A lack of funding has forced the Food Alliance to suspend its operations, though its licensed producers will be able to use the eco-label through the end of the year.

The Food Alliance, based in Portland, Oregon, established its sustainable food certification program in 1997 with the goal of helping growers obtain a reward from the marketplace for using good stewardship practices.

The program began as a regional effort in the Pacific Northwest, but later expanded across the country. It has licensed growers of many different crops and now has more than 330 certified farms in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, most of which are small, family-owned businesses. It also certifies distributors and food processors.

David Granatstein, Washington State University sustainable agriculture specialist, said Food Alliance is different from both food safety and organic certification programs. Its standards cover four areas:

  •  soil and water conservation, including nutrient management
  • integrated pest, disease, and weed management and pesticide risk reduction
  • wildlife habitat and biodiversity
  • safe and fair working conditions

It is one of few food certification programs that has standards relating to the social aspects of the business, such as how employees are treated.

“There are many labels out there, and many overlap, but none of them are identical,” Granatstein noted. “Food Alliance had found a niche.”

Financial difficulties

The Food Alliance closed its offices and laid off its five full-time and two part-time staff in February because of financial difficulties, but the board continues to function. The current multiplicity of food-safety and sustainability standards was not a factor in the decision to cease operations, board chair Jeff Picarello said.

The alliance, a not-for-profit 501 (c) 3 organization, depended on grants in order to keep the license and certification fees it charged growers affordable. The alliance was constantly updating its standards and developing new ones, which made it an expensive program to operate.

In recent years, some grants were not renewed, which Picarello attributes to the country’s economic recession. The Portland Business Journal reported in February that the alliance lost around $8,000 in 2010 on $833,000 in revenue. In 2011, losses increased to about $58,000 on $790,000 in revenue, its tax documents showed.

Picarello, an executive vice president at Edelman, one of the world’s largest public relations companies, said that about a year ago, the alliance began searching for a partner so that it could continue to operate and maintain the value of the standards it developed and the Food Alliance seal, but no agreement has been reached yet.

“There’s a lot of interest in how the standards could be applied,” he said. “A lot of organizations and individuals have stepped up and said they would like to use the standards for a number of ­different projects.”

Other certifications

Jeff Heater, a pear grower in Hood River, Oregon, served on the Food Alliance’s board of directors in the 1990s, representing the Hood River Growers and Shippers Association (now the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers). Heater was not ­certified under the program.

The Food Alliance’s aim was to help certified growers stand out from other producers in the market place, but that’s become harder in recent years because of the many other certification programs that now exist, some of which are required by retailers, he said.

“It’s overwhelming for the grower. On the buyer’s side, they usually request a specific one.”

Gary Wells, with Wells & Sons Packing & Storage in Hood River, Oregon, said his company was certified with Food Alliance until two years ago when he turned over his sales and marketing to a California company.

The marketer, Rivermaid Trading Company, in Lodi, requires its suppliers to be certified with other food-safety programs, so Wells decided not to go through the Food Alliance certification in addition.

“Sales entities are much larger—they are not what they were in the 1990s—and they have their preferences and their programs,” Wells remarked. “So, what pretty much dictates the program that the growers will participate in is whatever their marketing agency is using for that purpose.”

Wells said the Food Alliance served the company well while it was selling its own fruit, which are mainly pears with some cherries. It had the greatest impact on the West Coast markets. The Food Alliance had promotional programs and good relationships with retailers that helped Wells gain new customers.

“It wasn’t so much a premium,” he said. “It was a foot in the door in the places that were somewhat restrictive in terms of their expectation of the product.”

He felt the social aspect of the Food Alliance program used to be important to retailers, but the emphasis nowadays seems to have switched to food safety.

Bob Bailey, chair of Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, Oregon, said his company dropped its Food Alliance certification last year because it wasn’t seeing a marketing benefit. It had been certified since the program began.

Food Alliance used to help with marketing to the smaller chains in Oregon and Washington, but has been less ­successful on a wider scale, he said. “I am sad to see it go, but it was probably inevitable.”

Orchard View Farms, which has 2,000 acres of cherries grown under sustainable practices, is certified through several programs. Although the primary emphasis is food safety, some programs—such as GlobalGAP and Tesco’s Nurture—also have a social component that looks at working conditions and worker housing, for example.