05 Jul 2012: Analysis

Helping U.S. Farmers Increase
Production and Protect the Land

American agriculture is steeped in a chemical-intensive system that wastes money and pollutes the environment. But by making use of new technology and innovative approaches, farmers can boost production and profits — while at the same time improving soil quality, enhancing biodiversity, and protecting habitat.

by julie menter

In California, farmers can go online and access detailed data on evapotranspiration from a state network of weather stations, helping them calculate the optimal amount of water to apply on a given day to irrigated crops in their region. In a pilot study, growers using the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) reduced their water use by 13 percent while increasing their yields by 8 percent. Still, despite these benefits, farmers use CIMIS data on only 5 percent of irrigated cropland in California, the U.S.’s leading agricultural state.

In Iowa, the U.S.’s top producer of soybeans, farmers can participate in a program that assists them in conducting research on their farms to improve soybean yields, reduce use of fertilizer and pesticides, and increase profitability. Soybean farmers participating in the On-Farm Network of the Iowa Soybean Association have reduced fertilizer use by 33 pounds per acre, allowing them to save $16 per acre without reducing yields. Although this environmentally beneficial program is expanding in the U.S., farmers tilling far less than 1 percent of U.S. cropland are taking advantage of it.

Unfortunately, as these programs demonstrate, innovative farmers are the exception in American agriculture today. Although much of the technology, tools, and know-how to usher in the “farm of the future” exist, these reforms have not been widely adopted, even when they provide positive financial returns. As a result, many farmers — steeped in a system focused on selling them more fertilizer, more herbicides and insecticides, and more equipment — waste money on excessive chemicals and nutrients that
U.S. agriculture cannot afford to wait for a piecemeal adoption of better practices and solutions.
pollute the environment and weaken the ecosystems farmers depend upon: clean water, healthy soils, beneficial insects, and more.

U.S. agriculture has been far behind the curve in adopting the principles of “lean manufacturing,” which has seen businesses as varied as Toyota, General Electric, and FedEx use key performance indicators, statistical analysis of outcomes, and goal-setting to improve profitability — and protect the environment. But the good news is that enormous opportunities exist to turn the situation around, creating profitable farms across the U.S. that produce an abundance of healthy food while improving the soil, enhancing biodiversity, and protecting habitats. Such farms might seem like an impossible dream today, but they are not.

As a sustainability consultant who has worked to help improve the economic and environmental performance of the U.S. retail, apparel, and dairy industries, I have seen how a systematic emphasis on helping individuals and companies improve their environmental performance has led to real economic gains. For example, my colleagues worked with the U.S. dairy industry to mobilize a campaign from “grass-to-glass” that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the industry by 25 percent by 2020. The 12 innovation projects launched to reach this goal — including energy efficiency initiatives and installation of methane digesters — should also generate more than $250 million a year in savings by 2020.

The U.S. agriculture system cannot afford to wait for piecemeal adoption of better practices and solutions. If we are going to help feed the world’s 9 billion to 10 billion people in 2050, food production must increase by 70 percent. To preserve the ecosystems and resources upon which food production depends, this dramatic increase needs to happen on the same amount of land, with fewer resources and less waste. Through interviews with agriculture experts — including farmers, food processors, academics, and representatives from non-profit organizations — I have identified three keys to unlocking an unprecedented wave of change in agriculture.

While many innovative technologies do exist, they often are not integrated into the tools that farmers use every day. Experts say that a big reason genetically modified seeds have been so successful is that they can be used with the same equipment and the same farming schedule that farmers already employ.

Better solutions for farmers are ones that are more user-friendly, do not require significant change in practices or tools, and are accurate, automated and based on robust science. Quite often great solutions languish because
One system now being developed will use satellite measurements to determine the optimal amount of water required.
they are missing one of these characteristics. For example, a new solution currently being developed could help increase adoption of California’s CIMIS irrigation information network. The Satellite Irrigation Management Support system, being designed by NASA scientists in partnership with the California Department of Water Resources, will use satellite measurements of crop canopies and the data provided by CIMIS to determine the optimal amount of water required for a specific field and will provide recommendations for farmers delivered directly on a mobile phone or other handheld device.

