Growing Returns

“60 Minutes” interview with Land O’Lakes CEO underscores urgency of climate resilience

Sunday’s edition of “60 Minutes” featuring an interview with Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford put an urgent spotlight on the struggles that farmers are feeling from weather, tariffs and low prices.

From massive rainfall in the Midwest to flash droughts across the South, extreme weather is becoming a top concern among farmers, many of whom are acknowledging that climate change is impacting their operations, and they’re committing to resilience strategies. EDF’s farmer partners are telling us firsthand how climate change is altering their livelihoods, and they are thirsty for climate-smart tools and practices.

Ford rightly hones in on the role that technology plays in helping farmers hedge against the unpredictable in today’s tough environment and economy. Precision ag tools and technologies optimize inputs to achieve a more robust crop yield, in addition to healthier soils, improved water quality and other environmental benefits.

Technology is essential to advancing sustainability, but not without the corresponding informational, financial and policy drivers that will ultimately help us reach the goal of a resilient agricultural system. Read More »

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A new guide for farmers to boost profits through conservation

As the struggling U.S. farm economy continues to make the news, agricultural organizations, government agencies and conservation groups are rightly focusing their attention on the affordability of conservation adoption.

A 2018 report from EDF and agricultural accounting firm K·Coe Isom, Farm Finance and Conservation, found that farmers who adopt conservation practices such as no-till, nutrient optimization, cover crops and diverse rotations improved their profitability and were more resilient.

Despite these benefits, the costs of transitioning to conservation management practices can be a barrier to adoption. In addition, any change carries some risk, and farmers are likely to be reluctant to take on additional risk in the current economic climate.

For these reasons, it is more important than ever to provide farmers with practical guidance on how to minimize the costs and risks of conservation adoption. Fortunately, a new technical bulletin from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture does just that.

Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops [PDF] describes seven different management scenarios in which farmers can speed their transition to cover crops and achieve profitability more quickly — in some cases within the first year of adoption. Read More »

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How conservation can enhance a farm’s financial health — even in challenging times

With the U.S.-China trade war and flooding in the Midwest continuing to make headlines, national attention is focused on the increasing economic challenges facing farmers and their families.

After years of weak commodity prices, these financial stresses are adding up. In the Corn Belt, farm bankruptcies are at the highest level in over a decade.

Given this challenging economic outlook, some might assume that farmers will abandon conservation efforts and focus exclusively on their finances. However, many of the financial best practices cited by farmers and encouraged by farm financial advisers are the very same principles that can help farmers continue to improve environmental outcomes. Here are four examples. Read More »

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Three takeaways from the largest-ever dataset about fertilizer management in North Carolina

In the face of uncertainty about everything from variable weather to market prices, fertilizer is one variable that farmers can control — but only if they have access to actionable, scientific information about how to select the appropriate application rate and tools.

A new report, Nitrogen management in North Carolina agriculture: Results from five years of on-farm research [PDF], helps fill this need. It provides the most comprehensive dataset ever collected about on-farm nitrogen management practices in North Carolina to identify fertilizer solutions that increase operational resilience, and improve economic and environmental outcomes.

These findings are the result of five years of participatory on-farm research through the North Carolina Farmer Network, a group of crop consultants and nearly 100 farmers across 26 counties in North Carolina’s eastern Coastal Plain.

The network formed through a collaboration between Environmental Defense Fund, North Carolina Farm Bureau, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, and others.

As grain farmers and their advisers gear up for the 2019 growing season, here are three top findings from the network’s research to consider. Read More »

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Three ways to address increasing flood risk in the Midwest

Historic flooding across the Great Plains and Midwest has been devastating. While waters may be receding, farmers and communities aren’t out of the woods yet. Recovery will be costly and lengthy, and additional floods could be around the corner.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that more than 200 million Americans living in 25 states face elevated flood risk through May, and the risks go far beyond this year. The fourth National Climate Assessment predicts precipitation across the Midwest will increase in severity and frequency in the years ahead.

