Sustainability on the Farm

March 2, 2011 01:00 AM
Sustainability on the Farm

When dairy leaders started talking about moving toward a more sustainable industry, green was not the color that came to mind for Hilmar, Calif., producer Kimberly Clauss.

"I saw red," she admits. "I was definitely skeptical. I didn’t understand that sustainability is really about protecting the industry’s markets and ensuring that a farmer’s business is profitable by improving efficiencies. I had to learn more to fully understand it."

It didn’t take long for Clauss to start thinking green. "This is about becoming a better industry," she says. "It is about things we can do to cut costs and keep producers in business."

Major U.S. food retailers and other segments of the agricultural supply chain are taking a hard look at the key components of sustainability—which includes not just economic profitability, but environmental performance and community support as well.

The dairy industry, Clauss says, was an early leader in analyzing its sustainability performance, largely because major retailers were taking stock of products in the marketplace, initially by examining the carbon footprint of key segments, such as dairy.

It Starts on the Farm. When the dairy industry took a look at its carbon footprint from field to retail shelf, it discovered that the bulk of the carbon emissions took place on the farm. A second round of stakeholder discussions and analysis resulted in several key initiatives for farmers that would not only improve their carbon footprint, but also improve basic profitability.

The end result was a dairy industry goal to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25% by 2020. Recently, Wal-Mart announced a goal to eliminate 20 million metric tons of GHG emissions from its global supply chain by the end of 2015—the equivalent of taking more than 3.8 million cars off the road for a year.

"Energy efficiency and carbon reduction are central issues around the world today," notes Wal-Mart President Mike Duke. "We know that we have an opportunity to do more and that we have the capacity to do more."

When Wal-Mart made the commitment to reduce its own carbon footprint—and the footprint of the supply chain—it wasn’t operating in a vacuum. Studies have found that more than half of today’s consumers "lean green" (see chart), which means they will choose one product instead of another based on its sustainability profile.

greenshopper chart

Wal-Mart’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint may mean it prefers to buy products from crop producers who practice no-till and minimum till, efficient nutrient use and other efforts that sequester or eliminate GHG. Livestock producers can reduce or limit methane production and use nutrition or range management to cut carbon.

Sustainability is about more than containing carbon, of course, but that is one of the more defined aspects that many companies, such as Wal-Mart, are focusing on first.

Technology Lends a Hand. These initiatives have many in the agricultural industry taking notice. Clint Reiss of Southwest Family Farms in Plains, Kan., says his operation is assessing what it does well and where it can improve—with sustainability in mind, not just profitability. Southwest Family Farms grows corn on thousands of acres, supplying the cattle and ethanol industries.

"Things are changing and we need to be ready for it," Reiss says. Southwest Family Farms has found technology to be a key part of improving the operation’s overall environmental and economic sustainability as well as being able to capture sustainability data that will likely become more important to processors and retailers in the coming years.

"We use a lot of variable-rate technology and can pinpoint what we do," Reiss says. "This allows us to be more efficient and, from a carbon viewpoint, cleaner."

Along with reducing his carbon footprint, precision application has allowed Reiss to reduce the amount of fertilizer he applies, avoid accidental overseeding and increase yields over time—all things that reduce the farm’s impact on the environment while improving its economic bottom line.

Reiss points out that larger farm operations might have a leg up on some sustainability measures because they can spread the cost of technology over more acres. They often have established an efficiency-of-scale that can end up benefiting the environment.

Producers need to do what makes economic sense for their own operation, adds dairy producer Clauss.

"Dairy farmers have been sustainable for generations because it has made good economic sense for their operation as well as their family," she says.

From the Ground Up. Farmers who know they produce a commodity that doesn’t immediately end up on a grocery shelf may think they don’t need to worry about sustainability.

A large part of the dairy industry’s carbon footprint (and likely that of other meat products) comes from the grain that feeds the cows, Reiss notes.

When looking at the life-cycle analysis of any product, the place to start is in a field or a mine. Without access to that initial data, sustainability efforts will be incomplete—which is one of the
strongest reasons why sustainability is likely to impact grain producers.

With that in mind, Reiss’ operation is working to assess what it can do within a changing marketplace dynamic.

"It is better to have a partnership and work on the ground floor. This is different from a regulatory or legislative framework. We, as farmers, will have limited impact," he says.

By staying ahead of the curve, it is Reiss’ belief that buyers, food retailers and others "will be surprised by all [farmers] do that is, in fact, sustainable."

You can learn more about the Reiss family’s sustainability efforts by visiting

Defining Sustainability

During a panel discussion at this year’s Top Producer Seminar, a farmer, a consultant and an ecology professor discussed what sustainability means to them.

"Sustainability means taking actions that promote efficiency and effectiveness and contribute to the well-being of an operation, its employees and the community," said Sara Hessenflow Harper, partner with The Clark Group.

Embedded within this definition is the triple bottom line that classic corporate sustainability encompasses: economic, environmental and community elements, she added.

A critical issue when considering sustainability is the global nature of the resource challenges we face. Too often, agricultural sustainability is defined as small, organic and local when these attributes cannot answer the global problems of hunger, resource scarcity or abuse and poor human management systems that exist worldwide.

"Does it really improve sustainability to make conditions so difficult for large efficient farms in the U.S. that we end up needing to import more food from China? How is that better for the environment, our economy or human rights?" Harper asked. "I’m all for free trade, don’t get me wrong. But when assigning attributes to a food system, we must think of the big picture and what expanding demand for an inherently inefficient system means for the very attributes proponents are trying to expand."

What we consider sustainable may change if we factor in developing countries and the nearly 3 billion extra people expected to join the planet by 2050, seconded Marty Matlock, director of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Sustainability at the University of Arkansas.

"As more people come, it will drive costs and change the way you as ag producers do business. Our challenge with sustainable agriculture is to understand what is coming and prepare for tomorrow," Matlock said.

"I believe sustainability is meeting the needs of current society while enhancing the opportunities for future generations. Sustainability is agriculture’s legacy," he added. Matlock also believes that sustainability is market-driven by companies that are buying farm products.

A Farmer’s View. For Indiana farmer Kip Tom, sustainability is multidimensional—it’s economic and environmental.

Tom has given long thought to sustainability and has incorporated the following in his farm’s corporate social responsibility statement: "To create a supply system that profitably yields high quality, safe products without supply interruption from generation to generation while creating a net benefit for employees, their communities, our global customers, biodiversity and the environment."

"We can feed the world, and we can do it in a sustainable manner if we are proactive about it," Tom told the audience.

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