Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): sustainable agriculture

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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California’s new nitrogen assessment highlights promising solutions for reducing fertilizer losses

Sara KroopfA team of researchers spent seven years dissecting, analyzing and reporting on California’s nitrogen cycle, and the results are eye-opening.

Nearly 2 million tons of nitrogen are imported into the state each year. Almost a quarter of it is lost through leaching into groundwater – with runoff from cropland accounting for nearly 90 percent of this leaching. Excess nitrates in drinking water can cause health problems when consumed by at risk populations. Four percent of the state’s nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But the California Nitrogen Assessment (CNA), released by UC Davis’ Agriculture Sustainability Institute, also provides a never before seen level of detail on nitrogen movement in the state. There’s no silver bullet for reducing environmental impacts while keeping growers profitable. Yet information is power and the more we know, the more we can tailor and prioritize solutions.

The UC Davis team investigated various political, social and economic ideas for reestablishing our state’s nitrogen balance. Two of the most promising solutions for California agriculture to address what the CNA calls “critical control points” include enhancing fertilizer efficiency and expanding carbon markets for agriculture. 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 coastal restoration in Louisiana is helping rural communities in the Midwest

Hunkering down in a duck blind with my dad on the Cuivre River, which feeds into the Mississippi.

Hunkering down in a duck blind with my dad on the Cuivre River, which feeds into the Mississippi.

Clang. A knot of rusted chains pulls shut the driveway gate, bringing it closed with a final smack against a worn fence post. Just like that, my Sunday afternoon visit to our family farm in Clarksville, Missouri ends. After a quick trip home to Saint Louis, it’s time to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. for my internship.

But not before my dad asks, “Do you want to see downtown?”. I laugh, but agree to check it out. “Downtown” is a relative term in Clarksville – a quiet river community with fewer than 500 residents.

The streets slope down to the shoreline, where historic buildings meet the Mighty Mississippi. A few barges float nearby, unperturbed by the currents that pull toward the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a calm day on the river. I spot a sign emblazoned with a familiar red and white Army Corps castle. Just ahead, a concrete arm extends across the channel. Read More »

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Why sustainable food can’t be a luxury

Farm

Photo credit: Don Graham

The results are in, so food companies take notice: American consumers are educating themselves on our food system, and they’re increasingly asking for sustainably produced foods. That’s a key takeaway from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s new report on consumer attitudes toward food.

It’s an exciting trend, since what we buy sends a signal across the supply chain for farmers to grow ingredients in ways that protect our natural resources, and for food companies to source sustainably grown products. Sustainably produced food also supports food security, which is essential to our continued prosperity.

Yet sustainably grown products are almost always more expensive to produce than their unsustainable counterparts, which is why many farmers require a premium for changing their production practices to reduce environmental impacts.

To improve air and water quality and protect farmers’ livelihoods, sustainability can’t just be a luxury. Sustainable food production has to become business as usual.

Here’s why we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.

Read More »

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Breaking through ag’s glass ceiling

Woman on a ranchNearly one-third of U.S. farmers are women, yet their contributions aren’t well known. The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, a new book from the University of Iowa press, aims to change this.

Women are diversifying agriculture – not only demographically, but also in terms of production practices. Within the next two decades, they “may own 75 percent of transferred farmland” according to the American Farmland Trust, with enormous implications for American agriculture. From innovative business models to a deep focus on stewardship, women are changing the face – and future – of farming.

As their numbers grow, women farmers are finding and building support networks. Last year, for example, the USDA’s Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden announced the creation of the Women in Agriculture Mentoring Network. The book argues that more needs to be done to unlock the full promise of these new farmers.

Dr. Carolyn Sachs, a professor in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is the lead author of the book. I sat down to discuss the agricultural transformations underway, how to create opportunities for new farmers and the implications for land stewardship.

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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Why collaboration between ag equipment and tech companies is a good thing for the environment

Binary codeIn order for the agriculture sector to deliver on the growing demand for sustainable grain and participate in emerging carbon markets, growers need a way to demonstrate that their management practices are benefiting the environment.

Scientists have identified multiple practices that farmers can implement to maximize yield while minimizing impacts to air and water. Meanwhile, companies such as Trimble Ag, John Deere, SST Software, and countless others have developed a wide array of sensing tools and data collection methodologies to calculate and monitor the environmental benefits of these practices.

Yet as one might expect in any emerging market, the tools aren’t fully communicating with each other, thereby limiting their true potential.

The good news is that the makers of these technologies have started collaborating with agricultural practitioners to make their systems more compatible. Even in this fragmented industry, companies are starting to work together to streamline data collection – and this has enormous implications for sustainability.

Here’s why. Read More »

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A reality check on the drones boom

A drone flies over a farm field. Photo credit: Flickr user ackab1

A drone flies over a farm field with an on-board camera. Photo credit: Flickr user ackab1

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released much anticipated rules on commercial small drone use. In a nutshell:

  • The rules loosen restrictions on commercial drone use, and later this summer the FAA will start legally allowing permits for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.
  • The rules are a boon to producers and ranchers interested in precision farming practices, thanks to drones’ advanced imaging technologies.

Industry groups estimate that precision agriculture has the potential to account for almost 80 percent of civilian drone use by 2020. Already, 16 percent of agricultural retailers are selling drones – a figure set to skyrocket in the coming years.

So this is big news for the ag industry – but will it help the environment, too?

Not necessarily. Drones provide lots of data, and nothing more. They don’t actually change anything on the ground or benefit the environment directly. It’s up to growers and their advisors to use the information collected by drones to make informed decisions that can benefit profitability and the planet. Here’s why drones are just one (important) piece of the puzzle. Read More »

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