Growing Returns

How ag retailers are helping improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay

Farmers in front of a tractor Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN® platform – a powerful tool that can make a real impact in improving regional water quality — is coming to the Chesapeake Bay.

The Mill®, a large agricultural retail company, today became the first business in the area to utilize SUSTAIN in Maryland and Pennsylvania. SUSTAIN provides ag retailers with tools and training in best practices for fertilizer efficiency and soil health – such as cover crops and precision ag technologies – while maintaining the potential for high yields. Retail staff then bring this knowledge to the farmers they serve, meaning that one retail location can reach hundreds of farmers.

That’s why the platform, co-developed by Environmental Defense Fund, is taking off. Thus far, 27 ag retailers across the country have been trained, and food companies such as Smithfield Foods, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, and Kellogg are connecting to the SUSTAIN platform as a way to meet their corporate sustainability goals.

I asked Ben Hushon, owner of The Mill, to tell me what this means for the Bay, for his company, and for farmers. Read More »

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Cover crops: a new opportunity for ag retailers

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

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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How this ag retailer is changing the entire U.S. food production system

Man in a farm field

United Suppliers' Matt Carstens

In 2014, Walmart challenged its suppliers to find ways to reduce fertilizer runoff from farms – which can cause air and water pollution and mean wasted money for farmers. The target was food companies whose supply chains use large quantities of fertilizer for commodity crops like corn, and the goal was to improve efficiency in their supply chains. Two years later, nearly 20 Walmart suppliers have signed on to the initiative, spawning a trend in which supplier commitments drive tangible changes on American farms.

At the heart of this fertilizer efficiency trend is Matt Carstens, VP of Crop Nutrients for United Suppliers and the force behind a sustainability platform for farmers called SUSTAIN, developed in coordination with Environmental Defense Fund.

SUSTAIN trains ag retailers on the best practices for fertilizer efficiency and soil health. As ag retailers are a primary source of advice for farmers, the retailers then bring this important knowledge to the farmers they serve.

SUSTAIN is proving to be popular as a way for food companies to connect directly with farmers in their sourcing areas. Thus far, Smithfield Foods, Campbell’s Soup, and Unilever are all using SUSTAIN as part of their sustainable sourcing efforts. And Kellogg’s is the latest big brand to jump on board, with an announcement today that they, too, will be using SUSTAIN.

I asked Matt to explain the reason for this trend, why ag retailers believe in SUSTAIN, and how he got involved in the ag retail world. Read More »

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From Southwestern India to Iowa: Why farming is at the heart of sustainability

Hiking in India

Studying in the Western Ghats region of India.

When I was younger, I fantasized about becoming a Jane Goodall for the millennial generation. I imagined living in the wilderness to study animals’ behavior and help conserve land. During college, I briefly lived out my dream when I spent a summer in the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats region of India, living and working on a private wildlife sanctuary where I studied the local flora.

The sanctuary was an island of preserved land, surrounded by vast farms that dominated the region’s landscape. While there, I had an epiphany – one that brought me back to my own family’s agricultural history on a farm in Iowa.

I realized that if we don’t work with farmers to conserve wild places, we will never be able to create truly sustainable environments for animals and humans. If I really wanted to make an impact on the Ghats region and its biodiversity, I’d need to move beyond a private sanctuary and back toward my family’s farming roots.

India showed me first-hand the need to partner with farmers. Spending summers on my family’s farm in Iowa and steering the tractor with my grandfather taught me to appreciate the integral role farmers play in maintaining balance in the ecosystem – and that farming is incredibly hard work. Both of these experiences still influence my agricultural career, which is focused on deploying the SUSTAIN™ platform, developed by United Suppliers, Inc. in coordination with EDF, to assist growers in improving fertilizer efficiency and soil health. Read More »

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How an ag retail program is scaling up sustainable practices

shutterstock_144822175SUSTAIN™ is continuing to gain momentum with food companies and government agencies.

Just today, the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, said it would begin using the platform to reduce nutrient losses across its Midwest sourcing areas. And last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $720 million in funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCCP) to advance sustainable practices. SUSTAIN is part of two RCPPs in Illinois and Iowa that will encourage more growers to engage in voluntary nutrient management and conservation practices.

SUSTAIN was developed by United Suppliers, Inc., a cooperative of agricultural retailers whose customers span 45 million acres across the U.S. and Canada, in coordination with EDF. The program trains ag retailers in using proven, effective technologies, practices, and products that advance sustainable agriculture. The retail staff then bring this knowledge to the growers they serve.

This unique business model has the potential to bring sustainable farming measures to scale. One ag retail location can for example reach hundreds of growers and thousands of acres.

