Growing Returns

$1 million USDA award expands public-private partnerships for ag sustainability

A collaboration between Smithfield Foods and Environmental Defense Fund has reduced fertilizer loss and improved soil health on more than 400,000 acres in the regions where Smithfield sources feed grain. That acreage is set to grow thanks to a new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) award of $1,080,000.

The RCPP project will expand Smithfield’s ongoing grain sustainability efforts in North Carolina and scale up the program in Iowa, providing additional opportunities for farmers interested in improving their operations. Participating farmers will be supported by the combined efforts of 16 partner organizations, which include producer groups, government agencies, universities and nonprofits. 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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How the Army prepared me for a conservation career in agriculture

I’ve always been mindful of the environment, but it never struck me that conservation was something you could focus on professionally. It was just something that you cared about.

That’s why my career until now has included a range of other pursuits – playing music professionally and teaching percussion to public school students, collecting and analyzing intelligence in the U.S. Army, and conducting social network analysis for the Department of Defense.

When U.S. military involvement (and thus my own involvement) in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to diminish, I took stock of what was important to me and what I wanted to spend the rest of my career doing. 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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10,000-acre deal to protect sage-grouse marks milestone in conservation

The imperiled greater sage-grouse avoided an endangered species listing in September 2015 after Western landowners, conservation groups, and state and federal agencies forged a plan to protect its habitat. Read more >>

Today, Kinross Gold U.S.A., Inc., will complete the first purchase of habitat credits to offset impacts to greater sage-grouse through the Nevada Conservation Credit System. The transaction will take place at a signing ceremony in Carson City, Nevada to commemorate the long-term stewardship of nearly 10,000 acres of vital sage-grouse habitat.

Kinross is the first company to participate in the program, buying credits to offset the environmental impacts of its Bald Mountain gold mine in northeast Nevada. The credit projects will include a variety of conservation activities, such as grazing management and fencing maintenance, which will take place over the next 30 years.

The transaction marks a significant milestone in the sage-grouse story, and in America’s conservation history. Read More »

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The next Farm Bill can jump-start agricultural conservation. Here’s how.

An Ohio farmer uses the latest agricultural technology.

Precision agriculture technology can accelerate on-farm conservation, including nutrient management. (Photo: John Rae)

Benjamin Franklin, an experimental farmer and author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, once said that in order to succeed, you must jump as quickly at opportunity as you do at conclusions.

The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity for agriculture policy to champion locally led projects, new ideas and entrepreneurship. Such policies can move the needle on conservation outcomes with relatively minimal investment from the federal government. So let’s jump quickly.

In the face of a changing climate, growing population and complex macroeconomic shifts, agricultural resiliency is more important than ever. We need to protect water quality, address climate impacts, establish species habitat and maintain farm profitability. Government alone can’t accomplish these goals. But smart policies can catalyze investments and innovations that do. Read More »

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Why I have more hope than ever for the monarch’s recovery

A monarch butterfly nectars on an eryngo plant at Wagley Ranch on October 11. Read more about the monarch and explore David's notes from the field here.

I recently returned to Wagley Ranch near Mineral Wells, Texas to work with some of the very first landowners participating in the emerging Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange.

The visit was the last on my fall field testing tour of the state, during which I visited five Texas ranchers in just six weeks. It was great to end on a high note at Wagley Ranch, where we had the chance to see southward migrating monarchs. We even saw one monarch feeding on an eryngo plant.

It was a wonderful reminder of why our work with these ranchers is so important, because the habitat they are restoring and enhancing is providing a new home to monarchs. Each acre of healthy habitat restored will support 70 butterflies on their migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico.

So how do we bring these activities to scale in time to save the monarch from extinction? With the right tools, the right practices, and the right people. Read More »

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How John Deere and Cornell can ensure big data benefits farmers and the environment

John Deere combine harvesting soybeans.

5 gigabytes of data is the equivalent of up to 1.6 million emails. (Photo credit: Flickr user Judd McCullum)

Modern farm equipment comes more outfitted than a fully loaded car. These precision farming machines are furnished with multiple sensors that collect data during planting, nutrient application and harvest. A typical farmer now has 5 gigabytes of data, five seasons’ worth, in storage.

This trove of data promises to revolutionize farming, giving farmers unparalleled insights for business and stewardship decisions. Unfortunately, the data collected tends to stay on equipment hard drives, greatly reducing its usefulness to farmers.

A new partnership between John Deere and Cornell University promises to change that. Ag-Analytics, a Cornell data platform, syncs with John Deere’s Operation Center and makes it easier than ever for farmers to access and analyze farm data. Cornell is the first university to integrate with John Deere, and the analytical tools now available to farmers include a crop insurance estimator and yield and risk management forecasts. Read More »

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“We sink or swim together” in the sagebrush sea, and beyond

Western governors, landowners, conservationists and others celebrated the collaborative and bipartisan conservation effort that led to a "not warranted" listing decision for sage-grouse in September 2015.

Today, the Interior Department opened up federal sage-grouse plans to potential changes, despite the concerns of many state, industry, landowner and conservation stakeholders across the country.

John Swartout, a senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, said that it would be bad for Colorado if the sage-grouse plan, developed over years with local and state involvement, was eliminated, for fears that this would lead to a future Endangered Species Act listing.

“We didn’t work this hard to throw it all away and get a listing,” he said, echoing concerns of others that upending the plans could ultimately lead to the sage-grouse being listed.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead reiterated what many western governors have told Secretary Zinke – that the states should be consulted about revisions to the plans because they are ultimately the ones who have to face the consequences if the plans fail and a federal listing is warranted.

“If it was a state by state listing decision, that’d be one thing,” Mead said. “But the way we are with the law right now, if one state gets listed, we all are going to get listed. We sink or swim together.” 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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