Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): Kristin Weeks Duncanson

Improving water quality is a shared responsibility

Iowa farmer Denny Friest surveys his fields from his combine.

Iowa farmer Denny Friest (Photo credit: John Rae)

I spent the summer meeting with farmers, commodity groups and food companies in the Midwest to discuss collaborative conservation approaches. Whether we were in Missouri, Iowa or Minnesota, water quality was top of mind.

Agriculture has a large impact on water quality – the sector is the source of 70 percent of the nutrients that flow down the Mississippi River and cause dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have made big strides on implementing and scaling conservation measures to improve water quality and agriculture’s overall environmental footprint. Unsung heroes like Tim Richter, Kristin Duncanson and Denny Friest are constantly fine-tuning nutrient and soil management with new efficiency tools, finding better ways to implement cover crops or reduce tillage, installing wetlands and buffers, and introducing new crops into their rotations. Read More »

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Once a pesky plant for farmers, this weed presents a new opportunity

Although milkweed contains toxins, it rarely poses any significant threat to people or animals. Grazing livestock generally avoid milkweeds when sufficient forage is available. (Photo credit: E. Dronkert)

A recent article called milkweed a “yield-robbing weed” for farmers.

Milkweed has a reputation for encroaching on cropland where it can compete with crops for soil and light. The plant can also create a nuisance on ranchlands, as cattle can be poisoned when poor foraging conditions lead hungry cows to milkweed-concentrated areas as a last resort.

This is why milkweed is difficult to find on most farms and ranches today. Along with climate change, it’s also a key reason why the beloved monarch butterfly population has declined by more than 90 percent in the last two decades.

The importance of milkweed

Milkweed is essential for monarchs, since butterflies need the plant to lay their eggs, and caterpillars exclusively feed on the milky sap-filled plant. It’s what makes monarchs poisonous to predators.

Increased herbicide application across the agricultural landscape, as well as mowing in roadside ditches and marginal areas, is eradicating milkweed from rural areas in the Corn Belt and other key regions of the monarch’s migration route.

In order to turn things around for the monarch, we need to change the incentive for landowners from spraying and mowing to protecting and restoring this vital habitat. Read More »

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How the Midwest can save the monarch

Monarch lands on a milkweed in the Midwest

Monarch populations have declined by 90 percent in the past two decades due, in large part, to the loss of milkweed across the Midwest.

Once again, summer has brought the highly anticipated sightings of monarch butterflies across the country. An online tracker from Journey North shows the beloved orange and black butterflies fanning across the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where the eastern population is completing its northern migration. I spotted a monarch in Missouri just last week.

It’s a wonderful sight and an inspiring reminder of the monarch’s magical migration. But the opportunity to witness this natural miracle is dwindling. Over the last two decades, the monarch population has declined by 90 percent, bringing the butterfly dangerously close to extinction.

There are many factors contributing to this devastating loss, from climate change to deforestation. But a major contributor is the loss of milkweed habitat across the U.S., particularly in the Midwest where native prairies have largely been converted for agricultural use. Monarchs need milkweed to lay their eggs – eggs that turn into caterpillars that feed exclusively on the milky plants. So how do we restore this vital milkweed habitat where monarchs need it the most? Read More »

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Meet sustainable agriculture’s new whiz kid

Scott Henry is the business development manager for LongView Farms, a row crop grain operation in central Iowa that specializes in seed production

Scott Henry, 27, a partner and business development manager for LongView Farms

Every year right before Commodity Classic, EDF brings together a group of farmers who share their lessons learned in sustainable agriculture – and offer insights on bringing conservation practices to scale. These producers are our advisors, sounding boards and partners. They help us understand what agricultural policies really look like when implemented on the farm, and how best to convey to farmers that not all environmentalists point fingers at ag.

This year we had a new addition to the group, someone who brought an important perspective because he’s far younger than the average-aged farmer. Scott Henry is a 27-year-old partner and business development manager for LongView Farms, a row crop grain operation in central Iowa that specializes in seed production. Scott is responsible for business growth, strategy, production operations and the implementation of precision agriculture technology across the farm.

I asked Scott about his start in farming, about the importance of financial expertise in agriculture and whether sustainability really is good for growers’ bottom lines. Read More »

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To help the environment, we must first help people

Author Audrey Archer explores her natural surroundings and assesses need for conservation practices

Now living in Austin, Texas where diverse wildlands are numerous and easily accessible, Audrey takes any opportunity she can get to put on her hiking boots and explore her natural surroundings. She also volunteers with the City of Austin to give guided hikes on preserves. Credit: Rob Binder

I grew up in the high and dry panhandle plains of Texas, where trees are scarce, wind is always blowing, and the smell of feedlots lingers in the air. Needless to say, I was not overly inspired by my surroundings – at least not at the time I lived there.

Had I not traveled with my family growing up, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. Throughout these travels, I became enraptured by the biodiversity and lushness of other ecosystems and felt compelled to learn as much as I could about them.

But the stark contrast between some of the natural ecosystems and working landscapes I was exposed to led me to develop a pretty pessimistic view of humans’ impact on the environment. Surely, there had to be a better way of balancing human needs for things like food, water and shelter with nature’s needs.

Determined to tackle this problem, I got my Master’s in Environmental Management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and took a job at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where I had heard that scientists and economists were developing incentive programs for landowners to improve water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and restore habitat for at-risk wildlife.

Little did I know my worldview was about to be turned upside down.

Putting people first Read More »

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As winter approaches, monarch caterpillars fuel up on a Minnesota farm

Kristin Duncanson shows me monarch caterpillar we found on her farm. “Everyone has a monarch story," she said.

Kristin Duncanson holds a monarch caterpillar we found on her farm. “Everyone has a monarch story," she said.

Duncanson Growers is a family farm located in the heart of southern Minnesota. Owners Kristin and Pat Duncanson produce pork and grow corn, soybeans and vegetable peas on the farm, with a commitment to sustainable practices that improve the quality of their land. But it’s not just about environmental sustainability.

“We also need to maintain and increase our productivity to be economically sustainable,” Kristin said.

The Duncanson family has been committed to sustainability not only through their own farming operations, but also through outreach and education efforts. I recently paid a visit to the family’s farm, where just the night before they had hosted 30 college students for dinner, recognizing the importance of communicating their sustainability practices to others.

In addition to their current practices, which include improving data collection to increase fertilizer efficiency, reducing tillage where possible and rotating crops, the Duncansons have also maintained some very high quality habitat for monarch caterpillars and butterflies. Read More »

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A farmer’s perspective: 4 reasons why collecting data is important

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Kristin Duncanson

Thanks to GPS and the Internet, many farmers have been collecting data about their farms – water usage, inputs, crop yields – for over 20 years. Only in recent years has the term “big data” taken on a new meaning, given the plethora of new tools and technologies available today to help farmers collect and analyze data on all aspects of their farm operations.

This week also marks the launch of the first-ever Big Data Roundtable Series, an annual event that brings together experts from across the agricultural arena to discuss how major retailers can leverage data to improve business sustainability, and how growers can utilize measurement tools and analyze data to use fertilizer more efficiently and save on input costs.

Here, I ask Kristin Weeks Duncanson, a crop and livestock operator and member of the AGree advisory committee, to explain the value of collecting data for farm operations and the environment and why many farmers are still hesitant to collect data. Read More »

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