This article was originally published in Sustianable Brands on October 10, 2014 and was written by the Director of Manomet’s Sustainable Economies Program Andy Whitman. View the original article here.

The Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences announced its initial, successful fielding of the Vital Capital Index for Dairy Agriculture (VCI) with the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, best known for its flagship brand of award-winning Cabot dairy products. Nearly 94 percent of the cooperative’s 1,200 member farms completed Level 1, the “Awareness” portion of the VCI.

As stewards intimately connected with their land, most farmers intuitively know a lot about sustainability. However, they have lacked simple tools that help them to share their whole sustainability story with neighbors, communities, customers and other stakeholders. Enter the VCI.

Over the past five years, Manomet has engaged with dairy farmers and stakeholders to develop the VCI, a tool that measures the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of farms. Consisting of four levels of indicators, the VCI also helps identify opportunities to improve agricultural stewardship and farm viability. And as a testament to the tool’s utility, 1,124 of the 1,200 farmer-members of the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative have recently completed the VCI to assess their awareness and engagement on sustainability topics.

Agri-Mark has member-owners who farm in all six New England states and New York and has been a long-time partner with Manomet on this project. The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was also a key partner in previous versions of the VCI, providing essential support in the early phases of development.

Agri-Mark and Cabot recognize the value of the VCI. Foremost, the VCI helps to raise farmer awareness regarding the things they already do as good stewards, as well as pointing to areas where they can create sustainable social, environmental and economic benefits.

“The VCI facilitates conversations about dairy agriculture and sustainability,” said Agri-Mark Director of Sustainability Jed Davis. “It is a tool to enhance the ability of an individual farmer, as well as the cooperative as a whole, to engage in conversations with local, state and even regional and national stakeholders.”

Development of the tool began after Agri-Mark approached Manomet for assistance in addressing issues of farm sustainability and communication of key stewardship topics to its farmer-members. Working together, Manomet and Cabot imagined several key elements that define the VCI tool:

  • A grounding in science and sustainability’s triple bottom-line;
  • Identification of insights for management of key impacts on vital resources;
  • Development of a richer vocabulary for conversations about sustainability with key stakeholders.

To a degree unique among other efforts, VCI has incorporated farmer feedback and piloting at all levels of development. Davis helped refine the tool’s key topics and advised on the current structure and presentation of the tool’s content. Gabe Clark field-tested early versions of the VCI for Manomet on farms across the U.S. Bill Baue and Mark McElroy, two leading sustainability experts, contributed input based on their experience with metrics and communications. Agri-Mark’s field staff played an amazing role of reaching out and aiding nearly all of Agri-Mark’s member-farmers. Manomet has aligned the VCI with several other leading efforts, notably the sustainability work of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

The noteworthy increase in farmer participation came after recent VCI improvements, including the release of VCI 3.0, and new goals set by Agri-Mark in an effort to address supply chain inquiries. Once we had streamlined the enhanced VCI, Agri-Mark aggressively pursued a goal of 75 percent of their member farmers completing VCI Level 1 — the Awareness. Ultimately, they exceeded this goal. Manomet, in partnership with Agri-Mark, plans to further engage dairy farms after the VCI online tool is fully developed.

Designed to help dairy farmers tackle these challenges, the VCI addresses 12 core sustainability topics ranging from farm management to food safety to water stewardship. Farmers can use it as a benchmarking tool to track their continuous improvement. The results can help farmers communicate their sustainability story to a variety of audiences. Most importantly, it allows farmers to develop comprehensive, sensible strategies for tacking these challenges while enhancing the viability and stewardship of their operations.

The VCI has four levels also within MAPPS for Manomet’s tool for addressing Awareness, Practices, Performance and Sustainability. It provides the platform upon which farmers can take a business-based approach to sustainability. The underlying indicators are science-based and were field-tested to ensure practicality. Farmers can use Level 1 to identify their awareness and engagement on key sustainability topics; Level 2 to benchmark their practices and self-assess whether additional practice might enhance their operations; Level 3 to assess and track their farm performance over time; and Level 4 enables farmers to see if they are sustainable in the broader context of the ecological and social systems in which their farms are embedded.

“We at Agri-Mark are pleased that our farmer-owners see the value of VCI in measuring and enhancing their farm sustainability,” Davis said. “Having completed Level 1, our work is by no means done, but in fact has begun. We believe that it is the next three levels that ultimately will be most useful as a management and communications tool for our dairy farmers.”