In 1996 Nick Somers took wisconsin’s innovative disease forecasting software to a national growers meeting. Also sharing the podium that day was a representative from the World Wildlife Fund, and afterwards the two got to talking. They clicked, deciding on the spot that their two organizations should find a way to work together. The result was a partnership between WWF and WPVGA to experiment with reducing the use of high-risk pesticides and expanding the implementation of IPM in Wisconsin’s potato fields. In 1999 the UW IPM team officially joined in, and by 2001 the Healthy Grown standard was launched.
At first, Healthy Grown focused on IPM and the adoption of best management practices for fertilizer application and soil erosion. The team also developed a ranking system for pesticide toxicity, giving the growers a simple tool allowing them to compare their options and make less toxic choices. Growers could no longer use the full arsenal of legal agents. The most toxic and problematic were put on a do-not-use list, while others were limited. In 2006 ecological restoration of non-cropped farmland was added to the standard, and organizers began to try to measure more challenging things such as biodiversity. In 2009 social components such as hiring practices and on-farm energy use were incorporated. Farmers fill out a lengthy questionnaire and are subjected to annual audits. Nearly a quarter of fields that apply for certification don’t achieve it.
The evolution of the Healthy Grown standard coincided with market trends—even as organic was raising the bar for food production, consumers and activists wanted more. We wanted our coffee bird-friendly, our chocolate grown without child labor and our eggs laid by happy chickens. Standards promoting various social and environmental goals have proliferated. Even retail giant Wal-Mart is rolling out a mission to define the sustainability of its products.
To the disappointment of Healthy Grown’s farmers, however, this wave of green marketing has not swept up Wisconsin’s eco-potatoes. Growers had hoped that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for the Healthy Grown brand to help compensate for the extra cost of IPM and certification. A market survey conducted by the WPVGA in the brand’s infancy gave them reason to hope. After hearing the brand’s story, 70 percent of consumers surveyed said they would have interest in buying Healthy Grown potatoes, and 88 percent of those said they would pay 25 cents more per bag to get them. But that hasn’t happened. In most years fewer than 5 percent of potatoes certified under the program have been sold under the Healthy Grown label. The rest get bulked with other fresh-market orders, earning growers nothing for their extra effort.
Part of the problem is low visibility. Even around Madison, with its eager market for environmentally friendly products, Healthy Grown potatoes are hard to track down. An informal survey of produce buyers for the city’s main groceries yielded only passing familiarity with the brand. One buyer for Cub Foods recalled stocking the brand in the past but said it was dropped because consumers weren’t willing to pay the higher cost.
At the Madison Hy-Vee, it’s clear that produce marketing is a work in progress. The picture of Somers and another local onion grower were too big, and so they went into storage. Ryan Lindner, the store’s produce buyer, says they’ve moved away from bins as well. “We want to bring a more on-the-table look,” he says. He’d like more marketing material, and he notes that Hy-Vee is working on new signage highlighting local produce that should be rolled out soon.
“Sometimes what consumers say and what produce buyers do are not the same thing,” says Tim Feit, marketing manager for the WPVGA. “It is so hard to get these buyers off of price. Even if consumers would be willing to pay more, that’s not necessarily what the buyer will pay for the product.”
Despite the disappointing sales, the growers have largely kept the faith. The number of acres enrolled in the program remains steady at around 5,000, and while a few growers have dropped out, others have stepped in or stepped up their acreage. Without a price premium to pay the bills, it helps that the WPVGA underwrites audit costs and grants support conservation work.
And Feit says the brand’s story can win over consumers, if only it could be heard above the din. This spring the WPVGA is testing some new point of purchase marketing tools in cooperation with grocery chain Piggly Wiggly. “The key is to educate the consumer that these potatoes are raised differently,” he says. “And while the WPVGA has put money into marketing Healthy Grown, it’s a miniscule amount compared to the amount that gets thrown at new consumer products.”