Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): commodity crops

What Michael Pollan gets wrong about Big Ag

Tractor in farm fieldJournalist Michael Pollan deserves credit for elevating the national conversation about food. Over the course of 25 years, his articles and books have thoughtfully contemplated the troubling side effects of the American diet and the way our food is produced.

But his latest piece in the New York Times Magazine reads like a script for a black and white Western, with food companies, agribusiness and commodity producers cast in the role of Bad Guy and local organic farmers and vegans cast as the Men in White Hats.

In Pollan’s script, the bad guys are responsible for everything from America’s weight problem and rising health care costs to widespread environmental degradation and monocultures that threaten national security. If only the law would get on the good guys’ side, he muses.

Food production is actually changing

All industries have issues that continually need to be addressed, and the food industry is no exception.

Agriculture consumes a lot of land and water and emits greenhouse gas emissions that must be curbed. And, yes, our diets have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic.

Except, our food system is changing, more than Pollan acknowledges.

The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition. Read More »

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New guidebook explains how and why to build a farmer network

Farmers educating about cornAmidst all the new tools and technologies being developed to make agriculture more sustainable, there is one tried and true method for testing on-site conservation practices that doesn’t get much attention: farmer networks.

Farmer networks consist of growers within a region working directly with advisors, agronomists and/or scientists to conduct on-farm trials. These trials can test the economic and environmental impacts of changes in crop management, adoption of soil health practices, or use of precision agriculture tools.  The data is then aggregated and analyzed to determine best practices for specific farm conditions and to inform future management decisions.

Originally established by the Iowa Soybean Association, the innovative farmer network model has since taken off, with Environmental Defense Fund and others establishing additional networks across the country. As University of Connecticut soil fertility expert Thomas Morris explains, participation in farmer networks has led to greater efficiency on hundreds of thousands of acres across the U.S – benefitting both the planet and yield. The potential for replication is limitless.

That’s why EDF created a how-to guide for other organizations, companies, and universities interested in creating a farmer network. The new Farmer Network Design Manual provides a roadmap to support sustainable agriculture practices, increase farm profits, and build resiliency. Read More »

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Sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand, says Iowa corn farmer

TimRichter

Tim Richter, owner of Saratoga Partnership.

Farming is a tough business. With constantly changing crop prices, difficult to predict and increasingly extreme weather variations, and changing consumer demands, growers don’t have an easy time of it.

Like any business, profitability is the number one priority. And it should be – if you are not profitable, it’s very hard to stay in business.

All the growers I’ve worked with care deeply about their land. In a recent survey of a group of Midwestern farmers, “land stewardship” ranked as their top value. And sustainability is in a farmers’ best interest since healthy lands plays a huge role in whether farms will be around – and productive – for the next generation. But making agriculture truly sustainable will require investment from farmers.

Here’s the good news: sustainability and profitability can go hand-in-hand. Efficiencies like fertilizer optimization can result in cost savings. And with those savings, growers can invest in new technologies and cover crops, which can help make farms more resilient and increase yields, generating long term economic gain.

I asked Tim Richter, owner of a swine and corn farm operation spanning 9,000 acres in northern Iowa and Missouri, to tell me his profitability and sustainability story. Read More »

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Reducing risks to corn production requires a supply chain solution

Photo: © John Rae

Photo: © John Rae

Corn is our country’s biggest crop economically and takes up nearly one-third of U.S. cropland. It is a pillar of our food production system – a key ingredient in everything from drinks, sauces and snack foods to dairy products, fuel and meat.

So when news about corn’s risky future pops up, we should all take note, and the entire agricultural supply chain should work toward solutions.

Water & Climate Risks Facing U.S. Corn Production, produced by the nonprofit sustainability advocate Ceres, is the latest analysis to sound the warning bell.

Last year U.S. corn growers harvested a record 14 billion bushels of corn, making them among the most productive farmers in the world (this year’s harvest is expected to be huge as well). But climate change and groundwater depletion are threatening to undermine corn’s success as global demand increases. Inefficient fertilizer use is compounding the problem.

Read More »

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