Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): soil health

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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Organic or conventional. Which production system can feed the world sustainably?

suzy_friedman_277x387Organic. Conventional. Locally grown. And the list goes on. The seemingly age-old debate of what system can best feed and sustain the planet is again at the front of my mind on National Ag Day.

When I spoke at a recent Food Entrepreneurship Symposium event at Princeton University, an audience member asked me if organic is the best path forward to feed the planet sustainably. At Commodity Classic in New Orleans earlier this month, I spoke with growers about whether conventional ag is the way to feed a growing population.

My answer: there is no silver bullet when it comes to sustainable agriculture. There is no single system, no one-size-fits-all prescription that can solve our food security and environmental sustainability challenges.

That’s why we cannot afford to shut the door on any idea, or on any system of food production. Here’s how organic and conventional compare on yields and environmental impacts, and why we need both systems, local and global production, and big and small farms in order to protect food security and the planet. Read More »

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Meet the farmer who helped make no-till the norm in north central Montana

mattson-logoApproximately 56 percent of all corn, soy, wheat, and cotton farms use strip-tillage or no-till on at least a portion of their land. No-till, as defined by experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, means “limiting soil disturbance to manage the amount and distribution of crop and plant residue on the soil surface year round.” Strip tillage, meaning soil disturbance occurs on 30 percent or less of the field, also qualifies as no-till.

No-till is a widely recognized conservation practice that can help growers maximize soil health. The practice works best when implemented year after year and combined with other conservation measures like fertilizer efficiency and cover crops (wherever geography permits). There are myriad benefits for farmers and the planet, but barriers still exist.

That’s why I’m so amazed by a no-till adoption rate of 90 percent in north central Montana.

I talked with Carl Mattson, Montana grain grower and an agricultural policy and conservation consultant, about why he made the switch to no-till, why he was an early adopter of the practice, why so many farmers in his region use no-till, and what he sees as other obstacles to the future of sustainable farming. Read More »

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How an ag retail program is scaling up sustainable practices

shutterstock_144822175SUSTAIN™ is continuing to gain momentum with food companies and government agencies.

Just today, the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, said it would begin using the platform to reduce nutrient losses across its Midwest sourcing areas. And last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $720 million in funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCCP) to advance sustainable practices. SUSTAIN is part of two RCPPs in Illinois and Iowa that will encourage more growers to engage in voluntary nutrient management and conservation practices.

SUSTAIN was developed by United Suppliers, Inc., a cooperative of agricultural retailers whose customers span 45 million acres across the U.S. and Canada, in coordination with EDF. The program trains ag retailers in using proven, effective technologies, practices, and products that advance sustainable agriculture. The retail staff then bring this knowledge to the growers they serve.

This unique business model has the potential to bring sustainable farming measures to scale. One ag retail location can for example reach hundreds of growers and thousands of acres.

Here are the details on why these two announcements mean a big leap forward for agricultural sustainability. Read More »

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How this ag retailer is helping farmers scale the sustainability mountain

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SUSTAIN-authorized retailer Jake Rechkemmer

Eighteen months ago, I’d never heard of United Suppliers – a cooperative of 560 locally owned and controlled agricultural retailers who operate nearly 2,500 retail locations that serve 45 million acres in the U.S. and Canada.

Now, I spend 75 percent of my work day focused on the SUSTAIN™ platform, developed by United Suppliers in coordination with Environmental Defense Fund. SUSTAIN works to train and authorize ag retailers on tools, technologies and practices for fertilizer optimization and improved soil health – without sacrificing yield.

And SUSTAIN is on fire – by the end of this year, over 200 ag retail employees will be authorized as SUSTAIN representatives, and General Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Unilever, Kellogg’s, and Smithfield Foods are all using or will use the platform in their sustainable sourcing efforts.

Part of the platform’s success is due to its unique model – it’s deployed through existing, trusted relationships that growers already have with their ag retailer. That’s why I asked SUSTAIN-authorized retailer Jake Rechkemmer, agronomy manager at Dunkerton Coop in Dunkerton, Iowa, to tell me about his SUSTAIN journey. Read More »

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When landowners invest in sustainability, everyone wins

19007_Aerial View of Field.JPGForty percent of the U.S. is taken up by farmland. Yet only half of these acres are actually owned by active farmers. In the Corn Belt, 70 percent of growers rent some portion of their land from a non-farming landlord. And the biggest growth in non-farming landowners is coming from investors that see farmland ownership as a good business opportunity.

Here’s the problem: non-farming landlords aren’t always informed on the best ways to care for the farm, which can present environmental and economic challenges for tenants and the owners themselves.

As more non-farmers buy up cropland, government agencies, organizations, and even the private sector will need to ramp up efforts to educate landowners on the importance of soil health, fertilizer efficiency, and other conservation measures in protecting their farm’s value and making the land more resilient to extreme weather events.

Non-farming landowners can be a powerful partner in reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint at scale and ensuring food productivity in the future. Plus, when landowners invest in sustainability and collaborate with those farming their lands, everyone wins – growers, landowners, consumers, and the planet. Read More »

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How “plant doctor” Dan Sonke is making Campbell Soups’ ingredients greener

Dan Sonke, Manager of Ag Sustainability at Campbell Soup.

Dan Sonke, Manager of Agricultural Sustainability at Campbell Soup.

The Campbell Soup Company, along with a growing number of major food companies, is taking action to implement and support sustainable agriculture measures. It’s in their best interest to decrease the risk of supply chain disruptions.

Plus, there’s increasing consumer demand for transparency. A new report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 78 percent of Americans are interested in how their food is produced.

I asked Dan Sonke, manager of agricultural sustainability at Campbell’s, to explain how his company is working with farmers to reduce environmental impacts, why they’re working with Environmental Defense Fund, and about the unprecedented demand he’s seeing for sustainable grain. Read More »

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Why almond lovers can breathe easy again

It’s been a tough year for the almond. Vilified and beaten down, the nut has come to symbolize the California drought. While the reasons for and solutions to the drought are complicated and nuanced, the almond’s reputation has nonetheless suffered.

Meanwhile, farmers across the board are under increasing pressure – from regulatory requirements and increasing consumer demand for transparency – to modify their fertilizer application practices and thereby reduce nitrogen losses to the air and water.

Fortunately, there’s good reason for the almond to cheer up – a new Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) from the California Department of Food & Agriculture will support the state’s almond growers in their ongoing efforts to make nut production more sustainable, without sacrificing yields. Read More »

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How to make meat production more sustainable? Start with corn.

Fao

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations celebrates World Food Day each year on October 16th.

It’s World Food Day, which promotes awareness of the planet’s most challenging food issues, including eradicating global hunger. All food production depends on environmental health, but food production itself can harm the planet.

So to address hunger and increase food security, we’ll need to address the environmental impacts of food production and how the food choices we make every day affect the planet.

These choices affect the stability of the climate, the availability of clean drinking water and running rivers, and the persistence of native habitats and the wildlife they house.

No matter our political or cultural differences when it comes to food, there’s one trend that is clear: across the globe, we are making the choice to eat more meat.  Read More »

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