Growing Returns

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.

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Climate-resilient agriculture requires both global and local action. Here’s how.

2017 saw 16 weather and climate disasters that cost a billion dollars or more, from freezes and hail, to fires and flooding. Agricultural losses from Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria and California wildfires alone totaled more than $5.7 billion – and counting.

With extreme weather becoming more common, we all have a stake in building a food system that can absorb and recover from such stress. A resilient food supply equips farmers with the tools and incentives to find climate-smart solutions, and that requires action globally and locally. 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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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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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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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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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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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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Bridging the gap between farm and table

As a student at the George Washington University (GWU), I’ve had the privilege to attend classes taught by Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and current Executive Director of Sustainability at GWU.

I recently reconnected with Dr. Merrigan at a Washington, D.C. event called Transformers: Food, where she spoke on a panel about how technology and science are changing agriculture, revolutionizing modern food systems and changing the way we consume food.

Afterward, we sat down to talk about how farmers and consumers are adapting to these changes, and what we can look forward to as new movements arise.

At the Transformers: Food event, you mentioned that our society has recently become fixated with food and agriculture. What do you think has fueled this fascination? Read More »

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