Selected tag(s): agriculture

What was left off the menu at the WSJ Global Food Forum?

jenny-ahlen-croppedMany of us spend a considerable amount of time thinking about food – whether it’s deciding what’s for dinner or how healthy something is for our family. Given that I work on food sustainability and am married to a chef, I spend an even more extreme amount of time thinking about food.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal hosted the first annual Global Food Forum in New York City – more proof that food and agricultural issues are increasingly on the radar screens of many executives, including those from Walmart, Campbell’s Soup, Panera, Perdue, Monsanto and many more.

I was eager to attend the event and hear the discussions among some of the most powerful food companies out there. They covered many topics including food safety, “clean” labels, biotechnology, antibiotic use and the humane treatment of animals.

All important stuff – but given the prestige of the event, I’d like to bring up the elephant in the room (or more accurately the elephant not in the room): sustainability. The environmental impacts of agriculture were barely touched upon, and considering the corporate heavyweights who were in the room, this was a missed opportunity on a massive scale. Read More »

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Farmers are helping to heal the Chesapeake Bay, but they can’t do it alone

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Callie Eideberg, EDF's new senior policy manager for sustainable agriculture.

We often hear about the deep-rooted water quality challenges in the Chesapeake Bay, and how not enough progress is being made. While agriculture, urban/suburban runoff, vehicle emissions, and other sources share responsibility for the bay’s poor health, all too often farmers shoulder most of the blame.

Earlier this month, USDA released the Chesapeake Bay Progress Report, which revealed that since 2009, federal investments helped area farmers implement nearly $1 billion worth of conservation practices on more than 3.5 million acres and install nearly 3,500 miles of riparian buffers that reduce nutrient runoff into waterways. Between 2006 and 2011, farmer efforts reduced sediment loss by 15.1 million tons per year.

This is encouraging news, and part of the reason the overall health of the bay is improving. Supporting farmers and their livelihoods is key to solving the watershed’s environmental challenges. As the report notes, “a thriving and sustainable agricultural sector is critical to restoring the bay.”

There is still a lot of work to do. Because a significant increase in public funding is unlikely, relying too heavily on federal investment in voluntary conservation programs is not a good pathway to fully heal the bay.

Here are two ways that agriculture can further accelerate improvements in the watershed. Read More »

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Why Kansas farmer Justin Knopf strives to emulate the native prairie

I first met Justin Knopf at a meeting in DC about five years ago. At 6’3”, he definitely stood out, but not just physically. He openly conveyed how important his family and his land are – the reason he cares so much about making sure his Kansas farming operation can live on is for his children. It’s rare to meet someone so articulate, sincere and committed to sustainability.

Over the years, I have become more and more impressed by Justin, who started farming at age 14 when his father gave him the means to rent land and buy seed and fertilizer.

Fast forward to today, and Justin is one of the country’s champions of no-till farming – a practice that has boosted his yields and made his crops more resilient to the effects of extreme weather. His dedication and success caught the attention of Miriam Horn, author of the new book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland.

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five individuals in the enormous Mississippi River watershed (Justin included) who are embracing sustainability and defying stereotypes. I asked Justin about the book, his beliefs on sustainability and what’s next for no till. Read More »

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How ag retailers are helping improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay

11987167_1672567059624534_8667142592134393981_nLand O’Lakes SUSTAIN® platform – a powerful tool that can make a real impact in improving regional water quality — is coming to the Chesapeake Bay.

The Mill®, a large agricultural retail company, today became the first business in the area to utilize SUSTAIN in Maryland and Pennsylvania. SUSTAIN provides ag retailers with tools and training in best practices for fertilizer efficiency and soil health – such as cover crops and precision ag technologies – while maintaining the potential for high yields. Retail staff then bring this knowledge to the farmers they serve, meaning that one retail location can reach hundreds of farmers.

That’s why the platform, co-developed by Environmental Defense Fund, is taking off. Thus far, 27 ag retailers across the country have been trained, and food companies such as Smithfield Foods, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, and Kellogg are connecting to the SUSTAIN platform as a way to meet their corporate sustainability goals.

I asked Ben Hushon, owner of The Mill, to tell me what this means for the Bay, for his company, and for farmers. Read More »

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Got grasslands? How to get paid for keeping them intact.

Heartland Ranch in Colorado. Credit: Nicole Rosmarino

One year ago this month the Climate Action Reserve, the premier carbon offset registry for the North American carbon market, approved the voluntary grasslands protocol: a landmark opportunity for ranchers to get paid for keeping their land as grazing lands, versus converting it to crops.

And now, the protocol is underway. Today, the Reserve officially listed the first two grassland conservation carbon projects– the first step in the process towards generating carbon credits for landowners.

