Measuring sustainability to manage smarter potato production
The phrase “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” has become a popular part of the agricultural lexicon, often used to reinforce the value of sustainable practices, especially in potato production today.
From planting to processing — and everything in between — benchmarking success is contingent on strategically adopting methods that improve efficiency and efficacy. For almost a decade, the Potato Sustainability Alliance (PSA) has conducted an on-farm sustainability survey to use as a benchmarking and measurement tool. More than 500 potato growers across North America participate annually to assess the sustainability of their production practices in multiple areas of conservation.
Initially, the survey only focused on integrated pest management practices, according to Natalie Nesburg, data specialist for PSA. But, as the industry evolved, so did the scope of the survey, which now covers more than a dozen sustainability categories within cornerstone conservation areas, including energy efficiency, water management, soil health and biodiversity.
Today, the resource is a foundational part of PSA’s expanding initiative to equip growers and industry stakeholders with access to knowledge that validates their investment in environmental stewardship.
One way growers can measure progress is through the PSA sustainability metric. Production practices within the survey correlate to four ascending levels of sustainable performance: Basic, Steward, Expert and Master. Levels are assigned to practices based on their role in resource conservation — higher levels indicate a greater sustainable impact. The survey metric evaluates the number of practices
being implemented at each level and aggregates that data into an overall sustainability score.
“One of the main questions we get from growers is, ‘Am I sustainable?’ ” Nesburg said. “The survey, and the grower’s overall sustainability score, aims to answer that question by translating the sustainable impact of their current production practices into a metric that can be used to easily benchmark and communicate improvements over time.”
Since 2018, the PSA survey results have shown progressive adoption of sustainable practices, with the greatest gains coming in soil, water and energy conservation. A few high-level examples identified by the survey include:
• Rotation of crops that produce or recycle nitrogen as an alternative to commercial fertilizer on at least 25% of farm fields since the last potato crop.
• Exclusive use of pressurized irrigation systems and practices such as drip, reels, guns, wheel lines, solid set, center pivot or linear move.
• Adoption of advanced software tools like Cool Farm Tool and FieldPrint Calculator to measure and manage greenhouse gas production.
“Globally, and throughout the supply chain, we are seeing sustainability goals drive the focus and implementation of on-farm production practices. Our survey results tell that story, along with the sustainable initiatives that growers have been implementing all along,” Nesburg said. “We want to communicate the hard work that has been done by growers to produce potatoes sustainability, as well as highlight opportunities to improve.”
John Mesko draws from an extensive and diverse agriculture background and provides expertise to farmers implementing sustainable farming practices.