1 Department of Agriculture and Food WA, 3 Baron-Hay Ct, South Perth, WA 6151 www.agric.wa.gov.au Email firstname.lastname@example.org
2 vegetablesWA, 103 Outram Street, West Perth, WA 6005. www.vegetableswa.com.au Email email@example.com
A moderate investment into the vegetable industry and the creation of partnerships between industry and government has increased the capacity of the Western Australian vegetable growers to gain environmental certification.
The vegetable industry has a series of well documented environmental assurance resources and systems that have been developed at a national scale with the assistance of Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestries (DAFF) Pathways to EMS funding. These systems provide information to vegetable growers on how their farming practices can effect the environment and suggest practices that may be more benefical to production, profitablity and the environment.
To make these systems workable on Western Australian vegetable farms, a 12 month project to help growers ‘Walk the Walk’ on environmental assurance was secured by vegetablesWA with funding supported by DAFF. The Department of Agriculture Food Western Australia (DAFWA) Farming for the Future project provided the expertise in natural resource management and environmental management systems. As a result a productive partnership in the management and implementation of the project was established, demonstrating the benefits of DAFWA working with industry to get on-ground change.
Many of the currently recommended practices needed by growers to attain environmental assurance are well documented; vegetablesWA Good Practice Guide, Freshcare’s Environmental workbook, AUSVEG developed EnviroVeg and DAFWA’s Farming for the Future self assessment tool.
While the industry recognises the importance of sustainable practices, it lacks the market drivers for growers to move to 2nd or 3rd party external certification. The project saw the capacity of the industry increased, with ten percent of WA vegetable production gaining certification through this project, thus enabling growers to meet any potential market demands.
Environmental assurance, vegetable growers, partnerships, environmental management systems
Walking the walk on environmental management began with a realisation by the vegetable industry that vegetablesWA Good Practice Guide approach to environmental management was not formally recognised. There was limited ‘on farm’ implementation of recognised environmental assurance systems and local market forces were not demanding that growers implement environmental assurance as a condition to supplying produce. The vegetable industry experience with international and quality assurance systems told us that this was destined to change.
Ten years ago growers felt a little threatened by the food safety and quality assurance process and while no one likes the extra paperwork, they have accepted it as part of modern business. Environmental assurance appears to be set to follow the same pathway. The Walking the Walk project identified the need to work with growers to ensure they realised the opportunities ahead and understood Environmental Management Systems (EMS). The positive aspect or messages to the EMS process for the growers included; most of the record keeping is already done, any changes can be linked to productivity (better yield and quality) and the process can help with a range of planning and management issues.
Freshcare™ is the preferred food safety and quality assurance system for many of Western Australia’s vegetable growers. So for growers with Freshcare™ food safety, Freshcare™ Environmental was an obvious choice. The Freshcare™ Environmental Code is supported by AUSVEG and the national EnviroVeg program and provides growers with a clear pathway to environmental assurance.
For those growers with SQF, the choice became more complicated as the SQF Responsible Environmental Practice module was only made available in May 2008 towards the end of the project. Our approach to this issue was to encourage all participating growers to use the Freshcare™ Environmental Code. This was readily available and able to be used in conjunction with other systems, while being affordable and achievable using good practice. The project team believed that the code was robust and had all the components that would be required to satisfy codes being developed and to link with other environmental assurance systems.
The Freshcare™ internal audits clearly showed that most records in relation to staff training, systems improvement, chemical and fertiliser use were in place. Environmental issues that were not already being recorded in the food safety and quality assurance plan could generally be incorporated into current records. An example of this is the requirement for a farm chemical inventory or equivalent system. Many growers did not have a farm chemical inventory, but they all kept invoices to indicate supply details and could easily incorporate expiry and manufacturing dates, on the records they already maintain.
One of the key challenges in this project was to ensure that any changes required under an environmental code could be linked to productivity. Examples of these that are most easily demonstrated relate to irrigation requirements. Good irrigation practices as promoted and delivered to growers through vegetablesWA, DAFWA, Perth Region NRM and other state and national initiatives ensure that optimum crop yields can be achieved. Growers are encouraged to use crop factors, local evaporation data and soil moisture monitoring to make better use of the water resources, minimise the impact on the environment and improve crop performance. The environmental management ‘cycle of continual improvement’ (Taylor 2001) was used to link elements of irrigation scheduling into an easily understood concept for growers to record and implement their irrigation plan.
