Apr 18, 2014
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RSS By: Sara Hessenflow Harper, AgWeb.com

Navigating the risk management challenges facing the entire agricultural supply chain that are driven by more people, more demand, more crazy weather and limited resources.

A Guide to Useful Twitter Sustainability Sources

Apr 09, 2014

We are living in the age of massive information overload.  Never before has information been so accessible -- with content easily created and instantly disseminated to wide audiences through handy sites like Twitter and Facebook to name just a few.  The advantages of all this free-flowing information sharing are numerous.  It is easier than ever to expand your horizon about pretty much any topic you can think of -- without having to trudge through big research libraries (like I used to have to do!)  The challenge, however, is that it is hard to keep up with all that sharing -- and hard, sometimes, to separate the wheat from the chaff.

As I have been building new sustainability service lines, I have dived into the deep end of the Twitter pool to both connect more with people and groups about ag sustainability topics -- and as a way to check the pulse from important sectors like food retailers, market research groups, food companies, farmers and activist groups about the latest sustainability news of the day.  As we decided which information we would share and re-post from others on our Vela Twitter and Vela Facebook accounts, we found that we were also creating in essence, a filter of sorts for the massive amounts of sustainability information getting updated every minute of the day.  We even wrote up an overview of our criteria for what kind of information followers could find on our sites.  In my experience, taking the time to find consistently good "sharers" of quality information pays off in multiple ways down the road.  You never know when a key insight shared in just a few concise words will help you become that more efficient or help you add value to your business because you were aware of an emerging trend.

So, for those of you interested in following what I consider some of the best sources for sustainability updates, articles, information and trends -- I have compiled a listing (with links) of just a few of the groups I have found to provide real value, for you to investigate.  The larger point here really is how important it is to find a trusted filter of information -- or to become one yourself as a way of adding value to your clients and customers.  The list below is by no means complete -- think of it as a suggested starting place for good, regular updates on sustainability.  Happy hunting!

Valuable Twitter Feeds to Follow on Sustainability:

Sustainability News Sources:

GreenBiz (@GreenBiz)

Triple Pundit (@triplepundit)

3BL Media (@3BLMedia)


Corporate Sustainability Supply Chain Info

Sustainable Brands (@SustainBrands)

Rabobank Group (@RabobankGroup)


Ag Sustainability Academics

Kansas State Univ Soil Microbiologist Chuck Rice (@cwrice)

Univ. of Arkansas Office of Sustainability Executive Director & Prof of Ecological Engineering, Marty Matlock (@martymatlock)

Conservation Technology Information Center at Purdue (@ctic_tweet)


Farmers/Farm Operations and Groups with helpful sustainability information

Fair Oaks Farms (@fairoaksfarms)

Tom Farms (@TomFarms)


















Water Quality Issues Gaining Traction

Dec 03, 2013

Addressing water quality concerns from non-point source pollution (as in from city streets, residential yards and farm fields) has always been a difficult challenge.  How do you know where the pollution is coming from?  How do you divide out responsibility for reducing pollution in a fair manner that actually helps reduce environmental impacts on the streams, rivers and lakes we all depend on for life?  Until recently, these challenges, combined with a fairly weak Clean Water Act -- at least in terms of how non-point source pollution can be managed, have kept water quality issues and regulations from encroaching in any real way on most of the agricultural industry.  But that seems to be changing.

This Fall, two court rulings have opened the door for EPA to begin setting limits on non-point source pollution in all waterbodies that are impaired.  In one case, the American Farm Bureau lost its challenge against EPA's ability to set limits on nonpoint source pollution on the Chesapeake Bay basin.  Another case coming out of New Orleans gave EPA six months to come up with numeric limits on this type of pollution for all impaired waterbodies - or explain why such a move was not necessary to protect water quality.  This is a big change in the status quo of how water quality issues will be managed.  The court said that EPA's claim that it had no jurisdiction to compel states to clean up this type of pollution was not accurate.  The Washington Post described it this way:

"In a Sept. 20 decision written by Judge Jay C. Zainey, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Louisiana sided with environmental groups that challenged the EPA’s "hands-off approach" to managing pollution.

