“Success first.” How one ag retailer is helping farmers adopt conservation practices, profitably.

Missouri-based ag retailer MFA Incorporated is a regional farm supply and marketing cooperative representing 45,000 farmers and ranchers. It has 130 locations throughout Missouri and in parts of Kansas, Iowa and Arkansas. The co-op’s priority is neither “sales first” nor “conservation first,” but “member success first.”

With this priority in mind, MFA Inc. and three state conservation agencies — Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Missouri Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Missouri Department of Natural Resources — teamed up to help farmers manage for both profitability and environmental sustainability.

The innovative public-private partnership is featured in a new report prepared for Environmental Defense Fund by Datu Research, Helping Farmers Find Profit and Sustainability: A Case Study of MFA Inc. Shows How Conservation Can Support the Bottom Line.

Here are six takeaways from the case study:

1. In-house conservation expertise is high value add.

A three-way cost share between MDC, NRCS and MFA Inc. provides funding for two full-time conservation positions at MFA, which include one conservation specialist focused on solutions for row crop producers, such as cover crops, nutrient management and edge-of-field practices, and one conservation grazing specialist focused on solutions for livestock producers, such as converting portions of pasture back to native grasses that support wildlife and soil health.

2. Farmers trust local expertise.

Many MFA staff are themselves farmers and they do extensive problem solving with their member owners throughout the year, together tapping a great deal of experience to understand what works best locally.

3. Better data supports better management decisions.

MFA Inc. specializes in precision agronomy, which enables farmers to move away from applying nutrients at a fixed rate — an approach that risks overapplying in some areas and underapplying in others — and instead uses soil samples to match each subfield to the appropriate rate of fertilizer. This saves farmers money, boosts yields and keeps nutrients in the ground and in the crop instead of running off into streams and rivers.

4. Agronomy and conservation work in sync.

MFA Inc.’s precision agronomy experts and conservation experts are learning from each other’s data and expertise. For example, grid sampling helps identify areas that may have been fertilized for years but still perform poorly, indicating that some areas could be put to more profitable use than growing the current crop — such as providing forage for livestock or wildlife habitat to lease to hunters. Much of the Midwest is experiencing wetter springs and more frequent high-intensity rainfall events. Here's how one ag retailer is helping farmers build resilience: Click To Tweet

5. Collaborating with agencies helps drive more effective policies and programs.

MFA provides states agencies feedback on the design of their programs, potentially spotting unintended obstacles. This feedback can help the agencies design programs more in line with producers’ needs, without compromising environmental benefits.

6. Adapting to weather extremes is top of mind for farmers.

Much of the Midwest is experiencing wetter springs and more frequent high-intensity rainfall events. Now, more than ever, MFA’s technical assistance is crucial to help its member-owners successfully adopt practices to increase resilience to a changing climate and weather extremes.

There are nearly 2,000 farmer co-ops nationwide, many of which provide ag retail services like MFA Inc. This presents a huge opportunity for other state agencies and ag retailers to collaborate to help farmers better weather the challenges ahead.

Securing a mix of strong public and private funding for these types of investments should be a top priority for policymakers and corporate partners across the agricultural supply chain to help bring the lessons learned from Missouri to scale across America.

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