Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): farming

Cover crops: a new opportunity for ag retailers

Corn planted in cover crops. Photo courtesy of SUSTAIN.

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 this ag retailer is changing the entire U.S. food production system

Man in a farm field

United Suppliers’ Matt Carstens

In 2014, Walmart challenged its suppliers to find ways to reduce fertilizer runoff from farms – which can cause air and water pollution and mean wasted money for farmers. The target was food companies whose supply chains use large quantities of fertilizer for commodity crops like corn, and the goal was to improve efficiency in their supply chains. Two years later, nearly 20 Walmart suppliers have signed on to the initiative, spawning a trend in which supplier commitments drive tangible changes on American farms.

At the heart of this fertilizer efficiency trend is Matt Carstens, VP of Crop Nutrients for United Suppliers and the force behind a sustainability platform for farmers called SUSTAIN, developed in coordination with Environmental Defense Fund.

SUSTAIN trains ag retailers on the best practices for fertilizer efficiency and soil health. As ag retailers are a primary source of advice for farmers, the retailers then bring this important knowledge to the farmers they serve.

SUSTAIN is proving to be popular as a way for food companies to connect directly with farmers in their sourcing areas. Thus far, Smithfield Foods, Campbell’s Soup, and Unilever are all using SUSTAIN as part of their sustainable sourcing efforts. And Kellogg’s is the latest big brand to jump on board, with an announcement today that they, too, will be using SUSTAIN.

I asked Matt to explain the reason for this trend, why ag retailers believe in SUSTAIN, and how he got involved in the ag retail world. 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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What if God wants the lesser prairie-chicken to go extinct?

Lesser prairie-chicken. Photo credit: USDA NRCS

Lesser prairie-chicken. Photo credit: USDA NRCS

A version of this piece previously ran as an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle.

A few years ago, I was invited by Texas farmer David Cleavinger to visit his family’s farm near Amarillo. This was during a period of time when my organization, Environmental Defense Fund, was deeply involved in conservation efforts for the lesser prairie-chicken, a colorful bird whose habitat is in decline throughout its five-state range, which includes the panhandle of Texas.

David picked me up at the airport and asked if we could make a quick stop on the way to his farm. That stop turned out to be at local radio station KGNC, where David had arranged for me to go on air and talk about wildlife conservation with a particular focus on the local implications for efforts to revive the lesser prairie-chicken.

I agreed to join the show with some trepidation, but it quickly subsided as we got into a lively discussion with the host, James Hunt, and several listeners. Toward the end of my appearance, a caller asked a surprising and provocative question – What if God wants the prairie-chicken to go extinct? 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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Monarch butterflies get help from Texas ranch

A monarch caterpillar eats antelope horn milkweed! growing at Shield Ranch.

A monarch caterpillar eats antelope horn milkweed growing at Shield Ranch.

A few weeks ago, I visited Shield Ranch, a 6,000-acre property devoted to responsible cattle management and wildlife conservation. I made the visit to the ranch – less than 20 miles west of my home in Austin – to test a new tool being designed to more accurately assess habitat for the monarch butterfly.

Standing in a field of wildflowers with a team of scientists, we used the monarch butterfly habitat quantification tool to measure vegetation and determine what monarch habitat was available on the property. We’ve used similar habitat quantification tools for other at-risk wildlife like the lesser prairie-chicken and greater sage-grouse, but this was the first time we tested a tool for monarch butterfly habitat.

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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A newly re-energized sustainable ag movement

Walmart storefront Last month I spent some time in Bentonville, Arkansas, at Walmart’s semi-annual “Sustainability Showcase,” a celebration of the company’s progress in implementing environmental initiatives.

During the showcase, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon invited the executives of major Fortune 500 companies in attendance to share their insights on sustainability – and I was inspired. On stage were the CEOs of Cargill, Kellogg, as well as Dr. Mehmood Khan, Vice Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer, Global Research and Development for PepsiCo.

I was struck by how open and bold these CEOs were in recognizing the need and their responsibility to help solve major environmental challenges such as climate change and water pollution. McMillon, for example, started the discussion by explaining that 20 percent of lakes in Minnesota are not drinkable, a situation that “touches people personally every day.”

Here’s my take on the top two agricultural highlights – and why I’m more confident than ever that sustainable farming initiatives will improve water and air quality across the U.S. Read More »

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From my grandfather’s farm to NutrientStar: Why I believe in growers

Old photo of men on a family farm

My grandfather, John Beall, with his brother, on the family farm in Ohio.

I once dreamed of pursuing a career in public radio and becoming the next Cokie Roberts. Not surprisingly, my life took me in a much different direction. The catalyst was a two-year Peace Corps stint in biodiversity-rich Ecuador that led me towards a career in conservation. But I never steered too far from my agricultural roots, and today my farming life has come full circle.

I grew up on a small farm in rural Ohio, surrounded by fields, woods, wetlands and a menagerie of animals. My grandfather lived next door and every day I’d tag along with him and help vaccinate the chicks, collect eggs, bale hay, and feed the cows.

Thanks to the responsibilities he gave me as a young child, I feel a special connection to the farmers I work with today as they face pressure to increase their yields without polluting the water supply or surrounding ecosystem.

Here’s my agricultural story, and why I believe that a new program called NutrientStar will positively impact both farmers’ businesses and the surrounding ecosystem. Read More »

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Targeting conservation dollars makes good sense

Harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie

Summer algae bloom in Lake Erie. Credit: NOAA

A University of Michigan study released late last month implies that in order to meet the U.S. and Canadian governments’ 40 percent phosphorous reduction target for Lake Erie by 2025, farmers will need to significantly ramp up their conservation efforts.

Some of the stories covering this study focused on the more drastic measures called for, such as converting thousands of acres of productive cropland to grassland. But I’m optimistic that we can indeed work with farmers to meet this goal by 2025, without having to impact production so drastically – we can do so through targeting.

Targeting refers to directing conservation dollars and practices to places on the landscapes where they’ll be most effective. In Ohio, that means targeting the areas delivering the highest amount of nutrients into Lake Erie.

Here’s the background on targeting, what the research says, and why targeting should be even more finely tuned and amplified at scale in order to accelerate on the ground environmental improvements. Read More »

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