Ξ March 24th, 2009 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine News |
Kris O’Connor is the Executive Director of the Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT), a non-profit dedicated to ’sustainable’ agriculture, a flexible concept described in their Mission Statement:
“The Central Coast Vineyard Team will identify and promote the most environmentally safe, viticulturally and economically sustainable farming methods, while maintaining or improving quality and flavor of wine grapes. The Team will be a model for wine grape growers and will promote the public trust of stewardship for natural resources.”
Now, the CCVT is one of a number of organizations actively pursuing the notion of ’sustainable’, as you will read below. Programs and protocols differ among them, as do membership rosters, environmental and labor priorities. But the one thing they all agree upon is that you must begin somewhere.
Beginning with Kris O’Connor, I’ll be posting interviews with representatives of the major organizations who’ve taken on the concept of ’sustainable’ and have tried to fashion it into something the consumer can readily comprehend. While ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’, and other often vaporous marketing terms may make us feel good in our purchases, something more durable is intended by ’sustainable’. Indeed, the idea includes various efforts at consumer education. This is no easy task. How does ’sustainable’ differ from a simple, old-fashioned cost-benefit analysis? How does an organization expect to conduct meaningful, independent research on pesticides and herbicides with Dow Chemical and Bayer Crop Science as donor-members (a separate article forthcoming)? How is institutional transparency to be guaranteed? It remains an open question whether ’sustainable’ agriculture may have conceptual durability or whether it will morph into shifting accommodations to corporate interests too entrenched to challenge.
Kris O’Connor is an important part of this conversation. With the CCVT since 1998, she cautions against simple answers, insists on the role of science and honesty as an arbiter of opposed ideas. In fact, the word ‘honesty’ is used by the CCVT in a specific way. It is meant to suggest an ethic of openness and balanced consideration, the gentle refusal of extreme positions. Kris O’Connor explains it well.
Admin I was wondering about the notion of ’sustainable’. There are differences between your organization’s approach and that of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), for example. UC Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program has another approach. You work out of different grower handbooks, you have different program protocols, so is there the possibility the concept of ’sustainable’ might prove confusing to the consumer, especially in light of your recent vineyard certifications?
Kris O’Connor That’s an interesting point. It’s only been in the last few years that there have been any “certifications” around the idea of sustainability. We know that sustainability looks at the whole farm, the environmental footprint along with the human resources and the economic piece of the farm. So, prior to a couple of years ago there really wasn’t a program out there that “certified” this. I think as more and more come out there is going to be an interesting discussion between groups about how to harmonize and come up with some creative ways to communicate sustainability in a trustworthy and scientifically based way to the consumer.
So we’re [CCVT] on the leading edge of sustainable certification.
I see. With respect to organic farming, for example, there is the USDA’s definition of ‘organic’ and then there is ‘organic’ as practiced by many other farmers who don’t wish to use the kinds of pesticides and such that are allowed under the USDA’s organic program. So there is confusion in the marketplace. I experience it all the time. I don’t know what the heck it means at this point!
K O’Connor I think ‘organic’ is one of the highly visible eco-labels with regards to production practices. I think that for people really interested in that they can look into the background of the different standards so it makes sense to them. I actually think that although there may be some confusion there is a great benefit being able to have lots of different products out there in the marketplace despite differences in certification. The labeling gives greater choice to the consumer.
It’s different than it was five years ago. You couldn’t get a standard chain grocery store and easily, readily and in any great amount find an organic product. That is not the case today. Today there are alot of choices. That’s a good thing. And it’s good for the farmers, too, to be able to have a market for their product.
I notice on your website and also on CSWA’s the inclusion of some of the largest industrial winegrowing concerns, Fosters, Constellation, Gallo, among others, not only as members but are also on the Board of Directors. Can you explain the function of the Board of Directors in you organization? And how does this work with CCVT’s non-profit status?
K O’Connor Yes. The Board of Directors essentially acts as a governing body for our group. We have people on the board that manage twenty acres, people on the board that manage 1000s of acres and everything in between. Our Sustaining members typically are the larger members. They put in more money than the regular grower but our membership as a whole comprises mostly people with 500 acres or less, and most of those are probably in the 100 acre or less category. I think there is a notion out there in the environmental movement that scale is necessarily bad. We have meetings that address small farmers and larger farmers, and quite frankly, there are things that the larger farmer can do that the smaller farmers can’t do: employee benefits, research, things like that. So I would argue against the inference that scale is necessarily bad. We’ve had great support from large and small growers.
That is a very good point. Now, the CSWA on their website the CSWA links to a whole raft of Gov’t institutional and university support. They call them Partners. I looked on CCVT’s site for university affiliations, for example. I’m sure you folks have established academic relations but I could not find a listing of which. Would you say something about this?
