Before plunging into a sea of science-based talks on soil and that most precious of commodities this year – water – participants in a Fresno conference heard a keynote speaker talk of something on the minds of many in agriculture.

The speech had much to do with pressures that buyers are putting on the industry to comply with demands related to sustainability, responsiveness to environmental concerns, food safety and social performance.

“The data makes the difference; we have to marry it with the stories we tell,” said Hank Giclas, Western Growers senior vice president for strategic planning, science and technology. “The old anecdote is no longer enough.”

Members of Western Growers provide half the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables including a third of America’s fresh organic produce. Giclas was speaking at the 2014 California Plant and Soil Conference.

His premises were that demands for data from regulators and buyers will only increase, and that very information can help producers be more efficient and producers are wise to amass information early themselves to counter unreasonable demands.

Giclas had come to the right place, a conference where experts on soil and water talked of what has been — and what will be documented. His theme was echoed in some seminars at the two-day event.

“The old line that you are either at the table or on the menu is very alive and well,” said one seminar speaker, Parry Klassen, a longtime advocate of growers taking the initiative to form water quality coalitions to come up with solutions in the face of increased state regulation of ground and surface water.

It’s a theme that has surfaced elsewhere in recent weeks, for example at a Fresno symposium in December on wine grapes. Both John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, and Nat DiBuduo, president and CEO of Allied Grape Growers, warned that the industry needs to continue to press its “sustainability” efforts to avoid directives that could be imposed by retailers out to put in place “key performance indicators.”

 

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“If we don’t act, the Wal-Mart’s, Sam’s Clubs and Safeways will impose their own vision,” Aguirre warned.

Giclas said long lists of such indicators coming from multiple sources have created what he called a time-consuming “massive paper chase” that is often “repetitive and duplicative.”

He would like to see tools developed to manage massive amounts of information that could be delivered in a more stream-lined way.

And he would like to see those in the industry share more data when it’s practicable. “There is the opportunity for aggregation of information to learn from each other,” he said. “We should drive data out of silos and into trusted repositories.”

He favors the notion of “measure to manage” and believes much of the data producers amass could help counter misperceptions among consumers, including the idea that workers are taken advantage of.

“There’s a widening gulf between consumers’ knowledge and trust of agriculture,” he said.

Giclas said Western Growers is working with a dozen companies to find out “what kind of information do you want from us?”