Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): sustainable agriculture

Meet Eric Davidson, NutrientStar’s newest review panel member

Dr. Eric Davidson. Image Credit: Jennifer Amendolara

Dr. Eric Davidson. Image Credit: Jennifer Amendolara

A panel of experts forms the foundation of NutrientStar, the newly independent, science-based program that reviews the performance of commercially available nutrient management tools. This panel reviews all tools based on established scientific criteria and their ability to improve fertilizer efficiency in the field. The panel is a “who’s who” of fertilizer efficiency experts from across the country – from academia, government agencies, and the private sector.

And now, this eight-member panel can add to its ranks a new member: Eric Davidson, professor and director of the Appalachian Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Davidson, an ecologist, researches biogeochemical processes including the exchange of plant nutrients from the land to streams and groundwater, and the exchange of greenhouse gases between the soil and the atmosphere.

I asked him about his current research, his nitrogen expertise, and why he believes the NutrientStar model can be replicated at scale to improve water quality in places like the Chesapeake Bay.

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Controlled drainage is the new black

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

NC State University’s agriculture water management expert Mohamed Youssef, Ph.D, believes the time is ripe for controlled drainage to make a comeback.

Controlled drainage is one of the most effective ways to minimize nitrogen loss from croplands. It’s a management practice involving the use of a control structure installed at the outlet of a drainage ditch or subsurface drain to regulate drainage water outflow according to plant needs and field operations.

“A controlled drainage system can remove between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen present in runoff, if used at a large scale. These systems hold huge potential to reduce pollution from very large flows of water runoff,” Youssef explained during my recent visit to NC State’s demonstration farms in eastern North Carolina.

Despite the promise, adoption rates for this practice remain very low, in part because of functionality problems with the first controlled drainage structures. But thanks to new advances in the technology that I recently viewed in the field, adoption rates are rising.

Like any filter practice, controlled drainage is just one tool that can help solve regional water quality problems. It’s not a silver bullet, especially with some geographic limitations since they can be used only on low-sloping fields. While there is no perfect solution to stop farm runoff, after seeing drainage systems first-hand, I too believe we’re nearing a tipping point for widespread adoption of controlled drainage in agriculture – and big environmental benefits. Here’s the story. Read More »

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Monarch butterflies get help from Texas ranch

A monarch caterpillar eats antelope horn milkweed! growing at Shield Ranch.

A monarch caterpillar eats antelope horn milkweed growing at Shield Ranch.

A few weeks ago, I visited Shield Ranch, a 6,000-acre property devoted to responsible cattle management and wildlife conservation. I made the visit to the ranch – less than 20 miles west of my home in Austin – to test a new tool being designed to more accurately assess habitat for the monarch butterfly.

Standing in a field of wildflowers with a team of scientists, we used the monarch butterfly habitat quantification tool to measure vegetation and determine what monarch habitat was available on the property. We’ve used similar habitat quantification tools for other at-risk wildlife like the lesser prairie-chicken and greater sage-grouse, but this was the first time we tested a tool for monarch butterfly habitat.

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Why investments in agricultural carbon markets make good business sense

Farmers shaking handsOver the past decade, private investment in conservation has more than doubled, with sustainable forestry and agriculture investments as the main drivers of growth. This unprecedented expansion in “impact investing” or “conservation finance” has occurred as investors seek good returns that can also benefit the environment.  According to Credit Suisse, sustainable agriculture is particularly appealing to investors as it offers a wider array of risk mitigation approaches than sectors such as energy and transportation.

Yet despite this boom, there has been very little investment from private capital in emerging ecosystems markets, especially in the agricultural sector.

We’ve blogged before about the benefits growers – and the environment – realize from participating in agricultural carbon markets or habitat exchanges. But here’s why the private sector, food companies and retailers should invest in agricultural carbon markets. Read More »

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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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The science behind agricultural carbon markets

Dry seeding rice reduces early season methane emissions.

Dry seeding rice reduces early season methane emissions.

There’s been a lot of recent attention on the California Air Resources Board’s (ARB) rice protocol, the first ever carbon offset protocol for crop agriculture in a compliance market.

The protocol, approved in June 2015, allows rice farmers who reduce methane emissions to become eligible for carbon credits through California’s cap-and-trade program, though growers from any rice-growing state can participate. The momentum is building. In less than one year, rice growers on more than 22,000 acres have expressed interest in the protocol – representing nearly 1 percent of all rice grown in the U.S.

When the first credits become available for purchase this summer, policymakers and regulated companies can have confidence in the rice protocol’s ability to improve climate stability, and growers can earn extra revenue, thanks to the sound science that measures emissions reductions. Here’s a primer. 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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Unlocking the black box of agricultural supply chains

Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative at the University of Minnesota.

Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative at the University of Minnesota.

The corn supply chain is a complex, ever-changing, and often unpredictable system. Measuring the environmental impacts of grain production can be just as complex and daunting – especially with thousands of players involved.

Understanding corn’s environmental footprint is fundamental to generating solutions that help farmers improve efficiencies and reduce fertilizer losses and hold companies accountable for meeting and measuring the success of their sustainability goals.

That’s why EDF partnered with the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise to develop a feed grain transport model that estimates emissions from grain farming. Northstar is a program within the university’s Institute on the Environment, which has deep expertise in the complex agricultural supply chain and is able to connect the dots between products on the shelves and their environmental impacts. As I’ve blogged before, EDF believes this kind of increased transparency is good for consumers and businesses themselves.

I asked Jennifer Schmitt, Ph.D, lead scientist of the NorthStar initiative, to elaborate on the team’s research and on the importance of data collection and measurement in agriculture.
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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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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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