Farmers, Buyers Partner on Sustainable Production

Published online: Sep 07, 2013 Irrigation John O'Connell, Capital Press
Viewed 2813 time(s)
Web Exclusive

In the future, Kyle Jacobs anticipates major food companies will only want to contract with farmers who can prove they're good stewards of the land and other resources needed to grow crops.

As those companies begin to roll out programs demonstrating that they're using "sustainable" commodities in their products, Jacobs believes it behooves farmers to join the dialogue.

Jacobs, whose family runs Silver K Farms in Hamer, Idaho, is among 23 wheat farmers on the Eastern Snake River Plain participating in a General Mills sustainable farming pilot project to help growers measure the efficiency of their farms over time.

General Mills officials see sustainability as a way to secure long-term stability in their supply chain, given that the global population is expected to top 9 billion by 2050, farm land continues to be converted to other uses and the supply of natural resources that go into inputs is finite. The company also plans to market its products as sustainable, a quality retailers such as Walmart are demanding.

Jacobs appreciates that the company's approach will be based on experiences in farm fields rather than the aims of bureaucrats with unrealistic expectations.

"Nobody knows agriculture better than the farmer himself," Jacobs said. "I feel like it's an important aspect for us to have input on who is measuring this, why they're measuring it and what they are measuring."

Pilot participants, representing about 50,000 wheat acres, input data into software called the Fieldprint Calculator, which is also used to compute some USDA figures. Its mathematical algorithms enable growers to compare yield, soil conservation, water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions against local, state and national averages.

 Numbers from individual farms remain confidential. 

The software was developed by Field to Market , an effort of the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit group of 52 companies, nongovernmental organizations and universities devoted to improving sustainability throughout the supply chain.

General Mills will use data submitted from the eastern Idaho farms during 2010, 2011 and 2012 as a baseline for measuring future improvements in efficiency as growers try new farming methods. Participants have been paid a modest incentive.

Steve Peterson, director of sourcing sustainability at General Mills and vice chairman of Field to Market, said there are no mandates for growers.

"We're not giving them best practices they have to abide by. We're measuring outcomes," Peterson said. "Through those outcomes, they'll draw their own insights on how to improve."

Jacobs was surprised to find pilot participants averaged 3,250 gallons of water to raise a single bushel of wheat. Silver K Farms may consider investing in variable-rate irrigation equipment in the future to conserve water. Another farm goal is to reduce fertilizer use without hurting productivity, he said.

"If we can find ways to improve and make things better, by all means we'll do it, but if it's going to hinder our production, obviously you can't make the change because then you'd go out of business pretty quick," Jacobs said.

Field to Market
General Mills focused on reducing water and power use in its own factories when it started working on sustainability issues a decade ago.

"We've really come to realize most of our opportunities lie upstream with our producers," Peterson said. The company is now advancing grower sustainability programs covering 10 priority ingredients that represent more than half of its annual purchases. General Mills hopes to expand its eastern Idaho program to include other rotation crops and is now seeking spud growers to participate in a pilot that also involves J.R. Simplot Co.

MillerCoors has agreed to lead a sustainable barley project, and Amalgamated Sugar Co. is still mulling an offer to work with General Mills on sustainable sugar beet production.

"We've had growing interest in our consumer base on this topic . and more and more customers are expressing interest in sustainability and working with us on sustainability," Peterson said.

General Mills has no plans to segregate wheat grown sustainably. Rather, Peterson explained the company will strive to enroll a "statistically valid portion of acres" from a specific area to be able to tell customers the grain comes from a sustainably sourced elevator.

A single pilot project involving 22 corn growers supplying a mill in Crete, Neb., has been completed under the umbrella of Field to Market, which also includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, John Deere, Walmart, the Kellogg Co., Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland.

"We had growers that were getting the same or even less yield using three times as much energy as other growers," Fred Luckey, president and chairman of Field to Market, said of the Crete pilot project.

Ten Field to Market projects, including the General Mills pilot, are under way, and three others are in the planning stages, Luckey said. Field to Market continues to revise the Field Print Calculator and is working to add water quality and biodiversity to the list of categories evaluated.

