Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): cover crops

Conservation relies on profitability

Conservation practices help make this wheat field more profitable Whether in agriculture or any other business, if you don’t have enough money coming in to pay the bills, it’s hard to find the time or resources for anything other than working to turn a red budget spreadsheet black.

A wheat farmer friend from Washington recently told me that current prices are $4/bushel, the same as 40 years ago. Take into account inflation, and that’s a significant decline. Nationally, the USDA predicts that net farm income will drop by almost 9 percent this year, the fourth year in a row of declines after reaching a record high in 2013. Farmers also face enormous volatility in income, with fluctuations in yield, demand, as well as crop and input prices.

It’s no surprise then that environmentalists’ calls to cut crop insurance, disaster programs or other conservation payments fall on deaf ears in the agricultural community – or serve only to raise blood pressure levels across the Corn Belt. Read More »

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Why ag advisers should increase conservation offerings to farmers

Ag retailers help these farmers manage their farm sustainablyFarmers have a host of competing priorities clamoring for their time, energy and money. Fortunately, they often have trusted advisers to help them make good decisions for their operations – including about conservation practices on the farm.

These practices, such as improving fertilizer efficiency and planting cover crops, can provide significant benefits for farmers: increasing or stabilizing yields, reducing erosion, and ensuring more of the fertilizer applied delivers yield instead of being lost to water or air. They can also increase profitability.

But in order to get the best bang for every conservation buck, many of these practices require technical and agronomic expertise. As PrecisionAg suggested, who better to help integrate these practices into farm operations than the ag retailers and consultants who know their clients’ farms so well?

By expanding their conservation service offerings, ag retailers and crop advisers can meet growing demand from farmers – while also keeping their businesses, and that of their farmer clients, competitive. Read More »

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Why Sonny Perdue should prioritize these 3 farm programs

Sonny Perdue will now lead the United States Department of AgricultureThe U.S. Senate will confirm the Secretary of Agriculture today, empowering former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to lead an agency with a $155 billion budget, some 100,000 employees and ultimate responsibility for our nation’s food security.

Over 80 percent of this budget goes toward farm programs, food stamps, school meals and other mandatory spending programs. The remainder goes to protect farmers’ livelihoods, rural economies and the environment – but according to the Administration’s budget proposals, this pot of funding could be cut by over 21 percent.

Retaining current funding levels for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – and conservation programs in particular – ensures that farmers can remain productive during periods of extreme weather, protects habitat for wildlife without sacrificing profitability and improves on-farm efficiencies.

Secretary Perdue will need to advocate on behalf of farmers to protect these programs – and he’ll need help from the private sector, since the federal government alone cannot maintain farming as a core industry in America, make sustainable agriculture the norm or feed a growing population.

Here are three programs that provide widespread benefits – and that should be a top priority for the new Secretary. Read More »

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Farmers and environmentalists want the same thing

Farmers and environmentalists want the same thing

I’m spending time on this year’s National Ag Day thinking back gratefully to a recent meeting I had with farmers.

I was attending the annual farm exchange program offered through the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, which facilitates learning opportunities on California farms. This year’s program brought together state environmental policy professionals and growers from the Central Coast, an epicenter for growing the nation’s specialty crops, such as lettuce, broccoli, and strawberries. My aim was “to see sustainability through the eyes of farmers.” We toured various agricultural operations, had thoughtful discussions, and stayed with host families in the local farm community.

My host was Erin Amaral, who manages 1,170 acres of vineyards near San Luis Obispo. Erin and I got along immediately – and our conversations kept coming back to one central tenet: farmers and environmentalists want the same things. Read More »

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How Smithfield’s landmark climate goal benefits farmers and the planet

Smithfields foods will reduce emissions in its supply chainsSmithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork company, is known as a leader in animal agriculture. Now Smithfield is showing its sustainability leadership by becoming the first major livestock company to make an absolute, supply chain commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change.

The company will reduce emissions in its U.S. supply chain, from feed grain to packaged bacon, 25 percent by 2025. To meet the goal, Smithfield will improve fertilizer use on feed grain, install advanced manure management technologies, and increase energy efficiency in transportation.

When a company as big as Smithfield makes a new sustainability commitment, it’s natural for farmers and neighboring communities to wonder how it will affect them. The good news is that all the actions Smithfield plans will generate benefits both for farmers and our environment.

Here are three: Read More »

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How agriculture can help drive a low-carbon economy

Reducing methane emissions from cows is a step in the right directionThe White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently released an intriguing report on how the United States can transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050 while continuing economic growth. The report gives a starring role in this job to agricultural lands.

Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization” outlines a 3-pronged strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent while accelerating job-creating innovation. Calling each strategy “critical,” CEQ first lists the familiar call to transition to renewable and low carbon forms of energy.

The second key strategy, however, is less often discussed: the potential of cropland and grassland soils, as well as forests, to store and sequester hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 annually. The report – informed by decades of scientific research – describes the opportunities to explore in this area. Read More »

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Three areas ripe for public investment in U.S. agriculture

Farm in Sichuan Province, China

Sichuan Province, China

Agriculture doesn’t often attract big investments like those that flow to technology.

But that may have just changed.

The Chinese government recently announced plans to invest $450 billion over the next four years – yep, billions – to help modernize agriculture and scale up practices that increase food security while hopefully minimizing impacts to the environment.

This eye-popping investment should be seen as a wake up call to the United States. Read More »

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What Michael Pollan gets wrong about Big Ag

Tractor in farm fieldJournalist Michael Pollan deserves credit for elevating the national conversation about food. Over the course of 25 years, his articles and books have thoughtfully contemplated the troubling side effects of the American diet and the way our food is produced.

But his latest piece in the New York Times Magazine reads like a script for a black and white Western, with food companies, agribusiness and commodity producers cast in the role of Bad Guy and local organic farmers and vegans cast as the Men in White Hats.

In Pollan’s script, the bad guys are responsible for everything from America’s weight problem and rising health care costs to widespread environmental degradation and monocultures that threaten national security. If only the law would get on the good guys’ side, he muses.

Food production is actually changing

All industries have issues that continually need to be addressed, and the food industry is no exception.

Agriculture consumes a lot of land and water and emits greenhouse gas emissions that must be curbed. And, yes, our diets have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic.

Except, our food system is changing, more than Pollan acknowledges.

The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition. Read More »

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Why Kansas farmer Justin Knopf strives to emulate the native prairie

Farmer in fieldI first met Justin Knopf at a meeting in DC about five years ago. At 6’3”, he definitely stood out, but not just physically. He openly conveyed how important his family and his land are – the reason he cares so much about making sure his Kansas farming operation can live on is for his children. It’s rare to meet someone so articulate, sincere and committed to sustainability.

Over the years, I have become more and more impressed by Justin, who started farming at age 14 when his father gave him the means to rent land and buy seed and fertilizer.

Fast forward to today, and Justin is one of the country’s champions of no-till farming – a practice that has boosted his yields and made his crops more resilient to the effects of extreme weather. His dedication and success caught the attention of Miriam Horn, author of the new book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland.

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman tells the stories of five individuals in the enormous Mississippi River watershed (Justin included) who are embracing sustainability and defying stereotypes. I asked Justin about the book, his beliefs on sustainability and what’s next for no till. Read More »

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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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