K O’Connor Absolutely! We’ve been around for fifteen years. We’ve always worked with the Cal. State system and the University of Cal. system long with agencies. They act as technical advisors for all of our work. We work with the EPA, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, scientists involved with the technical side of our work. In terms of our certification standards, that was all peer-reviewed by about 40 individuals from non-profits, university and regulatory agencies, labor activists, so our certification standards were well vetted through alot of pretty smart people outside of our group.
I see. Very good. Now, what was the original inspiration for the formation of the Central Coast Vineyard Team? And does it duplicate work going on in other organizations interested in ’sustainability’?
K O’Connor Our group started out in 1994. In terms of sustainable winegrowing and having sustainability be at the core of our mission statement we were really the first winegrowing organization with that mission. We developed the first self-assessment protocol, called the Positive Point System, which since then everything has sort of evolved from, including the state-wide program and the program in Lodi. Those all evolved really from the Positive Point System, which at the time was fairly revolutionary in terms of this grower/university collaboration coming up with a way to honestly evaluate your farming practices and be able to quantify that, be able to quantify the adoption of practices, to track areas of strengths and weaknesses. So, we’re been doing self-assessment and helping people look at their whole farm since the mid nineties.
Our certification program has sort of evolved from that. In a way it is the natural offshoot of self-assessment. And certification, we’ve been working on that heading on five years now. We got to the pilot program last year where we certified 3700 acres. This is really the result of 15 years worth of work. We didn’t just wake up one day and decide this was going to be our ‘thing’. It has been our mission for quite awhile.
How do you go about recruiting growers and vineyards? Do you cold call them, send them information about what it is you do?
K O’Connor Recruiting them for what?
For self-assessment or for certification.
K O’Connor Right. Well, we’re out there. If you’re a winegrower on the Central Coast you’ve probably heard of us or are getting our newsletters. We don’t really actively recruit for membership or for self-assessment. We’ve found that our self-assessment program and our research programs have evolved pretty naturally, and as a result of grower interest. Again, all of the people on our Board of Directors are farmers. Our founding Board of Directors and the founders of our group are all farmers. All of the work we do, whether it’s demonstration or research, tailgate meetings, or Spanish Outreach, or self-assessments, those are all in direct response to what the growers are asking for. So we don’t do alot of recruiting!
I see. You’ve already plenty of work!
K O’Connor We’ve got plenty of work! (laughs) It’s an amazing thing, fifteen years later, you gotta realize this group started with five or ten people meeting at a coffee shop. And the fact that we have three hundred members right now, I mean, we just got a… we were one of six organizations to get a National EPA Award, the Green Award from Central Coast Magazine… I mean, I don’t think in their wildest dreams back in 1994 that we would have grown and sustained our growth, and have been able to establish ourself institutionally as a leader in this movement.
My understanding is that there is an independent group that determines compliance among farms seeking certification.
K O’Connor The way it works is that in order to be certified you need to meet 40 of the requirements and enough of the ‘Management Enhancements’ to achieve 75% of the points. [Certification program may be found here.] And in order to get any points you have to basically show documentation proving your answers. At that point an independent auditor comes out and conducts a fairly extensive records audit and a site visit to confirm the claims of the grower. The blind auditor report goes to an independent advisory committee made up of university, regulatory and industry individuals none of which are themselves being certified or have an interest in being certified. And that independent advisory committee basically casts a vote ‘yeah’ or ‘nay’ based on the blind auditor report. So the Vineyard Team itself is not involved with the audit, the inspection or the voting of the certification of the individual member. We’re simply facilitating the process.
I understand. Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains and certainly among a number of winegrowers I know outside the state, some tend to be rather private, suspicious of government and suspicious of folks making judgements about what it is they do even though they are excellent stewards of the land. Do you find the very large personalities of farmers sometimes interferes with their willingness to participate in a third-party program?
K O’Connor Well, if they don’t want that then they don’t have to do it! We’re not requiring people to go through this process. People are signing up knowing that is what they’re signing up for. So… If someone doesn’t want them on their property they’re not going to go through the certification process.
True. It’s self-selecting. But I was curious about those growers who have been growing sustainably or in an environmentally friendly manner for a long time, don’t seek certifications of one kind or another, and how they might, therefore, be put at a marketing disadvantage unless they pursue certifications, the implication being that without a badge on your bottle you must not be doing the right thing.
K O’Connor Certification isn’t for anyone. Eco-labeling, the word ‘green’, ‘natural’, ‘environmentally friendly’, are all pretty prevalent out there. There is some skepticism, all the more reason why I think a certification program that is independently verified and independently accredited is valuable, because then you can say, hey, this was proven, this isn’t just marketing language to try and attract consumers.
