Sustainability Equals Profitability

September 6, 2013 02:01 PM

Panel discusses how environmental sustainability leads to profit.

Dairy Today has teamed up with Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to pull together a panel on environmental sustainability and profitability at the 2013 Elite Producer Business Conference in Las Vegas Nov. 11 – 13.

Following is a Q and A with the panel speakers:

BryanWeech BrazilBryan Weech, World Wildlife Fund

What is the World Wildlife Fund’s interest in agriculture, i.e, how does agriculture impact wildlife habitat?

Weech: We currently use between 30-40% percent of the earth’s surface for food. Twenty-five percent isn’t useable (deserts, cities, roads) and 12% is set aside for National Parks. Each year we continue to expand food production into natural habitat. If we don’t do something to curb this expansion, there won’t be any natural habitat left.

With burgeoning human population growth expected to climb to 9 billion people by 2050, isn’t it inevitable that wildlife habitat will succumb to human food/fiber needs?

Weech: If we continue ‘business as usual’ it is inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can do more with less by changing the way we grow, produce, and deliver food. In fact, we can triple food production using the same amount of land by 2050. While not easy, this can be achieved by improving management practices, selecting crop strains for hardiness, implementing new technology, using land to full capacity, negotiating property rights, and eliminating waste and overconsumption.

2013 Elite Producer Business Conference

Dairy Today’s 2013 Elite Producer Business Conference (EPBC) will again be held at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nov. 11 – 13.
For the first time, the EPBC will start at 3 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 11 and wrap up 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13. The revised start and end times allow attendees to participate for the entire conference and still make cross-country flight schedules.
Michael Swanson, chief economist for Wells Fargo, will keynote the meeting with his much-in-demand views on global dairy economics.
Along with a panel on how dairy sustainability feeds profits, we’re featuring producer panels on vertical integration, relocation and satellite dairies and our ever popular panel with Dairy Today Dollars and Sense panelists.
For more on the 2013 Elite Producer Business Conference, go to

How can intensive agriculture in North America preserve rain forest and habitat in So. America, Africa and Asia?

Weech: As the demand for beef is increasing around the world, more and more natural habitats are being converted into farmland, particularly as existing pastures become degraded and less productive. Intensive, smarter agricultural practices in North America can curb that trend in two ways. First of all, by maximizing the land we have and producing more locally, we can import less, directly removing the financial incentive for farmers in other parts of the world to clear important forests and natural habitats. Secondly, these techniques in North America can be perfected and refined to a point where we can export our processes to producers in other countries.

What are WWF and other conservation organizations asking/expecting of farmers?

Weech: We are asking farmers to employ techniques that are ultimately in their best interest--socially and economically. WWF wants to help farmers produce more product and, therefore, more profit, using less: less space, less water, less waste, less everything that is keeping their land from giving maximum returns. We also want farmers to take conservation into consideration in their everyday management decisions and strive toward continuous improvement.

How are WWF and the Innovation Center working together to meet these challenges?

Weech: In 2009, WWF and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy formed a transformative partnership based on a shared commitment to creating a more sustainable dairy industry. The partnership—which was renewed in 2011—has been beneficial to the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Commitment, which helps the U.S. dairy industry reduce environmental impact across the entire value chain.

What do environmental groups need to know about dairy’s impact on the environment?

Weech: WWF envisions a global marketplace in which all dairy is sustainable. We want to bring together stakeholders to discuss pertinent issues -- water conservation and land and water pollution, habitat conversion, soil degradation, air pollution, GHG emissions etc. -- and develop ways to solve these challenges. We also want to establish sustainable measurement and reporting guidelines for the industry.

Bruce KnightBruce Knight, Conservation Consultant (Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions; he is the former Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and former Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Services)

What is your role working with the Innovation Center’s Sustainability Council?

Knight: I serve as a consultant and advisor to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, helping to merge the dairy, conservation and sustainability communities.

What has been done so far in dairy, and how does this compare to other agriculture sectors?

