Sustainability may have only recently become a major concern for shoppers and the food supply chain, but for Superfresh Growers, this concept has long been deeply embedded into the fabric of the organization.
The family-owned company is a leading grower and shipper of apples, pears, cherries, blueberries and kiwi berries based in Yakima, Washington, and has been built from six generations of farming by the Kershaw family starting in the late 1800s. Sustainability has always been a pillar in some regard, driving the company to optimize water usage, minimize inputs, preserve productive land, support its team and minimize costs.
“Sustainability drives everything we do at Superfresh Growers,” says CEO Robert Kershaw. “We are, like most farmers, optimistic and self-reliant. We conserve our precious resources and ensure our teams are safe and content. We invest in anticipation of continued global improvements in health, education and family-level financial opportunity. We count on our descendants to advance our work for 100 years and beyond. It is against our nature to request outside help.”
However, as farmers of fresh fruit that require labor-intensive pruning, nourishing, thinning, and harvesting, the company will need support from its business partners, customers, government agencies and elected officials.
“Farmers face three primary obstacles to business continuity,” says Kershaw. “The first is the availability of a reliable and affordable workforce. The second is excessive and unnecessary government regulations. Third is increasingly expensive material inputs like fertilizer. Solutions for these problems are complicated and dependent on public education, solid markets and economies, and the support of federal and local agencies and elected government officials.”
Superfresh Growers is committed to doing the familiar things that comprise ag sustainability and good stewardship: conservation of water and energy; development of technologies that reduce manual intervention; programs, such as Equitable Farming Initiative (EFI), which support healthy and happy employees; and the reduction of carbon emissions.
What is missing, unfortunately, is mainly out of farmers’ control. Superfresh Growers works tirelessly with industry peers and associations to convince agencies to rationalize oppressive and expensive regulations. But the fact is that too many well-intended regulations deliver unintended consequences.
“Superfresh Growers feels optimistic about the future, as is shown by our investment in the future and our sustainability goals, but we need help,” Kershaw says. “Imagine what we could do if our business partners, customers, federal and local agencies, and farmers worked together to ensure affordable and accessible labor and agreed on rational regulations.”
Kershaw explains that as a family-owned business, the company’s leadership has always thought in generations.
“We are already anticipating what our harvests will look like in five, ten and twenty years. We are investing in land that will produce food 100 years from now. With population increases and food insecurity on the rise, guaranteeing surety of supply requires planning,” he says.
“At its core, sustainability is thinking about others before yourself. We are farmers, and because of our business’s cyclical nature, we must consider generational timelines. This mindset makes it very easy to be sustainable because when we constantly think two and three generations ahead, everything in our culture and our decisions are for someone other than ourselves.”
Superfresh Growers’ sustainability team comprises experts across its entire enterprise, including packaging, orchards, production and technology. One key area is ecological sustainability, with multiple programs in place to protect pollinators. The company cultivates ground cover plants that feed essential nutrients into its orchards and create pollinator habitats for bees and other insects that make up its biodiverse orchards.
Other sustainability efforts include investments into autonomous electric vehicles in its orchards and production lines, reducing its carbon footprint and helping ease the pain of labor shortages. Through multiple energy efficiency projects, the company’s kilowatt-hour reductions (Kwh) were reduced by 7 million in 2022. This is equivalent to 4,932 metric tons of CO2 relieved.
“Investing in our people is a major pillar of our sustainability,” says Kershaw. “Being certified by EFI is part of that. We chose EFI because we wanted to develop and track what we are doing to improve the lives of our teammates, an objective that has always been core to our business culture.”
Superfresh Growers also incorporates precision farming to monitor and use water only when needed, and it also leverages integrated pest management. Additionally, the company invests heavily in compost to build organic matter and, ultimately, the physical health of the soil, and it is guiding retailers to use packaging with lower carbon footprints, such as low-density polyethylene #4 bags that qualify for store drop-off recycling programs.
In the future, Superfresh Growers has numerous plans to ensure the long-term sustainability of the company and its operations. These include: measuring greenhouse gases and monitoring carbon accounting scope 1-2 emissions with the goal of carbon neutrality; expanding pollinator habitat to the goal of 1,500 acres; expanding solar energy; and implementing EV tractors, forklifts and fleet vehicles as that technology advances.
“We look at sustainability generationally. We are currently crafting company-wide sustainability goals and plan on monitoring our progress on them,” says Kershaw. “Sustainability” has become a hollow catchword for so many industries, but for Robert Kershaw and Superfresh Growers, it is a critical strategy for ensuring the company’s employees, communities and orchards can continue to feed people around the world nutritious food for the next 100 years and beyond.