“One question we had to ask ourselves was: Are we a sustainability department or are we a company that holds water sustainability in high regard? We need to be the latter to really be successful.”
Driscoll’s is a privately owned company and global leader in fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. Together, with its network of over 700 independent growers, it is on a unique journey to water stewardship.
To create high-yielding, delicious, fresh berries; you need a long period of warm days, cool nights and little precipitation — not unlike what many of us search for in our ideal vacation locations. This puts berry growing in very narrow climate belts across the globe: southern Spain, Chile, California, Baja, even parts of Florida. Yet these ideal climates often have little rainfall, requiring a heavy reliance on groundwater for agriculture production.
Because of these climatic constraints, it was clear to us early on that an investment in water stewardship was an investment in the performance and sustainability of our entire enterprise. As a company, we have prioritized water at the highest level of leadership; but our goals are often very regional in scope, to reflect the local water challenges and needs. To inform our investments, we conduct risk assessments in each of our growing regions — where we ask ourselves three important questions:
- What is the key water issue in the area?
- Where are we impacting water resources?
- Where do we have an opportunity to make positive long-lasting impact?
From this prioritization, we are able to target our work more effectively.
Translating risks to innovation
Water, like so many environmental challenges, is a shared resource — which is why we have always worked to address these challenges holistically through education, data, technology, infrastructure and policy. Our approach not only involves 1:1 trainings with our growers on water topics, but also a commitment to ensure that our water stewardship vision is shared across the entire organization. We have a phenomenal R&D team of agronomists, plant pathologists, plant breeders and others who all engage regularly with our growers. But many of these team members weren’t being exposed to the same information as our environmental managers in order to develop a deep understanding of the critical water issues in their region. That was a missed opportunity.
Our enterprise’s understanding of water is much deeper today than it was 10-15 years ago, because we have spent a lot of time and resources ensuring all of our employees and growers are empowered to understand water challenges and develop solutions. We have brought in guest speakers and qualified experts to provide training sessions on the basics of hydrology, groundwater management, water policy, irrigation efficiency and plant dynamics for both our Growers and employees. Now, when our breeders are selecting the best variety, they may consider the local region’s water availability in addition to a delightful flavor. It helps to have staff across the organization share that understanding about the importance of water stewardship, especially as we begin to launch more aggressive enterprise goals in each of our high-risk water regions.
Data, when used effectively, can also be an important driver for change. As one example, we have been working with growers in Oxnard, CA to better understand their water usage through data. We take data that was sitting in regulatory-compliance PDFs and translate it into a compelling data visualization that allows growers to compare their water-use efficiency to their neighbors in the region.
“It’s like OPower for agriculture,” explains Tannis Thorlakson, Senior Environmental Manager (OPower tracks your electricity use and compares you to your neighbors). “For example, I was out with a grower recently; and when I told him I was impressed with his water use, he told me he never looked at it because the spreadsheet was so confusing. When I pulled up his graph, he was like ‘Wait, this is so cool. Dad, look, we’re winning!’”
It takes a village
Participation in water policy and collective water action is central to our philosophy. Agricultural operations often represent a significant portion of groundwater use in any given basin; so it is important to be engaged in the policy process to help create effective and representative change. We believe the most sustainable policies will be ones that are co-created by all stakeholders in the community. We recognize that, as a company, we can continue to make investments in water use efficiency and improve our operations; but efficiency without a policy backdrop is like rowing down a river with a blindfold on — you have no idea what lies ahead. Active policy engagement allows us to have regional foresight and provide support to our growers, many of whom are small family farms who do not have the resources to attend each and every regulatory meeting or provide public comment. Most importantly, we see policy engagement as an important way to achieve the ultimate goal of sustainable water use in each of the regions in which we live and grow. Over the years, we have seen positive impacts as a result of this type of collective action, especially in our home of the Pajaro Valley.
In California, we are on the technical advisory committee of two Groundwater Management Agencies (GMAs); where we give perspective on technical issues, as well as high-level input as to how certain proposals might impact stakeholders in the region. We hope the experience we’ve had with groundwater reform and stakeholder engagement in California will prove useful in the future as similar water policy changes occur in other parts of the world — including Mexico, where emerging water reforms are happening at the national level.
To continue to develop our efforts in water stewardship, we realized that we had an opportunity to better structure our work and learn from others. So, in 2017, we started engaging with Ceres and the AgWater Challenge. We were intrigued by the framework; seeing that it allowed us to learn from peers and make regional, watershed or basin-specific commitments — which we believe are more meaningful than commitments across an entire supply chain. We were comfortable with our efforts and achievements, but joining the Ag Water Challenge pushed us to make bolder commitments and share our progress with others.
It’s a journey, not a destination
Water is a shared and complex resource, which is why we want to ensure our people are well trained, well versed, and make water part of the planning and risk management process. We’ve seen the biggest ROI by deeply integrating sustainability across the entire enterprise. Our longtime Senior Environmental Manager, James DuBois, said it perfectly: “One question we had to ask ourselves was: Are we a sustainability department or are we a company that holds water sustainability in high regard? We need to be the latter to really be successful.”