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Connecting the Dots: How an ARCS Scholar Alumnus Revolutionized Sustainable Farming

Posted on Tuesday, May 12, 2020

For Dr. Jeff Dlott, a career in scientific discovery started in a peach field thirty years ago.  Then a third-year ARCS Scholar and PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California Berkeley, Dlott spent a summer working side by side with farmers in the California Central Valley.  What he experienced shaped a lifetime commitment to enhance the US food and agriculture value chain. 

“The timing and prestige of the ARCS Scholar Award were pivotal at this moment in my academic career as the financial support allowed me to focus exclusively on my research during this critical period,” Dlott recalled. “The Award gave me the freedom to invest time in exploring and applying innovative social and natural sciences techniques and statistical methods that six years later proved to be foundational to informing a series of inventions and patents.”

That summer, Dlott noticed that many growers only collected bottom-line data about their aggregate crop input costs and yields.  As he observed their data collection methods, he realized these growers could be diving deeper into the numbers. How much more efficient could farmers be if they knew how much they were spending on water, fertilizers, equipment, labor, etc., per acre and per crop yield? And what would food production look like if farmers and ranchers could produce more food with less water, fertilizer, and other inputs? In short, Dlott had a vision for sustainability.   

Using this foresight as inspiration, Dlott founded SureHarvest in 1999, and developed a leading-edge set of software products that could track inputs and allow growers to make decisions based on optimizing efficiency while minimizing potential negative environmental impacts.  Today, SureHarvest is known as the industry's go-to provider for food and agriculture sustainability, audit, and third-party certification and verification software. “Sustainability has been a topic of conversation in the ag industry since I was a grad student thirty years ago,” Dlott said. “The most frequently asked question was, and still is, ‘what does sustainability mean?’ SureHarvest has been laser focused on systematically defining and documenting what sustainability means in terms of practices, processes, measurements, and outcomes.”

Working with guidelines from the United Nations and the United States Department of Agriculture, Dlott created a way to measure sustainability on a farm based on how its practices affect five broad categories: water, air, land, plants and animals, and people – e.g., workers and surrounding community along with the economy.   

The economic impact of SureHarvest on the competitiveness of US wine markets, almond growers, and other crops has been enormous. More than 85 percent of the $60 billion+ US wine industry has directly benefitted from SureHarvest products, services, and support.  To give California wine a more competitive stance, SureHarvest worked with wineries to analyze their processes and then developed software to support certify them with a label of “Certified Sustainable.” This label lends transparency and trustworthiness to the brand, which in turn creates confidence from consumers and enables California wines, which represent close to 90% of all US wines, to compete successfully against quality imports at a reasonable price.

SureHarvest’s data collection and analysis systems also provided brand protection and enhancement for almonds, another of California’s largest crops, which have achieved a higher year over year price growth in contrast to other nuts.  Almonds are a $5.6 billion US industry supplying 100 percent of the US commercial supply and 80 percent of the world’s almonds.  Faced with a major threat during recent droughts, almonds were accused of being harmful to the environment because of how much water is needed for growth. The Almond Board of California (ABC), with SureHarvest’s help, was able to combat such claims and showcase statistically valid data on almond growers’ level of adoption of water use efficiency equipment, processes, and tools to change the conversation.

“The most important water efficiency measures are how much water does the tree need at the right time to meet its biological demand and how much water is applied by growers to meet that demand.  SureHarvest continues to work with ABC to support the large-scale adoption of approaches to align biological need with management.  Almond growers are ahead of the curve in optimizing these approaches.” Dlott explains.

In 2011, Dlott was appointed by the California Secretary of Food & Agriculture to chair the state’s Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel.  The Panel has oversight of a grant portfolio that provides funding to improve irrigation efficiencies, reduce greenhouse gases, and improve soil health. Dlott notes that this appointment is the accomplishment he is most proud of, “The fact that I was even asked in the first place and now a decade later have been re-appointed as the Chair is an honor.” he says. Dlott also holds 16 patents in the areas of food and agriculture traceability, sustainability, certifications, and monetizing environmental and socially positive outcomes generated by farmers, ranchers, and other producers. 

Even from the very beginning observing farmers through an internship in a peach field, Dlott believed that how data are collected and presented mattered. “Now, almost 30 years later, it is possible to draw the lines and connect the dots from the ARCS Scholar Award to my PhD research to inventions to leading vibrant and growing businesses in food and agriculture sustainability.”