Farm Green to Get in the Black

08:11AM Mar 07, 2015
( Harlen Persinger )

Some farmers are finding profitability in sustainability

What does Wal-Mart have to do with farming? Quite a bit, it turns out—the retail giant has tremendous influence over the entire supply chain and is among the growing list of businesses trying to define and measure sustainability in agriculture.

“Companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s are not necessarily known for sustainability, but they have the most risk—it’s basic risk management,” says Sara Harper, director of sustainability and supply chain solutions with consulting group K•Coe Isom.

Harper is working with a group of Midwest farmers to aggregate operational data and enable farmers to share their findings down the supply chain should they choose to do so.

This proactive approach is a healthy one, according to Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Even in the past year or two, the conversation has changed,” she says. “Now, there’s a growing recognition that companies really look down the supply chain at aggregated performance across sourcing areas.”

“You could look at benchmarking data as an insurance policy,” Harper says. “I think someday certain farm data will be required to be collected just as a part of doing business.”

Iowa’s Tim Richter used to think he was immune to the sustainability buzz because he was a corn farmer. After attending Wal-Mart’s Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting, he says he was wrong. “Do you know how many products Wal-Mart sells that contain corn?” he says. “If they want more sustainable corn that will ripple through their entire system. This pushes from the top down, and no one pushes harder than Wal-Mart.”

By talking with Wal-Mart executives about farm sustainability practices, farmers can help ease “trust gap issues,” Harper says. “The word sustainability can have a lot of baggage to it. Our goal is to get large progressive farmers into the room.”

Richter primarily talked about his experiences with Adapt-N, an online tool for smarter fertilizer management. The tool helped Richter reconsider how he applied anhydrous, putting down more in the spring after seeing big losses from fall applications. Using Adapt-N led to a substantial yield increase in 2013, he says.

“When you talk change, some people think it’s going to get worse,” he says. “But this has paid big dividends. If this is sustainability, I’m on board.”

Friedman says most farmers don’t think sustainability and profitability go hand in hand, but in reality, this is often the case. “Efficiency and better environmental outcomes shouldn’t be seen as a separate part of farming,” she says. “It’s a part of running a smart business.”