Leading Harvest is Meeting Growers Where They Are: A Q&A with Leading Harvest

We at Sound Agriculture are pleased to announce that we’ve joined Leading Harvest, an industry leader in sustainability assurance programs, as a program supporter to further our shared goals of creating a more resilient, sustainable and healthier food system. 

We recently sat down with Andrew Lauver, Director of Strategic Alliances and Programs at Leading Harvest, to talk about Leading Harvest’s background, what it means for an assurance program to be outcomes-focused, and the organization’s vision for the future of the agriculture and food system.

What is Leading Harvest?

Andrew Lauver: Leading Harvest is a non-profit that provides farmland management certification standards to improve sustainability outcomes and create transparency in agriculture globally. It was formally organized in 2020 by and for all stakeholders across the agricultural value chain — from farmland owners to companies to communities.

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What is Leading Harvest’s mission?

Andrew Lauver: Leading Harvest was founded on the belief that only through a shared and scalable sustainability platform can we realize the full potential of agriculture to drive positive environmental, social and economic change globally. Our mission is to support the validation of farm management systems and a spirit of continuous improvement to drive sustainable outcomes across the industry. In addition to working with farmers and farmland managers, we also work with companies like Nestlé to deliver harmonized sustainable sourcing for them through certifying their supply chain to the Farmland Management Standard. 

The Farmland Management Standard is a crop and geography agnostic standard, so we have a hundred different crop types that are within the Standard certifications today. This creates a lot of autonomy for those program users, regardless of their location, to certify to one standard and have that mean something across the industry.

What is the Farmland Management Standard?

Andrew Lauver: The Leading Harvest Farmland Management Standard (Leading Harvest Standard) is our flagship initiative. That Standard addresses 13 sustainability principles that focus on things like soil health, water, community and biodiversity to drive continuous improvement on acres across agriculture domestically, but also internationally. It was developed over a three year period through the Sustainable Agricultural Working Group, with listening sessions held across the country. The public, commodity groups, environmental groups and social groups were all able to weigh in on the development of the Standard.

Ultimately, the Leading Harvest Standard is a third-party certification that provides assurance for the sustainability of farmland management. Farmland managers and owners can use the Leading Harvest Farmland Management Program to become certified and then make verifiable sustainability claims to the market regarding their management. The Standard identifies sustainable farming practices based on 13 Principles, 13 Objectives, 33 Performance Measures and 71 Indicators and addresses economic, environmental, social and governance issues.

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Andrew Lauver is Leading Harvest's Director of Strategic Alliances and Programs.

Program users are required to certify that they’re in conformance with the Leading Harvest Standard. Why is it important that Leading Harvest has an independent certification process?

Andrew Lauver: Around the time we launched the Standard, an assessment was done to analyze whether another standard was needed in the industry because there were a lot of crop-specific and geography-specific standards out there. The answer was yes, because we need harmonization across the sector. The Leading Harvest Standard is able to pull in over a hundred different crop types and any geography. The Standard doesn’t prescribe practices, it gives program users the flexibility to select best practices for sustainable outcomes. Without a credible system to ensure that desired outcomes are being met, this approach wouldn’t be possible. Third-party auditing conducted by independent and accredited bodies is used to verify whether the practices are sufficient.

Why is certification like this important to achieving net zero goals? And along the agriculture value chain, which stakeholder group would you say is driving the adoption and shift to sustainable practices?

Andrew Lauver: Growers have an interest in regenerative practices because they’re where they are thanks to those that came before them. Ultimately they’re the decision makers. It’s incredibly important to have a standard that works with growers, is realistic and can be brought to scale.

As for Net Zero, we are not a carbon organization. We’re not involved in any elements of the carbon market, but we’re not looking to duplicate work and we can be complementary to existing practices that are in place. If growers have practices that are contributing toward climate and water, that will be recognized in the Farmland Management Standard and the audit process.

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How do you see Sound Agriculture as being helpful in Leading Harvest’s mission? What part do we play in Leading Harvest’s mission?

Andrew Lauver: We’re so thankful to have the support of Sound Agriculture as a program supporter to drive continuous improvement with that shared mission, and certainly recognize the leadership that Sound Agriculture has in the industry as it relates to those people delivering the services and the products at the acre level. Ultimately, what’s important to us is that understanding of what’s happening at the farm gate, and we know for Sound, that’s certainly a priority. Innovation is critical to delivering the continuous improvement that we need to meet climate and water quality goals.

What do you see in the future for Leading Harvest?

Andrew Lauver: We’re a non-profit governed by a board, and on that board we have individuals from the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation Fund, and the CEO of Ducks Unlimited as well as farmers.

We’re not just working on validating the farm management side of the industry but also on the consumer side with companies like Nestlé. As we look to the future, we see a greater acceleration delivering solutions through the Farmland Management Standard in the consumer and packaged goods space.