Those complications have kept Healthy Grown from finding a foothold in markets such as Whole Foods, says Deana Knuteson, a CALS researcher who has been coordinating the Healthy Grown program since before it came to market in 2001. She says the chain ultimately decided not to highlight the fact that not all of its produce is organic. “It was a marketing thing,” she sighs. The experience leaves her wondering whether the market will allow a niche for agriculture that is both progressive and production-scale. “How can we develop an ecologically sound production model for large-scale agriculture that fits a need and helps the landscape without having to transition all the way to organic?” she asks.
The answer could well hang on the emerging definition of sustainability in the marketplace. Will the playing field be set by corporations large and small as they jockey for the marketing advantage that sustainability might confer? Or will more rigorous standards, monitored by independent observers, gain momentum and market share?
Not everyone thinks national standards will be helpful. “I don’t have a lot of confidence that you can create a national standard that would be worth a grain of salt,” says Barzen. He’s been helping quantify the biodiversity element of Healthy Grown potatoes, and like most scientists he has a hard time imagining how we’ll ever be able to develop meaningful comparisons between regions as different as Idaho and Wisconsin. “By working at such a broad scale you have to water it down, and it really doesn’t mean much.”
But if anything, says Barzen, Healthy Grown is feeling the double-edged sword of the market. “I do know we have really got to sell some potatoes under Healthy Grown to make this work. If we were selling a lot of these potatoes, we’d have the whole Wisconsin potato industry following us. If that were working, we could influence Idaho and Washington and other potato producing regions.”
If anything, Healthy Grown may not survive a shift to national standards. “People want to differentiate themselves,” explains Colquhoun. “I think one of the risks is that we raise the bar across the board so that there isn’t a market advantage to doing it, so that there isn’t a grower advantage in terms of price received and such. We’ve just increased the price of doing business.”
That would put a decade of research and several million dollars worth of taxpayer and grower investment on the shelf. “We’ve shown it can be done. It’s been through this development phase that other groups are just starting. It’s science-based. It’s research-based, which is unique. It’s third-party certified,” says Knuteson, ticking off the selling points. The bottom line, as far as she can see: “Grocery stores want to be green, but don’t want to be paying more.”
The sustaining grace here is the growers, who despite the setbacks are even considering expanding the Healthy Grown concept to other vegetable crops. “They were looking for a different way to grow because they wanted to do the right thing for the land,” says Knuteson. “With the economy the way it is, industry is still doing it, and that tells you it’s real. It’s actually going to be beneficial and save money in the end.”
“It’s been a struggle,” admits Somers. And while Healthy Grown doesn’t help his bottom line, “we feel it is the right thing to do,” he says. “We just keep going at it, and we feel that one day people are going to realize that.”