There’s a new dominant color in potatoes and onions: green.

Sustainability is becoming central to both industries these days, marketing agents said.

“Sustainability is always key to our operations,” said Dick Okray, co-owner of Plover, Wis.-based Okray Family Farms Inc., which is 105 years old. “We’re in a three-year plan of rolling over to a four-year rotation from a three-year rotation. That’s going to be a huge strategy that will allow us a lot of different things. Lower the amount of soil treatments and conditioners we’d normally use. And in the long term, again, it gives us the opportunity to just change the way we look at what it is we’re doing.”

Okray said he encourages all operations to do the same thing.

“It just takes time, planning and dedication to what you’re doing,” he said. “There is no downside because you’re doing legumes and grains, which are definitely less intensive than growing potatoes.”

Richard Pazderski, sales director for Glennville, Ga.-based Vidalia sweet onion grower-shipper Bland Farms, said the business is taking on a definite “green” hue.

“We’ve been working on some programs — haven’t gone full scale with any of them,” he said. “Five years from now, it is going to be a very big issue.”

Some potato shippers are starting to focus more on Earth-friendly packaging, but there’s more emphasis on the production side, said Tim O’Connor, chief executive officer of the Denver-based U.S. Potato Board.
“I think the core push on sustainability has been around production practices,” O’Connor said. “That’s the area consumers have requested growers to focus on. Growers have made a big step in getting their arms around what they’re doing today and how to take steps forward.”

The Portland-based Oregon Potato Commission is heavily involved in research, and it is research that may lead to more eco-friendly potato production, said Bill Brewer, the commission’s executive director.

“For the future, when you talk about sustainability, it’s going to take new varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases and be able to use less fertilizers and pesticides and less water to produce the same type of crop,” he said.

Sustainability is a challenging area, said Kathy Fry, marketing director for the Walla Walla, Wash.-based Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee.

“We have disease and issues with onion plants, just like everyone, and sustainability to us would be to rise above those problems and have good agricultural practices,” Fry said. “We’ve been in the industry for 109 years, so we do believe in rotation and sustainability, so this industry can continue as long as people want it to.”

Wayne Mininger, president of the Greeley, Colo.-based National Onion Association, said customers are placing a high priority on sustainability.

“For starters, there’s a much greater awareness up and down the line from grower through retail marketer, in this day and age about operating green, so to speak,” Mininger said. “It’s people trying to use water in the wisest way, use the best packaging and think in terms of recycling and being careful in conserving.”

Sustainability is becoming “a way of life” for growers and shippers, Mininger said.

“If you are not on board with it, and if you don’t see it as your responsibility to think about the sustainability issue, you find yourself outside,” he said.

Duane Maatz, executive director of the Antigo-based Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association Inc., said groundwater is a major concern in his state.

“There are certain parts of the state where fingers are being pointed at agriculture for dropping the water tables,” he said. “This is the sixth or seventh year of a drought. We have a great concern over potential legislation that is not yet written in our state concerning groundwater. The upfront talk is the entire ecosystem and entire user system needs to become sustainable.”

Ted Kreis, marketing director of the East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, said environmentally friendly practices are up and running in his area.

“We are actively trying to keep up with it the best we can,” he said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Our processors are working with McDonald’s with some of the things they’d like to see in their stores. Our grocers, before sustainability became national, they were doing things in that area. It’s a matter of taking good care of the land and rotating crops and using the latest satellite technology and not overusing pesticides.”