Sustainability was highlighted in many forms Monday as the Obama administration recognized Champions of Change in agriculture.
Monday’s honorees at the White House event reflected a diverse mix of farmers from across the country ranging from ranchers and major commodity producers to a two-acre community farm. Others included an extension agent from Connecticut who has worked on local foods and a Tennessee professor who has spent his career expanding no-till production in the state. A Nebraska farmer who sells solar panels was spotlighted as was the owner of a Nebraska cover crop seed business.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at the Champions of Change event about sustainability efforts in the administration and investments in renewable energy. Vilsack used the forum to announce $71 million in grants and $102 million in loans for 1,100 companies and farmers under the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP).
Vilsack also talked about the conflict and division in agriculture, which make it difficult to showcase the success of food production in the U.S., he said.
“Food and agriculture, food production — food in general — ought to be a conversation that unites people,” Vilsack said. “If you think about your own families, when you get together for the holiday season, what you get together to do most often is sit around the table to eat and to share. Food defines opportunity. It brings people together.”
The secretary suggested the people who were recognized on Monday should use the recognition as a platform to talk about unity and diversity in agriculture.
“I think it’s going to be incumbent on us to have a common definition (of sustainability) about what that actually means that we all buy into and that we all advance so we can have a unifying conversation about agriculture so we can celebrate agriculture rather than having concerns about it,” Vilsack said.
Among those recognized was Larry Cundall, who has 400 cow-calf pairs on his ranch in eastern Wyoming. He noted water management is critical in an area that only gets 9-12 inches of precip a year. “It’s more important than oil probably, in the near future,” Cundall said. “How you use water and make it more efficient is a focus of almost everybody in my part of the country.”
Cundall was one of the early ranchers in the west to sign up for a carbon offset trading program. He worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to put together a package on carbon credit, but unfortunately the contract has not paid out. Still, Cundall noted the land is still sequestering carbon.
“Wyoming is pretty simple, if it’s profitable and the land stays there for the next generation, then people are pretty interested in doing it,” he said. “If you put a name on it from Washington, it may not be so popular.”
Jesus Sanchez farms tomatoes, almonds and pistachios in California’s Central Valley near Fresno. Sanchez said he uses cover crops and manure applications to help with resiliency on his operation. “The last three years we really haven’t had any water at our location so we’ve had to focus on cover crops,” Sanchez said. “Cover crops have really changed the way we use the little rain we’ve had in the field.”
Tim Smith, a corn and soybean farmer from Eagle Grove, Iowa, noted he’s been getting more extensive rain showers on his farm operation. “I may get 9 or 10 inches of rain in a two-week period. That causes soil erosion, but it also causes issues with nitrates that may flow through my tile lines because it is so wet at times,” Smith said.
Cover crops and a wood-chip bioreactor on his operation have helped mitigate some nitrate leaching off Smith’s farm. He’s also looking to add a third crop to his corn-soybean rotation to help with longer-term sustainability. “I try to stress the longer-term vision in terms of protecting the soil,” Smith said. “Erosion is not sustainable. If we lose our topsoil, we’re going to suffer.”
Don Tyler, a professor at the University of Tennessee, said in the late 1970s his state had some of the worst soil erosion in the country. It was common for farms to see three-foot gullies form in the soil between harvest and planting season. Some farmers even had blades on the front of their tractors to push the gullies in before they planted their crops. No-till production has gone from as little as 2% to as high as 80% in some areas now. “We’re especially proud of cotton because it’s a crop that leaves very little cover on the soil,” Tyler said. “It’s a crop we were told we could not no-till, but the team did.”
Keith Berns, who co-owns Green Cover Seed with his brother, Brian, in Bladen, Neb., noted most of the farmers recognized on Monday were growing cover crops to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, or convert some acreage from crops to grazing pasture.
“So it’s working in many different ways,” Berns said. “You can’t hardly pick up a farm magazine without there being a story on cover crops. I think that’s helping and the NRCS Soil Health initiative as well, but I think the main thing is that it is working for producers out in the field.”
Still, cover crops account for a small portion of the national acreage. Berns has sold covers in all 50 states, but also heard people in every state say cover crops can’t work for them. There’s a lot of cultural resistance from family if the dad doesn’t want to do it, then the sons who may be a little more innovative may be hesitant to try it.
“Most of the guys using cover crops right now were probably early to adopt many types of technology,” Berns said. “They are not afraid to take risks and to get out there on the leading edge of something. Those are the types of people who understand that adding cover crops to an agricultural system requires other management changes to the system.”
Trey Hill, a farmer from Rock Hall, Maryland, has more than 10,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He works closely with environmental groups in the bay and uses cover crops, buffer zones and grass waterways on his operation. Hill also uses a lot of technology and precision agriculture techniques to optimize fertilizer and other chemical applications. Working with different organizations can be a mixed bag because reasonable people can be overtaken by those unwilling to consider practical solutions.
“It’s not always a happy situation (in the bay),” Hill said. “We have environmentalists who sue farmers and farmers who fight back and I think as a leader we need to do it and as part of my business model I believe that being sustainable and being responsible, socially, economically and environmentally all has to be part of it.”
Hill has a 10-acre tract on his farm used for produce marketed by a local Community Supported Agriculture program that also brings school kids out to the farm to learn about agriculture.
Smith and Hill both noted that food companies are moving down the supply chain and seeking more data on how food is grown and the inputs that were used. “The food industry is going to be asking for more sustainable practices on the farm,” Smith said. “They may not want to pay for that, but nevertheless the expectation is there from the consumer to farm in a more sustainable way.”
Buddy Allen, a rice farmer from Mississippi, noted rice is a significant user of water, but farmers are learning to grow rice in the south using less than half the water compared to what was used a decade ago. “So we’re developing best management practices and conservation activities that yield productivity and an increased opportunity for farmers,” Allen said.
Not everyone recognized was large in scale. Anita Adalja is a former social worker who now manages the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture in northern Virginia. Her farm and staff have a two-acre site where they grow produce distributed in a mobile operation that visits local farmers’ markets. Arcadia also teaches people how to farm and has started a program specifically to work with veterans looking to get into agriculture. Adalja said her “tiny but mighty farm” is producing high volumes of food for local residents.
“Living here in Washington, D.C., and biking around, I see so many communities that don’t have access to food and produce,” Adalja said. “Where is it going? It’s not going into these communities I see on a daily basis. So I see the solution as growing in these urban areas and getting the food right there in their local food hubs.”