@SustainAg.  Views expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.

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March 2012 Archive for EcoPragmatism

RSS By: Sara Hessenflow Harper, AgWeb.com

Sara is the Director of Sustainability & Supply-Chain Solutions for Vela Environmental, a division of Kennedy and Coe, LLC where she leads the firm's CSO On-Demand Services.  This blog explores the topic of agricultural sustainability -- including the market forces and hidden drivers propelling it from a pragmatic and solutions-oriented point of view.  Follow Sara on Twitter: @SustainAgViews expressed are solely those of Sara Harper.

Sustainability's Prologue

Mar 30, 2012

 

 

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It is a scientific fact that energy never "dies," it just changes form.  Now think about political issues as a form of energy.

 

This week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new rules for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants for the first time.  As the March 26, 2012 Wall Street Journal noted:

"The new rules will essentially make it unviable to build new coal-fired power plants, unless they are fitted with yet-to-be-commercialized carbon-capture technology. The rules would limit the permissible emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to a little more than half of what a typical coal plant emits today, administration officials have said."

Natural-gas fired power plants will meet the new regulations.

Under the Lieberman-Warner climate change market-based bill that was being debated in Congress – and even more so in the Stabenow ag offsets bill expected to be included until the climate change debate fell apart in the Senate, there would have been a way for coal plants to continue operating by purchasing greenhouse gas reductions, or offsets, from the uncapped and exempt agricultural sector.  Utilities could have purchased offset credits from farmers undertaking approved activities like soil carbon sequestration, methane capture from manure and nitrous oxide reductions from precision application and management of fertilizers. 

There were several news stories about the new regulations, but the world did not end as many had feared/predicted it would.  This is partly because things have shifted in ways that could not have been foreseen during the heyday of the climate debates in Congress.  First, and foremost, significant new amounts of natural gas have been found – bringing the cost of natural gas to record low levels.  In fact, there aren’t many coal-fired power plants that are being planned right now anyway both because of the highly competitive position of natural gas and of the uncertain regulatory outlook for coal-fired plants both on the GHG issue and having to do with the further restricting of conventional pollutants.

Still, proponents of the coal industry point out that this could all change again if natural gas prices swing back up suddenly – as they have done before.  This could leave the U.S. power sector with fewer fuel choices and potentially higher costs down the road – since there is no climate law in place outlining an offsets purchase alternative.

So what does this have to do with the agricultural industry?  This example serves as a powerful anecdote of why it is critical for the ag sector to jump in and set its own course on sustainability. 

In working on legislative issues for more than a decade now, I have seen many controversial policies and issues ebb and flow – but rarely do issues of magnitude simply "go away." 

Usually what happens is an issue will be addressed by a particular policy proposal – a legislative bill or agency regulation.  If that particular way of handling the issue is too unpopular, a specific bill may fail.  That does not, however, mean that the underlying issue is gone – but rather, that the energy of that issue has gone somewhere else.  Some people who were deeply engaged in the fight over the particular bill might then gleefully declare the entire issue to be "dead." But this is often confusing the end of a particular incarnation of a policy with the larger forces driving an issue.

In this case, the end of the climate change bill in the U.S. Senate, has not at all been the end of the climate change issue – or policies to address it.  They have simply morphed into agency regulations using existing laws and into private "corporate sustainability policies." 

I argue that in many ways, the way that climate change is being addressed now – without a defined legislative outline and without an offsets market, could be worse for the agricultural sector than if a bill like Lieberman-Warner containing a robust offsets title had passed.

Why? 

First, under that bill, as I mentioned before, there would have been the ability for farmers to get paid in exchange for choosing to quantify, measure and sell some of the environmental benefits they can provide through good stewardship of their land.   Without that bill, farmers are left being pushed in this direction by multiple and often disagreeing elements of the private market – except they will likely not be paid for it.  Instead, measuring and improving sustainability will likely, in the long run, become the price for doing business.

Second, although our legislative process can be messy, it is well-defined, understood and provides input opportunity in a forum (the Senate) that protects minority interests.  Since climate change was not able to be addressed there, it is now being addressed in the much more difficult arenas of agency regulation (for example, these latest EPA rules on power plants) and in the private marketplace.  Here, agriculture makes up about 2% of the population and there is no Senate to hold special the rights of that small number.

