particularly for Barnes and her family’s business, this challenge is personal. “A lot of love and care goes into it, and that’s where that gap needs to be bridged,” she says. “People don’t understand this is your livelihood. You can’t mistreat what you depend on to make a living. That’s why we’ve survived and thrived.”
How to Become IMPAC-Certified
Through much consulting with agronomists, hydrologists, and incorporating Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ best management practices (BMPs), IMPAC certification standards were developed. According to Larsen, there are two ways to become IMPAC-certified. “The first way is by contacting me and expressing an interest,” he says. “I will discuss what is involved as far as paperwork and requirements. For the Florida grower, this is a fairly straightforward process requiring BMP notice of intents for your farm(s), Global Food Safety Initiative audits, and material compliance with U.S., state, and federal labor regulations.”
Outside of Florida, the process is not as streamlined, Larsen says, but notes many growers inquiring so far have documentation of BMPs through USDA’s NRCS or GlobalG.A.P.
Intimately involved from the beginning of the IRFC, Danny Kushmer, Director of Environment, Restoration, and Compliance for Highland Precision Ag, says once a grower is IMPAC-certified, they are able to show the consumer they are doing everything they can to lessen their environmental footprint. “While IMPAC growers already are good stewards of the land, often this story does not make it to the consumer.”
So, when it comes to proving a point, there is nothing like delivering data. To aid growers in this quest, Kushmer says Highland Precision Ag — via its Highland HUB — created a tool box where the grower can upload documents regarding regulatory, food safety, BMPs, and employment and labor documents. “This tool box allows staff and council members of the IRFC to view and verify the growers’ practices, ensuring compliance to the consumer.”
While IMPAC is finding its legs in the Sunshine State, Larsen says progress is being made beyond as information from California and Georgia producers is being processed. Plus, there are plans to recruit more growers up the East Coast.
But, Larsen also sees growth of IMPAC stretching much further from home. “We have international aspirations,” he says. However, regarding international reach, Larsen admits limitations due to requiring U.S. labor standards. “I have confidence in the ability of a Canadian or European farmer to meet U.S. labor standards; other countries, not so much.”
Precisely the Point
High-tech proponent, UF/IFAS Professor, and IRFC Committee Member Kevin Folta is excited about the next wave of horticultural technology, and says farming’s future — especially in Florida — is dependent on the growing acceptance of precision ag and adoption of related BMPs. “These practices will transform agriculture,” he says. “Food production will look very different in 10 years. New technology will marry the best genetics with the best production techniques, and the result will be higher-quality food, better profits for farmers, and less environmental impact. Agriculture can be a win-win situation, and technology can be a central driver.”
Larsen agrees, and says giving the consumer insight into this technology will pay off, especially down the road. “The big revolution in food is going to be consumer driven, he says. “Right now, you have a handful of people making brand decisions for millions of consumers. In the future, your consumer will go onto Amazon or Instacart and decide which brand they want. They will be shopping on price, reputation, and story. As a grower, you are going to want your story out there.”