Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): SUSTAIN

From Southwestern India to Iowa: Why farming is at the heart of sustainability

Hiking in India

Studying in the Western Ghats region of India.

When I was younger, I fantasized about becoming a Jane Goodall for the millennial generation. I imagined living in the wilderness to study animals’ behavior and help conserve land. During college, I briefly lived out my dream when I spent a summer in the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats region of India, living and working on a private wildlife sanctuary where I studied the local flora.

The sanctuary was an island of preserved land, surrounded by vast farms that dominated the region’s landscape. While there, I had an epiphany – one that brought me back to my own family’s agricultural history on a farm in Iowa.

I realized that if we don’t work with farmers to conserve wild places, we will never be able to create truly sustainable environments for animals and humans. If I really wanted to make an impact on the Ghats region and its biodiversity, I’d need to move beyond a private sanctuary and back toward my family’s farming roots.

India showed me first-hand the need to partner with farmers. Spending summers on my family’s farm in Iowa and steering the tractor with my grandfather taught me to appreciate the integral role farmers play in maintaining balance in the ecosystem – and that farming is incredibly hard work. Both of these experiences still influence my agricultural career, which is focused on deploying the SUSTAIN™ platform, developed by United Suppliers, Inc. in coordination with EDF, to assist growers in improving fertilizer efficiency and soil health. 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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USDA gives big boost to sustainable farming in North Carolina

Woman on a farmEnvironmental Defense Fund’s efforts to improve sustainable farming practices through the grain supply chain received another boost, thanks to a USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant of $500,000 in North Carolina.

The award supports EDF’s collaboration with Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, and brings in university and grower organization partners. In 2014, Smithfield’s hog production division made a commitment to engage 75 percent of its grain sourcing acres, or about half a million acres, in sustainable farming practices by 2018. These practices reduce fertilizer losses to the water and air, thereby improving water quality and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2015, through a sustainability program called MBGro, Smithfield helped farmers plant cover crops, use efficient nitrogen sensors, and employ other conservation practices on nearly 100,000 acres in the Southeast. Earlier this year, the company announced the expansion of its sustainable grain program to its Midwest sourcing region with ag retailer United Suppliers.

And now, the RCPP project officially kicks off this week – and will directly engage producers to expand conservation practices in agriculture. Here’s what it entails. 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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Meet the young Smithfield agronomist who’s turning the feed grain industry on its head

EDF's Katie Anderson (left), Rachel Carr (center), and EDF's Maggie Monast (right) explore how Smithfield can use SUSTAIN in their Midwest sourcing areas.

EDF’s Katie Anderson (left), Rachel Carr (center), and EDF’s Maggie Monast (right) explore how Smithfield can use SUSTAIN in the company’s Midwest sourcing areas.

Forty million acres of U.S. land are dedicated to growing corn for animal feed. That’s roughly the land equivalent of the state of Florida. As the global demand for meat swells, so does the demand for feed grains.

Growing this corn requires a lot of fertilizer, yet up to 50 percent of fertilizer applied is lost, leading to air and water pollution as well as high costs for farmers.

MBGro, an innovative sustainability program developed by Smithfield Foods’ Hog Production Division, is helping solve this problem. MBGro offers free agronomic consultation to farmers, with a goal of keeping more nitrogen in fields and out of waterways, while maximizing profits along the way.

As a story in today’s Farm Journal noted, “Smithfield … hopes 75% of its grain sourcing acreage in the Southeast and Midwest will participate in [MBGro] by 2018.”

At the heart of MBGro is 25-year old agronomist Rachel Carr. I asked Rachel to tell me about her passion for sustainable agriculture, why she believes MBGro is a model for other protein companies, and about how cover crops played a role in her recent engagement. Read More »

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How 2015 set the table for major agricultural and environmental success in 2016

agricultureIn 2015, U.S. agriculture proved to be a willing and powerful partner in the path to sustainability. We’ve seen farmers, ranchers and food companies make major headway in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving soil health, restoring habitat for at-risk wildlife and protecting freshwater supplies.

