Can We Eat to Improve the Climate?

Growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting our food takes about 17% of all the fossil fuel used in the United States. With the ambitious goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, consumers are searching for foods that require fewer fossil fuels. Is this realistic?

Quantifying Energy Used for Food

We recently read How the World Really Works, the most recent book by Vaclav Smil, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. Smil has published 47 books and more than 500 papers on the research in energy environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. Bill Gates considers him one of his favorite authors.

In his latest book, Professor Smil explored the improvements the world has made since the early 1800s. He explains “In two centuries the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.” He also talks about the importance of fossil fuels and the world could not provide enough food to feed all of us without them.

Smil also delves into food production and its associated energy use. In fact, he had the patience to calculate how much energy it takes to make a loaf of sourdough bread, raise a chicken, grow a tomato, and eat seafood. He averaged out an itemized estimate using production numbers around the globe.

This sounds like a painstakingly long and detailed effort, with considerations for crop and livestock cultivation; facilities management; processing, production and packaging; and all distribution required along the way. But the results were interesting and surprising!

Bread’s Energy Journey 

Sourdough bread is a staple around the world.

The energy it takes to plant, grow, and harvest wheat is crucial in its production. After the wheat is harvested, it is trucked or goes by rail to the mill to be made into flour.

The initial stages of sourdough preparation require the activation and maintenance of the starter culture, which demands consistent temperature control.

Additionally, mixing, kneading, baking and the use of ovens and other kitchen appliances all contribute to energy consumption.

The energy required throughout this journey for a 2.2 pound loaf of sourdough bread is just about 8 ounces of diesel fuel.

Crude for Chickens

Raising chickens involves a fascinating blend of traditional agricultural practices and modern energy considerations.

To maximize production, it is critical to maintain a suitable environment for the birds. They must be fed the right mixture of grains, minerals, and vitamins.

The utilization of electricity for consistent temperature control, ventilation, and lighting, especially in large-scale operations, underscores the intrinsic relationship between energy usage and the well-being of the birds.

Once the chicken is fully grown the birds are transported to the processing facility which turns them into breasts, thighs, and other cuts for the grocery store.

The entire energy for 2.2 pounds of processed chicken is about 11 ounces of diesel.

Holy Tomato!

Tomatoes can require many factors and sources of energy, depending on whether they are grown indoors or out.

Photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to grow tomatoes outdoors for over eight months. Yet for the 35% of global tomatoes grown indoors, the energy inputs are significantly more because of the substantial energy required to provide heat, light, and nutrients, not to mention the energy needed to make the greenhouse itself.

But even tomatoes grown outdoors require crude oil to make the plastic clips, wedges, sheets, and gutter arrangements for successfully growing a tomato crop.

The energy utilized in production encompasses diverse inputs, from solar energy and traditional machinery to electricity and embodied energy, making its energy calculation highly complex.

The answer for this beloved fruit is not simple, but Smil calculated that, growing 2.2 pounds of tomatoes uses about 21.9 fluid ounces of diesel fuel, on average.

Fuel for Farmed Salmon 

On average, the energy consumption for seafood production is relatively high.

It takes approximately 23.6 ounces of diesel per 2.2 pound serving, just slightly more than the energy needed for tomatoes.

For example, salmon, a popular seafood choice, is predominantly farmed, which involves significant energy expenditure for fish feed production, transportation to farms, and ultimately to consumers.

Unless sourced locally from specific regions like Chile, Norway, Scotland, or Western Canada, considerable energy is expended in the entire process from farm to table.

Of course, one can imagine the amount of fuel used to catch, freeze, and transport wild-caught fish. Professor Smil suggests that opting for sardines, which are rich in omega-3s and have lower environmental impacts, can be a more sustainable choice.

Is Energy Estimation Possible?

We were shocked when we found out that raising 2.2 pounds of chicken required just a third of the energy needed to cultivate the same weight of tomatoes. This proves that our food system is much more complicated than it appears.

We wrote about climate conscious eating and pointed out that it is not just about the energy used, we have to also consider water.  To grow just one ounce of nuts takes anywhere from 3.2 gallons to a whopping 28.7 gallons for almonds.

