Sustainability Certification or Simply Marketing?

Certifying farms for sustainability is an appealing idea. The bureaucrats in Augusta who hatched this plan for Maine undoubtedly envisioned nothing but positive outcomes. A state seal of approval for sound agricultural practices could reward farmers who manage their land well and could reassure consumers that growers were practicing good land stewardship.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is eager to promote its brainchild, after giving it – predictably – an acronym: the Maine FARMS (Farm Agricultural Resource Management and Sustainability) Program. The department recently issued a request for proposals for a communications, marketing and public relations plan for its new program.

Within a year, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry envisions having – at a cost of $40,000 to $80,000 in taxpayer dollars – “recommendations for brand rollout,” results of focus-group testing, an eye-catching logo and “media platforms that will help to launch the (FARMS) brand.”

Amid the marketing lingo, there’s just one missing ingredient: a substantive plan for certifying farms.

John Bott, the department’s communications director, acknowledges that the agency is still working to determine where this effort “could, should or might go.” Ashley Sears, program lead for Maine FARMS, is gathering input from farmers and says that the request for proposals is designed to get consumer feedback.

Marketing programs typically do begin with consumer research. Environmental certification programs do not. Department staff members could have learned this by consulting with the state’s foremost authority in agricultural certification – the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. MOFGA serves as the USDA-accredited certification service for more than 450 organic growers in Maine and has been certifying farms for decades.

Although planning for the Maine FARMS program started eight months ago, few details have been shared with MOFGA, the Agricultural Council of Maine, the Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Farmland Trust or the state office of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Sears says those conversations will happen after the farmer and consumer research.

But wouldn’t it make sense to engage those with the most expertise in agricultural sustainability from the outset? “Transparency is fundamental to sustainability,” says Andy Whitman, who works on agricultural certification as director of Manomet’s Sustainable Economies Program. “When you don’t have transparency, you don’t have trust.”

Unless consumers have confidence that a certification process is inclusive and based on rigorous standards, the label is meaningless – or worse.

“Anytime you take a really good agricultural concept and turn it into a marketing program, you create problems,” notes Lauchlin Titus, president of the Maine Vegetable and Small Fruit Growers Association. An agency charged with promoting agricultural products may not be seen by consumers as a credible judge of sustainability standards since it has a vested interest in making all Maine farms appear scrupulous.

Organic certification has earned the confidence of consumers because it is backed by USDA standards – set through an open public process – and it involves third-party verification. Its standards, which prohibit most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, provide some assurance about seed sources, soil health, and weed and pest management practices. But they offer no guarantee of sustainable practices in areas such as water conservation, wildlife habitat protection or greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainability, a notoriously ill-defined and amorphous term, can easily elude the sort of rigorous criteria that lend credibility to certification. “There are tons of concepts around sustainable certification,” says MOFGA Executive Director Ted Quaday, but few materialize due to the costs and complexities involved.

Because of the need to verify agricultural practices, certification programs represent a substantial time investment on the part of certifiers and participating farmers. Many Maine farmers complete inches of paperwork each year for organic certification, USDA GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification, and/or commodity-specific certification programs like the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program. A state-level certification would only add to that pile.

While Maine FARMS certification might yield some economic and ecological benefits, the potential burden on farmers, cost to taxpayers and confusion for consumers could be substantial.

Short of certification, there are many ways to support agricultural sustainability, says Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist Juan Hernandez, noting that “this is what we (at NRCS) do for a living.” For farmers who want to improve wildlife habitat, compost waste, practice crop rotation, conserve water or transition to organic, existing programs offer both financial and technical help – through the NRCS, Cooperative Extension and others.

Maine farmers already receive support promoting their locally grown products through the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s own “Get Real, Get Maine!” campaign. A new FARMS brand would compete with the agency’s own label, further confusing consumers.

While the idea of fostering more sustainable farms holds undeniable appeal, the reality requires an extended and expensive commitment. Rigorous criteria developed collaboratively should drive the certification process, not consumer research or the desire for new marketing venues.

The department claims that part of the vision for Maine FARMS is “to enhance the transparency of food production and agricultural practices.” It should begin by making its own planning process more transparent and inclusive, and by putting marketing and consumer research on hold until its vision for certification is better grounded.

© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.