Digital calculator helps farmers conserve
Sustainability is still an elusive industry watchword. Everyone agrees it is vital, but sustainability can be hard to quantify or even define. Field to Market, an alliance of farmers; agribusinesses; food and retail companies; universities; conservation organizations; and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), hopes to change that by defining sustainability, measuring it and developing metrics for improvement.
Pilot programs underway are showcasing how farmers can analyze their environmental footprint and look for ways to improve it by using the Fieldprint Calculator available online. Participating farmers enter various data about their operation, and the calculator estimates field-level performance on several areas, including irrigation use, conservation, water quality, energy use and more.
Get the picture. "It’s kind of a snapshot on how farmers are performing," says Colleen Forestieri, a conservation technician with the NRCS Van Buren, Mich., conservation district. Fifty farmers participated in the local pilot program on groundwater research. Forestieri says downstream customers, such as Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola and others, are increasingly interested in the environmental impact farmers make.
"Water is Coca-Cola’s No. 1 ingredient, and corn is their No. 2 ingredient, so it’s extremely important to them," she says. "A lot of food companies are becoming more concerned with sustainable production."
The Fieldprint Calculator shows each farmer how efficiently they’re using their land, Forestieri says. Once farmers establish a baseline, they can find ways to improve their operation. Common improvements include precision irrigation, no-till, residue management, variable-rate fertility and other farming practices, she says.
Carl Druskovich, one of the farmer participants, says sustainability is always good for the land and often good for the bottom line. For example, installing precision agriculture equipment that allows him to apply variable-rate potash not only reduced fertilizer runoff but also his input costs.
"Farmers might say they can’t afford $7,500 for a GPS setup," he says. "But at the same time, they might be spending $70,000 on potash when they could have spent $60,000. They can afford it; they just don’t know it."
The educational opportunities that Fieldprint Calculator provides is invaluable, Druskovich says, because awareness of new farming technologies or practices is often the biggest barrier to improvement.
"It takes people in the coffee shop sometimes talking about new practices that work," he says.
University of Tennessee Extension specialist Lori Duncan is overseeing another Field to Market pilot program sponsored by Cotton Incorporated and the National Cotton Council to document baseline data and to look at management practices such as variable-rate fertility and cover crops that can reduce environmental impacts while maintaining or increasing profits. She has been encouraged by the results so far.
"There have been some good surprises," Duncan says. "Our producers were intrigued about how sustainable they are, and they’re all doing a really good job."
There were still opportunities for improvement, she adds. For example, participants had already switched to variable-rate fertility applications.
Duncan has documented changes in nutrient inputs from using variable-rate fertility programs. By reducing inputs, farmers can also reduce energy costs, she says. One farmer reduced his CO2 emissions by 124,000 lb.—the equivalent of 6,300 gal. of gasoline. Another farmer reduced energy consumption by 650 million BTUs, which is enough electricity to power 16 houses for a full year.
Documenting energy savings also gives farmers a means to be proactive in the sustainability conversation.
"It’s important for agriculture to be proactive and showcase our sustainability efforts instead of letting others define it for us," Duncan says.
You can e-mail Ben Potter at firstname.lastname@example.org.