What does Walmart 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 Walmart and McDonald’s are not necessarily known for sustainability,” says Sara Harper. “But they have the most risk, so it’s no accident they’re so involved in sustainability right now. It’s basic risk management.”
Harper is the director of sustainability and supply chain solutions with consulting group K•Coe Isom. She has been working with a group of Midwest farmers to aggregate operational data, benchmark practices, make improvements and enable farmers to share their findings down the supply chain should they choose to do so.
The 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 quite a bit about supply chains and sustainability,” she says. “Now, there’s a growing recognition that companies really look down the supply chain at aggregated performance across sourcing areas.”
Expect that trend to intensify moving forward, Harper says.
“You could look at benchmarking data as an insurance policy,” she says. “I think someday certain farm data will be required to be collected just as a part of doing business.”
Last fall, Iowa farmer Tim Richter journeyed to Bentonville, Ark., to attend Walmart’s Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting.
Richter used to think he was immune to the buzz about sustainability because he was a corn producer. Now, he says he was wrong. “Do you know how many products Walmart sells that contains 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 Walmart.”
By talking with Walmart executives about some of his farm’s sustainability practices, Richter and other farmers can help ease what Harper calls “trust gap issues.”
“The word sustainability can have a lot of baggage to it,” she says. “Our goal is to get large, progressive farmers into the room.”
Richter talked primarily about his experiences with Adapt-N, an online tool for smarter fertilizer management. The tool helped Richter reconsider how he applied anhydrous, pushing more acres into a spring application 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 realize 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.”
As for Richter, he admits that deploying Adapt-N on his farming operation has been a wonderful step, but he also hopes it is merely one of many more to come.
“It’s been an interesting journey so far, but we’re not done by a long stretch,” he says.
How do you define sustainability on your farm? Continue the conversation on the sustainability thread at the AgWeb discussion boards.