SUSTAINABILITY is the latest buzzword among consumers, but for farmers, it's about making "greener" decisions while increasing their bottom line or ensuring that their land has the potential to continue to be bountiful.
"Green and economics go hand and hand," said Scott Spohn, who farms 6,000 acres of corn, soybeans and seed corn near Friend, Neb. His focus is on not just yields but maximizing returns.
Spohn has been part of a pilot project between Bunge and Kellogg Co. that utilizes Field to Market tools and resources to work toward measuring the carbon and water footprint of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes cereal.
Field to Market is a collaborative, farm-to-fork effort in the supply chain to help assess operational decisions and see how each affects the overall sustainability performance.
Currently, Field to Market has a handful of pilot projects underway that are examining ways to reduce pressure on habitat and other land use demands by increasing the productivity of affordable, accessible, quality crops on available acres.
Over the last two years, Bunge and Kellogg have joined with farmers who deliver corn to Bunge's facility in Crete, Neb. In addition, the project teams with local partners, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Corn Growers Assn., Nebraska Corn Board and University of Nebraska Extension Service, to gather data for additional years while continually increasing the value of the Field to Market work for both growers and the entire supply chain.
Spohn said the online Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator has helped him be more sustainable while also watching his bottom line. Although the data collected are no different from what he was previously monitoring, it puts the information together in a way that helps him more easily compare practices as well as see how he stacks up to his neighbors.
"The more information you have, the more you can fine-tune your production practices," he said. "It has helped me analyze the information that we've been accumulating and start to take out each piece of farmland and farm a little bit separately."
From a business perspective, Spohn wants to guarantee that each practice is both environmentally necessary and economical.
High energy costs have him doing more soil sampling, variable-rate applications for phosphorus and nitrogen and more accurately measuring and applying irrigation water. Although no-till farming is a common way to reduce the carbon footprint, Spohn said he actually has gone back to using some tillage because of the economics that come with corn-on-corn planting on irrigated land and what it takes to achieve a proper stand.
Bunge vice president Bradley Dietrich explained that the Field to Market national report serves as a benchmark for farmers and also provides information -- such as how farmers are improving fertilizer use and increasing yields through genetics -- that can reduce applications of herbicides and pesticides.
"Sustainability isn't a destination; it's continuous improvement," Dietrich said.
That requires two-way education, he noted. Growers need to educate others in the supply chain on the positive environmental steps they've taken over the past 20 years. Then, they need to use the lessons learned about what worked to make farming decisions that facilitate continuous improvement at the farm level.
In meetings with growers, Dietrich said he has seen both ends of the spectrum on how farmers farm their land. Some know that it is vitally important to look at the organic matter of soil because soil health directly affects yields, while others are farming land they don't even own and just want to hit a certain yield each year.
He said the message on no-till farming 30 years ago did not immediately translate into changed practices, but as farm operators hear more about which practices work, they naturally adopt those practices faster.
Today, there is some indication that cover crops -- which can be grown in the offseason to keep soil in place -- have some benefits, but farmers must do the math on soil erosion, organic matter and yield to see if it makes financial sense.
The Fieldprint Calculator helps farmers compare their practices to others, and this comparison can help speed the adoption of practices that improve the farm's environmental footprint.
"Farmers understand that the status quo isn't acceptable. They realize how important their practices are in the bigger picture of sustainability, so they are trying new things," Dietrich said.
Farmers aren't going to make changes at the snap of a finger, but with more education about what works and the potential benefits, they can continue to move the bar higher on what consumers seek in terms of sustainability.
Spohn said he recognizes that sustainability is something every farmer needs to consider, especially if he wants his two young sons to someday have the chance to farm the same land as he does. Making decisions based only on the environment won't keep his business sustainable, though, which is why he said economics also must be considered.
The entire Field to Market project has facilitated a discussion on how to improve the environment, with participants ranging from farmers to processors to environmental groups.
Bob Young, American Farm Bureau Federation economist and a member of the coalition, explained that the group is very "outcome oriented" and not interested in dictating production practices or limiting use of technologies.
The result has been a discussion that provides all members of the supply chain with more information about what is being done as well as where improvements can be made.
Field to Market chairman Fred Luckey said, for 2013, he expects to continue building on the pilot projects and informing non-governmental organizations, processors and retailers downstream about the steps farmers are taking.
BENCHMARKING: Field to Market's Fieldprint Calculator gives farmers the ability to benchmark their resource impact to county, state and national levels. A "fieldprint" is the ratio of output to input, or an estimate of the impact an input has on an output. The free online tool allows users to enter basic information about crops, soil and management practices. The analysis allows users to test scenarios to see how environmental outcomes affect management costs. The spidergram shown is a graphical representation of hypothetical results for each resource covered in the tool. The higher the efficiency, the smaller the total area of the fieldprint. If the spidergram is smaller than the state or national average, then the farmer is more efficient than these averages; if it is larger, the grower is less efficient. Results may differ for each resource, which may help identify focus areas.