Sustainability-minded certification programs can help nurseries grow and improve
Scholls Valley Native Nursery sits on 60 lush acres just outside Forest Grove in the eastern foothills of the Oregon Coast Range. To the west of the nursery, Roderick Creek rolls by before merging with Gales Creek, which borders Scholls Valley’s western edge on its way to the Tualatin River.
Both waterways are important pieces of the Tualatin River watershed and its native fish, wildlife and plants.
Sara Burke Kral, owner of Scholls Valley Native Nursery, said she’s been mindful of the creeks and the greater environment around the nursery since she and her husband established it there in 2008 after five years at another location. That’s meant limiting the use of sprays, planting native plants along nearby roads and streams to create buffer zones, and using compost and toppings with sawdust to keep weeds at bay. Doing so helps keep the creeks healthy for fish and wildlife.
But there are greater benefits as well.
“When you’re doing right in your waterways and encouraging healthy fish, it extends far beyond that,” Kral said. “For me, from the very beginning, it’s always been about making a living while doing good things. It’s always been that holistic view that, with what we grow, we need to be sustaining wildlife and the environment while making a living farming.”
One of the ways that Scholls Valley has been able to do just that has been to be Salmon-Safe certified since 2008. In fact, Schools Valley was the first native plant nursery in Oregon to be approved by Salmon-Safe, a Portland organization that works with farmers, developers and other landowners to reduce watershed impacts via third-party certification.
The certification process looks at everything from soil and water quality to crop management, soil amendments, spray records and more, with the goal of lightening the nursery’s load on the natural environment.
Salmon-Safe is just one of the certifications that can help nurseries lessen their environmental impact. There’s also USDA Organic, Veriflora and the National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Habitat certification, which Scholls Valley has as well. There are other programs, such as the Xerces Society’s Bee Better Certified program, which aren’t available for nurseries yet, but may be in the not-to-distant future.
The certifications are usually fairly rigorous, and they all come with a cost. But from market differentiation to a lighter environmental footprint, certification programs can have big benefits for nurseries.
Perhaps the most recognizable certification is USDA Organic. Based on federal guidelines around factors like soil quality, pest and weed control and use of additives, USDA Organic largely pertains to farms and food handling and processing facilities. Entities wishing to obtain USDA Organic certification fill out paperwork to give an overview of their operation. Then inspectors pay a visit to ensure the farm or facility meets the qualifying criteria.
The process is a rigorous one, which adds some heft to being able to say that a crop or food is certified organic.
“The word organic and making that claim is regulated by federal law, so you have to be certified to legally make that claim,” said Ben Bowell, education and advocacy manager for Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit focused on organic certification and advocacy.
Though USDA Organic certification is used largely for food crops, it can pertain to nurseries as well, particularly those that grow vegetable starts and fruit trees.
F & B Farms and Nursery is a third-generation farm and first-generation nursery in Woodburn that specializes in bedding plants, hops, specialty seed crops, hanging baskets and certified organic herb and vegetable starts.
“In 2014 and 2015, we started seeing demand for organic vegetable and herb starts,” said Leigh Geschwill, co-owner of F & B. “That seemed to be the shifting focus for our particular customer group; not so much sustainability, but a huge demand to get organic into the marketplace. That’s what consumers are telling us is their highest priority.”
From about 2009 until 2015, F & B had focused on the Veriflora Sustainably Grown certification, a program for ornamental growers with standards around things like soil and water protection, energy efficiency, fair working conditions and community engagement.
Geschwill said F & B originally obtained that certification as a way to prove to consumers that they were taking sustainability seriously, especially at a time when the public in general was skeptical about companies greenwashing their goings-on. F & B still practices much of what the Veriflora certification regulates, but the nursery dropped the official certification in favor of picking up USDA Organic.
“Buyers really seem to appreciate that we have that,” Geschwill said. “They can feel confident in what they’re buying.”
The main benefit of the organic certification for F & B is that it helps meet strong and growing demand for organic herbs and vegetables. Geschwill said F & B charges a minimal amount more — probably around 3 percent — for organic starts and herbs, but price gouging is not what they’re going after.
“I think there’s a slight price premium (for organic), but it’s coming down as more growers offer it,” she said. “I think the bigger thing for us is consumer confidence. Consumers can trust that we will provide the produce we say we are providing. We are big proponents of a trickle-up effect: When the consumer is happy with the product, they buy more from the retailers and the retailers buy more from us.”
Bowell said the demand for organic produce and products has continued to grow. As that’s happened, the USDA Organic seal has only had its credibility strengthened.
“Consumers are looking for verification and they trust the integrity of the organic seal,” he said. “The seal offers a level of confidence when you don’t have that direct consumer-to-grower relationship.”
In addition to the business benefits of organic certification, there are also the bigger-picture ones: improving soil and water conditions, increasing biodiversity and enhancing habitat for wildlife.
“Kind of a founding principal of organic is that it’s a way to capture what you are doing on the land and sharing that with the consumer,” Bowell said.
Of course, earning the USDA Organic certification — or any legitimate certification — isn’t necessarily a walk in the park. For starters, there is a financial cost. For USDA Organic, annual costs are based on an operation’s volume; there are also fees for first-time certifications, annual inspections, renewals and other components. According to the USDA, certification costs can range from a few hundred dollars a year to several thousand.
Bowell said the required paperwork and record-keeping can be daunting for some operations. And Geschwill said the organic program is somewhat restrictive in when it allows a grower to make adjustments to its organic offerings. For instance, they can only add new organic products at the beginning of each one-year cycle of certification. But all in all, it’s worth the effort.
At Scholls Valley, Kral said when the nursery first intended to go Salmon-Safe, there were a lot of skeptics.
“There’s a lot of hand weeding that happens because you’re decreasing your reliance on chemicals,” she said. “We had a lot of naysayers saying that it’s not going to be possible to grow plants and make profits in that way.”
It hasn’t been easy, but Kral said they have been experimenting and learning along the way — and it’s worked. The nursery has gotten grants to help experiment with different ground covers aimed at reducing weeds. It’s also worked with Oregon State University’s Oregon Bee Atlas, which has been creating an inventory of the state’s native bees and their plant hosts.
Even though the Salmon-Safe’s certification program is largely geared toward farmers and developers — and not nurseries — executive director Dan Kent said the organization is open to developing an initiative aimed more specifically at nurseries. Kral said she would welcome more nurseries following in the path of Scholls Valley, and she hopes that her nursery can inspire others.
“We like providing that model for others in the industry and being able to speak to it and show that it really is accessible and doable,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it. We’re always learning more and finding new and better ways to lessen our negative impact, which is important. We’re thinking about this generations into the future. We’ve already got our first little grand-kiddo, so we’re thinking about the future and the kind of world he’s going to grow up in.”
Certificates to consider
Though not a lot of sustainable certification programs have specific initiatives for nurseries, some do. And others may in the future or may have resources that could be helpful now. Here are a few to consider.
USDA Organic — Certifies farms and food processors and handlers based on factors like soil quality, pest and weed control and use of additives.
Salmon-Safe — Works with farmers, developers and landowners to reduce watershed impacts from agricultural and other operations.
Veriflora Sustainably Grown — Certifies ornamental growers based on standards around soil and water protection, energy efficiency, fair working conditions and community engagement.
Food Alliance Standard for Nurseries and Greenhouse Operations — Certifies nurseries and greenhouse operations based on areas like fair working conditions, soil and water conservation, wildlife habitat and adaptive management of pests and weeds.
Jon Bell is an Oregon freelance journalist who writes about everything from Mt. Hood and craft beer to real estate and the great outdoors. His website is www.jbellink.com.