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Indicators in Practice

Jul 29, 2014

Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops

Comparing the resources used to grow apples in Washington State to the resources needed to grow the same variety in Southern California, may justifiably be comparing apples to oranges. Environmental variables can differ so drastically that comparing one crop to another across regions is difficult. The Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops offers a data-driven measurement tool for growers to gauge their performance and compare crop stewardship of identical crops grown in the same region.
Amie Fedora // CC // Flickr

Case Study: Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops

Scope: National

First Released: Research and Development of metrics began in 2008, followed by three pilots (2010, 2012, and 2013). Version 1.0 Working Metrics were released in 2013.

Intended Audience: Business. Specialty crop growers, buyers, and processors

Potential Application: Instrumental. Provides a tool for comparing growing practices, creating a baseline, and monitoring progress.

Developer: SISC is a muti-stakeholder collaborative representing three primary groups: specialty crops producers, specialty crops buyers, and environmental and public interest groups. Metrics are finalized jointly by a Metrics Technical Advisory Committee, Metrics Review Committee, Coordinating Council, and the incorporation of public feedback.

Website: http://www.stewardshipindex.org


Companies hoping to establish more transparent supply chains are increasingly interested in understanding exactly how growers produce their crops. Growers positioning themselves to respond to market opportunities and regulatory changes benefit from tracking the same information. Once measured, this information can be communicated up the supply chain, ultimately reaching consumers. The missing link? Consistently calculated and easily articulated specialty crop production data.

The goal of the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC) is to create “a suite of science-driven metrics empowering producers to measure on-farm practices accurately and consistently” that give “give consumers, food buyers, and producers a common language for discussing the impact of farming practices.” Producers, buyers, processors, and public interest groups have worked together since 2008 to identify, evaluate, and pilot the most important indicators of specialty crop stewardship.

SISC’s Version 1.0 Working Metrics, released in September 2013 after a technical review by the UC Davis Agriculture Sustainability Institute, includes five indicators: applied water use efficiency; energy use; nitrogen use; phosphorus use; and soil organic matter. Metrics in development include biodiversity and ecosystem; greenhouse gas; and simple irrigation efficiency. For each indicator, growers collect and enter data into a spreadsheet on SISC’s website. Each indicator has specific instructions for how to collect the measurement and, in most cases, the information is either already collected by growers or easily gathered.

Figure 1. Dashboard generated from grower data using the SISC's open-source tool

The phosphorus indicator, for example, uses data from soil tests that many growers routinely run. A grower in Danville, California, who plants a crop of broccoli in sandy loam, would consult a recent lab analysis of that area’s soil sample. Based on the SISC’s testing standards, the lab may have recommended the addition of 30 pounds of phosphorus per acre. If over the course of the crop’s growing season, the grower adds 35 pounds of phosphorus per acre, the difference of five additional pounds per acre is divided by tons of product ultimately harvested per acre.

Once measured and entered, the Index tool compiles all indicator results into a user-friendly dashboard. By design, the dashboard is intended to communicate only one nature of value: numerical. There is no ranking system or value judgment attached to how a crop performs on the Index. Instead, the Index allows growers, buyers, and processors to compare and evaluate production performance amid a peer group of growers who produce the same or similar crop within the same or similar region – in as much as it is widely adopted. Growers can also utilize the data to benchmark and track their individual performance over time. In effect, the tool provides an entry point for growers at any level of sustainable practice to increase production efficiency while improving environmental and social impacts.

SISC does not currently collect or manage collected data, and instead focuses on providing a framework for growers to independently collect the data that best and most acutely reflects how their own crop is produced (by area or yield) from seed to harvest. SISC developers hope the Index will eventually provide tools and resources to aid specialty crop companies in advancing sustainability goals. In the meantime, the Index provides a tool for pitting apples more equitably against apples.