Luckey said the organization's focus is now on identifying strategies to help growers address areas where their calculators show room for improvement.

"We're working now to help solidify that understanding of how you identify opportunities for change," Luckey said. For example, he said, farmers want to find out why energy use is high even though yields may be low.

Sustainable Beer
This winter, Idaho Barley Commission administrator Kelly Olson will partner with the major brewing companies to host a grower workshop on how the emphasis on sustainable production may affect their farms.

"It's what the marketplace is going to be demanding. The major U.S. retailers, primarily Walmart, are demanding some kind of sustainability measurement for raw material procurement," Olson said. "Every one of the beer companies that do business in Idaho have started big sustainability campaigns this year. All are taking different approaches."

Olson said helping growers to meet the challenge of sustainability will be a top priority of the new University of Idaho agronomist, whose position was recently created with an IBC endowment.

"We're going to be doing cutting-edge research on behalf of growers that allows us to raise barley with minimal inputs and optimal economic returns," Olson said.

In Idaho, where growers lead the nation in water per unit of crops grown, Olson's fear is that sustainability programs could become too rigid regarding water use, though she said growers understand practices can always be improved. And ultimately, Olson said growers are in the business of pleasing their customers.

"Our concern is you have to be careful how you define (sustainability)," Olson said, adding the commission is partnering with the companies to come up with the best plan for all parties.

Oregon Wine

Six years ago, the Oregon Wine Board created its Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine program, offering a logo that producers who met specific criteria could add to their bottles.

The board found in its surveys the concept of sustainability resonated with consumers - even if they didn't always share the same understanding of it. The logo was available to any local wine producer certified by any of the sustainability organizations, said board spokesman Charles Humble.

Humble said enthusiasm for the program waned and it was disbanded after the initial startup grants were exhausted, and the board had other priorities. Nonetheless, 47 percent of vineyards belonging to the board remain certified for sustainability. Humble believes a sustainability claim is a good fit for his industry because buyers of luxury items have discretionary income, are willing to pay a bit more for green products and tend to be environmentally conscious.

"The fact that we can boast about our sustainability because we do have numbers to back that up has proven to be a positive message to consumers about our wine," Humble said.

Sustainable Spuds
Southeast Idaho grower Ritchey Toevs was intrigued when he attended a General Mills presentation earlier this summer about expanding the sustainability pilot to include potato acres.

"I was really encouraged to see a company that had a realistic approach to sustainability. Often times, conversations about sustainability lack substance," Toevs said. "They clearly understand our smallest footprint is when we're going to maximize yield and not cut back on inputs."

He'll wait for other growers to help work out the kinks in the program, however, before participating.

"I think we're going to have to farm by the square foot rather than the acre," Toevs said.

Southeast Idaho grower Klaren Koompin believes slim profit margins are the ultimate motivator for growers to become sustainable and worries sustainability programs will only lead to more paperwork.

"We're probably not going to be doing anything different than we have in the past 25 years, but now we have to document it so somebody can read how great we're doing," Koompin said.

John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, has taken the lead for the spud industry on sustainability. He agrees that potato growers are already moving in the right direction to become more efficient, or else they wouldn't still be in business. He believes it's important that programs don't add extra work for growers and drive up production costs, but he sees them as an opportunity for growers to share a message about their good farming practices.

"I think increasingly the supply chain is asking the grower to be able to talk about their efforts toward efficiency and sustainability in a different way," Keeling said. "We see the development of these tools as a way to facilitate that conversation."

Keeling said sustainability programs are also beginning to cover new ground, including "social" sustainability, recognizing efforts growers make to give back to their communities.

NPC participates in both Field to Market and the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, another sustainability organization emphasizing small-acreage crops, with a large percentage of members coming from California. Stewardship Index has developed its own calculator and sustainability metrics.

Though many sustainability programs are in the works, Keeling believes the best aspects of the overall pool will ultimately be consolidated into a unified approach.

Luckey, with Field to Market, argues the cause of being prepared for the future is well worth the effort.

"I really feel with as many of us on this planet that are affected by these issues, it's really not a large audience of people who are working on this," Luckey said.