The Potato Sustainability Alliance is working towards streamlining sustainability data within the supply chain for potato producers.

Regenerative agriculture and other pledges towards green practices are nothing new in the business or agriculture worlds. Over the past few decades, more companies have shared and enforced sustainability practices — and this is no different for the potato industry. In response to this sustainability push, producers have been put in the spotlight to adopt new practices or enhance their decade-long efforts to meet high industry expectations.

John Mesko
John Mesko, executive director of the Potato Sustainability Alliance

As today’s world demands greater sustainability from food systems, the Potato Sustainability Alliance (PSA) is working to answer this call for the potato industry. For the past decade, the PSA has worked to define, measure and report on the sustainability story for potatoes, according to John Mesko, executive director of PSA.

“Our mission is to support the movement of the potato industry towards more sustainable production practices, help people understand the impact of their farming practices, collect the information generated by those practices on the various elements of sustainability and then facilitate a streamlined reporting process,” he says in an interview with Spud Smart.

Through an annual sustainability survey of more than 500 potato growers across North America, the PSA collects information on nitrogen use efficiency, irrigation use efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, pesticide risk, worker safety and waste/recycling.

“The need within the supply chain for sustainability data is growing, as the supply chain seeks to understand the sustainability of potato production,” adds Mesko.

For Jolyn Rasmussen, senior manager of raw development and sustainability at J.R. Simplot and the PSA’s board chair, the opportunities for sustainability that the PSA offers were enticing. Rasmussen joined the PSA board in 2018, eager to take part in the leadership of the movement towards successful sustainability measurement for the benefit of Simplot customers and growers.

Jolyn Rasmussen
Jolyn Rasmussen, senior manager of raw development and sustainability at J.R. Simplot and the Potato Sustainability Alliance’s board chair

“Everybody wants to do what’s right and do sustainability well, and PSA offers a place that you can network, work together and align as an industry around sustainability initiatives, while minimizing grower burden,” says Rasmussen in an interview.

This influence on the industry and future decisions is what makes the PSA so valuable for its members, whether that be larger companies like Simplot or smaller, family-owned farms, believes Rasmussen.

“Having an influence on the industry to make sure that we’re working together to provide a measurement tool solution around sustainability, instead of waiting for the supply chain to tell us what to do, is huge. We can do it proactively instead of waiting for regulation and legislation to tell us how we’re going to measure sustainability,” she explains.

The Potato Sustainability Alliance Tends to Producers’ Needs

To meet this need for information for its members and from the industry, PSA is streamlining data requirement from producers. Currently, there are an overwhelming number of organizations and entities requesting information. The supply chain has shown an increased interest in data on sustainability, greenhouse gases — specifically carbon footprints — and the management of employees. This results in potato farmers filling out an excess of surveys that explain how their farming practices are impacting environmental sustainability to different parts of the supply chain. The PSA hopes to streamline that process, developing one standardized survey for potato growers in North America.

Andy Diercks, a fourth-generation grower at Coloma Farms and PSA board member, is one of the farmers in North America that has felt these impacts directly. At Diercks’ 2,700-acre family farm in Coloma, Wisc. managed by himself and his father Steve, they are required to complete two different food safety audits, in addition to two sustainability assessments. While that may seem like an easy task to complete, in reality, it takes a significant amount of time and resources for a smaller farm like Coloma Farms. In fact, they have had to hire an additional employee that spends at least half of their time maintaining all the information for these programs, explains Diercks.

“What customers and consumers really want to know is, am I making the best choices on a day in and day out basis,” he says in an interview. “There are so many choices that get made and it’s really hard to assess that. 20 years ago, the assumption was that farmers were good folks, and that they were making those good choices. Now, some of that trust has eroded for some reason. So, we’re trying to tell the story as well as we can without being a huge burden on the farms.”

While the survey has existed for some time now, the PSA has refocused their efforts to better fit a larger audience, including stockholders, customers, retailers and more. Two areas that are moving towards the forefront of the sustainability conversation are greenhouse gas calculation reporting and the measurement of water use efficiency and water quality, says Mesko.

“Our members are getting requests for Scope 3 emissions reporting. Our members are looking to gain information from what’s happening on farms regarding greenhouse gas. That’s a big issue that’s we’re working on right now,” he shares.

The PSA is also developing a tool that measures the impact of water use efficiency and quality. This task will be a bit harder to accomplish though, according to Diercks.

“Water use for potato production is quite different here versus Washington, Maine, Canada or Prince Edward Island, for example,” he explains. “Depending on whether you have irrigation and what your natural rainfall is, assessing how to measure your water use and water efficiency is pretty challenging. The PSA water program may transition into more of a measurement of best practices along with a collaborative regional approach to water sustainability rather than a metric on water use efficiency.”

What’s Next for the Potato Sustainability Alliance?

After the association finishes developing its current goals, PSA looks to the future where it will tackle soil health, farmer livelihoods, food waste and additional areas that align with the various production practices utilized in potatoes.

“We’ve had a survey and basic metrics for a long time, but now we’re expanding our reach and really trying to provide what our customers throughout the potato supply chain need to tell the story of sustainable potato production,” says Diercks. “The worst-case scenario for me would be that all of the major buyers have their own sustainability program for potatoes. Farms would end up having to do all these different audits and assessments that generally ask the same questions. It would be incredibly inefficient and frankly unsustainable. The potato industry has a great sustainability story to tell. We just need to figure out how to efficiently and effectively tell our story.”

As the PSA continues to expand its membership and develop its survey, the association plans to go one step further by creating accreditation opportunities for its members.

“We want to establish an endorsement policy — essentially having the ability for a grower to say, ‘These are PSA certified sustainable potatoes,’ and for growers to really be proud of working with PSA. I want to get us to a place where growers can use PSA to tell their story,” says Rasmussen.

At the center of PSA’s mission lies the desire to improve the inner workings of the industry to make the lives of producers easier, and the world better. While this process has not progressed without facing challenges, Mesko believes that the PSA is on the path for continued success.

“Agriculture is multifaceted. There are many layers to what happens on a farm or in a region. Potatoes are grown all over North America, and not just in a few states or provinces. Each geography has its own environmental challenges. It’s a challenge to say we’re going to put one approach, one measurement or one definition for sustainability out there that applies to everyone. It’s our biggest challenge, but it’s also our greatest strength. If we can successfully streamline things all across North America in a way that really does answer the questions that folks have about sustainability, then we will have done a great thing for the industry and farmers who need to tell the story,” concludes Mesko.

Related Articles

The Regenerative Ag Debate for Growing Potatoes, is it Possible?

Potato Sustainability Alliance Announces New Executive Director John Mesko

Using Fertilizer on Your Spud Fields Sustainably – A Spud Smart Roundtable Webinar & Podcast