Helen Newling Lawson

For a term that is often tossed about in the nursery industry, “sustainability” can be hard to define, let alone quantify. To add credibility to their earth-friendly efforts, nurseries are turning to MPS (More Profitable Sustainability), the Netherlands-based organization behind the MPS-ABC certification. This international program offers a standardized measure of environmentally responsible practices in the flower and ornamental plant industry. More than 3,000 growers in over 50 countries participate in MPS-ABC. While it has seen the widest adoption in the European greenhouse and floriculture industry, U.S. nursery growers are finding ways to apply this program to their open field growing operations. Among them are N. Casertano Greenhouses & Farms, Inc., Corso’s Horticulture and McCorkle Nurseries, Inc. For all three, sustainability was already an integral part of doing business. “As a family-owned company, we have always focused on leaving a legacy for future generations, including a green and healthy earth,” says Skeetter McCorkle, CEO of McCorkle Nurseries in Dearing, Georgia. That focus led them to experiment with beneficial insects for pest control when neonicotinoid use emerged as an issue. McCorkle Nurseries incorporates beneficial insects into its biocontrol program to replace neonicotinoids.Courtesy of McCorkle NurseriesLikewise, Casertano Farms in Cheshire, Connecticut, had already adopted a series of measures as part of an initiative to improve their environmental impact, including an end to neonicotinoid use. But while they hoped this would change consumers’ perception of growers as the “bad guy” in the pollinator safety discussion, company president John Casertano says, “It’s very difficult to do it on your own because you don’t have any quantifiable evidence. We weren’t getting [any] bang for our buck because it was us telling our own story.” That brought Casertano to MPS. To be certified, growers must track data on various points (see “How it works,” on page 12), which is then audited and verified by MPS to deliver a certification score. Arthij van der Veer, area manager for MPS in North America, often uses the phrase “objective reporting” when describing the program. It’s that third-party validation, along with transparency into growing practices, that retailers were looking to offer customers in response to concerns about the environmental impact of the green industry. In turn, they asked their suppliers to answer those questions, with some suggesting MPS as a potential solution. Van der Veer also credits organizations like AmericanHort, which endorsed them for sustainability certification, for helping them to amplify their message to growers. After eliminating pesticides in favor of biocontrols, McCorkle Nurseries has seen other beneficial insects like this lady beetle nymph appear naturally in its growing facilities.Casertano Farms and McCorkle Nurseries were among those who were encouraged by a key account to give MPS a try. While they don’t see certification as a guarantee of sales, McCorkle says for them, participation “eliminates one objection” and creates a point of differentiation in a crowded playing field. Tanner Cole, general manager at Corso’s Horticulture in Sandusky, Ohio, predicts it will take two to three years of data compilation for them to see a trackable increase in sales. In the meantime, all three have found business benefits that speak to the “more profitable” portion of the MPS name. At Casertano Farms, the feedback from the MPS team provided big payoffs in employee education and empowerment. “When we look at collective usage — propane, water, chemicals — it’s very eye-opening …and the impact becomes very real. Working day to day, we’re not thinking about it in gross terms,” Casertano explains, “[Employees] become more interested in making changes when they see those numbers. It becomes a game.” Casertano Farms began translating the MPS reports to perform cost projections for chemical use. Once they were able to identify cycles and times of the year when usage was more intense, they were able to better plan for or attempt to reduce those spikes. MPS certification isn’t just for greenhouse crops — growers who use a mix of indoor and outdoor environments, like Corso’s Horticulture, are also able to participate.The story at Corso’s Horticulture is similar. “We want to reduce our pesticide usage not only to be environmentally responsible, but economically sustainable,” Cole says. Pointing to the high cost of pesticides, he says in order to reduce the number of chemical applications they have changed factors ranging from genetics, to soil mix, to container size. They have also looked at the most significant outliers for resource usage to help them make informed choices in culling their plant list. Brian Jernigan, production manager at McCorkle Nurseries, believes another benefit of reducing chemical use comes from creating a “softer, safer” environment for workers, not just for wildlife. Wind power provides clean, renewable energy at Corso’s Horticulture. How it works Participation starts with one year of data collection on a range of practices, including the use of fertilizers and crop protection agents; water and energy conservation; waste management; and worker conditions. During that year, applicants receive quarterly report cards that help them look for points of improvement. At the end of the year, data is validated, and a qualification score is delivered along with a personalized presentation to explain the results. Certifications are neither static nor on a pass/fail basis. Scores are ranked from A to D and updated quarterly based on the latest data. There is no requirement to progress by a certain schedule or address all areas of operations — the timeline and areas of improvement are directed by the company. “Participation is voluntary as they want to improve themselves,” says van der Veer. Corso’s Horticulture uses their MPS certification as a talking point with potential new clients or when conducting nursery tours. Photo by Jordan SturnbergTaking the message to market Casertano believes buyers working for big companies and what he describes as “well-run and well-informed garden centers” are aware of MPS, but that “the general public almost has no idea of what it is. If we can let [retail consumers] know that their plants are being grown by responsible parties, I think the effort will become worth a little bit more than if we’re just telling each other within the industry.” McCorkle believes the program will gain traction faster if more growers climb on board. “If that MPS logo starts popping up in a lot of different places, and the retailers promote it, that’s where you start seeing the real value,” he adds. For now, MPS uses the website www.followyourflowerorplant.com to serve as the interface between the program and the public. The portal shows each company’s current MPS score and position in the supply chain. Participants can also build out their profile with additional information, but specifics on their certification and processes remain confidential to them. McCorkle Nurseries adds MPS ratings for environmental friendliness to inventory control labels for ease in tracking and reporting. What’s next for MPS There are changes ahead for the MPS certification scheme to improve the transparency and reliability of the information, including more frequent reporting requirements. Van der Veer says a plan is in place to communicate these changes, allowing ample time for current participants to adapt. After seeing the aggregated data collected for MPS, Casertano Farms employees began generating suggestions to help conserve resources. MPS will also have the opportunity to scale the one-on-one conversations they’ve been having with participants up to a national platform, by participating in sustainability-related education sessions for Cultivate’20, according to Mary Beth Cowardin at AmericanHort. Prior generations of the Casertano family developed self-sustaining irrigation systems. In later years, more advanced water conservation measures, such as programmable, precisely targeted boom irrigation systems, were added. Just as each nursery was already pursuing sustainability before MPS, the journey doesn’t end with certification. “It’s one part of our sustainability toolbox,” McCorkle says. “It helps guide us in the decisions we make about growing our plants. Being more sustainable is something we always thought about in terms of efficacy and worker safety, but now [the effect on our certification score] gives us another point to consider.” For more: my-mps.com; Regional Coordinator North America East, John R. McCaslin, j.mccaslin@my-mps.com; Regional Coordinator North America West Charlotte Smit, c.smit@my-mps.com. Helen Newling Lawson is a freelance writer and marketing professional based in Atlanta, Georgia, and can be reached at spotoncommunications.net.