Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates
Denise Donohue, Donohue Associates

I had my epiphany on produce sustainability while staring at bottles of bright-blue fluid in the grocery cleaning aisle.

I’ve been buying said blue window cleaner for nigh on 25 years now. It reeks of ammonia and may be spritzed onto all manner of surfaces to wipe away my family’s detritus.

So I was picking up some more when I noticed the package had been changed. Suddenly, it bore a green leaf proclaiming it to be a green cleaner.

Well, what have we here?

The blue fluid was slightly — very slightly — less blue. Everything else looked the same.

But, suddenly, it was “green.” Don’t know how I was supposed to verify that. Oh yeah, I wasn’t.

Like most marketing, I’m asked to take it at face value.

And then it hit me: The product is as green as its manufacturer says it is. Presumably, the mondo-manufacturer isn’t putting a worse product out there, but how would I know? There’s no universal green seal or green police out there.

Imagine! “Green police” looking like Batman’s Green Hornet: Flashy green suit and a green mask with a pointy nose piece, searching your grocery store for fake environmental stories.

But I digress. Of course, I took the product home — I had detritus to clean.

This instance spurred a line of thought that I could not shake: Why are we in the growing business so reluctant to toot our green horns? Most growers, and their packers and shippers, have a bona fide good-for-the-earth story to tell.

Are we suffering inappropriate guilt? Cowed by environmentalist-inspired lawsuits that force the EPA to outlaw chemicals for no real reason?

Most of the time, it’s like our mouths are glued shut about the many good things horticulture does for the earth because we must combat some aspects of nature to harvest perfect produce.

I will pause right here and say in all seriousness that I believe in being truthful, honest and transparent. Those are the ethical credentials I’ve pledged to uphold as an accredited and practicing public relations professional. If you don’t have ethics you’re nowhere.

If you can’t honestly tell consumers you’re doing well for the earth, then better to be silent than to make false claims that will be your undoing.

And if you are knowingly damaging the earth or environment in some way, I hope you clean up your act or get caught.

For the other 99.9% of growers, let’s toot the green horn this season.

Green products — sustainable products, environmentally friendly products, ethical products (this category meets certain standards — whose I don’t know) — are what young shoppers prefer to buy.

From 2004-09, U.S. sales of ethical products tripled in spite of a weak economy, according to The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 11, 2010). I hasten to add that the American consumer is wary of items called green — they want more explanation.

It’s time that produce companies, and not just organic suppliers, stepped up to the consumer’s plate to explain our sustainability stories.

It’s possible you don’t realize all the environmentally friendly things you’re doing because they’ve become standard operating procedure. Everyone in the business knows that organic and mainstream fruit production practices have become ever-closer as the years go by.

A half-dozen years ago, Michigan apple growers could make the claim that their insecticide use had dropped about 70% by weight over the previous 25 years with only a 10% acreage reduction. Fungicide use was also down significantly.

Is it organic? No. But it’s a tremendous win for integrated pest management and other modern crop management techniques. Consumers need to hear that story.

As examples of green practices: Most tree fruit growers are practicing erosion control with grass strips.

Most growers of any size are monitoring insect populations and using crop inputs as needed, rather than every other Monday, for example.

Some growers have planted wildflower strips to attract native pollinators, encouraged birds for rodent and insect control, and adopted soil-enriching practices.

In the packing shed, you’ve probably adopted more energy-efficient light bulbs, heating and cooling practices, recycling programs — and the list goes on.

To toot the green horn, maybe you need a fresh set of eyes. Invite the guys or gals from the city offices writing your ads, a couple of moms from your daughter’s soccer team, or your son’s girlfriend. All of them think they know about farming — but most are surprised and awed at how it’s really done.

Give them a tour pointing out green practices you’ve adopted in the last five to 10 years, and see what they say. Mark down every time they remark, “I didn’t know you did that!”

Then use those items in your sales communications, ads and social media as a point of distinction: You’re a green business in more ways than one.

The customer does care what good things you’re doing for the environment. The customer wants the truth. These factors are not going away with Gen-X or Gen-Y/Millennials — who we raised to celebrate Earth Day as a holiday.

So toot your green horn this season. If bottles of blue chemicals can be green, certainly fresh produce has an even better story to tell.

Denise Donohue is founder of Donohue Associates, DeWitt, Mich., a marketing and public relations firm specializing in agriculture. Before that, she was director of the Michigan Apple Committee, Lansing.

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