5.3 Supporting Farmers and Suppliers

What can you do to support your farmers and suppliers in meeting sustainability requirements?

In most cases, choosing a standard and simply imposing it on farmers and suppliers is not a realistic option. Farmers and other suppliers generally need motivation and support, especially during the first years, to implement a new standard. SAI Platform recently published a comprehensive and informative guide entitled “Farmer Partnership Guide” which explains the different hurdles and drivers to be considered for such purpose. These are classified along four categories: psycho-social factors (which tend to be neglected in a lot of project and are yet key to the success of these projects); economic factors; resources factors; and political factors. The sourcing company’s potential role depends on the character of the supply chain (refer to Part 5.1).

Cooperation between food manufacturing companies, farmers and intermediate suppliers often starts long before the question of supporting farmers in implementation arises. When companies develop their own company-specific requirements, cooperation usually starts with exploring best agricultural practices, as discussed above (see Chapter 4).

Example 14. Supporting Sweet Corn Growers in France

General Mills

General Mills is committed to minimising its impact on the environment by working closely with the agricultural community. Through its Green Giant brand, the firm develops and improves crop breeding and agronomic practices worldwide, such as higher yielding crops, reduced pesticide use and disease resistance.

Working with sweet corn growers in France

The project with General Mills started in 2003 when ARVALIS - Institut du végétal, a French research and extension farmer organisation, proposed that Green Giantdevelop a quality and sustainability charter for sweet corn production. All producers of Green Giant sweet corn have been certified under this charter since 2004.

The charter requires producers to:
  1. know the field, including its history in terms of culture, soil composition and inputs;
  2. adapt agricultural practices according to the specific characteristics of the soil;
  3. fertilise in accordance with established rules for quantity and usage;
  4. make irrigation decisions based on soil water content and/or water balance;
  5. maintain biodiversity around waterways and protect crops rationally by making a risk assessment and following a specific protection plan;
  6. serve and record 50 points of data related to the production area for at least five years (irrigation treatments applied, crops done, etc.); and
  7. conduct a self-assessment every four years to check compliance and progress against the charter.

Self-assessments are collected by ARVALIS - Institut du végétal and are used to track results and help propose changes in practices. A panel of the enrolled sweet corn growers is audited annually by a third party. Since 2012, more support is also given by ARVALIS – Institut du vegetal to the new members of the charter, and ways of changing current agricultural practices are proposed to them.

The logo ‘Maïs doux de France – Charte Qualité Environnement®’ (Sweet corn France – Environment Quality Charter) was used in 2010 to acknowledge and promote the excellent work of sweet corn growers who operate under the principles of the charter.

Since the charter’s implementation, most producers of sweet corn have seen the following results:

  1. a significant decrease in their use of water, fertilisers and herbicides/insecticides;
  2. an improvement in their crop quantities;
  3. an increase in the quality of sweet corn;
  4. a significant economic benefit.

The implementation of the charter has proven to be a win-win for farmers and the environment.

Sources: SAI Platform Project and General Mills

Supporting Sustainable Farming – not Single Crops (if applicable)

For a farmer producing different commodities, the ‘sustainability’ of a single commodity (e.g. dairy, corn, rice) is not the only issue. The farmer’s interest, and also that of the whole food and drink sector, lies in making entire farming systems sustainable everywhere. Support to farmers should thus take into account the whole farming system(s).

Moreover, implementation can only become a success if it creates value for both the farmer and for the sourcing company (see Chapter 1). As the options for offering a price premium to the farmer are limited, it is usually the case that adding sustainability requirements can only be successful if the farmer’s efforts are rewarded with added income or reduced costs. The following additional elements are therefore often found in projects with farmers and farmer organisations:

Improving farm economies:
Farmer support may include: better accounting and planning, promoting diversification, better use of farm inputs leading to better yields, etc. Financial support to farmers may be essential: pre-financing, risksharing, long-term contracting.
Improving product quality and security of supply:
Supporting farmers on implementing sustainability requirements can often be very well combined with improving quality and thereby creating value for all supply chain parties. Creating stable longer-term relationships with farmers who deliver high quality is an investment in supply security as well.


Example 15. The Knorr Sustainability Partnership Fund

Supporting Suppliers and Farmers

The Unilever Knorr brand has set up the Knorr Sustainability Partnership Fund to invest in growers and suppliers on complex sustainable agriculture projects that they may be unable to tackle alone. Knorr invests 50% of any agreed project budget, matched by an equivalent investment from the supplier or the grower. This enables the supplier to try out new ideas and accelerate implementation of sustainable agricultural practices.

Knorr has committed to co-invest one million euros with its suppliers and farmers in knowledge and equipment to accelerate the implementation of sustainable practices. Unilever’s direct suppliers make the application, but they can do so on behalf of a grower or group of growers working for that supplier. Evidence of an equivalent investment by the supplier or grower is required.

Bringing Knowledge to Farmers and Suppliers

The fund gives priority to projects that:

  • Bring new knowledge to the industry
  • Bring suppliers together in a region to tackle a specific issue
  • Are carried out in cooperation with credible universities/NGOs
  • Deliver a positive return on investment for all stakeholders
  • Are relevant to consumers of Knorr products and provide tangible stories.