An EPA attempt to dismiss the suit was denied. The court was not persuaded by the agency’s argument that it was leaving it to states to manage pollution, with EPA’s help, because it had no jurisdiction to compel a cleanup.

Zainey gave the EPA six months to at least begin to develop a plan. A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which represented the federal government in the suit, said only that its lawyers were reviewing the decision and had not decided its next step."

That same Washington Post story also highlighted a recent report out about, you guessed it: green slime!  Some choice quotes:

"At least 21 states closed lakefront beaches and issued public health advisories as a result of toxic algae between May and September; last year 20 states took similar actions.

Toxic algae is the byproduct of the same types of pollution that causes dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay — phosphorous and nitrogen from livestock manure and chemicals sprayed on crops such as corn that spills from farms into assorted waterways during moderate to heavy rains."

The danger for agriculture in all of this is that if water quality regulations are done badly -- as in prescribing a set amount of nitrogen fertilizer allowed per acre regardless of the multiple variables that can affect fertilizer runoff, the cost could be great in terms of yield.

The good news is that there are better methods for reducing runoff -- or as I like to call it, increasing nitrogen efficiency.  Just today USDA and EPA announced that they are launching a partnership to support water quality trading -- a concept that would allow for more flexibility in how pollution reductions are achieved.

"New water quality trading markets hold incredible potential to benefit rural America by providing new income opportunities and enhancing conservation of water and wildlife habitat," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "Additionally, these efforts will strengthen businesses across the nation by providing a new pathway to comply with regulatory requirements."

And, if you are a corn grower, there is a powerful tool out there right now developed by Cornell University, called Adapt-N, that can provide a farmer with a much more accurate recommended rate for nitrogen fertilizer -- and recommends the best time to apply it.  Trials of Adapt-N to date have saved farmers who have used it a range of $15-30/acre on fertilizer costs while maintaining or improving yield.  For more info on this tool and how it can help address water quality issues that government and the food supply chain are increasingly pushing on, check out www.FineTuneNitrogen.com

Once again, there are positive pathways for agriculture as a sector to protect its bottom line and navigate concerns about the environment -- but it requires getting engaged early and in a strategic way!


Dairy's Example: How & Why You Should Engage

Jul 11, 2013

Author’s note: The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author, Sara Hessenflow Harper, and do not necessarily represent any other organization or individual.

Sustainability assessment of the agriculture sector – in some shape or form, is coming!  (See my previous posts - and especially the one about the real drivers pushing the sustainability trend.)  For an increasing number of crops and products, it is already here.  The drivers behind this trend of wanting to know more about how food or fiber was produced, are connected to deep and encompassing forces like 3 billion more people joining the planet in the coming decades, a rise of a global middle class with buying power never before seen in countries like China and India, and yes, increasing extreme weather events. 

Add these forces up and you have a recipe for a highly volatile supply chain with great risk for disruption.  Managing this risk is a key challenge to retailers and processors of food and everything else the world buys and consumes.  As I’ve said before, if you want to understand what is driving the significant uptick in all things "sustainable," you really have to see it as an umbrella term that really translates into "long-term risk management" strategy.

What this means is that companies that must continually procure, price and sell items at a profit in order to stay in business, need to get much better at understanding where the biggest disruptions and price increases are likely to come from – and find those who will be able to be the lower cost providers in the future because of natural resource access, good efficient practices, geographic location, export market shifts and a whole host of other factors.  To do this, food retailers and processors need data – specifically, a lot more data about the likely long-term ability of the people they work with or buy from to continue to be in business over the coming decades.

What this means is that "sustainability" assessment is not a fad that only caters to a small subset of the Western consumer's green preferences and is most certainly NOT going away, but rather will expand as technology allows for capturing and processing more data than ever before.  I have begun to think of the term "sustainability assessment" as really meaning "assessing your chances of staying in business over time."