Third, the offsets market would have provided a new agricultural "eco-market" solution for a major environmental problem at a time when the consumer-farmer trust gap has been a growing.  It would be tougher for urban "elite" foodies to make the claims they do about conventional agriculture if the industry was playing a major part in solving the climate change issue these folks care so much about.

As Shakespeare said, "What’s past is prologue."   

Looking out at the evolving sustainability discussions, debates and policies, it seems clear to me that there is another messy opportunity before the industry.  I know many will say "Agriculture is engaging in sustainability!" Yes, there is more involvement in this topic every day.  Still, there is a great difference between re-stating what you think, only louder, and recognizing the need to roll up your sleeves to do the tough business of compromise. 

Certainly, there are elements within ag that are working hard and smart on this.  And, just like any other market force – there will be those who understand and get ahead of this issue to their own market advantage.  The question is whether the broader industry positions itself well on this issue.  Much of that will depend on which lessons industry leaders take away from examples like the one we have talked about today.

The Power of a Good Example

Mar 12, 2012

 

Last week, I attended the U.S. Dairy industry’s Sustainability Council meeting – and had the privilege of hearing the stories of their first ever Sustainability Award winners. 

2012 USDairySustainabilityAwardWinners2

 

From left to right: Mike Brubaker of Brubaker Farms, Mount Joy, Pa.; Kenn Buelow of Holsum Dairies, LLC, Hilbert, Wis.; Bill Bennett of Oakhurst Dairy, Portland, Maine; Andy Werkhoven of Werkhoven Dairy, Inc., Monroe, Wash.; Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm, Bridport, Vt.; Bob Joblin of DF-AP, LLC, Gooding, Idaho; and Steve Rowe of Darigold, Inc., Seattle.

 

What struck me most as I listened to these farmers and processors accept their awards, and talk a little about their operations, was the emotion in their voice at being recognized by such a broad set of stakeholders (the Council has members like McDonald’s and Starbucks as well as environmental groups like World Wildlife Fund and of course dairy farms, co-ops and companies of all stripes).  The farms highlighted by these awards are pretty well-known within their industry for being top tier operations, but still, to have their example lifted up, validated and promoted meant a great deal to them.  Also striking about their examples was just how much excellence in one area spread across to excellence across the board.  A number of the winners emphasized, "We are not alone!" 

Indeed, they are not alone as good stewards of their land and their animals – but they are among a relatively small, but growing segment of mainstream agriculture who understand keenly how the issue of sustainability connects the often disparate data dots of how they do "the right thing," to the operation’s bottom line to the processor/retailer’s reporting needs to the desires and interests consumers have for their purchases to support something beyond just the product they are buying.

It is a tall order to "get it" on the level that I’m describing.  Its not like farmers don’t have enough to do already!  Still, as the term "sustainability" has been picking up usage and some might say steam in the last several years, there remains much grumbling and upset in the larger ranks.  Understandably, some fear the burdens of additional cost or unruly new requirements that may come from the supply chain in the name of making things that have seemed to work just fine for a long time, "sustainable." 

But as is so often the case in life – being open to new experiences, even ones that may seem challenging or not valuable, usually brings far greater reward than initially anticipated – in no small part due to the creativity and social good will that gets unleashed.  Time and again I have seen the power of positive action shape and make meaning out of a force that could otherwise have been very destructive.  In these dairy sustainability awards, I see the seeds of a larger agricultural renewal.

So, let’s take a look at some of these exemplary dairy producers -- more stories from the full supply chain can be found by clicking here. (*material taken from the Innovation for U.S. Dairy website, links provided).

"Blue Spruce Farm (Birdport, VT)
Blue Spruce Farm was one of the first farms in the country to install a variable speed vacuum pump control, reducing energy used during milking by nearly 60 percent. Inspired, they pursued new technologies in lighting, milking, milk cooling, barn construction, ventilation and water heating that reduced energy use from an average of 1,000 kWh per cow per year, to an average of 500 kWh per cow per year. These savings, in turn, reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 500 pounds of CO2e per cow per year.  The Audets also designed systems that reuse water in many ways to reduce overall consumption and improve the water consumed by the animals. ??Blue Spruce Farm is probably best known for being the first dairy to participate in Central Vermont Public Service’s groundbreaking Cow Power™ program, which allows consumers to purchase renewable energy generated on dairy farms."