Farming takes multiple kinds of energy. Human energy – plain old hard work and effort.  Solar energy – sunlight for photosynthesis.  Wind – for pollination.  And just as important, fossil fuel energy, including diesel and gasoline for farm machinery, plant equipment, and transportation.

Used appropriately, energy increases productivity and distribution across our food system, therefore increasing profitability for farmers. Without that energy, the whole system collapses.

End of story, turn out the lights, dinner is over.

“Our food is partly made not just of oil, but also of coal that was used to produce the coke required for smelting the iron needed for field, transportation, and food processing machinery; of natural gas that serves as both feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers; and of the electricity generated by the combustion of fossil fuels that is indispensable for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food and feed storage and preparation.”

– Prof. Vaclav Smil

The complexities of our food system are vast. As we push our cart through the grocery aisle, how do we really know whether the food we eat is farmed sustainably and uses energy and water responsibly? Are you curious?

  1. Would you pay more to know exactly how much energy and water was used to make the food you are eating?
  2. Would you like to see it on a label?
  3. Would it affect your food choice?

Will reducing beef save our planet?

Are cows really a major cause of climate change? Wealthy nations are not pushing people to switch to a plant-based diet. Will that really work to reduce emissions? What would an all-plant diet for 8 billion people do for the environment? Not to mention that we need 30% of our diet in protein. We investigated this two years ago when Epicurious decided not to include meat recipes and we thought we would post it again given the recent COP28 initiatives.

Every day we choose what to eat. This never used to be a big deal. But today food has become synonymous with politics. I get it. My sister’s family and mine are a close-knit bunch who have mixed views on eating meat. Among our group of children, we have two vegans, two vegetarians, and four meat-eaters.

We love each other a lot and we don’t ask vegans to cook steaks, or the meat lovers to make only plant-based dishes. Instead, we work together to make sure there is enough food for everyone’s plate. Then, we spend our time caring about each other as people, not poking about what we are eating. It is a matter of respect and support for everyone’s choice.

What’s the beef with the UN FAO’s stance on red meat?

At the recent COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai, the United Nation’s Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated that developed nations will need to reduce red meat and dairy production to avert a global health crisis.

I have casual conversations with friends and acquaintances who are diligently participating in ‘Meatless Mondays’ or even skipping red meat altogether because they think they are doing a good deed for the climate.

“According to a new roadmap from the world’s peak food security body, wealthy countries will need to cut back meat and dairy consumption to hit health and environmental targets.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN roadmap outlines a way to feed the world over the next 25 years without increasing the emissions and land clearing that drive climate change and biodiversity loss.”

So, is this true? If we significantly reduced beef and dairy output, would we also significantly reduce emissions? Here is a better question: what if everyone knew that meat can be part of a broader climate solution instead of a climate problem?

We want to give you a more nuanced, data-driven perspective so you can come to your own conclusion.

Cows solving climate change?

Raised in Minnesota, I can tell you there is no more beautiful sight than the grasslands. In the late ‘60s, my bedroom window overlooked a wetland prairie. Whether you think of them as prairies, pampas, steppes, or savannas, about one-third of our global land is open grasslands…tall grasses blowing in the wind, full of deer, elk, songbirds, wildflowers, and cattle.

In a recent post, The Nature Conservancy highlighted a metanalysis, “Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production”, showing that ranchers, particularly in the U.S. and Brazil, who own both grasslands and beef can cut emissions by 50%.

As a 1,000-acre rancher in South Carolina told one of us at D2D, “I am really a grass farmer.” When cattle roam freely, their hooves dig up the earth, seeds drop in from neighboring plants, manure adds fertilizer, and the grasslands thrive. The open land thrives because it is a carbon sink.

As Meredith Ellis, a cattle rancher from Texas told us, “our ranch is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) each year – equivalent to taking 551 cars off the road.

Grass-fed and feedlot finished?

Did you know that about 95% of all cattle start their lives on grass and then finish the last third of life in the feedlot? Many argue that once cattle are in the feedlot, they contribute to the atmospheric methane, but it is actually the opposite: grass-fed cattle emit approximately 20% more methane because it takes them about a year longer to reach market weight.