Projects supported by the fund focus on progress in the following areas:

  • Farmer-led experiments for new knowledge (e.g. varieties, drip irrigation, precision agriculture, greenhouse gas mitigation/energy audits, waste management and soil protection);
  • Biodiversity projects within a landscape/area or group of suppliers in the area;
  • Ensuring water resources are protected and sustainable within a landscape/area;
  • Phasing out the most toxic pesticides;
  • Any other project that helps suppliers to meet the criteria of the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC):

Source: Knorr Sustainability Partnership Fund 

Support in a Direct Sourcing Situation

A direct sourcing situation is schematically represented in the diagram below. In this case, the food company sources directly from a (great) number of farmers and must provide support to the farmers and their organisation(s). Alternatively, the company may outsource this support to a third party.

This support can include:

  • training and extensions services to farmers:
    This will generally include guidance and learning on much more than the implementation of environmental and social practices. It is part of the collaborative effort of the company and the supplying farmers to enhance quality, productivity and farmer income.
  • tools for self-assessment:
    These play a vital role in jointly developing best practices, continuous improvement and, at a later stage, compliance with the firm’s standards for sustainable sourcing. See Example 16 below.

Support when Sourcing Through an Intermediate Supplier

When a company buys raw materials from suppliers (such as processors), it rarely assumes direct responsibility for supporting farmers. Instead, it can assist the direct suppliers in supporting farmers, with or without third-party support. This situation is schematically represented in the diagram below.

Useful components of this support are:

  • providing training to suppliers;
  • providing self-assessment tools to the suppliers;
  • assisting suppliers with developing support to their supplying farmers;
  • providing direct support to farmers even if the company does not source from them directly (refer to Starbucks, Example 5, already cited).

A simple but powerful way to determine the best strategy for engaging your suppliers on sustainability is to “map” them using a simple matrix featuring their commitment to sustainable sourcing and their capability to implement it – such as the matrix below:

Once this has been done, you may use the below as guidance on how to best engage your suppliers in your sustainable sourcing programme:

Who will Provide Support?

In some cases, the sourcing company itself can provide support to farmers and/or suppliers. In other cases, where the company does not have or does not want to build up the infrastructure required, support can be provided better by external parties, such as standard/certification organisations (e.g. Rainforest Alliance), NGOs and consultants (e,g. Conservation International, Technoserve). An example of support provided by a third-party is provided in the case example below, which describes how BSR helps Walmart in training farmers in China – see Example 16 below.

Example 16. Green Farmer Training Project of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and Walmart China

BSR and Walmart China’s Partnership

The Green Farmer training project that Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) is implementing in partnership with Walmart China aims at helping fulfil Walmart’s global goal to train one million farmers in its supply chain on food safety and sustainability. This gives BSR a chance to apply its supply chain experience to pilot a programme aimed at addressing the unique challenges and needs of a disparate group of farmers.

To design an effective training programme, BSR and Walmart China started out in the field, visiting sites ranging from pomelo farms in Fujian to vegetable farms in Guangdong Province. During each visit, the groups held in-depth conversations with managers, technicians, and farmers about what and how they wanted to learn. Each of these farms has unique challenges, due to the crop, soil type, production system, and the level of technical knowledge required, but most farms are relatively sophisticated and modern. The groups quickly realised that they wouldn’t be able to provide a standardised package of good practices but instead needed to match the farms with specific experts who could give them practical recommendations on what to do differently.

A Five-Step Training Programme

BSR and Walmart China created a five-step process that is standardised in its approach but flexible by design to enable adaptation to local and specific needs:

1- Identifying needs

The programme starts with a one-day needs assessment led by an expert facilitator who uses a variety of techniques, from in-depth discussions with farm technicians and managers to interactive voting exercises for a roomful of farmers, in order to understand the most pressing challenges and concerns at each farm. By the end of the day’s activities, the facilitator and farm manager agree on one or two priority topics for the first training.

2- Finding the trainer

At this point, BSR identifies an agricultural expert who has the requisite knowledge, skills, and experience communicating to farmers who haven’t necessarily had much formal education. Ideally, the expert is based in the province for the local knowledge of agricultural ecosystems and specific pests and diseases, but also for the regional or local dialects spoken.

3- Training

In addition to selecting a suitable expert and crafting relevant training materials, the training maximizes impact by focusing on a smaller group of key decision-makers. This allows provisions of a much more in-depth and interactive experience, including field demonstrations, which allows those individuals to test and share their knowledge with others as part of their day-to-day work.

4- Agreeing on actions to take

Towards the end of the two-day training, the expert and training participants are asked to identify a set of concrete actions that will be implemented. These discussions can get heated, as farmers debate and sometimes initially disagree on what might and might not work and what they are actually willing to try, before reaching a consensus.

5- Measuring impact

After the training, BSR follows up with farmers to measure the programme’s impact, ie. both how far information has spread and whether practices have changed. Despite a few anecdotes of rapid change, such as one farmer who started building compost piles the day after the BSR training, the adoption of new practices in agriculture tends to be slow, governed by both the seasonal nature of production and the conservative nature of farmers in a risky business. In this context, the trainers don’t expect dramatic results in the short-term but rather a more gradual adoption of better practices over time, as mindsets and skillsets change. In support of this longer-term approach, farmers are encouraged to stay in contact with the agricultural experts so they can ask questions about how to use alternative techniques or consult the experts on new challenges.

Source: http://www.bsr.org/en/our-insights/bsr-insight-article/implementing-sustainable-agriculture-in-walmart-chinas-supply-chain

Sometimes, support to farmers may be more effectively organised in collaboration with multiple private and public players, such as development organisations and (local) governments, certification organisations, NGOs and others.

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