Here are the details on why these two announcements mean a big leap forward for agricultural sustainability. Read More »

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How this ag retailer is helping farmers scale the sustainability mountain


SUSTAIN-authorized retailer Jake Rechkemmer

Eighteen months ago, I’d never heard of United Suppliers – a cooperative of 560 locally owned and controlled agricultural retailers who operate nearly 2,500 retail locations that serve 45 million acres in the U.S. and Canada.

Now, I spend 75 percent of my work day focused on the SUSTAIN™ platform, developed by United Suppliers in coordination with Environmental Defense Fund. SUSTAIN works to train and authorize ag retailers on tools, technologies and practices for fertilizer optimization and improved soil health – without sacrificing yield.

And SUSTAIN is on fire – by the end of this year, over 200 ag retail employees will be authorized as SUSTAIN representatives, and General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, Kellogg's, and Smithfield Foods are all using or will use the platform in their sustainable sourcing efforts.

Part of the platform’s success is due to its unique model – it’s deployed through existing, trusted relationships that growers already have with their ag retailer. That’s why I asked SUSTAIN-authorized retailer Jake Rechkemmer, agronomy manager at Dunkerton Coop in Dunkerton, Iowa, to tell me about his SUSTAIN journey. Read More »

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When landowners invest in sustainability, everyone wins

19007_Aerial View of Field.JPGForty percent of the U.S. is taken up by farmland. Yet only half of these acres are actually owned by active farmers. In the Corn Belt, 70 percent of growers rent some portion of their land from a non-farming landlord. And the biggest growth in non-farming landowners is coming from investors that see farmland ownership as a good business opportunity.

Here’s the problem: non-farming landlords aren’t always informed on the best ways to care for the farm, which can present environmental and economic challenges for tenants and the owners themselves.

As more non-farmers buy up cropland, government agencies, organizations, and even the private sector will need to ramp up efforts to educate landowners on the importance of soil health, fertilizer efficiency, and other conservation measures in protecting their farm’s value and making the land more resilient to extreme weather events.

Non-farming landowners can be a powerful partner in reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint at scale and ensuring food productivity in the future. Plus, when landowners invest in sustainability and collaborate with those farming their lands, everyone wins – growers, landowners, consumers, and the planet. Read More »

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Strong market signal for sustainable grain


Walmart, Smithfield Foods and USDA discuss sustainable agriculture in St. Louis.

The agricultural supply chain is shifting towards demanding more sustainably produced grains, according to some of the country’s biggest food companies and retailers.

Representatives from Walmart, Smithfield Foods, and USDA recently discussed the importance of and increased consumer demand for agricultural sustainability in front of 100 agricultural retailers in St Louis. They were there for a meeting convened by United Suppliers, Inc., with a primary focus of the company’s SUSTAIN™ platform.

Three messages were clear:

  • Demand for more sustainable crops is here to stay.
  • Growers’ connection with the consumers of their products is increasing.
  • Fertilizer optimization and soil health offer a business opportunity for growers, ag retailers, and food companies alike.

Read More »

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SUSTAIN: navigating the boom in precision ag

There’s new proof that precision agriculture is on the rise.

Earlier this month, CropLife magazine and Purdue University released a survey that found more than 85 percent of agricultural retailers plan on investing in precision agriculture services in the next year. And more than 15 percent of the 2,000 retailers surveyed will invest over $100,000.

This is good news for increasing fertilizer efficiency, because precision technologies can go a long way toward helping farmers know when and where to apply fertilizer. Applying fertilizer when, where, and in the amounts it’s needed can help save on input costs and reduce the environmental impacts that occur when excess nitrogen runs off into nearby waters or is released into the air.

But there’s a caveat – with so many precision agriculture tools available today and even more coming to market on a regular basis, how is a farmer to know what is best? Growers need to have confidence that precision ag tools will help them optimize their fertilizer use, improve their farm’s sustainability, and protect their yields. Read More »

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Why you won’t see an eco-label on your corn flakes anytime soon

Corn cereal

Credit: Flickr user Mike Mozart

Corn affects every person in the United States.

It is grown on about 90 million acres, an area roughly the size of Montana. Corn is ubiquitous in the products we buy, from shampoo and sodas to ethanol and animal feed.

The crop also uses the majority of nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture, requiring more nitrogen than soybeans, cotton and wheat combined. Nitrogen is necessary to produce corn. But when nitrogen is over-applied, crops cannot absorb it all – and this can lead to air and water pollution.

Fortunately, figuring out ways to use nutrients more efficiently to reduce loss improves a farmer’s bottom line. It also gives them a competitive advantage, as more and more food companies are embracing sustainability and fertilizer efficiency as a way to reduce risk in their supply chains. Read More »

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