Selected tag(s): farm

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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Why collaboration between ag equipment and tech companies is a good thing for the environment

Binary codeIn order for the agriculture sector to deliver on the growing demand for sustainable grain and participate in emerging carbon markets, growers need a way to demonstrate that their management practices are benefiting the environment.

Scientists have identified multiple practices that farmers can implement to maximize yield while minimizing impacts to air and water. Meanwhile, companies such as Trimble Ag, John Deere, SST Software, and countless others have developed a wide array of sensing tools and data collection methodologies to calculate and monitor the environmental benefits of these practices.

Yet as one might expect in any emerging market, the tools aren’t fully communicating with each other, thereby limiting their true potential.

The good news is that the makers of these technologies have started collaborating with agricultural practitioners to make their systems more compatible. Even in this fragmented industry, companies are starting to work together to streamline data collection – and this has enormous implications for sustainability.

Here’s why. Read More »

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Controlled drainage is the new black

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

NC State University’s agriculture water management expert Mohamed Youssef, Ph.D, believes the time is ripe for controlled drainage to make a comeback.

Controlled drainage is one of the most effective ways to minimize nitrogen loss from croplands. It’s a management practice involving the use of a control structure installed at the outlet of a drainage ditch or subsurface drain to regulate drainage water outflow according to plant needs and field operations.

“A controlled drainage system can remove between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen present in runoff, if used at a large scale. These systems hold huge potential to reduce pollution from very large flows of water runoff,” Youssef explained during my recent visit to NC State’s demonstration farms in eastern North Carolina.

Despite the promise, adoption rates for this practice remain very low, in part because of functionality problems with the first controlled drainage structures. But thanks to new advances in the technology that I recently viewed in the field, adoption rates are rising.

Like any filter practice, controlled drainage is just one tool that can help solve regional water quality problems. It’s not a silver bullet, especially with some geographic limitations since they can be used only on low-sloping fields. While there is no perfect solution to stop farm runoff, after seeing drainage systems first-hand, I too believe we’re nearing a tipping point for widespread adoption of controlled drainage in agriculture – and big environmental benefits. Here’s the story. Read More »

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Why grasslands can bring in the green for growers

grazingcows_8475832_shutterstock.com_RFRebecca Haynes is a High Meadows Fellow with EDF's Agriculture Greenhouse Gas Markets program.

Next week, hundreds of ranchers, landowners, land trusts, and environmental groups will gather in Stockton, California, for the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition’s annual summit. The event isn’t new, but the enthusiasm from attendees is unprecedented and palpable.

Why such a bustle in the grasses? Because of two recent landmark developments that reward ranchers for avoiding the conversion of grasslands to croplands:

  • In August, the Climate Action Reserve (one of the offset registries that oversees carbon credit development) approved a new voluntary grasslands protocol that offers payment for conservation activities.
  • In September, the Climate Action Reserve received a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) from the USDA to create a pilot grasslands project in coordination with EDF. This project will assist participating landowners in generating carbon credits. If adopted by the California Air Resources Board in the future, these credits could be sold in the California cap-and-trade market.

These two developments are part of a rapidly growing trend that offers landowners payments for conservation measures. Protecting grasslands means big wins for the planet and for ranchers, who have been committed partners in conservation and now have the opportunity to receive additional incentives to protect their landscapes. Here’s how it all works. Read More »

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Cutting food waste to support farmers and the famished

Surplus food at the Food Donation Connection. Photo Credit: USDA.

Surplus food at the Food Donation Connection. Photo Credit: USDA.

Food waste affects more than just our wallets. Approximately one-third of all food produced in the world gets thrown away every year, leading to 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. At 2.6 trillion pounds, that's enough sustenance to feed three billion people, or almost all people living in poverty worldwide today.

That’s why, last week, when I attended a Q&A session for ag interns at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with Secretary Tom Vilsack, I was intrigued when a fellow intern asked a question regarding food sustainability and what the U.S. can do to ensure that there will be enough food to feed the 9 billion people expected to populate the world by 2050.

The Secretary’s answer? Reduce food waste.

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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How cover crops can help growers beat droughts and floods

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Corn is trying to fight this summer’s extreme weather, and unfortunately, the weather is winning.

There are serious floods in the Midwest, devastating droughts in California, and brutal heat waves along the eastern seaboard. Ohio for example had a record June rainfall of 11 inches, which stunted corn roots and prevented many growers from planting any corn crops. In Northwest Ohio alone, 100,000 acres were left unplanted. At the same time, places in my home state of North Carolina experienced a June heat wave during the critical corn pollination period, significantly damaging corn yields.

These extreme weather events leave many farmers searching for ways to make the best of a challenging growing season. Although June’s weather was the opposite in Ohio and North Carolina, cover crops offer a proven solution to deal with both conditions. Read More »

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Note to Congress: Pitting fish against farms won’t solve California’s drought

Drought(Updated July 16, 2015)

A bill to supposedly address California’s devastating drought, authored by Rep. David Valadao, cleared the House of Representatives today.

Unfortunately, this proposal – dubiously named the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015 – is yet another attempt to move more water through California’s vast Central Valley Project at a time when we can least afford it and at the expense of many water users.

Among other problems, the bill would permanently undermine science-based protections and regulatory assurances for at-risk species and ecosystems that are essential in providing reliable food, safe drinking water, and jobs to millions of Americans.

The proposed tradeoffs here are nothing new. Similar bills – H.R. 3964 and 5781 in 2014, both opposed by the White House and the State of California – also pitted fish against farms.

It’s time we move away from finger pointing and start finding collaborative solutions to the drought that increase the resiliency of our freshwater ecosystems while supporting agricultural communities in California’s Central Valley. Read More »

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What a visit with a California citrus grower taught me about agricultural sustainability

EDF's Sara Kroopf smells the soil at a citrus nursery in Arvin, California.

Putting yourself in the boots of a California farmer will give you a whole new perspective.

That’s why I recently spent a few days alongside Matt Fisher, a citrus grower in Kern County, California – to better understand growers’ challenges and concerns, and to rethink how environmental groups and farmers can achieve shared goals.

The experience was part of a farm exchange program offered through the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, which facilitates learning opportunities on California farms.

With a record-breaking drought in California, tensions between environmentalists and farmers run high, and finger pointing is everywhere. But that isn’t getting us anywhere. The time I spent on Matt’s farm gave me new inspiration to break down barriers, put aside stereotypes, and work together. Read More »

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Bridging the gap of skepticism between producers and environmental groups

Peyton Johnson, communications intern at EDF, with her mother, Kay Johnson Smith.

Producers and environmental groups haven’t always been the best of friends. That’s why, when I got an internship this summer with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), my mom was more than a little uneasy.

My mom, Kay Johnson Smith, is president and CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a non-profit group that supports producers and promotes better consumer understanding of modern animal agriculture.

After learning more about EDF, my mom eventually came around to the idea of my working for a conservation organization. That’s because I shared with her EDF’s mission and explained that the organization works with producers to meet the growing demands for food in ways that also improve the environment. I’m happy to say that she now is pleased to see me working to bridge the gap of skepticism between producers and environmental groups.

As part of EDF's effort to work with diverse partners and to share their voices, I asked my mom to share what motivates her work and her vision on the role of sustainability in U.S. agriculture. Read More »

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