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.

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.

1.      Farmers need better solutions
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.

2.      Broader awareness is required

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.

3.      Farmers need the right incentives

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


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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.