Selected tag(s): corn

Conservation relies on profitability

Conservation practices help make this wheat field more profitable Whether in agriculture or any other business, if you don’t have enough money coming in to pay the bills, it’s hard to find the time or resources for anything other than working to turn a red budget spreadsheet black.

A wheat farmer friend from Washington recently told me that current prices are $4/bushel, the same as 40 years ago. Take into account inflation, and that’s a significant decline. Nationally, the USDA predicts that net farm income will drop by almost 9 percent this year, the fourth year in a row of declines after reaching a record high in 2013. Farmers also face enormous volatility in income, with fluctuations in yield, demand, as well as crop and input prices.

It’s no surprise then that environmentalists’ calls to cut crop insurance, disaster programs or other conservation payments fall on deaf ears in the agricultural community – or serve only to raise blood pressure levels across the Corn Belt. Read More »

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Farmers' voices are essential to figuring out sustainability. Let's listen up.

The corn and soybean fields that stretch for miles across the Midwest are quiet this time of year, mostly frozen surfaces waiting for the spring planting season.The corn and soybean fields that stretch for miles across the Midwest are quiet this time of year, mostly frozen surfaces waiting for the spring planting season.

Although many farmers are not in the field dawn to dusk during the winter, they are still plenty busy. Between planning for the next season, taking care of animals and attending countless meetings, farmers are seldom idle even if their crop fields are.

But lucky for us, winter does afford more time to talk.

One friend from Iowa who works hard to use fertilizer efficiently to avoid runoff and optimize plant uptake of nutrients said he worries that food companies don’t always recognize the sustainability efforts of mainstream farmers. Too often, he said, it seems food companies look for simple labels like organic.

A soybean grower I know from Ohio who has invested a lot of time learning farming practices that will help restore nearby Lake Erie told me it is a constant struggle to balance making a living with repairing decades of agricultural nutrient runoff that have imperiled the health of the lake. Read More »

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This Iowa farmer proves that profit and sustainability go hand in hand

Fertilizer application. Photo credit: John Rae

Photo credit: John Rae

Denny Friest is one of the most progressive and savvy farmers I’ve ever met. Through his participation in the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network since 2001, Denny conducted replicated strip trials on his operation to compare different nitrogen application rates and find ways to be more efficient and profitable.

The Iowa legislature saw so much value in this field trial program that it provided funding to reimburse farmers who lost yield in their efforts to improve efficiency. With no risk involved, Denny was able to see “how low he could go” with fertilizer applications before he had an economic loss in production. Read More »

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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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A coalition of uncommon bedfellows is bringing sustainable agriculture to scale

Farmers in fieldToday represents a huge advancement for sustainable agriculture, and a new era of food company collaboration. At the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, we are officially launching the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC): a diverse coalition working to expand on-the-ground solutions to protect air and water quality, enhance soil health, and maintain high yields throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Founding members of the MRCC include Cargill, Environmental Defense Fund, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Monsanto, PepsiCo, The Nature Conservancy, Walmart, and World Wildlife Fund. The coalition will work directly with growers to help foster continuous improvement and implement conservation activities across three pilot states responsible for 44 percent of corn, soy, and wheat production in the United States: Illinois, Nebraska, and Iowa.   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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Want to bring ag sustainability to scale? Collaboration, not confrontation.

Farmers picking cornOne year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced 10 “building blocks” for climate-smart agriculture and forestry, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 120 million metric tons by 2025.

The agency’s focus on partnering with farmers and ranchers – as well as with the private sector – was a huge step in the right direction toward widespread implementation of climate-smart agriculture techniques and programs.

Tomorrow, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack will announce another big investment in conservation stewardship and climate-smart agriculture approaches to advance the building blocks agenda. I’ll be joining Secretary Vilsack to talk about EDF’s partnerships within the agricultural supply chain and our collaborative approach to ag sustainability.

Working across public-private sector lines, through a collaborative approach, and with the entire ag supply chain is the only way to bring sustainability to scale while protecting farmers’ livelihoods.

Here’s what key sectors of the ag supply chain are doing – and can do – to improve water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase agricultural resilience. Read More »

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Public funding for ag research has plummeted. Is that a bad thing?

Cover crop demonstration at the 2013 Soil Health Expo, hosted by NRCS and the Univ. of MO.

Cover crop demonstration at the 2013 Soil Health Expo, hosted by NRCS and the Univ. of MO. Credit: Curators of the University of Missouri

Public sector funding for agricultural research is flat lining. While public dollars used to be the primary source of support for ag research, that is no longer the case. Today, the private sector spends as much on agricultural research as the government does, according to USDA. Long-term growth in funding for ag research is also higher in the private sector.

As a recent DTN story noted, “Some skeptics say the need for public research is overblown, that private companies — seed, chemical and machinery — already provide a large pile of dollars.”

Are the skeptics right?

Public and private ag research funding don’t always have the same goals, and they play very different, but equally important roles. Here’s an overview of what each sector contributes, how they relate, and why we need to continue advocating for and supporting investments from both sectors – as well as public-private partnerships. Read More »

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Unlocking the black box of agricultural supply chains

Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative at the University of Minnesota.

Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative at the University of Minnesota.

The corn supply chain is a complex, ever-changing, and often unpredictable system. Measuring the environmental impacts of grain production can be just as complex and daunting – especially with thousands of players involved.

Understanding corn’s environmental footprint is fundamental to generating solutions that help farmers improve efficiencies and reduce fertilizer losses and hold companies accountable for meeting and measuring the success of their sustainability goals.

That’s why EDF partnered with the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise to develop a feed grain transport model that estimates emissions from grain farming. Northstar is a program within the university’s Institute on the Environment, which has deep expertise in the complex agricultural supply chain and is able to connect the dots between products on the shelves and their environmental impacts. As I’ve blogged before, EDF believes this kind of increased transparency is good for consumers and businesses themselves.

I asked Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative, to elaborate on the team's research and on the importance of data collection and measurement in agriculture.
Read More »

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My two agricultural hats: scientist & advocate

Woman in the wild“It’s the hydrology, stupid!” a colleague once joked about the thrust of my career. I couldn’t agree more. I study what’s working and what’s not across agricultural landscapes — the Midwest corn belt is a current focus — and believe that the fundamental changes we’ve made to the land by draining it, removing native vegetation and altering the water flow have caused many of the environmental issues the region faces today.

I’m intrigued by agriculture, where people and nature intersect across vibrant landscapes to provide tangible benefits to individuals, local communities, and the surrounding ecosystem. My job, which allows me to indulge that fascination on a daily basis, requires me to simultaneously think like a scientist and an environmental advocate, a dual role that I first started to cultivate growing up in rural England. Read More »

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