Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): soil health

This Iowa farmer proves that profit and sustainability go hand in hand

Fertilizer application. Photo credit: John Rae

Photo credit: John Rae

Denny Friest is one of the most progressive and savvy farmers I’ve ever met. Through his participation in the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network since 2001, Denny conducted replicated strip trials on his operation to compare different nitrogen application rates and find ways to be more efficient and profitable.

The Iowa legislature saw so much value in this field trial program that it provided funding to reimburse farmers who lost yield in their efforts to improve efficiency. With no risk involved, Denny was able to see “how low he could go” with fertilizer applications before he had an economic loss in production. 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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Why Kansas farmer Justin Knopf strives to emulate the native prairie

Farmer in fieldI first met Justin Knopf at a meeting in DC about five years ago. At 6’3”, he definitely stood out, but not just physically. He openly conveyed how important his family and his land are – the reason he cares so much about making sure his Kansas farming operation can live on is for his children. It’s rare to meet someone so articulate, sincere and committed to sustainability.

Over the years, I have become more and more impressed by Justin, who started farming at age 14 when his father gave him the means to rent land and buy seed and fertilizer.

Fast forward to today, and Justin is one of the country’s champions of no-till farming – a practice that has boosted his yields and made his crops more resilient to the effects of extreme weather. His dedication and success caught the attention of Miriam Horn, author of the new book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland.

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five individuals in the enormous Mississippi River watershed (Justin included) who are embracing sustainability and defying stereotypes. I asked Justin about the book, his beliefs on sustainability and what’s next for no till. Read More »

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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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A coalition of uncommon bedfellows is bringing sustainable agriculture to scale

Farmers in fieldToday represents a huge advancement for sustainable agriculture, and a new era of food company collaboration. At the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, we are officially launching the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC): a diverse coalition working to expand on-the-ground solutions to protect air and water quality, enhance soil health, and maintain high yields throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Founding members of the MRCC include Cargill, Environmental Defense Fund, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Monsanto, PepsiCo, The Nature Conservancy, Walmart, and World Wildlife Fund. The coalition will work directly with growers to help foster continuous improvement and implement conservation activities across three pilot states responsible for 44 percent of corn, soy, and wheat production in the United States: Illinois, Nebraska, and Iowa.   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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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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How animal agriculture can help meet the Paris Climate Agreement goals

corn fieldThe Paris Climate Agreement included a special emphasis on food security and the threats it faces from extreme weather events. Despite only brief mentions of agriculture in the preamble to the agreement itself, a recent study from the University of Vermont reveals that global emissions reduction targets absolutely cannot be met without significant contributions from the agricultural sector.

According to this new research in Global Change Biology, agriculture needs to reduce emissions by one gigaton per year in 2030, yet current mitigation strategies can only meet 40 percent of this target, at most, and may deliver as little as 21 percent of what is needed.

The authors argue that agriculture needs to play its part, and I couldn’t agree more. We are dependent on agriculture not only to keep us fed, but also to lead the way in addressing climate change threats. Agriculture represents approximately 9 percent of total emissions in the U.S., and between 10 to 29 percent of emissions globally, though this figure is projected to increase.

Despite the fact that 119 nations included agricultural mitigation as an in-country strategy for meeting the Paris Agreement reduction targets, no country has yet reported on how to accomplish these pledges.

Ultimately, the responsibility to implement tangible on-farm changes that reduce emissions falls on billions of farmers, but there is an even greater responsibility for animal agriculture companies. Here’s why – and what these companies can do to help tackle the climate challenge. 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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Public funding for ag research has plummeted. Is that a bad thing?

Cover crop demonstration at the 2013 Soil Health Expo, hosted by NRCS and the Univ. of MO.

Cover crop demonstration at the 2013 Soil Health Expo, hosted by NRCS and the Univ. of MO. Credit: Curators of the University of Missouri

Public sector funding for agricultural research is flat lining. While public dollars used to be the primary source of support for ag research, that is no longer the case. Today, the private sector spends as much on agricultural research as the government does, according to USDA. Long-term growth in funding for ag research is also higher in the private sector.

As a recent DTN story noted, “Some skeptics say the need for public research is overblown, that private companies — seed, chemical and machinery — already provide a large pile of dollars.”

Are the skeptics right?

Public and private ag research funding don’t always have the same goals, and they play very different, but equally important roles. Here’s an overview of what each sector contributes, how they relate, and why we need to continue advocating for and supporting investments from both sectors – as well as public-private partnerships. Read More »

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