Growing Returns

Farmers open their books to show financial impact of conservation

Farm accountants have a lot more to offer than advice on how to maximize tax returns. In fact, they play a pivotal role in scaling conservation.

Environmental Defense Fund and K·Coe Isom AgKnowledge, a managerial accounting service for farmers and ranchers, teamed up with three Midwestern grain farmers to study how the adoption of conservation practices affects farm budgets.

These farmers, based in Iowa, Kansas, and Ohio, have all adopted some combination of no-till, crop rotations, cover crops and nutrient management. They were generous enough to open up their books so that AgKnowledge could analyze the financial impact of these conservation activities.

The full report will be out later this year, but initial results show how conservation can benefit farmers’ bottom lines. Here are three lessons we learned from this analysis. Read More »

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3 reasons animal agriculture should be leading the way on supply chain sustainability

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that Americans will eat a record-breaking amount of meat in 2018 [PDF] – 223 pounds per person of chicken, pork and beef. That’s why I went to Atlanta last week to speak to environmental managers for the nation’s largest meat companies at a conference held by the North American Meat Institute.

My message for those I met? Animal agriculture should be leading the way in addressing the full impacts of their supply chains, from feed grain production all the way to the consumer.

Read More »

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3 steps to close the conservation data gap between farmers and investors

Farmer Scott Henry stands in a soybean field with a tablet computer.

Sustainable agriculture must be economically viable. Photo credit: Leslie Von Pless

In addition to benefiting the environment, on-farm conservation practices tend to create economic value for farmers and surrounding communities. Anecdotal examples of these benefits abound – fertilizer efficiency saves farmers money; no-till lowers labor and fuel expenses; and buffers and wetlands reduce downstream flood risk and drinking water treatment costs.

Quantifying them, however, remains a major challenge. The resulting data gap limits broader adoption of conservation measures.

Farmers care about stewardship, but many conservation practices require large upfront investment or take too long to produce returns. At the same time, investors want to help farmers generate financial and environmental benefits, but a lack of economic data holds them back, according to a study from Encourage Capital [PDF] and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Read More »

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How an innovative corn supply chain model can empower companies to help farmers

Grain elevator. Credit: Flickr user Wilson Hui

A new study out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that trying to make supply chains more sustainable is not for the faint of heart, especially when it comes to food – and corn in particular.

Companies are keenly aware that consumers care about where their ingredients come from and how they were grown, and that improving efficiencies along the supply chain can be good for business. But the raw ingredients at the end of those chains are typically produced by a vast network of farmers who bring their corn to regional grain elevators and then sell their crops to grain traders. This is just the start of a lengthy and complicated process that can be challenging for food companies to disentangle and understand, let alone influence to become more sustainable.

That’s why the new study, which focuses on a corn supply chain model developed by the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise (NiSE), can be an important tool for empowering food companies with information that can help them tackle the tough job of supply chain sustainability.  Read More »

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3 ways Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods could affect agriculture and the environment

Photo credit: USDA

The vast majority of the media stories surrounding Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods have focused on how the deal could affect the cost of food, home delivery services, competition in the retail space and our overall shopping experiences.

While it’s still too early to predict what exactly Amazon will do with hundreds of new brick and mortar grocery stores, here are three possible implications for farmers and the land they rely on to grow our food.

1. Demand for organic could skyrocket

As of last month, organic products represented more than 5 percent of all grocery sales in the US – and organics have been one of the strongest areas of growth for many retailers and grocery stores.

Now, with Whole Foods under the Amazon umbrella, that demand could increase exponentially. POLITICO noted that if this happens, “domestic organic acreage isn’t positioned to handle such an expansion.” Read More »

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How Smithfield’s landmark climate goal benefits farmers and the planet

Smithfields foods will reduce emissions in its supply chainsSmithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork company, is known as a leader in animal agriculture. Now Smithfield is showing its sustainability leadership by becoming the first major livestock company to make an absolute, supply chain commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change.

The company will reduce emissions in its U.S. supply chain, from feed grain to packaged bacon, 25 percent by 2025. To meet the goal, Smithfield will improve fertilizer use on feed grain, install advanced manure management technologies, and increase energy efficiency in transportation.

When a company as big as Smithfield makes a new sustainability commitment, it’s natural for farmers and neighboring communities to wonder how it will affect them. The good news is that all the actions Smithfield plans will generate benefits both for farmers and our environment.

Here are three: Read More »

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Why sustainable food can’t be a luxury

Farm

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.

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Controlled drainage is the new black

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

NC State University’s agriculture water management expert Mohamed Youssef, Ph.D, believes the time is ripe for controlled drainage to make a comeback.

Controlled drainage is one of the most effective ways to minimize nitrogen loss from croplands. It’s a management practice involving the use of a control structure installed at the outlet of a drainage ditch or subsurface drain to regulate drainage water outflow according to plant needs and field operations.

“A controlled drainage system can remove between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen present in runoff, if used at a large scale. These systems hold huge potential to reduce pollution from very large flows of water runoff,” Youssef explained during my recent visit to NC State’s demonstration farms in eastern North Carolina.

Despite the promise, adoption rates for this practice remain very low, in part because of functionality problems with the first controlled drainage structures. But thanks to new advances in the technology that I recently viewed in the field, adoption rates are rising.

Like any filter practice, controlled drainage is just one tool that can help solve regional water quality problems. It’s not a silver bullet, especially with some geographic limitations since they can be used only on low-sloping fields. While there is no perfect solution to stop farm runoff, after seeing drainage systems first-hand, I too believe we’re nearing a tipping point for widespread adoption of controlled drainage in agriculture – and big environmental benefits. Here’s the story. Read More »

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3 ways NGOs can help sustainable supply chains grow

Woman on a farmEarlier this week, a former sustainability executive with McDonald’s delivered a wake-up call for environmental groups, listing “5 ways that NGOs stunt sustainability.” In this article, Bob Langert explains the ways that nonprofits are failing to help companies turn sustainability commitments into on-the-ground results. In the context of sustainable palm oil, he notes:

“You can’t just go after big brands and expect them to manage a supply chain that has them seven stages removed, starting with the smallholders, to mills, then plantations, to storage facilities, refineries, ingredient manufacturers and then product manufacturers, then into a final product a retailer sells, such as ice cream, a granola bar or shampoo — with palm as a minute ingredient.”

He’s right – sustainability in supply chains, especially in agriculture, is incredibly complex. So how can environmental groups effectively champion sustainability progress throughout global supply chains, from the C-suite to crop fields?  Here are three ideas. Read More »

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Unlocking the black box of agricultural supply chains

Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative at the University of Minnesota.

Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative at the University of Minnesota.

The corn supply chain is a complex, ever-changing, and often unpredictable system. Measuring the environmental impacts of grain production can be just as complex and daunting – especially with thousands of players involved.

Understanding corn’s environmental footprint is fundamental to generating solutions that help farmers improve efficiencies and reduce fertilizer losses and hold companies accountable for meeting and measuring the success of their sustainability goals.

That’s why EDF partnered with the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise to develop a feed grain transport model that estimates emissions from grain farming. Northstar is a program within the university’s Institute on the Environment, which has deep expertise in the complex agricultural supply chain and is able to connect the dots between products on the shelves and their environmental impacts. As I’ve blogged before, EDF believes this kind of increased transparency is good for consumers and businesses themselves.

I asked Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative, to elaborate on the team's research and on the importance of data collection and measurement in agriculture.
Read More »

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