Real-time kinematics (RTK), a geopositioning system with accuracy down to a centimeter, allows farmers to precisely plant, fertilize, water, and apply crop protection chemicals. For example, it allows farmers like Clay Mitchell of Geneseo Township, Iowa, to plant seeds exactly where fertilizer was placed a few weeks earlier, increasing yields while reducing fertilizer use. But RTK remains difficult to set-up and manage effectively and needs further impovement.

Even when solutions are powerful and easy to use, they do not always reach farmers locked into traditional systems focused on having them buy increasing amounts of fertilizer and chemicals. New solutions often need their own dedicated sales force, which can be cost-prohibitive for start-up technology providers. Sarah Alexander, director of Sustainability and Leadership Programs at the non-profit Keystone Center, noted that different farmers trust different sources of information, such as vendors, crop consultants, and university extension services. “There is no single strategy that is effective in reaching farmers in large numbers,” she said. This further increases the cost of distributing new solutions. Finally, the limited availability of reliable benchmarks on fertilizer use, soil quality, and other data makes it difficult for farmers to identify potential opportunities for improvement.

But tools and solutions are emerging to help farmers see these opportunities. Measurement systems like the free, online Field-to-Market fieldprint calculator can help growers measure the efficiency of their operations — water use, energy use, soil conservation, etc. — and compare their performance to state and national averages. Unfortunately, adoption of these tools is still growing slowly, in part because there are no strong financial incentives or support mechanisms for farmers to use them.

Conventional farmers do not gain recognition for reducing the environmental impact of their farms. Additional incentives would help improve the economics and make solutions more attractive. As farmers start measuring the impact of their operations, those results can be used in scorecards that food buyers could use to recognize and reward the top performers with better contract terms or even higher purchase prices. A small but growing number of consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for such food, providing an incentive for farmers who adopt sustainable growing practices.

Identifying new sources of revenue for environmental conservation could help create additional incentives for farmers to adopt more advanced solutions and practices — in particular the ones that don’t always provide quick returns on investment today, such as keeping some farmland planted with native vegetation to provide pollution buffers along rivers or streams.

One potential opportunity is the valuation of ecosystem services, which could allow farmers to generate income not just from the crops they sell but also from protecting watersheds, increasing biodiversity, or capturing carbon in the soil. One such example is a system for nutrient trading under
A growing number of consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for food grown on farms using sustainable practices.
development in the Chesapeake Bay. This initiative, similar to cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, would set a ceiling on farmers, towns, or industries for their discharge of nutrients from fertilizer, waste water, or animal excrement. Those who discharge nutrients below their allocation could sell emissions credits to other organizations that might find it too difficult or expensive to reach their cap. For example, municipal wastewater treatment plants could choose to buy nutrient credits from farmers rather than invest in costly retrofits. Some states in the Midwestern U.S., including Wisconsin and Minnesota, are experimenting with or considering similar nutrient-trading programs in an effort to reduce the size of the nutrient-fed “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mobilizing all three “keys” at once will not be easy. In order to unlock the potential value for farmers and for the environment, many different groups need to work together and coordinate their actions. It may be complex, but it is possible. My colleagues and I have been working with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which faces a similarly daunting task. The SAC is


The Folly of Big Agriculture:
Why Nature Always Wins

The Folly of Big Agriculture: Why Nature Always Wins
Large-scale industrial agriculture depends on engineering the land to ensure the absence of natural diversity. But as the recent emergence of herbicide-tolerant weeds on U.S. farms has shown, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes, nature ultimately finds a way to subvert uniformity and assert itself.
composed of retailers, apparel manufacturers, and suppliers that collectively represent about 30 percent of the global apparel market. Although these groups have highly divergent interests, the SAC has agreed to create an Apparel Index, a common way to measure sustainability in the apparel supply chain. Such an effort will allow each company to improve its design, better choose its suppliers, and build more efficient and environmentally friendly supply chains. For example, one brand found significant variation in fabric waste among clothing designers and was able to improve design efficiency 10 percent. Another manufacturer used the index to help design a new washing facility to improve water and energy efficiency.

