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Sustainability on the Farm

March 2, 2011
clauss carbon
In an effort to move toward more economic and environmental sustainability, Kimberly Clauss of Hilmar, Calif., is analyzing her dairy’s carbon footprint.  

When dairy leaders started talking about moving toward a more sustainable industry, green was not the color that came to mind for Hilmar, Calif., producer Kimberly Clauss.

"I saw red," she admits. "I was definitely skeptical. I didn’t understand that sustainability is really about protecting the industry’s markets and ensuring that a farmer’s business is profitable by improving efficiencies. I had to learn more to fully understand it."

It didn’t take long for Clauss to start thinking green. "This is about becoming a better industry," she says. "It is about things we can do to cut costs and keep producers in business."

Major U.S. food retailers and other segments of the agricultural supply chain are taking a hard look at the key components of sustainability—which includes not just economic profitability, but environmental performance and community support as well.

The dairy industry, Clauss says, was an early leader in analyzing its sustainability performance, largely because major retailers were taking stock of products in the marketplace, initially by examining the carbon footprint of key segments, such as dairy.

It Starts on the Farm. When the dairy industry took a look at its carbon footprint from field to retail shelf, it discovered that the bulk of the carbon emissions took place on the farm. A second round of stakeholder discussions and analysis resulted in several key initiatives for farmers that would not only improve their carbon footprint, but also improve basic profitability.

The end result was a dairy industry goal to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25% by 2020. Recently, Wal-Mart announced a goal to eliminate 20 million metric tons of GHG emissions from its global supply chain by the end of 2015—the equivalent of taking more than 3.8 million cars off the road for a year.

"Energy efficiency and carbon reduction are central issues around the world today," notes Wal-Mart President Mike Duke. "We know that we have an opportunity to do more and that we have the capacity to do more."

When Wal-Mart made the commitment to reduce its own carbon footprint—and the footprint of the supply chain—it wasn’t operating in a vacuum. Studies have found that more than half of today’s consumers "lean green" (see chart), which means they will choose one product instead of another based on its sustainability profile.

greenshopper chart

Wal-Mart’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint may mean it prefers to buy products from crop producers who practice no-till and minimum till, efficient nutrient use and other efforts that sequester or eliminate GHG. Livestock producers can reduce or limit methane production and use nutrition or range management to cut carbon.

Sustainability is about more than containing carbon, of course, but that is one of the more defined aspects that many companies, such as Wal-Mart, are focusing on first.

Technology Lends a Hand. These initiatives have many in the agricultural industry taking notice. Clint Reiss of Southwest Family Farms in Plains, Kan., says his operation is assessing what it does well and where it can improve—with sustainability in mind, not just profitability. Southwest Family Farms grows corn on thousands of acres, supplying the cattle and ethanol industries.

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - March 2011

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