The region needs a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the dangers of excess water and increase the ability of working lands to withstand and recover from extreme precipitation. Contingency planning will be complex and constantly evolving, but it must do these three things to be successful. Read More »

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What food companies can learn from Smithfield Foods exceeding its grain sustainability goal

“Can you help us achieve this?”

That was the question that Smithfield Foods’ chief sustainability officer asked Environmental Defense Fund more than five years ago, after Walmart challenged the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor to improve sustainability in its feed grain supply.

At the time, very few food companies considered grain sustainability to be their responsibility, and even fewer were taking steps to improve that segment of their supply chain. But Smithfield responded to Walmart’s challenge.

In 2013, the company committed to work with grain farmers in its supply chain to adopt farming practices that would optimize fertilizer and build soil health on 75 percent of the area from which Smithfield directly sources grain — about 450,000 acres. EDF partnered with Smithfield to figure out how to reach this goal.

Smithfield announced today that it exceeded that goal, improving practices on 560,000 acres in 2018. Read More »

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New resources help farmers and advisers maximize sustainability and profitability

Winter is a critical planning period for farmers and their advisers. As they gear up for the 2019 growing season, a new set of resources can help build operational resilience in the near- and long-term.

Sustainability Programming for Ag Retailers and CCAs (SPARC) was recently launched by the Agricultural Retailers Association, the American Society of Agronomy, Environmental Defense Fund and Field to Market to provide farmer advisers with resources and training modules to help producers continuously improve agronomic and environmental outcomes.

Here’s why advisers should take advantage of SPARC resources as they help farmers plan for the year ahead. Read More »

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The solution to agriculture’s water quality impacts is bigger than WOTUS

The Clean Water Act continues to provide critical protections for America’s drinking water, lakes and streams. While this bedrock, bipartisan law put the worst industrial water pollution largely behind us, the hard work of addressing nonpoint source pollution remains.

Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) regulations were created to help mitigate nonpoint source pollution and protect isolated wetlands, but the long-running controversy over the scope of WOTUS illustrates the limitations to using broad and blunt regulations to solve complex problems.

Nutrient runoff from farms is one of the causes of dead zones and contaminated groundwater – the drinking water source for nearly half of all Americans. In addition, 43 million Americans, mostly in rural communities, drink water from private wells – 16 percent of which contain groundwater that exceeds federal nitrate limits.

As WOTUS revisions make their way through a public comment period and face likely legal challenges, water quality improvements can’t wait. Here’s why, and what we can do in the meantime. Read More »

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How Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company, is becoming a leader in water conservation

Even in the depths of winter it’s easy to bite into a plump blackberry or a delicate red raspberry, thanks to Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company.

In late 2018, I traveled to the Pajaro Valley, west of Santa Cruz, for a tour of a Driscoll’s research facility, which provided an eye-opening view into how this family-owned company has become an agriculture leader selling berries every month of the year, and why they are so committed to water conservation.

Our tour was part of the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, a conference limited to 50 water scholars and senior water managers from around the world. We saw how Driscoll’s sustainability priorities translate into on-the-ground action for the company and its hundreds of independent growers.

Inspired by a presentation by James duBois, Driscoll’s senior manager of global environmental impact, I followed up with him to ask a few questions and dig a bit deeper into the company’s water management efforts. Here is what James shared with me. Read More »

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Three ways the farm bill will help western states adapt to drought

The bipartisan farm bill that President Trump signed into law today contains far-reaching provisions to conserve water and build drought resilience in the American West.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and other western lawmakers recognized the importance of providing more funding to support the region’s crucial and increasingly stressed water systems.

Western legislators secured planning and cost-share funding for groundwater recharge work in California, a critical improvement in the law as producers begin the challenging task of bringing groundwater basins back into balance under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The new provisions in the farm bill also could help farmers and water agencies develop and fund projects that improve drought resilience and planning in the Colorado River basin, where the river supplies water for 40 million people and 6 million acres of farmland each year.

Here are three key provisions that stand out for helping to enable farmers and water managers in the western U.S. adapt to a world with less water: Read More »

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