With that background, I want to draw your attention to what one subset of the agricultural sector is doing to meet this challenge in a proactive way.  Recently, the U.S. dairy industry released the result of years of multi-stakeholder work to define and provide guidance about how to measure key topics of sustainability that could be applied across the entire dairy supply chain.  They created a consensus sustainability guide that incorporated perspectives from producers and co-ops, to processors and retailers. Their effort also worked with leading environmental and animal care academics and non-government organizations to create a guide for defining and measuring sustainability that is balanced, science-based and works for the sector.  Take a look at the impressive list of members on dairy's Sustainability Council who oversee this effort.  

Simply put, what the dairy industry has done – and continues to do, in terms of defining the sustainability issue for itself, is at its core, meeting the needs of its customers and consumers in managing the risks that face them. 

By stepping forward in a leadership position, industry leaders certainly face risk – but they also are securing the best chance any industry has to define its own fate, rather than have additional burdensome and inaccurate assessments of someone else’s definition of sustainability, forced upon them.  Which, by the way, are definitely in the works!

Right now, the dairy industry has put forward their Stewardship and Sustainability Guide for external stakeholder review and comment.  Again, they have taken a brave step forward – embracing transparency and encouraging engagement rather than retreating to a fortress mentality.  This is not an easy thing to do.  It is far more comfortable to stick to a defensive approach.  But on this issue, a defensive approach is only justified if the underlying drivers that are pushing sustainability assessments might be defended against.  Can any sector push back global demand and spending increases projected by the Organization of Economic Cooperation & Development of 571%, or $32.9 Trillion by 2030 for the Asia Pacific region alone

OECD projected spending for global middle class by 2030

The dairy industry is doing an important and valuable service for the larger agricultural industry by diving into this issue, managing it and providing a constructive alternative to the otherwise very burdensome requests for information – that can often create an inaccurate perspective of the industry’s sustainability record because the assessment is so often created without the knowledge and input of the industry itself. 

This effort is also launching a positive dialogue with more urban consumers -- who are the majority, by the way, on topics they care about.  By arming consumers with knowledge about how sustainable the U.S. dairy industry is -- and demonstrating a commitment to continuous improvement, the industry is insulating itself from the unfair attacks that so often plague agriculture in the mainstream media.

With all that in mind, there is a very important role you can play in showing support for this leadership effort! 

Simply, provide some comments into the review process.  To learn more about the effort, here is a link to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s press release on the topic.  You can access and download the guide at this website and if you are a dairy producer, you can provide comments here.  If you are not a dairy producer, you can provide comments and feedback on this effort at this link

Whether you decide to dive into this topic in detail and provide extensive comments, or you glance through the effort and provide a "good job," the important thing is to comment on this effort to demonstrate support for the process, for the leadership of this industry – and for the credibility of the product they are creating. 

I have always been a champion of individuals and organizations that take their fate in their own hands, rather than allowing others to define them.  Here is your chance to learn more about and provide input to a very important agricultural sustainability effort – one that could help all of agriculture stay in business in the decades to come . . . and isn’t that really what sustainability is all about?


Sara Hessenflow Harper is a strategic consultant at Vela Environmental and has been active in assisting the dairy industry on sustainability issues.

Online Tool Helps Reduce Input Costs and Impacts for Corn

May 22, 2013


It is that time of year when producers like you have hit the planters and are crossing your fingers: Will this late Spring planting season pummel trendline yields for yet another year? Will this summer bring yet another round of challenges such as drought, market volatility, high land prices, high input prices (and on and on)? With so much outside of your control, I am pleased to at least have some good news. There is now an exciting new tool that can better help you zero in on at least one farm cost variable—nitrogen use.

The great leap forward. I admit I was pretty excited when I first learned about Adapt N, launched in trial version several years ago by Cornell University. This new tool helps ensure that you only pay for the amount of nitrogen your crops needed to realize their potential – and no more! Adapt N is recognized as a significant leap forward in producing more accurate nitrogen recommendations by incorporating weather, soil and other field-specific data. And this year, it is now available across most of the Corn Belt.

