What would it take for a Nebraska corn farmer to grow milkweed for monarch butterflies?

EDF is working to develop the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange to engage the agricultural community in the fight against extinction.

EDF is working to develop the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange to engage the agricultural community in the fight against extinction.

Virtually every farmer and rancher in America has room for conservation on their land. But deciding whether or not to enroll acres in a conservation program requires just as much business sense as deciding which crops to grow on other acres. It’s a matter of cost and return on investment.

My team and I traveled to Nebraska earlier this month to meet with a few corn and soybean farmers to get a sense of what the costs and benefits might be of dedicating some acres – namely marginal lands with low crop productivity, as well as roadsides and field edges – to growing milkweed habitat for the monarch butterfly. What we found was that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Read More »

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California’s new nitrogen assessment highlights promising solutions for reducing fertilizer losses

Sara KroopfA team of researchers spent seven years dissecting, analyzing and reporting on California’s nitrogen cycle, and the results are eye-opening.

Nearly 2 million tons of nitrogen are imported into the state each year. Almost a quarter of it is lost through leaching into groundwater – with runoff from cropland accounting for nearly 90 percent of this leaching. Excess nitrates in drinking water can cause health problems when consumed by at risk populations. Four percent of the state’s nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But the California Nitrogen Assessment (CNA), released by UC Davis’ Agriculture Sustainability Institute, also provides a never before seen level of detail on nitrogen movement in the state. There’s no silver bullet for reducing environmental impacts while keeping growers profitable. Yet information is power and the more we know, the more we can tailor and prioritize solutions.

The UC Davis team investigated various political, social and economic ideas for reestablishing our state’s nitrogen balance. Two of the most promising solutions for California agriculture to address what the CNA calls “critical control points” include enhancing fertilizer efficiency and expanding carbon markets for agriculture. Read More »

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Cover crops: a new opportunity for ag retailers

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

For the fourth year in a row, a nationwide farmer survey found a boost in soybean and corn yields following the planting of cover crops. That’s in part why cover crop usage increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012 among the farmers surveyed.

Cover crops are also great for the environment, since they help keep excess nutrients in the field and out of waterways. Yet only around 2 percent of all U.S. farmland uses cover crops, an alarmingly low figure.

That leaves a ton of room for improvement, which could result in huge environmental gains – and a new business opportunity for ag retailers.

Ag retailers that offer expertise on and sell cover crops to their famer customers can get in on this rapidly growing trend. And in so doing, gain customer loyalty and stand out from competitors. Read More »

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The snake at the crux of California's wildlife challenge, and the policy that can solve it

Giant garter snake

Giant garter snake (license)

Enter the giant garter snake. The giant garter snake is an aquatic species native to California and a federally-listed “threatened” species that largely persists today – along with many other critters – in the vast acreage of Central Valley rice fields and water distribution canals.

In the past, seasonal floods would transform California’s Central Valley into a great inland sea of floodplain habitats teeming with fish and wildlife, including the giant garter snake.

Over time, development of the flood and irrigation systems that enabled the Central Valley’s $17 billion agricultural economy has led to the destruction of 95 percent of the region’s historic wetlands, putting countless California wildlife at risk of extinction.

For example, ongoing flood system operations and maintenance activities—required to protect farms and communities in the floodplain—continue to disrupt giant garter snake habitat. What’s more, when drought or fallowing reduces water deliveries to rice growers, the snake’s remaining habitat can dry up.

We need a better way to protect and restore habitat for wildlife like the giant garter snake, before it's too late.

Read More »

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How coastal restoration in Louisiana is helping rural communities in the Midwest

Hunkering down in a duck blind with my dad on the Cuivre River, which feeds into the Mississippi.

Clang. A knot of rusted chains pulls shut the driveway gate, bringing it closed with a final smack against a worn fence post. Just like that, my Sunday afternoon visit to our family farm in Clarksville, Missouri ends. After a quick trip home to Saint Louis, it’s time to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. for my internship.

But not before my dad asks, “Do you want to see downtown?”. I laugh, but agree to check it out. “Downtown” is a relative term in Clarksville – a quiet river community with fewer than 500 residents.

The streets slope down to the shoreline, where historic buildings meet the Mighty Mississippi. A few barges float nearby, unperturbed by the currents that pull toward the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a calm day on the river. I spot a sign emblazoned with a familiar red and white Army Corps castle. Just ahead, a concrete arm extends across the channel. Read More »

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Why sustainable food can’t be a luxury

Photo credit: Don Graham

Photo credit: Don Graham

The results are in, so food companies take notice: American consumers are educating themselves on our food system, and they’re increasingly asking for sustainably produced foods. That’s a key takeaway from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s new report on consumer attitudes toward food.

It's an exciting trend, since what we buy sends a signal across the supply chain for farmers to grow ingredients in ways that protect our natural resources, and for food companies to source sustainably grown products. Sustainably produced food also supports food security, which is essential to our continued prosperity.

Yet sustainably grown products are almost always more expensive to produce than their unsustainable counterparts, which is why many farmers require a premium for changing their production practices to reduce environmental impacts.

To improve air and water quality and protect farmers’ livelihoods, sustainability can’t just be a luxury. Sustainable food production has to become business as usual.

Here’s why we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.

Read More »

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