Growing Returns

This partnership between environmentalists and corn growers is breaking new ground

Throughout Environmental Defense Fund’s history and my nearly two decades of working on our agriculture team, collaborations with unlikely allies have proven to be a powerful, necessary way to unleash transformative sustainability solutions.

It’s in that spirit that EDF has partnered with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), which represents the interests of more than 300,000 corn farmers, to address one of the most pressing challenges facing our food and agriculture system – how to improve environmental outcomes while optimizing crop productivity and economic performance.

This partnership marks the first time an environmental nonprofit and commodity crop association have joined forces at this scope and scale. Here’s how it came about and what we’ve committed to tackle together. Read More »

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Four near-term market and policy opportunities for increasing agricultural resilience

Every day farmers across the U.S. face unprecedented pressures from a variety of factors, including policy and regulations, markets and trade, and variability in input costs. With extreme weather becoming a new normal and the global population climbing toward 11 billion people by 2100, it is imperative that we build a food and agriculture system that can absorb and recover from these stresses.

This summer, Environmental Defense Fund, National Corn Growers Association and Farm Journal Foundation convened a stakeholder dialogue about the challenges facing the agriculture industry and recommended paths forward.

A new white paper [PDF] summarizes key findings from the discussion, which also included ideas for better equipping farmers with the tools and incentives they need to identify and adopt climate-smart solutions.

Here are four policy and market opportunities that can help boost agricultural resilience. Read More »

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How a farmer ‘think tank’ is shaping agricultural sustainability, far beyond the field

One of the best parts of my job at Environmental Defense Fund is working with our farmer advisory network – a group of 19 producers who farm across the Corn Belt and Great Plains on operations ranging in size from about 5,000 acres to 30,000 acres.

EDF's advisers farm across the heartland, from Minnesota to Texas, and from Idaho to Ohio.

They’re brilliant business people who know how conservation can benefit their bottom line. With their guidance, we’re making real progress aligning economic and environmental outcomes for agriculture.

Here’s how this unique partnership came about, and three of the most important areas of progress we’ve made through our collaboration over the past eight years. Read More »

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USDA newcomer Bill Northey has 3 big opportunities to scale ag resilience and productivity nationwide

In his new role at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Undersecretary Bill Northey will oversee agencies and programs that are vital to agricultural resilience and productivity, including the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency. His portfolio will include crop insurance, conservation, disaster assistance and producer lending services.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with Northey and have appreciated his collaborative approach, which I think will be an asset to USDA in pursuing gains in productivity and conservation.

As he leads ag sustainability efforts at USDA, Northey has three big opportunities to scale conservation and productivity innovations nationwide. Read More »

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Sorting through nutrient management marketing claims

Farmer and advisor in a corn field putting precision agriculture technology to use

Farmers need assurance that a nutrient management tool is worth their investment.

Farmers and their advisors face increasing challenges from low crop prices, extreme weather and pressure to improve water quality. A growing marketplace of tools and products promises to help meet these challenges, but has in turn created a new problem: information overload.

This problem is especially acute for precision management of nutrients, one of the fastest growing agricultural sub-sectors. Companies promise their nutrient efficiency tools and products will enable farmers to grow more with less, save money and boost yields. But there is often little available data behind these claims.

As one of the farmers I regularly turn to for advice put it, “We (farmers) need a ‘Big Sort’” – something that sorts through this flood of information, separates the wheat from the chaff and helps farmers make informed decisions about what will work best for them.

To initiate this “Big Sort,” Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) teamed up with a group of experts in technology and nutrient management to develop NutrientStar, which helps farmers determine which products deliver on their promises and are worth the investment. Read More »

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Improving water quality is a shared responsibility

Iowa farmer Denny Friest surveys his fields from his combine.

Iowa farmer Denny Friest (Photo credit: John Rae)

I spent the summer meeting with farmers, commodity groups and food companies in the Midwest to discuss collaborative conservation approaches. Whether we were in Missouri, Iowa or Minnesota, water quality was top of mind.

Agriculture has a large impact on water quality – the sector is the source of 70 percent of the nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and cause dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have made big strides on implementing and scaling conservation measures to improve water quality and agriculture’s overall environmental footprint. Unsung heroes like Tim Richter, Kristin Duncanson and Denny Friest are constantly fine-tuning nutrient and soil management with new efficiency tools, finding better ways to implement cover crops or reduce tillage, installing wetlands and buffers, and introducing new crops into their rotations. Read More »

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This Illinois farmer is breaking down siloes. Here’s how.

My first impression of Len Corzine was that he isn’t the kind of guy who sits back and waits for people to bring him ideas on how to innovate or improve stewardship – he actively searches for them himself. He then shares these ideas with peers and colleagues.

When I visited Len’s farm in Assumption, Illinois, five years ago, I immediately saw that Len was an early adopter of tools and technologies to help him grow more with less. Like a kid with a brand new bike, Len could not wait to show me the computer software he was using for soil samples and variable rate application of nutrients, or the maps that helped guide his every decision.

To date, Len’s farm has reduced soil erosion, cut fertilizer use per bushel by half, and adopted satellite-guidance technology in its tractors to reduce fuel and chemical use. All while yield productivity has increased 80 percent. Read More »

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3 ways the Farm Bill can protect croplands from extreme weather

Photo Credit: Flickr user Benjamin Disinger (License)

Here’s a statement that everyone can agree on, regardless of politics: Farmers benefit from making their croplands more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Report after report, including a study this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, has shown that shifting climatic conditions will hit agriculture hard, threatening food supplies and farmers’ incomes. This week’s report found that in years when the Arctic was warmer than normal, the average decline in yields across the United States was as high as 4 percent – and in Texas, corn yields were as low as 20 percent of what they are in typical years.

Farmers can take steps to protect their operations from extreme weather – but they can’t do it alone.

The 2018 Farm Bill can and should play a powerful role in helping farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions by prioritizing and supporting public-private partnerships, innovation, and financial models that can accelerate deployment of conservation practices.

Read More »

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What does the end of the Paris deal mean for agricultural innovation?

Agriculture has faced increasing disruption from extreme weather and climate shifts over the past 40 years.

In the face of an ever-changing climate, agricultural innovation is more important than ever.

No matter your views on climate change, the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement could compromise the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

In the absence of federal leadership, individual farmers, state and national ag associations, food companies, retailers, and environmental organizations will need to fill the void.

I’m confident we can do this, because all the farmers I’ve ever known are incredible innovators and are willing to implement practices that can mitigate the effects of an unpredictable climate – practices that also protect their businesses. Read More »

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A call to help us strengthen the economic case for sustainability practices

Green tractor on Iowa corn farm

Visiting my friend and Iowa corn farmer, Tim Richter.

Before installing a new heating system for your home, you’d want to conduct an analysis to make sure it’s worth the money, right? The same logic applies to farming – before a producer considers implementing conservation practices or new technologies, he or she will need to know how those practices will affect an operation’s bottom line.

Despite some good anecdotal information and several isolated field trial studies, the reality is we don’t have nearly enough information on the economic impacts – good or bad – of individual conservation practices. That means we cannot yet make an ironclad business case that will persuade the majority of farmers to implement conservation practices.

There are several key reasons for the dearth of information, and that’s partly my fault.

I’m hoping you can look past this and consider my call to work together to collect the necessary data to strengthen the case. Our food, livelihoods and landscapes depend on it. Read More »

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