A Pledge of Sustainability

February 5, 2016

Winter is a time for reflection, regeneration, and preparation for the busy year ahead, especially at farmers markets. Each January, CUESA’s farmers, food crafters, and restaurateurs renew their commitment to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market by submitting applications, providing updates on their businesses, and checking in at a round table meeting.

Last year, as part of this process, CUESA introduced a Seller Pledge to encapsulate the values and practices of a sustainable food system that we aim to cultivate through our farmers markets. The 15-point pledge covers a broad range of areas, such as water conservation, biodiversity, food waste reduction, and worker welfare. We’re proud that the 100+ permanent sellers that participate in our farmers markets have signed this pledge.”

“It articulates some of the expectations that people have when they come to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market,” says CUESA’s Executive Director Marcy Coburn. “It educates people about what a sustainable food system is, while also giving them talking points to ask the questions that matter.”

Sowing Seeds

A driving force behind the pledge was agricultural economist Desmond Jolly, who served on the CUESA Board of Directors for nine years and is the former director of the University of California Small Farm Program, where he worked with farmers across the state.

“For years we had been thinking about how to make our community—CUESA, our sellers, and our customers—much more tight and cooperative,” says Jolly. “Our farmers have pledged to take a certain amount of care.”

In 2007, CUESA adopted our Sustainability Frameworks, which defined a holistic vision of a sustainable food system as environmentally sound, humane, economically viable, and socially just. The Seller Pledge offers each farmers market seller the opportunity to voice their commitment and evaluate their business based on these major areas of sustainability.

Jolly notes that in recent years, we’ve seen more programs that attempt to encompass a broader range of practices beyond the certified organic label (for example, Whole Foods’ Responsibly Grown rating system, which debuted last year). “Consumers want more assurance and trust in the source of their food and other products,” he says.

Coburn concurs. “The certified organic lens is a great way to judge quality, but it doesn’t take into account all the other factors that go into growing and producing food.”

But unlike organic certification, there are no metrics, fees, or inspections for the pledge. By signing this voluntary pledge, each seller is making a promise to the community to operate their business in a sustainable manner according to these shared values.

Defining Sustainability

CUESA Board member and farmer John Carlon was also involved in creating the pledge, bringing his perspective as a farmer and environmental advocate. At Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm in Forest Ranch, he aims to farm without off-farm inputs, in a way that positively impacts the watershed, native habitat, and wildlife.

“There are a lot of marketing folks that have gotten a hold of terms like ‘sustainable,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘wholesome,” says Carlon. “CUESA is for ‘sustainable’ agriculture, so we wanted to pin that term down and make it real.”

For Carlon and others who helped draft the pledge, it was important that it be a tool to support sellers in becoming more sustainable by highlighting the best management practices. “One of the main concerns was that the language not be ‘Thou shalt do these practices,’ but it should instead be a vision of what direction folks should try and work toward.”

While the pledge has been signed by all of CUESA’s sellers, it encompasses a diverse range of growers, artisans, and restaurants, some of whom have been vetted by programs like USDA certified organic or Animal Welfare Approved, as well as others who have not.

The Future of Farmers Markets

Last year, California adopted new direct marketing rules that increased fines for sellers engaged in fraudulent practices and require farmers to display large signage explicitly stating that they grow what they sell. While such rules are essential to maintain the integrity of farmers markets, they only provide a baseline for consumer expectation.

“Farmers markets need to have the best stuff,” says Dirty Girl Produce farmer and CUESA Board member Joe Schirmer, who farms more than 40 certified organic acres in Santa Cruz. “It should be more than just ‘we grow what we sell,’ but also that we’ve grown it in a way that isn’t harmful to the environment, our workers, or the people who are buying it.”

He sees the Seller Pledge as a way for CUESA to review its policies for new admitting new farmers and producers, reinforcing the principles of the Sustainability Frameworks. “The pledge helps guide and define where we move, as new sellers come in,” he notes. “Over time, the new members are all going to be the best businesses that reflect those values.”

CUESA’s own Community Commitment complements the Seller Pledge by outlining our role in a sustainable food system. CUESA pledges to do our part to by expanding food access through farmers markets and fostering transparency through public education programs. CUESA pledges to continue sharing the stories of our sellers and supporting our market community members in their journey toward sustainability.

“We’re not the first farmers market to adopt such a pledge, but we’re one of the earliest,” says Jolly. His hope that it will inspire other farmers markets to create similar pledges to push the movement to the next frontier of sustainability. “I can see more and more markets across the nation committing to even greater transparency, trust, and cooperation.”

Read CUESA’s Seller Pledge »

Photo by Amanda Lynn Photography.