"Holsum Dairies, LLC: Elanco Award for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability
Sustainability practices woven into farm’s foundation ?More than a motto, sustainability is a cornerstone for Holsum Dairies in Hilbert, Wis.  Long-term sustainability, according to Holsum, must benefit the dairies, employees and the community financially and socially; have a positive impact on the environment; maintain the welfare of animals; and produce safe, high-quality milk. These were significant considerations when Holsum selected a location for their two dairies in 2001 and 2006. 

Over the past 25 years, Calumet County lost animal operations but significantly increased crop production. Spotting this imbalance, Holsum worked with 40 local crop farmers and five custom harvesters to provide all of the dairies' forage needs fostering trust and delivering benefits for all parties. During their annual meetings, the farmers share information and best practices — resulting in a stronger knowledge base and higher efficiency as well as higher profit and higher quality feed for the animals.

In this win-win relationship, the environment also reaps the benefits by having 11,000 acres under a single nutrient management plan, lower cost and emissions associated with manufacturing and transport of fertilizer, more efficient crop production and more precise fertilizer application. Thoughtful and collaborative planning has yielded benefits for the community, the environment and the dairies."

"Werkhoven Dairy, Inc.: Elanco Award for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability 
Unlikely partnerships achieving common goals.  In an area threatened by urban sprawl and endangered salmon runs, three groups — farmers, Native American tribes and environmentalists — have worked together toward a common good, rather than focus on any differences they might have.

Ten years ago, Werkhoven Dairy in Monroe, Wash., assumed a leadership role in developing a collaborative partnership between the farm and the neighboring dairy and beef producers of the Sno/Sky Ag Alliance; the Northwest Chinook Recovery (an organization working to restore salmon habitat); and the 3,500-member Native American Tulalip Tribes. Together, they focused on opportunities for resource conservation and formed Qualco Energy.??Qualco — which means "where two rivers come together" in the region's native language — is a nonprofit entity that collects manure from the cows and pre-consumer food waste from nearby companies, and Qualco uses those materials to generate energy through a digester system.

The system produces enough energy each day to power 300 homes while keeping the air and water clean, protecting salmon streams and creating Grade A compost for the Werkhovens to naturally fertilize their fields and share with their neighbors.

The organizations are working toward additional conservation efforts with a collective goal of investing profit from the digester in new renewable energy and recycling projects, fish and wildlife habitat restoration and sustainable farming practices."

The power of a good example is strong.  It connects to people in a way that data doesn’t.  But the key to the strength of the example is in the results it produces -- and that does ultimately come down to some type of measurement.  These aren’t just stories that create a human connection to the people providing your food (although they do that as well), they are examples of how dairy producers are solving the very concerns many of their customers have – on things like greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy and community support.  Critically, these examples also contain in them the point that they are able to do this because they are profitable not in spite of the fact.

The balance that these producers place on profit, community care and environmental stewardship is extremely impressive.  The creative way in which they solve problems and the outcomes they have achieved make these model farms.

From where I sit, at the intersection of working with farmers and ag groups, their supply chain and some environmental groups, there is a striking lack of strong, clear examples put forward in a way that unifies this long string of interests, rather than adding fuel to the divisive fire.  Three cheers for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy for finding and highlighting strong examples of achieving this important balance.  The power of a good example – backed by sound practices, data . . . and a willingness to share it can make a world of difference. 

In the coming years, if market trends continue as they have been going, this key ingredient of a successful agricultural operation will become exponentially important.  As processors and retailers seek to capture and quantify the fuller story behind the goods they sell, those who have experience and results to show will be the sought out providers for a supply chain hungry for data as well as good examples.

It is great to see the dairy industry pursuing a path that will enable them to chart their own course on the sustainability issue.  Recognizing some of the amazing leaders within their ranks does more than lift up the individual efforts of these operations, it helps build an industry profile on sustainability that is fair, credible and celebrated.

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