Can you tell me how many winegrowers participated in the certification process in 2008? I know 14 succeeded.
K O’Connor It was our pilot year. And so we hand picked people for a variety of different reasons. We wanted to pick people that were going to pass, there was a lot of time and expense that went into this pilot project. So we wanted people we were pretty darn confident could meet the requirements, the right number of points, and who were going to be organized enough to be able to document it. And quite frankly, we expect that it’s going to be 100% because somebody’s not going to go through the process, the time and expense, the audit, the paperwork, the binders, if they’re not going to pass. Of the people applying, those are the people who will be passing.
Your program has a valuable cultural dimension, the Spanish Outreach program.
K O’Connor We consider the Social Equity or Human Resource piece to be very important. We care about how companies treat employees and their working conditions, that there’s development opportunities and education opportunities. Those are all a very important part of our certification program.
Nevertheless, it is possible to pass, get the 75%, without satisfying a large portion of that particular cultural aspect of your program.
K O’Connor No, you could not pass the whole program if you did not meet the requirements of that chapter.
I’m curious about the controversy surrounding the proposed development of portions of the Santa Margarita Ranch, the venue for the Earth Day Food and Wine Festival benefit for CCVT. As you may know, a lawsuit has recently been filed over this proposed development. Is there any danger of the Earth Day event being hijacked or compromised by this?
K O’Connor We have people coming to our Earth Day event from all over the country. And a lot of locals, obviously. We don’t get into land use planning issues or how land is supposed to be used. Our mission is around sustainable farming. I can tell you about the vineyard at the Santa Margarita Ranch. It was originally developed by Mondavi. It is one of the most… in terms of development they did one of the best jobs you can do.
Are you referring to Ancient Peaks?
K O’Connor Well, the vineyard was not developed by Ancient Peaks. The vineyard was developed by Mondavi and sold to Ancient Peaks. How that vineyard was put in, I mean, they had a safe harbor agreement, they did not take out a tree, they did all sorts of amazing work around some of the water courses on the property; and I know the owners of Ancient Peaks, the current management, it is still a very well managed vineyard. They have been long supporters of the Vineyard Team. They’ve supported us in research projects. And so, coming from the vineyard point of view, which is really what we’re about, it’s a great site. It’s a great site, a perfect example of farming within the context of a natural landscape. The fact that they helped to donate the venue for our event, that’s a very generous donation. We really, really appreciate it.
It is a beautiful site. When you drive up that driveway to get to the old barn on the backside of the property on April 18th, when the wildflowers are in bloom, and you can see all the birds around, I mean, it is a beautiful, beautiful site!
Now, the development plan calls not only for houses but also for the addition of nine wineries. Do you know anything about which nine wineries they might have in mind?
K O’Connor No. I don’t know anything about that. I’ve got a staff of four and 300 members, we do twenty tailgate meetings a year, and multiple events, I’m on my way to an event now…, I am not involved with county planning. (laughs)
Why was Ancient Peaks not among those wineries/vineyards initially selected for certification?
K O’Connor We had a lot of people who were interested. We wanted to pick different people, different scales, different types of varieties, regions. We picked a pretty diverse pilot group.
Do you think farmers who learn of CCVT and organizations like it might feel change is in the air, that they might pull back from the use of certain petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides because of the existence of organizations such as yours?
K O’Connor You know, farming is a business. It’s about your resources and managing risk. I think everybody is aware. There is definitely a change in the culture of farming, people recognizing what’s happening within their fence line has a potential effect beyond the fence line. Economics are an issue, availability of alternatives is an issue, the new, exotic pest of the month is an issue, their clients are an issue, all of those things come into play. There is more of a sense of management influence in terms of scouting, recording, understanding the biology, the integrated nature of the farm, all comes into play, even more so than when I started.
Does CCVT take a position on genetically modified organisms?
K O’Connor We don’t. We don’t have a position. We’ve just stayed clear of certain things. Our mission is to promote sustainable winegrowing, to develop fruit quality, maintain and enhance fruit quality and economic viability. And to develop the public trust on science and honesty. We are a science based group doing in-field research demonstration, providing practical assistance to people wanting to adopt either proven practices or new practices.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
K O’Connor It would be great if you cold plug our event! As a non-profit we’re looking for unrestricted monies so that we can keep on doing our Outreach, our farmworker education regardless of what is going on with the public funding. It’s a great event! People from all over the country come. It’s not too big, yet. We’ll have about 800 bodies there. People can get their information [here]. We have repeat vendors, repeat ticket holders. People love this event!
Well, thank you very much, Ms. O’Connor, for your generous allotment of time. You were a delight to speak with.
Kris O’Connor You are welcome.