Leading the Way to Sustainable Agriculture
Kenny Fahey '04
by Shelley Dutton
In an orange grove in California, a wheat field in Kansas, or a rice paddy in Louisiana, Kenny Fahey ’04 stands at a crossroads. It’s the place where business acumen meets environmental science, a vantage point from which Kenny can see – and help to shape – the future of farming.
Most of the time Kenny leverages the potential inherent in this intersection at his home office in Seattle, Washington. From there, he guides the dedicated team of professionals and volunteer leaders who power Leading Harvest, a nonprofit committed to increasing the adoption of sustainability practices in agriculture.
Founded in 2020, Leading Harvest serves all stakeholders across the agricultural value chain – from farmland owners to companies and communities – by providing assurance programs that include standards, audit procedures, and training and education. Kenny, who helped found the organization and now serves as its first president and CEO, sums up its mission:
“Leading Harvest provides an outcomes-based farmland management standard and a transparent process for assessing environmental and social impacts in all areas of agriculture.”
A Changing Landscape
Today, agriculture itself is standing at a crossroads. Kenny explains, “For decades, our focus was on perfecting an agricultural system designed to maximize yield and minimize costs. This required tremendous investment in research, technology innovation, and built infrastructure, along with the molding of consumer norms and tastes. The result has been a phenomenal transformation of agriculture that has allowed us to feed a growing global population, many of whom have the purchasing power to buy more resource-intensive foods like beef. This success has yielded enormous prosperity.
“But now our society is asking the agricultural system to do something fundamentally different. Along with maximizing yield, we are demanding that the system minimize environmental and social harm and, in some cases, create positive environmental and social impacts. Issues like climate change, overuse and pollution of natural resources, and labor practices that negatively impact quality of life have risen to the top of our consciousness and are creating expectations for farming that go well beyond simply labeling products as ‘natural.’”
In recent years, investors and businesses have put their weight behind this transformation. The shift in priorities is reflected in the dozens of net-zero commitments being made by food brands around the globe. For example, in 2019, Nestlé – the world’s largest food manufacturer – committed to be greenhouse gas emission-free by 2050. In December of the following year, the company detailed its sustainability plans, which included spending more than $3.5 billion over five years on measures to advance regenerative agriculture and move its operations to 100% renewable energy. Nestlé works with more than 500,000 farmers and 150,000 suppliers worldwide, with whom it must partner to implement the environmentally and socially responsible practices that will advance these goals.1
So it’s not surprising that Nestlé is one of Leading Harvest’s four Founding Supporters, along with fellow industry giants John Deere, Cargill, and Nutrien Ag Solutions.
Defining a Professional Path
Having attended The Potomac School from grades 1-12, Kenny Fahey considers himself “an almost-lifer, since I missed kindergarten.” He remembers his years at Potomac fondly and notes that his education gave him a strong foundation in critical thinking and, importantly, systems thinking – recognizing the complexity of problems and processes and considering various factors that may lead to different outcomes.
Equally formative for Kenny was Potomac’s wooded 90-acre campus: “I was on the cross country team, and I also remember having educational experiences outdoors from a young age. I think all that outdoor activity in such a beautiful setting gave me an appreciation for nature and our responsibility to steward the natural world.”
Kenny went on to Bowdoin College in Maine, where he majored in art history. An avid surfer and hiker, he continued to revel in the beauty and exhilarating challenges of life in the great outdoors.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Kenny moved to California’s Bay Area. He recalls, “My first job after college was in a butcher shop in San Francisco. That wasn’t what I wanted to do for a career, but it turns out that it was a seminal time for me. Working there, I developed a fascination with food systems. I was struck by their enormous complexity – all the effort that goes into producing and delivering a product from farm to store – and also by the very human element of people acquiring, consuming, and enjoying food. That combination of a complex system and a basic human activity fascinated me and pointed the way to the career that I ultimately decided to pursue.”
But there was one more stop along the way before Kenny defined his ultimate goal. He says, “I was looking for the right professional path. I figured that I could read and write and think pretty well, so maybe I would go to law school.” To more fully understand that option, Kenny took a job in a law firm and worked there for two years. He says, “The firm was great. The people there were amazing. But I discovered that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.”
So when Kenny went back to school, it was to earn two graduate degrees at the University of Michigan – an MBA and a Master of Science in natural resource management. He reflects, “I wanted to understand how the business world works and be able to apply that perspective to something I felt passionate about. I envisioned harnessing the power and scale of the business sector to drive positive environmental and social outcomes, especially in food systems.” Kenny’s work at Leading Harvest does just that.
He observes, “The transformation that the agricultural system is now facing is going to take time and require enormous investment from capital markets and the public sector. Achieving ambitious sustainability goals will require new technologies, product innovations, and infrastructure, as well as public policy that supports these advancements. By defining and certifying key environmental and social outcomes in agriculture, Leading Harvest points to the places where capital investment will do the most good and provides a means to measure the ongoing sustainability impact of investment in the global food supply chain.”
With graduate degrees in hand, Kenny joined The Conservation Fund in 2015. A national nonprofit, the Fund works to “protect America’s most critical lands and waters to provide greater access to nature, strengthen local economies, and enhance climate resiliency.” Kenny says, “The Fund has a very successful program focused on protecting large-scale working forests; they currently own about a million acres of forest assets, managing them for sustainable timber harvests, as well as carbon offsets. As the Fund’s working lands principal, I contributed to that program.
