Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): corn

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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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.
Read More »

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My two agricultural hats: scientist & advocate

Woman in the wild“It’s the hydrology, stupid!” a colleague once joked about the thrust of my career. I couldn’t agree more. I study what’s working and what’s not across agricultural landscapes — the Midwest corn belt is a current focus — and believe that the fundamental changes we’ve made to the land by draining it, removing native vegetation and altering the water flow have caused many of the environmental issues the region faces today.

I’m intrigued by agriculture, where people and nature intersect across vibrant landscapes to provide tangible benefits to individuals, local communities, and the surrounding ecosystem. My job, which allows me to indulge that fascination on a daily basis, requires me to simultaneously think like a scientist and an environmental advocate, a dual role that I first started to cultivate growing up in rural England. Read More »

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New program verifies claims of fertilizer efficiency tools

NutrientStar LogoBig name food companies are starting to source sustainably grown grains to increase transparency and reduce climate and water risks in their supply chains. Precision agriculture tools can help farmers meet this new demand, but it’s difficult to tell which ones perform as advertised because little data exists – or is publicly available – to prove a tool’s effectiveness on the ground.

That’s why EDF developed NutrientStar, an independent, science-based program that verifies the fertilizer efficiency claims of products on the market.

NutrientStar identifies fertilizer management tools that effectively keep nutrients on the farm, reduce fertilizer losses, and improve air and water quality. Scientific assessments conducted by an independent review panel provide valuable information on a tool’s performance, and on-the-ground research trials show performance in working fields. As tools and products are reviewed, the analysis will be posted on the NutrientStar website. Tools and products assessed to date include:

  • Adapt-N (made by Agronomic Technology Corp.), an online software program that uses a linked crop model and soil model to estimate nitrogen rates for individual fields or areas within fields.
  • Fertilizer management products including N-Serve® (made by Dow AgroSciences); AGROTAIN®, AGROTAIN PLUS®, and SUPER U® (made by Koch Agronomic Services).

Here’s what this new program means for the entire commodity crop supply chain – from farmers to food companies. Read More »

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Animal feed is at the heart of grain sustainability

monast tractor

Building my energy-efficient home in North Carolina.

My passion for improving the food system for the health of my family, my fellow citizens and our planet is in my genes.

My grandmother ran a natural foods business out of her kitchen in the 1950s, a time when the country was moving towards more processed food. My parents, who took me on annual Earth Day trash walks to pick up garbage alongside the road by our house, instilled in me a deep respect for the environment. My mother, a teacher, also started a composting and gardening program at her school that incorporates what the students grow into the school menus.

I draw on my family’s heritage in my life and work. That’s why I’m proud to be part of the team that helped Smithfield Foods establish and deploy a program to improve the sustainability of the grains they feed their hogs.

EDF and Smithfield don’t agree on everything, but we do agree that farmers growing animal feed have an important role to play in reducing the climate and water impacts of agriculture.

Here’s why a career focused on feed grain sustainability is a perfect fit for me – and why I believe that momentum in animal feed sustainability is a great way for protein companies across the supply chain to make tangible improvements to air and water quality. 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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Fertilizer runoff is just one piece of the dead zone puzzle

Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

Dead zones (also called hypoxic zones) are caused by a rapid growth in algae that leads to less dissolved oxygen in the water and the death of aquatic species. Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

It’s true that fertilizer runoff, sewage, and other pollutants from the Corn Belt have significantly boosted dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s because up to half of the fertilizer applied isn’t absorbed by crops, and in order to grow more food we’re using 20 times more fertilizer in the Corn Belt today than in the 1950s.

But even if we optimize fertilizer use on all cropland in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River Basins, nutrients will still be lost to rivers and streams and carried into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this loss is inevitable given factors like unpredictable weather, but my colleagues and I set out to quantify other reasons for why the Corn Belt exports so much nitrogen.

We discovered that an increase in fertilizer inputs is only one part of the problem. Three other distinct but interconnected factors also contribute to water pollution and the Gulf dead zone: the loss of perennial cover, the construction of artificial drainage systems, and the loss of wetlands. 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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Sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand, says Iowa corn farmer

TimRichter

Tim Richter, owner of Saratoga Partnership.

Farming is a tough business. With constantly changing crop prices, difficult to predict and increasingly extreme weather variations, and changing consumer demands, growers don’t have an easy time of it.

Like any business, profitability is the number one priority. And it should be – if you are not profitable, it’s very hard to stay in business.

All the growers I’ve worked with care deeply about their land. In a recent survey of a group of Midwestern farmers, “land stewardship” ranked as their top value. And sustainability is in a farmers’ best interest since healthy lands plays a huge role in whether farms will be around – and productive – for the next generation. But making agriculture truly sustainable will require investment from farmers.

Here’s the good news: sustainability and profitability can go hand-in-hand. Efficiencies like fertilizer optimization can result in cost savings. And with those savings, growers can invest in new technologies and cover crops, which can help make farms more resilient and increase yields, generating long term economic gain.

I asked Tim Richter, owner of a swine and corn farm operation spanning 9,000 acres in northern Iowa and Missouri, to tell me his profitability and sustainability story. Read More »

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