What does sustainability mean to farmers? How do farmers successfully farm their land in a sustainable manner? How do their efforts affect you, the food you eat every day, and the environment we live in?
In our four-part series on agricultural sustainability, we illustrate how NGOs, government regulators, corporations, and in this article, farmers, each achieve their sustainability goals as well as how they work together in larger initiatives.
“Growers are performing ‘sustainable practices’ but do not see them as such; they see them as just good farming practices and being good stewards of their land.” – Hank Giclas, Western Growers
The agriculture industry is often criticized for using too much water, using too many chemicals, and adding more carbon to the atmosphere. However, farmers have their boots on the ground and occupy the front lines of sustainability initiatives within agriculture. No farms, no food!
While some farmers employ better approaches to farming sustainably, no farmer deliberately damages human or environmental health or wants to waste their inputs, such as water, pesticide, and labor. As stewards of the land, it is in a farmer’s best interest to preserve all of their resources for future generations of farming.
Farmers are on the front lines of sustainable agriculture.
Sustainability encompasses many different initiatives for agriculture.
How do farmers address sustainable agriculture?
The road to sustainable farming is long and complex, simply because no single farming practice by itself establishes sustainability. Farmers are a community that must work together to protect their resources. To get insight into how farmers practice sustainability, we interviewed Nikki Rodoni, founder & CEO of Measure to Improve, LLC, a recognized leader in the fresh produce industry for building and implementing sustainability programs.
Farmers are taking care of the soil…
Rodoni emphasized the importance of healthy soil and states that farmers are already doing a fantastic job at improving soil health. As we discussed in Soil: It is much more than Dirt, healthy soil means healthy crops. Healthy crops lead to more resilient crops that, in turn, help farmers in many other facets of sustainability, such as decreased water usage since the soil holds and absorbs more water, thus preventing running off; less fertilizer usage since healthy soils hold more essential nutrients and reduce nutrient runoff; and less pesticide usage because crops are more resilient and better equipped to fight off pests with their innate defenses.
Healthy soil = healthy crops. The soil is a paramount sustainable initiative for farmers.
All those benefits can be enhanced when farmers adopt and use additional technologies and practices such as soil moisture sensors, precise irrigation methods, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to further increase efficiencies. And to top it all off, the farmer ends up with a higher yield and better quality of the crop.
Healthy soil is a win for farmers and consumers around the world because it increases the soil’s resilience, which in turn increases crop resilience and, ultimately, the resiliency of farming communities.
Farmers are conserving water…
Craig MacKenzie, a New Zealand farmer highlighted on Global Farmer Network, discussed his ability to manage irrigation on his farm from his cell phone. His carrot, radish, chicory, wheat, and ryegrass fields have sensors buried in the soil that send him real-time information about the soil moisture levels. This allows MacKenzie to adjust irrigation accordingly. He’s currently looking into fertilizer sensors to help detect the levels of nitrate, potassium, and phosphorus in the soil.
Ceres Imaging provides an app for farmers to help understand water stress, plant nutrient uniformity, pest emergence, and other issues in their fields. source: Precision Ag
Duncan Family Farms, which operates farms in Arizona and California, also uses sensor technologies as well as plastic mulches and floating row covers to help create and maintain moisture in their fields. Other methods they use to conserve water include growing crops during cooler months of the year to avoid high evaporative heat conditions; using transplants instead of seeds as seeds take more water to germinate, and growing some crops under cover in controlled environments.
Row covers can help maintain soil temperatures, reduce water inputs, and reduce weed infestation.
In addition to the use of sensor technologies to conserve water, farmers are also switching from furrow and overhead irrigation systems to drip irrigation, thus substantially cutting their water use.
Sustainable farming helps to sequester CO2
All these practices have many benefits including playing a role in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations through carbon storage in soil and vegetation called carbon sequestration.Scientists at the University of California, Davis estimate that U.S. rangelands could potentially sequester up to 330 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in their soils, and croplands are estimated to lock up more than twice that amount—up to 770 million metric tons. That is the CO2 emissions equivalent of powering 114 million homes with electricity for a year.