The biggest task in developing an environmental management system is in the documentation at the beginning. Much of which simply amounts to good management planning and can be covered by good property maps and action plans. Property maps, provided by this project, using aerial photography with 2 metre contours, have proved to be invaluable in this process. In the first instance they can be used to identify water courses or areas susceptible to soil erosion and water-logging. They provide a ‘to scale’ outline of items such as roads, dams, bores, watercourses and remnant vegetation which need to be identified on a whole of property level. Land degradation hazard maps identifying the environmental risks to the property were provided by DAFWA. These maps give an overview of what environmental impacts need to be addressed. In all cases growers participating in the project have been addressing soil and land degradation impacts through current recommended farming practices. It was just a matter of reviewing and recording these practices to develop environmental action plans.
Development of government and industry partnerships
Through the project, partnerships were developed between Western Australia’s peak vegetable growing industry body vegetablesWA and DAFWA Farming for the Future project. The industry body had built relationships with growers over many years and experienced the food safety and quality assurance changes to the industry. While the state agency had the natural resource management skills and developed the baseline information of current recommended practices needed to manage the regional environmental issues. Using both skill sets a productive partnership was formed enabling ten percent of the total vegetable production (600 hectares) to go through an EMS. To represent the range of growers in the industry involved small, medium and large producers were targeted; ensuring we achieved our ten percent target and engaged a range of participants, resulting in a good representation of the industry. The larger growers generally engaged a consultant to assist them with implementation of their quality assurance systems. We endeavoured to engage the consultants in the process, anticipating a ‘flow-on’ effect to their other clients.
The project outputs provided growers and industry service providers with the resources identified through the Freshcare™ Environmental internal audit. The main contribution to industry is an understanding that the process is achievable and should be viewed as an opportunity not a threat.
The project involved improving the existing environmental planning frameworks and then developing individual plans with each grower. Working directly with each grower enabled the continuous improvement cycle of plan – do – check – review to be used while developing the environmental assurance process that suited the individual needs.
It started with a base environmental plan that evolved over the life of the project while being used to develop personalised plans for the project participants. These plans have been made available to vegetable growers and other interested parties through a range of mechanisms including posting on the vegetablesWA website. It is expected that this document will be utilised by vegetable growers in conjunction with EnviroVeg and Freshcare™ to gain certification under the Freshcare™ Environmental Code or as a tool to develop an EMS using the SQF Responsible Environmental Practice module or other environmental assurance systems.
Grower perception of the project was very positive with participants embracing and adopting the process. However there is still a distinct lack of ‘drivers’ which makes it difficult for growers who are not participating to understand the value or the impact of the process. It is also reasonable to assume that participating growers, as keen as they are, would not have progressed this far, without the support of the Walking the Walk project. Widespread uptake by growers is not happening because of a lack of market drivers. Environmental assurance is not a condition for access to most of their markets. This has a flow on affect as many certification bodies have not invested in training staff to audit against environmental codes because their clients (growers) are generally not requiring them to offer environmental certification services.
The vegetable industry was set to gain from improved natural resource management through using environmental management systems from the onset it was just a matter of growers adopting the environmental assurance systems as part of the grower’s everyday business. The Perth Region NRM body could also see the environmental gains from the implementation of EMS and were willing participants of the project. The regional NRM body took part in training opportunities and took a lead by becoming Freshcare™ auditors/facilitators. The broader NRM strategy for the vegetable industry in WA is raising awareness and improving information flows, with a focus on the communication of information on improved management practices. Resulting in better management of the natural resources and therefore improved productivity for individual growers.
However there was limited ‘on farm’ implementation of recognised environmental assurance systems due to local market forces not demanding that growers implement environmental assurance as a condition to supplying produce. This project provided the resources needed to gain environmental assurance recognition. Future priorities should be aimed at maintaining the momentum and resources that have been developed to ensure that industry continues to improve in terms of environmental performance and it’s readiness to provide assurances.
While we have widely reported that the transition from food safety and quality assurance systems to environmental assurance system is a relatively painless process, those who have not participated or ‘walked the walk’ with the project team remain to be convinced. Those who have participated in the one on one process are far at ease with the transition.
The project provided growers and industry service providers with the resources identified by Freshcare™ Environmental internal audits. Ensuring that the environmental assurance process is achievable easily understood and viewed as an opportunity not a threat.
Widespread investment and uptake among growers is not happening because of a lack of market drivers for environmental assurance. A flow on affect is apparent as many certification bodies have not invested in skilling staff to audit against environmental codes as their clients (growers) are generally not requiring such services.
This project was in part funded by the Australian Government National Landcare Program, Priority National Projects.
Freshcare™ Ltd (2007) Environmental Training Workbook for the Freshcare™ Environmental Code of Practice. Freshcare™
Taylor L (2001) Developing an Environmental Management System, A practical guidebook for agricultural businesses. Agriculture Western Australia
vegetablesWA (2007) Good Practice Guide. vegetablesWA
Whitman H (2007). EnviroVeg manual edition 2. AUSVEG. Vegetable Research & Development