“I also had the opportunity to launch a new initiative, focused on farmland preservation and conservation. It was geared toward protecting farmland in growing metropolitan regions and supporting next-generation farmers in having access to that land. Among its many benefits, we saw the program as a way to serve the growing demand for local and sustainably-sourced food in cities. We launched it in Atlanta, and the Fund still operates the program in the Atlanta and Chicago metro regions.”
Creating a Nonprofit to Meet Emerging Needs
This focus on farmland management set the stage for Kenny’s, and The Conservation Fund’s, next big initiative. In 2017, a group of large asset management firms and professional farmland management companies approached the Fund, looking for help in solving a problem. The companies were encountering increasing pressure on two fronts – from consumers seeking assurance that products were being grown and resources managed in sustainable ways, and from investors with a rapidly growing focus on sustainability.
The problem was not that no mechanism existed to certify environmentally and socially sound processes in agriculture; it was that too many such mechanisms existed. Growing interest in sustainability had given rise to an enormous proliferation of initiatives, siloed by crop type, geography, or supply chain sector. The result, Kenny says, was “a chaotic mess of standards and certifications too complex and onerous to navigate from a production agriculture perspective.”
With Kenny’s leadership, The Conservation Fund began working to create a consolidated standard and process – one that could serve all segments of the agricultural value chain. The key, they soon realized, was to articulate broadly applicable principles and focus the assessment process on outcomes, rather than prescribed actions.
Kenny explains, “The farmland management standard that we ultimately developed includes 13 principles, in areas like soil health and conservation, protection of water resources, waste management, and conservation of biodiversity, as well as impacts on farm labor and local communities. Each of these areas is complex, and the goals expressed in the standard will be achieved in different ways, depending upon crop type, geography, and other factors.
“For example, our water principle addresses both quantity and quality, with outcome indicators for each. How you manage water if you’re growing almonds in California looks really different from how you manage water if you’re growing rice in the Mississippi Delta. The desired environmental outcomes are the same – but how you get there will be very different.”
Developing such a universal standard and the accompanying certification process was a three-year endeavor involving a variety of stakeholders and partners, including environmental groups, agricultural production companies, and an organization with extensive experience in standard writing. Eventually, what Kenny describes as “our core product – an outcomes-based farmland management certification organized into 13 topic areas that works for all crops and geographies” – was formulated.
Next came a series of listening sessions across the United States, which gave participants from the agricultural, economic, environmental, labor, and government sectors opportunities to review the draft program and provide feedback. Kenny says, “We believed that understanding and addressing the concerns of various stakeholders would both strengthen the program and create critical buy-in.”
In 2020, a new nonprofit was created to own and manage the standard and provide education and training to those interested in using it. Leading Harvest was born – and the organization’s board of directors asked Kenny Fahey to serve as its interim executive director.
In October of the following year, Kenny became Leading Harvest’s first president and CEO. The board’s unanimous hiring decision reflected their confidence in his deep commitment to the organization’s mission and strong leadership skills.
The respect is mutual. Kenny shares, “Leading Harvest is governed by an independent board of directors with equal representation from the social, environmental, and economic sectors. Our board reflects the diverse array of interests that make up the agricultural community, from farmers to environmental NGOs, labor organizations, investors, and consumers. The knowledge and commitment that they bring to our work cannot be overstated.”
Another of Leading Harvest’s strengths is commitment to continuous improvement. In April 2021, the organization adopted a five-year revision cycle for its farmland management standard, to ensure that it evolves along with scientific knowledge and societal expectations for sustainability. The following February, Leading Harvest announced the formation of an independent review panel to assess its standard, auditing procedures, and training and education programs on an ongoing basis. Kenny says, “This provides an added level of accountability and transparency. We believe that the most effective sustainability programs are those whose success both in the field and in the marketplace are vigorously and independently reviewed.”
The Big Picture
Leading Harvest’s website doesn’t mince words about the scope of the opportunities and challenges inherent in agriculture today – or the extent of the organization’s ambitious vision: “With 50% of the earth’s habitable surface already in agriculture production and nearly 1 billion people working in the agricultural industry around the world, food and agribusiness form a $5 trillion global industry that is only getting bigger. Given this scale, we believe that we all have a responsibility to act by sharing and adopting better practices now. Through collective action, Leading Harvest is continuously improving systems and ensuring that everyone has access to healthy soil, food, and water for generations to come.”
Currently, more than 3 million acres of farmland are operating in conformance with Leading Harvest’s farmland management standard – approximately 1.5 million acres in the United States, and roughly the same number in Australia. Kenny notes, “We continue working to expand our reach both in the U.S. and in Australia, and we are now developing plans to introduce our program in Canada.” He adds, “Agricultural commodities flow globally. Capital flows globally. So if we are really going to fulfill Leading Harvest’s value proposition, we ourselves have to be global.”
Kenny concludes, “Sustainable farming at scale has the potential to yield tremendous environmental and social benefits. Leading Harvest shows what’s possible when the tools and resources of business are leveraged to create positive change in the world.”