In working to make U.S. agriculture more sustainable, a coalition of farmers, companies, and organizations across the food supply chain could make real progress toward producing more food with less waste and a lighter environmental impact.

POSTED ON 05 Jul 2012 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Energy Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability Central & South America 


Excellent article Julie.

Imagine an agricultural economy that provides a steady source of revenue generation for farm producers while promoting new local, community-based, economic development and multi-functional agri-based industrial growth opportunities:

* That acts to restore the ecological integrity of site and regional land and water resources, including the re-development of organic-rich topsoil

* That isn’t weather dependent on an annual basis

* That involves a production process which effectively reduces time and input costs

* That results in the reduction or elimination of chronic growing season flooding, soil erosion, and sedimentation on a site, as well as at a regional watershed basis

* That protects and enhances terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitat

* That improves regional water quality and replenishes depleted groundwater reserves

* That enhances regional air quality

* That provides for long-term revenue generation potential without the creation of collateral economic or environmental costs to society.

We believe that this is not only possible, but imperative, and that the process will be market driven and economically sustainable without long-term subsidies.

Sustainable Land Development Initiative

Posted by Terry Mock on 05 Jul 2012

While I applaud much of the great content of this article, I believe the author makes an assumption we've all been making for years. If we view farming as no different than manufacturing, and work to become as hyper efficient as possible, that will drive us to a continued lack of diversity and destruction of the soil.

Man cannot think of himself as separate from the interconnected systems of our geosphere. What we do to our ecosystems has direct and indirect impacts on us as humans. Increases in productivity are disastrously the wrong goal of agriculture and is a legacy from the ag policies of Earl Butz. Our first priority is to the soil. Healthy soil doesn’t need synthetic fertilizer, but it does require management of a farmer whose mind is on his land, whose thoughts are about growing the soil in harmony with diversity of crops and a diversity of environment.

My point is that we must stop thinking in terms of maximum yield via maximum efficiency. It is not a ludditic viewpoint to remember that our biological, social and economic systems are all connected, and an act in one has an impact on the others. However, it seems that behaviors of modern agriculturalists, politicians and agribusiness companies indicate they don’t believe this fact. How else do we have millions of hectares of sterile soil on which farmers must spray fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and aquifer-depleting irrigation? Any junior high biology student knows that sterile soil won’t grow anything, but yet, that’s what we essentially have in America today. What would cause a farmer to break down his soil so that it no longer holds moisture, resists weeds and pests, increases its microbial activity and maintains an innate growing capacity? It’s a fair question. My answer is that the modern farmer is not thinking beyond price, to their own eventual peril.

And before anyone spouts out that nine billion people can only be fed through increasing yield and opening new land to the plow, let’s just stop right there. The amount of crops we grow that don’t go into human consumption is mind boggling. Combined with the amount of food that humans waste, and it’s clear there is no need to open new land or tear out our hedgerows and plow up our prairies and pastures.

Can we feed the world’s population with sustainable approaches to agriculture? It’s already been shown it can be done. It will just require a different mindset that most seem unwilling to adopt. Yes, it’s hard to change and there is pain in it. But, the pain will be far less than the pain we’re going to experience as a species if we continue the agricultural mindset we have today.

Posted by Hebron Acres on 05 Jul 2012

Ms. Menter offers a pragmatic outline for those working in and around large-scale agriculture to transition away from monocultures and broad industrial/chemical processes that seem increasingly inefficient and self-defeating toward a more nuanced & sustainable farming system.

The example of growing transparency in the apparel industry via SAC also suggests that entities throughout production and consumption see value in such transparency. I, for one, would love to see sustainability indices for the produce, products, utilities, etc. that I consume and share personally and professionally.

As to the critique that this article depends on a premise of agricultural efficiency, I read it instead as a practical account within the reach of even the most hardened agribusiness conception. Indeed the critique enumerates this problem well.

