Selected tag(s): nutrient efficiency

A call to help us strengthen the economic case for sustainability practices

Green tractor on Iowa corn farm

Visiting my friend and Iowa corn farmer, Tim Richter.

Before installing a new heating system for your home, you’d want to conduct an analysis to make sure it’s worth the money, right? The same logic applies to farming – before a producer considers implementing conservation practices or new technologies, he or she will need to know how those practices will affect an operation’s bottom line.

Despite some good anecdotal information and several isolated field trial studies, the reality is we don’t have nearly enough information on the economic impacts – good or bad – of individual conservation practices. That means we cannot yet make an ironclad business case that will persuade the majority of farmers to implement conservation practices.

There are several key reasons for the dearth of information, and that’s partly my fault.

I’m hoping you can look past this and consider my call to work together to collect the necessary data to strengthen the case. Our food, livelihoods and landscapes depend on it. Read More »

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Conservation technical assistance should not get lost in the shuffle

Farmers understand the importance of sustainability and conservation in ag practices Yesterday, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a massive reorganization of the agency. Among other changes, the Secretary plans to create a new Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation to oversee the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Risk Management Agency (RMA), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Previously, NRCS reported to the Undersecretary of Natural Resources and the Environment, and both RMA and FSA reported to the Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services.

On the surface, combining conservation and farm productivity programs makes sense, since sustainability is almost always good for a producer’s bottom line. Reducing duplication and bureaucracy between these agencies could streamline efforts to implement conservation practices while protecting farmers’ incomes. However, a lot remains to be seen and will depend on who fills the Undersecretary position.

No matter who fills that role, Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) funding and outreach should remain a top priority under the new organization. Here’s why. Read More »

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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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Why ag advisors should increase conservation offerings to farmers

Ag retailers help these farmers manage their farm sustainablyFarmers have a host of competing priorities clamoring for their time, energy and money. Fortunately, they often have trusted advisors to help them make good decisions for their operations – including about conservation practices on the farm.

These practices, such as improving fertilizer efficiency and planting cover crops, can provide significant benefits for farmers: increasing or stabilizing yields, reducing erosion, and ensuring more of the fertilizer applied delivers yield instead of being lost to water or air. They can also increase profitability.

But in order to get the best bang for every conservation buck, many of these practices require technical and agronomic expertise. As PrecisionAg suggested, who better to help integrate these practices into farm operations than the ag retailers and consultants who know their clients’ farms so well?

By expanding their conservation service offerings, ag retailers and crop advisors can meet growing demand from farmers – while also keeping their businesses, and that of their farmer clients, competitive. Read More »

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If you’re marketing a product to a farmer, show them where and how it will work

Farmers should know how new products will work for them Farmers are bombarded by product claims these days – and they need help.

According to a recent report from Boston Consulting Group and AgFunder, venture capital firms increased their investments in agriculture technologies at an annual rate of approximately 80 percent between 2012 and 2015. The report claims “the surge in agtech investment has brought the agriculture industry to the threshold of a new green revolution.”

Yet amid this surge in technologies to help farmers grow crops more efficiently, reduce environmental impacts and save money, many start-ups and even established companies often forget to consider: what does the farmer actually want and need? And, what would make them decide to spend money after seeing years of low commodity prices and profits?

In agriculture, no product or technology works everywhere, all the time. Navigating this world of advertising and marketing can be a frustrating and time-consuming endeavor, often leaving farmers to wonder if a tool is going to work in their region and in their soil type. NutrientStar can help.

In a new video, farmers from across the Midwest clearly state what it is they want when it comes to technologies to manage fertilizer, their most expensive input: independent assurance that a nutrient management tool or product is worth their money. 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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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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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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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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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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