One reason often cited by farmers on why they chose a career in production agriculture is so they can be their own boss. But with the public’s increased interest in how food is produced, more people are looking over farmers’ shoulders to see what practices they’re using to earn a living.
Public scrutiny will likely grow more intense as the big national and multinational food companies are pressured by consumers and special interest groups to become more transparent about the environmental and social costs of food production.
In addition, the global food chain faces the complex challenge of doubling food production by 2050, using basically the same land footprint while conserving natural resources.
That chain starts with farmers. Many may soon turn to Field to Market for help. This diverse alliance of stakeholders focuses on “promoting, defining and measuring the sustainability of food, fiber and fuel production.”
It developed the Fieldprint calculator for growers to measure the impact of their production choices. Fred Luckey, chairman of Field to Market, contends the tool will make farmers more efficient and profitable.
MEASURE TO MANAGE
Andy Jordan is a consultant based in Memphis, Tenn., representing Cotton Incorporated, a member in the Field to Market alliance. He’s in charge of a Fieldprint calculator pilot project in Louisiana for Cotton Incorporated that involves a dozen Delta cotton growers. Jordan has been coordinating data collection for the group and getting feedback about calculator algorithm accuracies and user-friendly attributes. Integrity of the information is paramount to both Jordan and Luckey, hence the vigorous prototyping the last three years in pilot projects scattered around the country.
The calculator is free to use and can be accessed on the Field to Market web site (here).
Start by entering the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil and climate data pertaining to your fields. For a specific field, enter basic information, such as field characteristics, crop rotations, management practices and distance to markets. This data establishes your current “fieldprint” so that you can test it against different management scenarios that affect soil conservation, irrigation water use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon and energy use.
The tool allows you to compare your fieldprint against county, state and national averages. Finally, the calculator can analyze various environmental outcomes from changes in management practices and how they affect your management costs.
DELTA PILOT PROJECT
“We haven’t had a tool like this that you can implement on your own operation,” says Louisiana grower Jay Hardwick, one of the farmers in the pilot project. Hardwick took a recently acquired 600-acre field to determine a baseline “fieldprint” for a cotton crop and wanted to see the changes from various land improvements. He entered land practices typically used in 2012 but kept all variable inputs the same to see the impact of practices he would like to implement in 2014.
For starters, Hardwick wants to change from conventional tillage to no-till. He’d like to establish grassed waterways, install sediment control structures to slow precipitation runoff and include riparian strips next to a bayou. Jordan says the fieldprint scenario for 2014 shows considerable improvement in runoff water quality, higher soil carbon levels while reducing soil loss and reductions in both greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. Cotton yields are expected to improve.
Hardwick says it’s difficult to argue with hard data. He adds the calculator supports agriculture’s advocacy efforts. “It helps the farmer tell this story to consumers. I may not be able to say, ‘I’m a good farmer,’ but I can show it.”
From Jordan’s perspective, “It will be important to put on a Cotton Incorporated hat to show the world that we have producers like Jay and thousands of others like him [conserving natural resources] and that ‘sustainable’ means they need to stay in business — that there are very definite environmental benefits tied directly to the economic benefits. It helps us show Walmart, L.L.Bean and Levi Strauss that if they are buying cotton from the U.S., we have a mechanism in place to do the most sustainable cotton production of anyone in the world.”
MIDWEST PILOT PROJECT
Illinois grain farmer and feedlot operator Ron Moore says the calculator is an interesting online tool that will give farmers options to gauge what practices will improve their environmental performance. As one of the farmers in the Midwest pilot project, Moore experimented with a 47-acre field with good black soil and a history of better-than-average yields.
“I put in three years of data — beans in 2011 and corn in 2012 and 2013. I used conservation tillage for my management practices on the first scenario but changed to no-till for all three years. In the first scenario before changing to no-till, Moore says the field was below the state average in every category. Simply by changing his tillage system, he improved his fieldprint in most categories.
Moore says the calculator data will show stakeholders that farmers have been doing an outstanding job of producing grain while improving the use of natural resources. He views the calculator as a good tool to see what can be done in the future.
BIG DATA REVELATIONS
What if a farmer, after running different scenarios through the Fieldprint calculator, chooses not to make changes in his operation that might make a difference, whatever the reason?
“It’s a voluntary value proposition for growers that is not prescriptive,” Field to Market’s Luckey says. “Farmers are careful about their confidentiality, and we respect that. We built our approach so that it’s not compromised.”
Luckey notes even though the data is entered anonymously, farmers can compare how their operation stacks up with other farmers’ production practices. “It takes three to five years of data to see input consumption and result trends to see the value proposition opportunities,” he points out.
“I think the vast amount of U.S. farmers know they have to be engaged in a continuous improvement program,” Luckey reasons. “I don’t know if there is a tipping point, but just because the rest of the world can’t feel, sense or understand the importance of this issue is no reason for us to wait. If we’re going to double the food demand [by 2050], we can’t wait until it is so obvious to the majority of the people — it will be too late, and we’ve missed the opportunity to do something about it.”