But apparently I wasn’t the only one who took note of this promising new development. Adapt-N also was selected as the Best New Product of the Year 2012 by AgProfessional magazine, the leading publication related to agronomic and business management for agricultural retailers/distributors, professional farm managers and crop consultants.

You can find out more about Adapt N at  www.FineTuneNitrogen.com. This website was developed by my company (Vela Environmental) with support from Environmental Defense Fund and help from Cornell and other partners. It provides a wealth of information and links about Adapt N, as well as information about participation and how other farmers have used it to create nitrogen use efficiencies.

What makes this tool so valuable is that it is one of the few out there that accounts for very localized weather variables -- utilizing error corrected data to generate a recommendation that is accurate within three days of running the tool – and able to be re-run any number of times to account for changing weather or planting schedules.  As farmers know well, weather changes everything – and especially when it comes to getting an accurate read on how much nitrogen fertilizer and optimal delivery systems for providing it to crops in a way that maximizes value.  Beta testing of the tool in 2011 yielded some impressive results: N reductions ranged from 15-150 lbs/acre and the average grower savings was $35/acre while maintaining yields or profitability in nearly all cases.

But in addition to this tool’s ability to save farmers money and reduce environmental impacts, Adapt-N could play a pivotal role in closing the gap between growers, the supply chain and consumers.  How?  First, it provides a mechanism for farmers to increase their efficiency.  Second, because it is a head to head comparison with what farmers have been doing on their fields in the past, it provides the opportunity for direct comparison.  Finally, if farmers were to report their usage of or the aggregated outcomes from using a tool like Adapt-N, it could help reassure regulators and the food supply chain that Nitrogen fertilizer is being used as wisely as possible.  It could even be used to demonstrate how increasingly efficient a given state or region is by reporting such results. 

I hope as well that this tool will become another step to help producers tap into the food retail supply chain that is so often talking about wanting to assess and promote "sustainability." After all, isn’t sustainability really about putting in place practices and measures that are specifically tailored to the situation at hand and increase the efficient use of resources for maximum output and minimum negative impact? 

There are some who may frown on any reporting or categorizing effort, but they are not paying attention to the far worse sustainability assessment proposals that are currently being floated by many in the supply chain.

The bottom line is that the food supply chain and potentially state and federal entities are increasingly concerned about the run-off and GHG emissions created from applying more fertilizer than is needed on the nation’s corn crop.  One answer may be to get the word out about tools like Adapt-N and the amazing success that farmers are having with it – before any counterproductive requirements are put on the industry!





Cracker Barrel Says Goodbye to Gestation Stalls

Jun 14, 2012

Initially, it was McDonald's, but the push to get gestation stalls out of the supply chain for pork has hardly stopped there. The latest news today from Feedstuffs newspaper notes that Cracker Barrel is now joining in (among many others):

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc., with 615 restaurants in 42 states, has reported that it will begin formulating plans for procurement of "stall-free" pork from its suppliers.

The announcement was made June 14 in a joint statement with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Just since February, other leading food companies — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Kroger and Safeway — have announced moves toward gestation crate-free supply chains.

There is "an evolution" in Americans' attitudes regarding higher levels of animal welfare in meat production, and "we recognize that gestation crates may not be the best method to meet" those levels of welfare, said Cracker Barrel vice president for strategic sourcing Vance Fouraker. "[We] are committed to evolving sustainable alternatives." See the full story at Feedstuffs (subscription required)

I'm not attacking or defending gestation crates or stalls. This is not my area of expertise -- and I'll let those of you with direct experience on this topic comment here if you'd like.

However, the broader point to note -- and really get -- is that sustainability concerns and market demand runs much deeper than many people realize. As one of the farmers I work with a lot said on this topic, "Data is never wrong and is high ground, but emotion can trump science." 

The only thing I would add to that is that emotion runs high on all sides, as it is an inescapable part of being human.  

My hope is that future outreach and education efforts will try to listen to the concerns of consumers and connect with them at the emotional level. Then, we can offer some of that data that may change their minds.  

It's been my experience that you have to be open to changing your own mind if you are to create the kind of relationship that leads to change in others.





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