Knight: Dairy has emerged as a leader in practical, pragmatic efforts on sustainability. Bringing scientific analysis and metrics to what is often an emotional arena. The dairy sector has also been working to translate the common-sense finding the milk LCA (management matters) into programs that farmers can use to improve efficiency, make money and improve sustainability.

Have you been able to take these results to consumer groups, food companies and government agencies to describe what the dairy industry has been doing in the areas of energy, greenhouse gas emissions and water sustainability? Are you gaining any traction with these groups?

Knight: It has been amazing to watch the degree to which vastly differing groups have been willing to learn from the dairy sectors pioneering investment in this arena.

How can individual dairy farmers benefit from the work of the Sustainability Council?

Knight: About 20 farmers serve on the Council and more are needed. Individual farmers should be tapping into the programs offered on energy audits, energy efficiency and conservation from dairy and its partners to improve their farm’s sustainability.

How has the Innovation Center’s partnership with USDA benefited farmers? Are there cost share monies available to make further improvements? Is the grant application process difficult? What are the chances that a given farm will have its application accepted?

Knight: Dairy farmers nationwide access about $90-100 million in cost share annually to implement conservation and sustainability measures offered by USDA. Producers are encouraged to simply go into the NRCS office, discuss their needs and apply for the cost-share programs. The application is neither complicated nor difficult, and the USDA staff will fill out much of it with you.

Werkhovens   JimandAndyCompressedAndy Werkhoven, Dairy Farmer, (left, with Jim Werkhoven) Monroe, Wash.

What’s your take on sustainability? How do you define it for your farm business?

Werkhoven: I hate the word! But simply, it’s the ability to endure. To make something that will last generationally.

Is long-term profitability compatible with sustainability? Does one have to be sacrificed for the other, or can you have both?

Werkhoven: It has to be. It has to make money or it doesn’t happen. That is the crux of the struggle. We have to develop mechanisms that ensure we can be sustainable profitably. I can’t see my way through it in every case.

But here is a good example when it did work: When we started working with the local native American tribe to get development rights so that we could keep property in agriculture. That was a long process but it kept viable agricultural ground in agriculture, at a price where it made sense.

What have you done on your farm to improve energy and water efficiency, conservation and use?

Werkhoven: Right now we are working mostly in the areas of water efficiencies. We are trying to hold back all the water from the rainy season, store it, keep it clean and use it as irrigation during the dry summer season. We’ve put in new gutters. The trick is to guess the weather to try to quantify how many gallons of water are going to be needed. We have all new gutters, and seven different flow monitors to manage the nutrient flow, trying to get good calculations of what we need where.

We are trying to do more precise nutrient management – 10-acre by 10-acre lots. We do lots of soil sampling, apply using flow meters, and then sample what we are putting back on. We are also looking at a new computer software program that should help you get better at predicting nutrient uptake. We use a Davis weather system, but variability is the crux of the issue for us in Washington State.

Describe the partnerships you’ve entered into to improve sustainability, for your farm and your local area What obstacles have you encountered, and how have you worked them out?

Werkhoven: Ten years ago, we developed a collaborative partnership between the farm and 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. We discovered we had more in common than we had differences, and we formed Qualco Energy, which is a nonprofit entity that manages a digester.

Initially people were scared, uptight about working with a Native American tribe. Everyone has these stereotypes, and it’s not always easy getting over those. Some of us did, and some others didn’t. The economy tanked before the partnership was set up, and it gave some people an easy excuse to drop out. But we hung in there and we are glad we did, not a single regret.

The same thing applies to my working with a local environmental group. I just had to trust and know that I was going to be working with good people.

How have you and other farmers been able to use the Innovation Center’s Sustainability Council to help your farm succeed?

Werkhoven: What the Innovation Center and DMI have done is to shine a light on what dairy producers are doing, showing the public so that people recognize the value of what we are doing. And they are creating connections that can happen at the national level. Doing it as individuals would just be too tough.

They are filling a void, addressing issues that individuals and other organizations have avoided. But these issues, like the sustainability projects, are really important, and now through the Innovation Center we are addressing them. 

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