Supply Chain Sustainability

February 11, 2016 06:00 AM

From farm gate to consumer, every link is taking notice

There was a time when little thought was given to where grain went when it left the farm. Those days are disappearing, with more links in the supply chain taking interest in how the grain they source is grown. 

Case in point: Smithfield is ramping up a program called MBGro and hopes 75% of its grain sourcing farmers in the Southeast and Midwest will participate by 2018.

“The goal is to provide technological assistance and information to our grain growers along the line of fertilizer optimization,” says Kraig Westerbeek, Smithfield’s hog production division’s vice president of engineering and environmental support services. “We’ve hired a full-time agronomist and are looking at cover crops, sensors and GPS-based technology. There’s a tremendous toolbox available.”

Maggie Monast, agriculture sustainability expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, says one tool in the MBGro toolbox is a set of Trimble GreenSeeker crop-sensing systems Smithfield has loaned to five farmers. This technology allows farmers to determine fertilizer needs in real time.

“Precise fertilizer application is a huge win-win for farmers and the environment; farmers save on input costs, and reduced fertilizer losses improve air and water quality,” she says.

The GreenSeeker loans are for one year—after that, the farmer returns it so another farmer can use it, or purchase the system. Either way, Smithfield is able to share the technology with more farmers each season.

“For something this expensive, it’s a good way for a farmer to try it and see the benefits before making a full investment,” Monast says.

Ultimately, Westerbeek and his colleagues at Smithfield are interested in isolating any production practice good for both farmers and the environment. Doing so also keeps them in the good graces of retailers such as Wal-Mart.

“The retailer is becoming more interested in what we do, so we become more interested in what our grain suppliers are doing,” Westerbeek says.

Monast says MBGro could help farmers decrease greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 60,000 tons. “Our hope is to see if we can get other animal protein companies to follow in their footsteps,” she says.

Participation in MBGro is voluntary and the tools are free to use. Visit for details. 

When Landowners Invest in Sustainability

Farmers and companies aren’t the only entities in the supply chain investing time and money to develop sustainability programs. Landlords are increasingly concerned about sustainability too.

There are several resources and models farmers can successfully scale to engage their landowner partners in conservation efforts, says Katie Anderson, a sustainable sourcing specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund. For example, Women Caring for the Land is a conservation group that targets female non-farming landowners.

“Despite increased investor interest, the most common non-farming landowner is still an individual, and oftentimes a retired or widowed woman,” she says. “In Iowa, a woman 75 years or older owns 1 in 10 acres of farmland.”

According to several farm owner surveys, stewardship is often listed as the No. 1 priority.

“Landowners have a responsibility to utilize existing resources and educate themselves on how best to care for the land,” Anderson says. “Doing so is good for the farm’s property value—and for future generations. When landowners invest in sustainability and collaborate with those farming their land, everyone wins.”

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