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Leading Harvest builds on its sustainability standard

The effects of the pandemic heighten the appeal of this innovative agricultural sustainability standard.

The April 2020 launch of the Leading Harvest organization and its agricultural sustainability standard might seem like a case of terrible timing, especially considering that it took place during the frightening early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as grocery store shelves rapidly emptied and farmers were forced to jettison valuable crops because of processing, storage, and shipping issues, many people began asking the exact same questions that Leading Harvest hopes to answer. Namely, is there a better way to handle food production and the supply chain?

“It was obviously an unusual year to launch a new organization, but it was a year that laid bare for people the importance of basic life essentials like the food system,” says Kenny Fahey, executive director, Leading Harvest. “It got people thinking about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. So what we found was that Leading Harvest really came to the stage at the right moment to address concerns that consumers have as they relate to the food system.”

One of the key aspects of the Leading Harvest standard is that it is performance-based. It was designed to help farmland managers achieve sustainability through continuous improvement. The standard addresses 14 principles that represent key issues regarding sustainable farming operations, from soil health and conservation and water management to community involvement. The organization’s 13-member Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SAWG) represents more than 4 million acres of farmland worldwide. Members include AgIS Capital, Ceres Farms, Cottonwood Ag Management, Hancock Natural Resources Group, International Farming, Lamb Weston, Nuveen/Westchester, Peoples Company, PGIM Agricultural Investments, The Rohatyn Group TRG, and UBS Farmland Investors. Two environmental organizations, The Conservation Fund and Manomet, bring their own expertise to the Working Group.

This coalition of companies that farms, owns, and/or manages farmland, as well as the environmental organizations, has endeavored to create a comprehensive sustainability standard that can be implemented across the greatest portion of agricultural acreage possible. They began meeting in June 2017, debuted the standard at the Land Investment Expo in Des Moines in January 2020, and formally launched the standard at Global AgInvesting in New York City on Earth Day (April 22).

Progress Report

A year later, Leading Harvest officials are optimistic about the progress that the nonprofit has made in implementing a comprehensive sustainability standard that can be utilized across all areas of food production. Fahey says more than 1.125 million acres of farmland have been enrolled in the program, and those farms produce more than 90 different types of crops.

“We’re very proud and excited about the footprint we gained in this first year. It’s a real testament to the power of this program and its ability to achieve outcomes,” Fahey says. “Despite how disruptive 2020 was, I think Leading Harvest is the right organization at the right time.”

The initiative was created through input from farmers, farmland managers, landowners, conservationists, and investors. It addresses a wide range of issues involving disparities in soil, climate, elevation, and crop types to create an encompassing standard for agricultural sustainability.

“The success of Leading Harvest is due to its adaptability and flexibility.” says Leading Harvest Board Chairman Oliver Williams, who is senior managing director for the Hancock Agricultural Investment Group. “Before this, there wasn’t a standard that was flexible enough to cover all the different regions and crop types in a credible way.

“It’s brought a level of coordination to our stewardship program, and helps focus the sustainability discussion with our contractors, vendors, and tenants. It also stimulates a conversation around continuous improvement and actions. For example, we’re now taking a very serious look at how we can expand the use of regenerative agriculture practices within our program,” Williams says.

Consumer in Mind

Of course, the launch of the standard dovetails with consumer preferences. “Consumers are more interested in knowing where their food comes from, how it’s produced, and whether it’s fundamentally safe. So what we have seen across the board is an increased commitment by the supply chain around sustainable sourcing. But the lack of a universal standard has been problematic when attempting to provide the assurances consumers want. We believe this is a practical application that will ultimately have a profound impact on raising performance as a whole,” Williams says.

Leading Harvest already has caught the attention of the Walton Family Foundation. Late last year, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based nonprofit awarded Leading Harvest a grant to help fund a pilot program that provides training on the land-management practices to crop farmers in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed.

“That’s going to really open up the ability for growers of all different sizes to participate in this,” Fahey says. “We’re also preparing to launch our first pilot program outside of the U.S. If we want to have a universal standard, we need a program that can work globally, since the agricultural supply chain is global.”

Global and, as the events of last spring demonstrated, much too prone to disruption.

“The sustainable production of food has really been brought into focus during the pandemic,” Williams says. “Consumers want to know where and how their food is produced, and I’m seeing a business environment that is fully embracing the notion of sustainable investing. So we’re excited about the progress we’ve made with Leading Harvest, and the momentum we have going into our second year.”

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