Around The Table By Big Grower

By definition, sustainability is an attempt to secure the survivability of human and natural environments indefinitely by enabling people to meet current needs as well as providing future generations with sufficient resources. This has a number of different meanings for growers, such as implementing new practices, using organic materials, altering applications or investing in naturally powered structures.

To some, the upfront implementation costs may seem overwhelming, but when thinking in the long term, these changes now may have significant results for the future and significant savings for your business. Read on to learn what some big growers had to say about how they implement sustainability in their businesses.

How do you define sustainability in your business?

"We try not to do anything that we couldn't repeat year after year. We apply this philosophy to sales, production and operations. Our physical locations are in agricultural areas, but there is a high awareness of how we use the land especially in our outdoor crops. We simply don't want to have a product line or program that has a short life because of its impact on our resources or on the environment. Looking across our product lines we have some crops that require a lot more pesticide to produce than others, but there is a threshold where we make the decision to avoid a specific crop or program because of the ecological impact."

Ñ Bruce Gibson, general manager, Northwest Horticulture, Mount Vernon, Wash.

"We define sustainability in our business as a practical approach to edging ourselves closer to more environmentally sound practices and/or products that will lessen the impact on future generation's survivability."

Ñ Kevin Moss, president, Moss Greenhouses, Jerome, Idaho

"It's a difficult term to define for our nursery not because we're not implementing sustainable practices but because we've been working through issues associated with sustainability since the inception of our company in 1956. Literally, the homes of the owners and key employees are adjacent to the nursery. The nursery is each home's back yard. None of us want any type of 'problem' for today or in the future sitting in our back yard.

Additionally, White's Nursery has a 3-acre retail garden center situated on the western edge of the nursery. It's truly the face of White's Nursery to the 200,000 residents of the city of Chesapeake. White's Nursery wants to be the 'best citizen' possible. While we call Chesapeake our home, we realize we're really a guest in the community and have to be a responsible steward for both the environment and employees."

Ñ Tal White, general manager, White's Nursery, Chesapeake, Va.

Have you implemented sustainable practices into your business? Why or why not?

"Our production has to meet certain criteria. I don't think of it in terms of enacting specific practices. I think of it in terms of the filters we use to make a decision."

Ñ Bruce Gibson

"We have implemented several sustainable practices/products into our business, such as pulp pots for our hanging baskets, irrigation runoff collection, drip irrigation for all hanging baskets, boom irrigation for flat production, plug tray recycling with manufacturers, reusing all plastic trays, ventilation screening to prevent bugs from entering greenhouses thus reducing pesticide applications, composting of green products/waste, new open roof Nexus dual-atrium greenhouses and Cravo retractable-roof structures, shade/energy curtains and a wind turbine meteorological tower studying the feasibility of wind energy at our location. We also are researching the feasibility of utilizing a corn-fired boiler system to reduce our natural gas needs."

Ñ Kevin Moss

"How can a business not implement sustainable practices? In most cases, the sustainable practices we implement have a direct effect on the bottom line. In most but not all cases, it's a positive effect either through cost savings or improved employee morale. There are limited instances where sustainable practices have been forced upon us."

Ñ Tal White

What is the upfront cost of implementing sustainable practices into your business? What kind of return have you seen?

"A good example is our eastern Washington location. We have a 15-acre container field that is all on drip. We are in a very dry area; water is expensive and not in excess. The upfront cost is an additional $15,000 per acre, but we get this back in 7-8 years."

Ñ Bruce Gibson

"All improvements and advancements in business cost money with moderate-to-fast returns on our investments. We look for efficient and productive systems and/or methods to increase our output with the same number of people or produce crops faster or with better quality results."

Ñ Kevin Moss

"Both my grandparents or parents have instilled a 'waste not, want not' attitude that permeates the company. It applies to any resource we utilize — water, fertilizer, growth regulator, pesticide, natural gas, labor hours, etc. Of course, the largest challenge is changing out old systems with new. We usually work on an 18 to 24-month payback for an investment. When we go to longer timeframes than these, we start to question the viability of the project."

Ñ Tal White

Are any of your customers inquiring about or requiring action on the sustainability issue in operations or products?

"To date we haven't had any specific requests for products that would be more ecologically friendly than our current product line. Most of our customers understand very little about what it takes to produce perennials, ground covers and roses. I'm sure that our customers would be responsive to products grown with less impact on the environment, whether they are interested in paying more for this or accepting higher levels of pests is questionable."

Ñ Bruce Gibson

"Our customer base would gladly jump on the bandwagon to be more sustainable, that is, if it does not increase the price too much."

Ñ Kevin Moss

"Customers with high visibility have requested sustainability assessments."

Ñ Tal White

What are the challenges and benefits of becoming a more sustainable business?

"This is a process. Every year we have more tools that enable growers to produce quality plants with less impact on the environment. There is no end to this, and most of the products and techniques we'll have 10 years from now probably haven't been invented. The biggest challenge I see is to sort through the products and ideas that truly have value and those that are nothing more than the 'idea of the day.' The benefits may be the viability of the business. Ignoring the ecological realities of our times hasn't served companies very well, in my opinion."

Ñ Bruce Gibson

"We think that there are 'good' greenhouse operations like ourselves that continue to improve and stay ahead of the curve and want to be more sustainable. We are always trying to be closer to 'organic' in our practices. We think the 'good' operations will sustain and prosper in business, while the complacent growers will not survive the long haul."

Ñ Kevin Moss

"Because our company culture has been instilled with a 'waste not, want not' attitude, we're constantly attempting to find new ways to limit the use of valuable resources."

Ñ Tal White

What do you feel is sustainability's future in the green industry?

"I think that sustainability and the green industry are inseparably linked. Our business will be dynamically influenced by new laws, our customers' views of us and our individual desire to be good stewards of our environment. The green industry won't be singled out, this tide will raise all ships."

Ñ Bruce Gibson

"The more sustainable growers are, the more likely our form of agriculture will be looked on as a 'green' industry. It is important that we maintain a sustainable image to our customer base; this helps to ward off some of the regulatory consequences caused by bad actors."

Ñ Kevin Moss

"Regardless of how sustainable we try to make our business, we will still be a net consumer of valuable natural resources."

Ñ Tal White

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Big Grower

For more information on this article, contact Tim Hodson at [email protected] or (847) 391-1019

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