Good stewardship boosts Alberta potato sales

Marketing advantage Harnessing tools such as EFPs helps drive new North American opportunities

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The Canadian potato industry has been quick out of the gate in championing environmental stewardship programs — an approach that is paying dividends with top customers such as McDonald’s Corporation.

“The potato industry has been very progressive in that regard,” says Edzo Kok of the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA). “I think it’s fair to say we’re among the groups leading the pack when it comes to environmental stewardship and having formal programs in place that provide clear assurances of our approaches.”

The industry approach in Canada is based on a thorough approach to documenting benchmark information on current industry practices, while also documenting clear targets for progress, using tools such as grower surveys and Environmental Farm Plans (EFPs). In one high-profile example, the industry across the country rallied together to provide stewardship information to McDonald’s, to help the company respond to shareholder questions. The response not only satisfied the shareholder expectations, but also helped the food giant boost its public image as an environmentally responsible company.

In the case of PGA, part of what helped the organization adopt its progressive stance was the fact all PGA producers had developed EFPs for their operations. As a result, they had a head start on documenting environmental stewardship practices and identifying opportunities for improvement.

Top customers buying in

The results are helping the industry build momentum and target growth opportunities, particularly in the North American market, says Kok, the PGA executive director. “The top customers we deal with are very pleased with what we’re doing and are actually pointing to the potato industry as an example for their other suppliers to follow.”

Practice improvement is a focus but by and large the main change has been in documentation, says Kok. “A lot of it is just monitoring or recording what we’ve been doing for a long while, but we hadn’t in the past actually been recording it.”

Improvements tend to be incremental and a good exercise to keep up to date with best practices, he says. “The EFP program for example involves self-assessments that help identify opportunities for improvement that can be implemented on the farm. A lot of our growers view an EFP as a living document that they revisit every year as a good check.”

With increasing consumer and market focus on environmental attributes, the value of this type of tool is rising quickly today, he says.

Building a brand for stewardship

In the case of the Alberta EFP program, for example, Kok believes this tool has value to benefit the image of all agriculture in the province. “It certainly is a good marketing tool for us as a province,” he says. “When it comes to talking to the processors and saying this is a good place for you to be because we do practise this good environmental stewardship, that’s a big selling point.”

The potato industry is well positioned as an early adopter, says Kok. “We’ve got the proof here. Every one of our farms has got an environmental farm plan. They can show you their records. They can show you what they’ve identified on their farms as opportunities and what they’ve done to make enhancements to become better. That’s pretty impressive to our customers.”

Having the right mindset is key, he says. “Anything worth doing takes a bit of work. We know environment is a major issue and that comes with expectations to meet. Yet for us doing things like the EFP is not something we would second-guess. It’s part of doing business today and the potato industry recognizes that. We’ll continue to do whatever we can to continue to make sure that our customers are satisfied in our supply.”

This attitude and approach, Kok believes, resonates strongly not only with companies but with the end customers. “The general public obviously is more conscious of the environment today. So the stewardship approach we have is a selling pitch that we can use not only with food companies but also just in general marketing. We can confidently, publicly go out and say our growers are very environmentally conscious. We’ve got the data to back that up.”

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