Here are some of this year’s highlights:

  • Approval of the first carbon offset protocol for crops in a cap-and-trade market (for U.S. rice growers), followed by approval of a grasslands protocol and a huge investment from USDA to develop a fertilizer protocol. These protocols reward farmers for conservation measures that reduce emissions and offer businesses new opportunities to offset the environmental impacts from their operations.
  • Launch of the innovative SUSTAIN platform throughout the United Suppliers agricultural retailer network. SUSTAIN, developed in coordination with EDF, trains ag retailers in best practices for sustainable farming and aims to enroll 10 million acres in the program by 2020. So far, over 300 sales representatives in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Ohio have attended training. And food companies interested in making SUSTAIN a feature of their sustainable sourcing work include Campbell’s, Unilever, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Smithfield.
  • A “not warranted” listing decision for sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, due in large part to ranchers’ commitments to develop and implement conservation solutions for the bird. Habitat exchanges – a solution developed by EDF and partners in agriculture and industry – are now available in Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming for landowners to earn new revenue for protecting and enhancing greater sage-grouse habitat.
  • Release of Colorado’s first-ever water plan to ensure the health and vitality of the state’s streams, rivers, communities and wildlife – without harming farmers. The plan addresses development of financial mechanisms to incentivize participation in alternative water transfer mechanisms and subsidize agricultural water system optimization. This innovative water planning can now be a model for other water-stressed communities.

So what lies ahead for 2016? We asked our experts to share their thoughts and wishes for the New Year. 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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Collaboration can save the Mississippi River watershed

By Suzy Friedman, Director, Agricultural Sustainability, Environmental Defense Fund and Max Starbuck, Director, Market Development, National Corn Growers Association

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Credit: America’s Watershed Initiative

Today, a diverse group of more than 400 businesses, associations, government agencies, science organizations, academic institutions and non-profit organizations released the first-ever report card evaluating the condition of one of our nation’s most storied and central waterways. This effort, known as America’s Watershed Initiative, was undertaken to provide information on the challenges facing the waters and lands that make up the 31-state Mississippi River Watershed and the 250 rivers that flow into it.

The overall mark was less than stellar, a D+. However, the process of grading has yielded a pathway to improvement.

Why the poor rating? The watershed continues to experience increased pressure from the demands of urbanization, agriculture, transportation and land development.

Fortunately, moving from a “D+” to an “A” grade is achievable – with new levels of understanding and collaboration. That’s why the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Corn Growers Association have a real desire to work together on this and similar initiatives. Read More »

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Strong market signal for sustainable grain

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Walmart, Smithfield Foods and USDA discuss sustainable agriculture in St. Louis.

The agricultural supply chain is shifting towards demanding more sustainably produced grains, according to some of the country’s biggest food companies and retailers.

Representatives from Walmart, Smithfield Foods, and USDA recently discussed the importance of and increased consumer demand for agricultural sustainability in front of 100 agricultural retailers in St Louis. They were there for a meeting convened by United Suppliers, Inc., with a primary focus of the company’s SUSTAIN™ platform.

Three messages were clear:

  • Demand for more sustainable crops is here to stay.
  • Growers’ connection with the consumers of their products is increasing.
  • Fertilizer optimization and soil health offer a business opportunity for growers, ag retailers, and food companies alike.

Read More »

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Taking the bloom and gloom out of Lake Erie

NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory .

Green algae in the Great Lakes. Photo credit: NOAA

It’s been one year since a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of more than 500,000 Ohio residents.

Since that time, we’ve seen an increase in legislative actions and governmental commitments to reduce fertilizer runoff. Yet the harmful algae that showed up last summer have bloomed again. This summer’s catastrophic rains have caused farm fields to flood, sending fertilizer into Lake Erie. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year’s algae bloom could be the second largest on record.

Nutrient efficiency and soil health practices can create a powerful antidote to Lake Erie’s bloom and doom cycle. But farmers need more support and guidance in making changes on their farm. And they need to know that these practices won’t reduce yields.

That’s why an innovative platform called SUSTAIN™ is taking off. SUSTAIN provides agricultural retailers with training on the best tools and practices for reducing fertilizer runoff and increasing soil health – but also focuses on maintaining productivity. Earlier this summer, a group of central Ohio retailers became SUSTAIN authorized – and while it’s not a silver bullet, this effort has enormous potential to keep Lake Erie’s algae blooms at bay.

Read More »

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