Sustainable agriculture practices enhance carbon sequestration in soils.
In addition to on-farm sustainable practices, farmers must also work with a wider network which includes local government, corporations, and NGOs.
How corporations, governments and NGOs are working with our farmers
By working together, sustainable agricultural practices can be referenced, measured and validated. There have been efforts throughout the agriculture industry to assist farmers in implementing sustainable practices. While many agricultural companies such as Driscoll, Taylor Farms, Tanimura and Antle’s Plant Tape, John Deere, Monsanto, Cargill, and Bunge (to name a few) have their own corporate sustainabilityinitiatives to help guide farmers, there are many joint initiatives as well.
Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform was created in 2002 by Nestlé, Unilever, and Danone to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and best practices throughout the food value chain to support the development and implementation of sustainable agriculture practices.
Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA). Farmers can use the FSA to assess and improve their on-farm sustainability practices while communicating them to customers in a consistent way. Additionally, the assessment criteria meet the sustainable sourcing needs of many companies and can be used by governments, NGOs, universities, and consultants as a reference for defining the scope of sustainable agricultural practices.
Two organizations with more specialized and narrowly focused missions are Land O Lakes’ SUSTAIN and the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops.
SUSTAIN works with their partner retailers, like Walmart, to develop customized solutions that allow farmers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions without reducing their profits. For example, SUSTAIN created a product to help farmers use nitrogen more efficiently and, when used properly, allows them to use less nitrogen fertilizer.
Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC) is comprised of growers, buyers, and public interest groups collaborating to develop and share metrics and stewardship indicators in the specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, and nuts) industry. Alison Edwards, director and facilitator at SISC, spoke to us about the importance of the entire supply chain’s involvement with sustainability. When the whole supply chain is involved, the data being collected on the farm can be interpreted correctly and the sustainable farming story can be told in a more effective way.
Alison talked about the importance of having metrics— “you cannot manage what you cannot measure.” SISC’s metrics allow growers to internally benchmark which sustainable practices work the best for their farm, crop, climate, and soil conditions and report these tangible efforts to buyers and consumers.
In 2012 Campbell Soup Company began collecting sustainability performance metrics from their tomato grower using SISC’s metrics. Over a five-year period, they were able to track water and fertilizer use on their supplier farms. The adoption of drip irrigation across a group of 50 tomato farms resulted in a 22% reduction in average water volume. By collecting this data, Campbell’s can now concretely demonstrate and share with their stakeholders how their tomato growers are actively adopting best practices and driving real resource conservation.
The government is also involved with sustainable agricultural efforts. For example, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has advocated and established several conservation and soil health programs into the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as supporting working land conservation programs like Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs support farmers and ranchers adopting conservation practices, like crop rotation, cover cropping, low tillage system management, etc., and in turn receive financial and technical assistance for their contribution to sustainability.
Communicating Sustainability to the Consumer
The farmer-consumer relationship certainly has its challenges. When farmers are trying to implement new and more sustainable practices, it can be nearly impossible to communicate the results to consumers. We know that consumers want to know where their food comes from— but there is little-to-no communication between farmer and consumer. Because of this, marketing experts are telling farmers that they need to tell their stories, to reconnect with and inform consumers about how their farm operates and how their crops are grown and harvested. Walk down the aisle of the grocery store and you will see farmer’s highlighted on milk and orange juice cartons and boxes of cereal. But aside from these ad campaigns, creating a direct link between farmer and consumer is no easy task. Complicating the dialogue is that these days, when farmers make the news, especially regarding environmental issues, they are depicted as environmental villains. Unfortunately, these stories are misrepresentative and ignore the genuine stories of farmers and ranchers who are adapting to and embracing sustainable practices promoting soil health, minimizing water use and pollution, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions while contributing to and improving the quality of the food supply.
The Bottom Line:
Farmers are engaging, embracing and applying sustainable agricultural practices to their farms throughout the U.S. and around the world. We as consumers are just not hearing about it. However, with the help of agriculture sustainability initiative platforms and the investment in data collection technologies, farmers have better tools and networks to better communicate and improve their sustainability efforts.