Healthy Grown Turns 20!
Long-standing, award winning program continues to advance agricultural sustainability.
By Deana Knuteson, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Horticulture and Nutrient and Pest Management Program
The Healthy Grown program gives potato and vegetable farmers the ability to promote agricultural best practices and position themselves to capture an expanding consumer demand for sustainable options in the marketplace.
Can you believe it? Where has the time gone? The Healthy Grown® program and brand of potatoes are celebrating two decades this year, with 2020 marking the 20th consecutive year of certified, sustainably grown potatoes in Wisconsin.
What started as growers collaborating with the University of Wisconsin (UW) and environmental groups to develop an innovative, high-standard potato and vegetable production system has turned into a long-standing, award-winning program that continues to advance agricultural sustainability.
Healthy Grown started in its infancy as an idea, a belief that different groups could sit down at a table and work toward common goals.
The basic tenants began in 1996, when a unique memorandum of understanding was written between the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to start what was then called the WWF/WPVGA/UW Collaboration.
The UW-Madison team was fully engaged from the start in research, education and outreach.
At that time, environmental-oriented organizations and growers or agricultural associations were not known to work well together (or even want to speak to each other).
This initial Healthy Grown memorandum of understanding helped pave the way to promote common goals and develop sustainable, ecological production-based systems for large-scale agriculture.
EARLY CHILDHOOD YEARS
As the program advanced though its early childhood years, the overall framework and documentation were developed.
To ensure that advances would take place, and changes could be made in production practices, metrics were developed to track changes while ensuring economic returns to growers.
Measurements of risk were developed, and individuals started working to document and determine what practices and risk levels they had on their farm, and then how to change and advance while still producing a quality, economically solvent crop.
Healthy Grown started maturing during the pre-teen years, and in 2000, we formally developed a high-bar standard using the metrics and documentation that had been developed based on previous work.
We expanded the program to include ecological restoration activities on growers’ privately owned lands and started working on restorations such as prairie plantings and wetland management.
Growers and the WPVGA staff were ready to go to the next level in developing a brand and selling the new product, something that was grown for large-scale agriculture that was not conventional and not organic, but economically viable and environmentally sound to enhance on-farm stewardship.
We hired a non-profit organization (Protected Harvest) to independently certify participating growers to show value and proof of a high-bar production system, and we were sure that value would resonate with consumers.
Since there was value for certified products, we added carrot and onion standards to the options so those could be sold as Healthy Grown produce, too!
THE GREEN STATE
In 2000, the word “sustainable” was not commonly used, but Wisconsin became known nationally as that “green” potato and vegetable state, with environmental standards being considered “green” in the early 2000’s.
Our advances were so unique and innovative that we won many awards for our efforts, including a U.S. Department of Agriculture “Secretary’s Honor Award for Enhancing Natural Resources and the Environment,” and the International Crane Foundation “Good Egg Award.”
Healthy Grown also landed a World Wildlife Fund “Gift to the Earth” award. At this point, we felt like we had developed the best product in the world, and it would just fly off the shelves, but …
Our teenage years followed, and we found that even if you spend time on developing a brand, a fancy bag, marketing materials, and have great ideas on how to sell a message, marketing is hard!
We were not successful initially in getting our Healthy Grown certified product into markets, which had different ideas, wanting less options in stores and only wanting national and private brands.
The markets didn’t see the value or need for new brands, especially one that was limited in supply.
So, we matured to young adulthood and Healthy Grown realized we needed to make some changes and reinvigorate the program.
To help get bags into designated outlets, we redesigned our marketing, letting growers use Healthy Grown as it best fit them and for their own farm/sales purposes.
If that meant using signage in stores or Kwik Loks on bags, or just making use of the message for websites to help promote a way of production, that was great, and it gave growers and shippers the flexibility to use the program that fit them best.
In 2014, we also changed our way of using the standards, as Healthy Grown was updated to encourage more education between the growers and UW-Madison specialists.
We created a format that incorporated multiple approaches to manage pesticide risk across whole farms and over successive seasons, based on interactions with pest management specialists, and allowed growers more flexibility in management and risk assessment choices.
Furthermore, to help simplify paperwork and reporting requirements, we moved ownership of the program away from Protected Harvest to local certifiers, and had the needed Healthy Grown paperwork created and distributed from the WPVGA office.
As time passed and we grew, sales increased, especially in nearby markets as the local food movement became more popular.
VALUE IN HEALTHY GROWN
The whole industry found value in Healthy Grown and saw increased awareness of Wisconsin potatoes and on-farm stewardship based on the WPVGA’s promotional efforts, including use of the messaging in the Spudmobile.
Some growers and shippers started to receive small premiums or sales boosts based on the Healthy Grown products, and all began to value the other intrinsic benefits and enhanced public relations that the program returned to their farms or sales operations.
And, now, here we are 20 years later as a fully mature, long-standing, ecologically sound, environmentally valuable and economically sustainable, high-bar program.
Why has Healthy Grown been around and thriving for 20+ years? Because it benefits our growers and the entire industry by increasing public recognition.
The Healthy Grown program ensures new practice adoption, leading to long-term risk avoidance, providing dedicated educational approaches and relationships with UW-Madison faculty, and improving documentation needs and help for supply chain requirements.
The program gives growers the ability to promote direct farm and area benefits such as ethical sustainability and encourages better market perception of Wisconsin as an ecologically sound producer.
Happy 20 years, Healthy Grown! You are helping Wisconsin producers promote agricultural best practices while putting growers in a position to capture the expanding consumer demand for sustainable options in the marketplace.
But our work is not done. As we continue to grow, we will keep changing with the times. We will strive to be relevant and up to date on key industry issues and create new protocols and modules while always working with growers to ensure our high-bar status.
Just this year, we are piloting a water conservation module that will focus on quality/quantity options.
That is the beauty of the program as it ages—we will keep innovating and improving, not slowing down a bit! We’re looking forward to the next 20 years to see where the program goes!
For more details or specifics on standards, please contact Deana Knuteson, [email protected].