The Southern Plains Land Trust, directed by Nicole Rosmarino, enrolled more than 15,000 acres in Southeastern Colorado in the first two projects. She plans to enroll 7,600 more acres in an additional project in 2017.

Even though ranchers lose the opportunity to convert land for crop production, the protocol provides landowners with a guaranteed revenue source in addition to what they earn ranching on the land. Nicole will work with a project developer to monitor and report on the status of the Southern Plains Land Trust’s grasslands. We expect they’ll start earning credits in early 2017 that can later be sold on the North American carbon market.

Here’s why you can get paid for protecting grasslands, too. Read More »

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What would it take for a Nebraska corn farmer to grow milkweed for monarch butterflies?

EDF is working to develop the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange to engage the agricultural community in the fight against extinction.

EDF is working to develop the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange to engage the agricultural community in the fight against extinction.

Virtually every farmer and rancher in America has room for conservation on their land. But deciding whether or not to enroll acres in a conservation program requires just as much business sense as deciding which crops to grow on other acres. It’s a matter of cost and return on investment.

My team and I traveled to Nebraska earlier this month to meet with a few corn and soybean farmers to get a sense of what the costs and benefits might be of dedicating some acres – namely marginal lands with low crop productivity, as well as roadsides and field edges – to growing milkweed habitat for the monarch butterfly. What we found was that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Read More »

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California’s new nitrogen assessment highlights promising solutions for reducing fertilizer losses

Sara KroopfA team of researchers spent seven years dissecting, analyzing and reporting on California’s nitrogen cycle, and the results are eye-opening.

Nearly 2 million tons of nitrogen are imported into the state each year. Almost a quarter of it is lost through leaching into groundwater – with runoff from cropland accounting for nearly 90 percent of this leaching. Excess nitrates in drinking water can cause health problems when consumed by at risk populations. Four percent of the state’s nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But the California Nitrogen Assessment (CNA), released by UC Davis’ Agriculture Sustainability Institute, also provides a never before seen level of detail on nitrogen movement in the state. There’s no silver bullet for reducing environmental impacts while keeping growers profitable. Yet information is power and the more we know, the more we can tailor and prioritize solutions.

The UC Davis team investigated various political, social and economic ideas for reestablishing our state’s nitrogen balance. Two of the most promising solutions for California agriculture to address what the CNA calls “critical control points” include enhancing fertilizer efficiency and expanding carbon markets for agriculture. Read More »

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Cover crops: a new opportunity for ag retailers

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

For the fourth year in a row, a nationwide farmer survey found a boost in soybean and corn yields following the planting of cover crops. That’s in part why cover crop usage increased 350 percent from 2008 to 2012 among the farmers surveyed.

Cover crops are also great for the environment, since they help keep excess nutrients in the field and out of waterways. Yet only around 2 percent of all U.S. farmland uses cover crops, an alarmingly low figure.

That leaves a ton of room for improvement, which could result in huge environmental gains – and a new business opportunity for ag retailers.

Ag retailers that offer expertise on and sell cover crops to their famer customers can get in on this rapidly growing trend. And in so doing, gain customer loyalty and stand out from competitors. Read More »

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How coastal restoration in Louisiana is helping rural communities in the Midwest

Hunkering down in a duck blind with my dad on the Cuivre River, which feeds into the Mississippi.

Clang. A knot of rusted chains pulls shut the driveway gate, bringing it closed with a final smack against a worn fence post. Just like that, my Sunday afternoon visit to our family farm in Clarksville, Missouri ends. After a quick trip home to Saint Louis, it’s time to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. for my internship.

But not before my dad asks, “Do you want to see downtown?”. I laugh, but agree to check it out. “Downtown” is a relative term in Clarksville – a quiet river community with fewer than 500 residents.

The streets slope down to the shoreline, where historic buildings meet the Mighty Mississippi. A few barges float nearby, unperturbed by the currents that pull toward the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a calm day on the river. I spot a sign emblazoned with a familiar red and white Army Corps castle. Just ahead, a concrete arm extends across the channel. Read More »

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Breaking through ag's glass ceiling

Nearly one-third of U.S. farmers are women, yet their contributions aren’t well known. The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, a new book from the University of Iowa press, aims to change this.

Women are diversifying agriculture – not only demographically, but also in terms of production practices. Within the next two decades, they “may own 75 percent of transferred farmland” according to the American Farmland Trust, with enormous implications for American agriculture. From innovative business models to a deep focus on stewardship, women are changing the face – and future – of farming.

As their numbers grow, women farmers are finding and building support networks. Last year, for example, the USDA’s Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden announced the creation of the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network. The book argues that more needs to be done to unlock the full promise of these new farmers.

Dr. Carolyn Sachs, a professor in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is the lead author of the book. I sat down to discuss the agricultural transformations underway, how to create opportunities for new farmers and the implications for land stewardship.

Read More »

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