Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): food production

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.

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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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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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From my grandfather’s farm to NutrientStar: Why I believe in growers

Old photo of men on a family farm

My grandfather, John Beall, with his brother, on the family farm in Ohio.

I once dreamed of pursuing a career in public radio and becoming the next Cokie Roberts. Not surprisingly, my life took me in a much different direction. The catalyst was a two-year Peace Corps stint in biodiversity-rich Ecuador that led me towards a career in conservation. But I never steered too far from my agricultural roots, and today my farming life has come full circle.

I grew up on a small farm in rural Ohio, surrounded by fields, woods, wetlands and a menagerie of animals. My grandfather lived next door and every day I’d tag along with him and help vaccinate the chicks, collect eggs, bale hay, and feed the cows.

Thanks to the responsibilities he gave me as a young child, I feel a special connection to the farmers I work with today as they face pressure to increase their yields without polluting the water supply or surrounding ecosystem.

Here’s my agricultural story, and why I believe that a new program called NutrientStar will positively impact both farmers’ businesses and the surrounding ecosystem. 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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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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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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Meet the farmer who helped make no-till the norm in north central Montana

mattson-logoApproximately 56 percent of all corn, soy, wheat, and cotton farms use strip-tillage or no-till on at least a portion of their land. No-till, as defined by experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, means “limiting soil disturbance to manage the amount and distribution of crop and plant residue on the soil surface year round.” Strip tillage, meaning soil disturbance occurs on 30 percent or less of the field, also qualifies as no-till.

No-till is a widely recognized conservation practice that can help growers maximize soil health. The practice works best when implemented year after year and combined with other conservation measures like fertilizer efficiency and cover crops (wherever geography permits). There are myriad benefits for farmers and the planet, but barriers still exist.

That’s why I’m so amazed by a no-till adoption rate of 90 percent in north central Montana.

I talked with Carl Mattson, Montana grain grower and an agricultural policy and conservation consultant, about why he made the switch to no-till, why he was an early adopter of the practice, why so many farmers in his region use no-till, and what he sees as other obstacles to the future of sustainable farming. 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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