Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): fertilizer efficiency

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

Farmers in front of a tractor Land 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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These heartland conservation heroes defy stereotypes

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Montana rancher Dusty Crary with his horses.

Western ranchers, Midwestern commodity crop growers, fishermen who make their livelihoods along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast. In some circles, these folks wouldn’t necessarily be considered models of sustainability. And yet, many are leading a quiet revolution in the way our food is raised, harvested and produced.

In her new book Rancher Farmer Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the Heartland, my colleague Miriam Horn journeys down the Mighty Mississippi River System to meet five representatives of this unsung stewardship movement: Read More »

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Why sustainable food can’t be a luxury

Farm

Photo credit: Don Graham

The results are in, so food companies take notice: American consumers are educating themselves on our food system, and they’re increasingly asking for sustainably produced foods. That’s a key takeaway from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s new report on consumer attitudes toward food.

It’s an exciting trend, since what we buy sends a signal across the supply chain for farmers to grow ingredients in ways that protect our natural resources, and for food companies to source sustainably grown products. Sustainably produced food also supports food security, which is essential to our continued prosperity.

Yet sustainably grown products are almost always more expensive to produce than their unsustainable counterparts, which is why many farmers require a premium for changing their production practices to reduce environmental impacts.

To improve air and water quality and protect farmers’ livelihoods, sustainability can’t just be a luxury. Sustainable food production has to become business as usual.

Here’s why we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.

Read More »

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Two ways to reduce toxic algal blooms

Toxic algae. Photo: Eric Vance, US EPA

Photo: Eric Vance, US EPA

For a month now, South Florida Atlantic beaches have been blanketed by a sickly green, toxic algae sludge that has kept tourists away and caused local businesses to lose millions.

Florida has a bigger headache this summer than most states, but algae blooms are hardly unique.

Last week, more than 100 people were sickened from toxic algae in a Utah lake largely fed by agricultural runoff and treated sewage water. And just two summers ago, an outbreak in Lake Erie forced the City of Toledo to close off its water supply for nearly half a million residents.

Agricultural runoff also means wasted money for farmers, who can spend approximately half of their input costs on fertilizer.

There are ways to reduce the runoff that contributes to water quality problems and kills marine life, year after year. Algae blooms can be minimized and maybe even prevented if we scale up existing efforts to improve fertilizer efficiency and soil health – practices that can also save farmers money and boost their yields.

Two initiatives and private-sector partnerships are making real headway in doing just that. And if these efforts are replicated at scale, they could have a national – and even international – impact. 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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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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