By adopting more efficient engine technology, auto-guidance and conservation tillage, you're reducing your impact on the environment. Wouldn't it be great if that made customers prefer your products? Wouldn't it be even better if they opened their pocketbooks and rewarded you for it?
Carl Hays of San Luis Obispo, Calif., believes that will happen because of a conservation farming certification program he is devising for farmers, which will lead to conservation-branded products for consumers.
Hays' idea germinated when he was working for AutoFarm on GPS for tractors. "It made me wish consumers could understand how auto-guidance systems enable farmers to conserve fuel and be more ‘green,'” he says.
"New engine technology is accomplishing the same goal,” Hays continues. "So is conservation tillage.”
Browsing in grocery stores convinced Hays that consumers lacked environmentally conscious options. "Besides organics, what choice do we have for ‘green' produce?” he says. "Some consumers are turning away from organic food because of its high price. They need an option between organic and conventional. We need to reward farmers for going greener even if they are not completely organic.”
At California Polytechnic Institute in San Luis Obispo, Hays is devoting his graduate thesis to developing a conservation farming certification program. He is using two California farms for case studies—one focused on specialty crops and the other on commodity crops. He plans to launch his certifying agency, the Conservation Farming Institute, early this year.
How certification works. To certify a farm, Hays will visit the operation and verify that the farmers have incorporated technology, equipment and practices to use less energy than a conventional farm. The savings from each piece of equipment, technology or practice will be based on research by Hays at Cal Poly and research from other land-grant universities.
Hays is considering 15% energy savings as the minimum requirement for certification. That sounds modest, but it's a significant reduction in a state, such as California, where intensive tillage is the norm. "I want a realistic standard that growers can meet, so they will be encouraged to make changes to qualify for certification,” Hays explains.
In the future, Hays plans to take into account water and fertilizer savings, creating several tiers of conservation for which farmers can qualify.
A Farmer's Perspective
Travis Fugitt, who volunteered for Carl Hays' case study because he already uses auto-guidance and conser-vation tillage, agrees that consumers want a choice between organic and conventional.
"We tried growing organic cotton, but found there was only a very small market for it,” the Bakersfield, Calif., farmer says. "The certification program will let us market the kind of products consumers will be most happy with. I think that if we educate marketers and consumers, a conservation farming label could really take off.”
By documenting improvements farmers are making, the certification program can be used to chart farmers' progress toward environmental goals, Fugitt adds. That's especially significant in a state such as California, where dust, smoke, emissions and other aspects of farming are heavily regulated.
The appeal of a Conservation Farming label on sweet corn or denim jeans seems obvious. But would certification pay for producers of commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat, in other areas of the U.S.? "I think a company like Kellogg, for example, would like to have the label on their products,” Fugitt says.
You can e-mail Darrell Smith at email@example.com.