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Sustainability framework seeks to encourage tenant and owner collaboration

The Leading Harvest initiative was driven by a working group that included Nuveen/Westchester, Hancock Natural Resources Group and Cottonwood Ag Management, among others.

A new sustainability framework for agricultural producers seeks to encourage shared responsibility between tenants and landowners, by requiring written communication between them on sustainability and land management matters.

The Leading Harvest standard is the result of a two-year collaboration from a working group of asset managers active in farmland, large agricultural producers and two sustainability-focused non-profits: The Conservation Fund and Manomet.

Andrew Whitman, a director at Manomet who helped write the standard, told Agri Investor it is the first such framework to require written agreements between asset owners and tenants regarding their commitment to sustainable production practices.

“Many changes often start with something in writing,” Whitman said. “The tenants have a clearer sense of what’s the direction of the asset manager. The asset manager now has assurance that their tenant is actually well-positioned. They can both turn to markets and they will be able to provide some level of assurance they didn’t have before.”

He added that it is the first such standard to require asset managers to ensure farmland they own is operated in compliance with regional best management practices.

The Leading Harvest standard works by defining desirable outcomes rather than proscribing specific practices, which are verified by accredited third-party auditors and applied across crops and regions. Auditors’ reports verifying performance in areas including soil health, water management and compliance with labor laws are to be made public for any entities making public claims of having been certified to the standard.

The framework was modeled on a similar one developed for forestry 20 years ago and identifies 13 principles, 13 objectives, 33 performance measures and 71 indicators that provide benchmarks for sustainability in agriculture.

The intellectual property constituting the Leading Harvest standard was owned by The Conservation Fund while it was under development. After last month’s formal launch, ownership has transferred to a separate non-profit organization named Leading Harvest, which will manage and administer certification, offer education and training programs and continually revise the standard.

Entities that choose to enroll will pay a per-acre fee to the Leading Harvest non-profit before making any public claims of certification. Leading Harvest declined to disclose the per acre fee.

More than two million acres managed by members of the working group have already been enrolled in the standard as part of an effort to ensure its suitability across regions and crop types.

Hancock Agricultural Investment Group president Oliver Williams told Agri Investor his firm believes the Leading Harvest certification will eventually become an important part of the ‘social license’ required by asset managers operating in farmland.

“It’s not about gaining a commercial advantage,” said Williams. “It’s about putting forth a standard that has the ability to scale and really drive towards the outcomes that all the stakeholders are looking for.”

Asset managers that participated in the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group that produced the Leading Harvest standard included AgIS Capital, Ceres Partners, Cottonwood Ag Management, Hancock Natural Resources Group, International Farming Corporation, Lamb Weston, Nuveen/Westchester, Peoples Company, PGIM Agricultural Investments, the Rohatyn Group TRG and UBS Farmland Investors.