TIAA Harvest Time Engages Employees on Sustainable Farms and Food

EarthShare News - TIAA-Latham-NY-including-Debra-e1540408876955

As the world’s largest farmland investor, protecting the environment is a priority for TIAA.

“The health of our environment impacts almost every aspect of life, from the air we breathe to the neighborhoods where we live to the food we eat. That is why at TIAA, promoting sustainability is a priority embedded not only in how we engage with our communities, but also in how we do business,” says Gianna Jackson, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility.

To highlight TIAA’s commitment to sustainability, Earthshare worked with TIAA through the EarthShare at Work program to host “Harvest Time”—a special opportunity offered in September that gave their employees a strategic, interactive program of education and volunteerism in support of sustainable agriculture.

An Investment in Sustainability

TIAA is using its position as the largest farmland investor in the world to help meet the growing demand for food in a responsible and sustainable way. While 99% of farmland worldwide is in the hands of farmers, 1% of farmland is owned by investors like TIAA. TIAA’s asset management organization, Nuveen, manages about 2 million acres of farmland in countries including the United States, Australia, Brazil, Chile, and Poland. When investing in farmland, Nuveen seeks to purchase existing agricultural land rather than virgin land or forest (see Nuveen’s Zero Deforestation Policy in Brazil). Their approach respects local laws and best practices for protecting sensitive cultural and environmental areas and includes a rigorous diligence process to protect land rights. Nuveen is also a leader in farmland management transparency, with an interactive online farmland mapping tool and a commitment to UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment Farmland Guidelines, which they helped develop in 2011 and continue to report on each year. Their approach to farmland investment is described in a new primer called How We Invest In Farmland, which was published alongside their 2018 Farmland Sustainability Report.

Nuveen’s farmland investments aim to foster the use of sustainable best practices while also improving farming efficiency by working with its tenants to adapt industry best practices. In Western Poland, a family-run potato and livestock farm is developing circular systems including a biogas plant that will generate electricity from farm waste products. In California, Nuveen acquired a vineyard that was losing 2,500 gallons of water per minute from a leaking reservoir – a critical issue in a state plagued by drought and wildfires. Nuveen’s investment made it possible to fix this leak, helping the vineyard save money and water. Nuveen’s tenant farmers also benefit from best practices that are learned, shared, and sometimes required by Nuveen, including worker safety training, non-flooding irrigation techniques, responsible pesticide application, wastewater conversion, runoff prevention, and a stringent Code of Conduct in Brazil.  These practices impact not only farms, but the communities and regions around them that benefit from improved infrastructure and environmental practices.

TIAA employees hold a mural with honeycomb pattern to support American Farmland Trust during an Earthshare at Work patnership

Employees had a great afternoon together in Iselin, NJ painting a mural that shows the important role bees play in growing food.

Why it Matters: Fostering Awareness and Inspiring Employees

As part of Harvest Time, Sanaz Raczynski, Head of Sustainability at Nuveen Real Assets, hosted a webinar for employees to learn more about the investment and management practices related to farmland. Employees asked questions about issues such as how Nuveen engages non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (they partner with some NGOs to help Nuveen continue to improve the company’s practices) and whether Nuveen farms its own land (approximately 70% of the land they own is leased to tenants and 30% is custom farmed with more involvement to care for permanent crops like trees and vines).

“I enjoyed learning how we take our responsibility seriously as a leader in this space to promote sustainability through our investments,” said Mark Woods, a TIAA Relationship Manager based in Boston. “Specifically, I was very pleased to learn about our zero deforestation policy for Brazil and adherence by our tenants and operators to maintain high standards for labor and human rights practices.”

Through a webinar with EarthShare member American Farmland Trust (AFT), TIAA employees also gained insight into the important role farms play in the United States, as well as some challenges farmers face today. AFT works to save the land that sustains us by protecting U.S. farmland, promoting environmentally sound farming practices, and keeping farmers on the land. AFT is directly involved in strengthening farmland protection programs including the federal Farm Bill, and supporting the next generation of farmers through programs like New York’s Farmlink.

“Why does it matter?” asked AFT President and CEO John Piotti. “We can’t hope for a sustainable future without sustainable agriculture. Everything we do is not just oriented toward growing food—although like our bumper sticker says, ‘No Farms, No Food’—but farms do so much more than provide food. In some places they are the only source of economic viability. They have a role in wildlife habitat and water recharge. They sequester carbon and put it back in the soil, playing an important role in combatting climate change.”

But, Piotti says, farms and the benefits they provide are more at risk than ever before. AFT has recently completed the most comprehensive study of farmland ever undertaken. This initiative, Farms Under Threat, revealed that America lost almost 31 million acres of agricultural land to development between 1992 and 2012, which is nearly double the amount of land previously thought to have been converted. That amounts to 175 acres lost every hour.

a collage of photos showing employee engagement TIAA employees American Farmland Trust recipe cards No Farms No Food EarthShare at Work

TIAA employees helped revitalize the Jubilee Urban Community Garden in southeast Dallas. To celebrate the garden’s revitalization, employees also assembled and distributed AFT recipe cards.

From Awareness to Action

The good news is that AFT and other organizations that protect farmland and sustainable farm/food practices are making these issues public and accessible, with help from chefs, advocates, and companies like TIAA. Employees from TIAA also learned about EarthShare’s Cause Funds, which allow individuals to make high-impact donations to help move the needle on the most urgent issues facing our air, water, land, and wildlife. TIAA’s collective impact over the course of just one month is impressive:

  • 300 employees participated in webinars to deepen understanding about sustainable farming and food
  • 23 volunteer projects held to support American Farmland Trust (AFT) and local community gardens
  • 5545 recipe card packets assembled to be distributed at local farmers markets and conferences
  • 6 murals painted to hang in AFT field offices and agricultural extension offices
  • 750 hours volunteered by employees supporting sustainability projects
  • Projects held in 15 locations across the country

“Painting the mural was a great opportunity for our team to get together. Not only was it a fun project, but it also prompted discussions on hunger and how we can help make a difference in our own communities,” said Debra Kazakavich, Senior Administrative Assistant and Northeast Volunteer Council Member (whose team is featured in the photo at top).

TIAA Bank employees assemble American Farmland Trust recipe card packets at a table EarthShare at Work

TIAA Bank employees in Jacksonville, FL assembled recipe card packets to support AFT.

The collaboration between EarthShare and TIAA is an EarthShare at Work partnership, providing employees with strategic and meaningful volunteer, educational, and philanthropic opportunities that connect them with EarthShare member nonprofits and enable real impact on both global and local environmental issues. This is our third story in a series about the TIAA-EarthShare partnership. See the first story here and our second story here.

To learn more, contact Mary MacDonald at mary@earthshare.org or call her directly at 240-333-0313.