I also suspect that Ms. Menter would consider more thoughtful and balanced soil maintenance systems in the "better solutions" category, as long as some means are devised for integrating better soil management into existing farming processes. The critic's suggested divide between greater efficiency/yield and ecosystem sensitivity is a false dichotomy. Indeed examples abound to suggest that agricultural ecosystems (as opposed to monocultures grown on depleted soil) have the greatest overall yield per acre. A beautiful ambition, to be sure, and one likely facilitated by the kinds of shifts advocated in this article.

Thanks for this important conversation!

Posted by Matt Sonneborn on 05 Jul 2012

Thank you for this article, Julie. Multi-stakeholder coalitions are the key to solving our toughest sustainability challenges.

I wanted to direct attention to the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, which is exactly the "coalition of farmers, companies, and organizations across the food supply chain" making real progress that the author speaks of. In three years, an unprecedented multi-stakeholder collaboration has formed, developed sustainability performance metrics through a transparent process, piloted those metrics on fruit and vegetable operations across the U.S., and is engaging major food buyer companies in adopting those metrics at scale across the industry.

The result is a level of buy-in and consensus uncommon to the industry, and a lasting, single set of measuring sticks that will literally enable the industry to compare apples to apples, and communicate sustainability progress across the supply chain.

For more information, http://www.stewardshipindex.org/

Posted by Jessica Siegal Winberry on 05 Jul 2012

This article doesn't seem to allow much change from industrial agriculture, it rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic.

There are many challenges, finding missions for multi-billion dollar infrastructure enhancements is not one of them. The world cannot afford this stuff.

The agriculture of the future is moving away from petroleum, satellites, electronic whizmos and systems engineering approaches. It's moving toward more small farmers producing a variety of cash crops operating within cooperatives ... either with other producers or with customers.

Agriculture in the U.S. is finding a way to outmaneuver Monsanto and the other agri-business cartels that have made food into a 'profit center' while leaving the landscape a ruin.

The shift is already underway, the emphasis is on goats and chickens not more tech.

The Luddites were right, the machines have a very limited place in the grand scheme of things, the sooner we realize it the better off we all will be.

Posted by steve from virginia on 10 Jul 2012

If these "solutions" are what you consider sustainable agriculture, we're in trouble. Please read the post by Hebron Acres and memorize it. We will get nowhere with this kind of big-ag, monoculture, incremental approach -- a little less poison dumped on the soil and into the water and we're all fine? Hah. It is also troubling to read that the author is helping Walmart with its sustainable agriculture strategy. What a joke.

Posted by Julia Lawlor on 20 Jul 2012

The sole utility of this article is its ability to illuminate one of the biggest challenges in moving to a sustainable future: the inability of so many "sustainability" and "environmental" leaders to imagine a world without enormous agribusiness and mega-corporations, which are the roots of our environmental problems.

An article promoting agricultural solutions that does not critically account for agribusiness' destruction of the environment and social fabric of communities is either a greenwashing piece of propaganda or negligently unimaginative.

Thinking inside the box of conventional power hierarchies will not yield us meaningful solutions to the unprecedented agricultural and environmental challenges facing the world.

Posted by Eugene on 28 Aug 2012

Too stressed to read this whole article but I did notice that no one ever seems to mention any help for those of who own land already but will never be able to keep it out of corporate hands because we need direct financial investment to survive. If all of the money out there goes to make farmers markets bigger and to help minority farmers, many of whom do not even care about organic or sustainable agriculture, then those who are already good farmers (but just not the right sex or skin shade) will be out of business. The Government has lots of loans but not for those already farming for years. Just put 'help for farmers' into Google and try to find any help.
Not behind on farm payments or taxes but not going to make it much longer without help. Hoping to convert to an organic dairy asap, to be selling healthy pastured broilers, mini cows and other great ventures with our family, and to continue farming the land we love,
A WI farm wife...wifeeonthefarm@outlook.com

Posted by Melissa in WI,USA on 29 Mar 2013

Comments have been closed on this feature.
julie menterABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julie Menter is a senior consultant at Blu Skye Consulting, a firm that specializes in sustainability-driven innovation across supply chains and industries. She developed the governance infrastructure for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry-wide initiative to create a single approach to measuring sustainability in the apparel supply chain, and helped Wal-Mart develop its sustainable agriculture strategy.



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