Because of the tremendous environmental benefits of grassland, we are not saying that all cows should be raised in a feedlot, but to point out that corn-fed cattle simply produce less methane.

Additionally, many animal nutrition companies are currently researching for the ‘holy grail’ in animal feed to further reduce the release of methane anywhere from 3% to 50%. The reason? More belching occurs when cattle eat the roughage in the grass versus a highly nutritious and tailored feedlot diet. It is when the roughage breaks down that methane is produced.

Moooving over for dairy to digest methane

Dairy farmers also find ways to contribute to a more sustainable environment, too. The dairy industry has benefited from anaerobic methane digesters for years. Dairy farms collect the cow manure and plow it into rubber-lined ponds right next to the barns.

Each of these coverings looks like a dome and helps capture methane. And then, to make a long story short, methane is used as electricity for the farm or sold back on the grid.

These farms have cheap electricity and are greenhouse gas (GHG)-negative because they use methane rather than fossil fuels. In fact, California has committed to a 40% reduction of dairy methane emissions by 2030 just by using digesters alone.

Just to give you an idea of the importance of animal feed, let’s take a look at India…

They have 56 million dairy cows, more than the E.U., Brazil, U.S., and Russia — combined. Of course, they don’t eat their cows; they just use them for dairy products.

Because their feed and milking systems are not as sophisticated, a cow only produces 2,600 pounds of milk a year versus the U.S.’s 21,000 pounds per cow, on average.

Therefore, India needs eight more cows to give the same amount of milk as one U.S. cow. And at 6 million head, China’s dairy cows have a similar production rate as India.

That is a lot more methane!

What if we don’t eat beef at all?

Lean meats and plants are critical for our health. (Have you had your 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables today?) But the nutrients that meat provides are critical, too. What would happen if all we had to choose from were only plants and grains? To find out what an animal-free country would look like, Robin White and Mary Beth Hall of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech and U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, studied the impact of a vegetarian country on U.S. emissions, economics, and nutrition.

In short, White and Hall found a reduction in emissions of 2.6%, or 28% of agricultural emissions. They explain that there would be 23% more food but deficiencies in U.S. nutritional requirements of minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids. For example, eating a lean 8-oz. piece of steak provides you with 45 grams of protein, versus eating a cup of black beans with only about 15 grams. You get more protein with fewer calories.

There would also be an economic impact. What do we tell the ranchers, farmers, feeders, processors, marketers, and more who have invested billions of dollars creating protein for human health, not to mention the trickle-down effects on local economies?

Cows are carbon neutral. Really!

Despite popular thinking, the reality is that cows are neutral carbon emitters! How? Over time, they do not emit more carbon than they eat. It is undisputed that plants pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air and then combine it with water and sunlight to make carbohydrates and oxygen. The plants use carbohydrates as fuel for growth and emit oxygen into the air as a byproduct. Very handy for us as we need that to breathe.

When a cow eats a plant, it consumes carbohydrates – which contain carbon. It swallows the plant into their four-chambered stomach. The first chamber is massive and holds enough food to fill your bathtub – about 50 gallons. After the plant enters their stomach, they bring it back up to chew some more – “chewing their cud.” The food then goes back down to the stomach to be digested by the microbes, called methanogens.

This is when they belch a portion as methane which is then released into the atmosphere. This methane is the culprit, as it is 28 times more potent as a GHG than CO2.

The good news is that it only lasts for about eight to ten years before it converts into one part CO2 and two parts H2O via hydroxyl oxidation.

Here is where it gets interesting: according to Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., Professor and Air Quality Specialist at the University of California, Davis:

“If you are not adding additional cattle or cows to the earth, then there will be no additional methane and no additional global warming.”

As long as more cows are not introduced on the planet, then no additional CO2 is added. For the past ten years, global cattle population has been steady at around 1 billion, yet the average annual presence of methane has steadily increased. Dr. Mitloehner continues, saying “We in agriculture have to do our part but must not be singled out as the 800-pound gorilla we are not.”

Sources for chart: noaa.gov, U.S. Department of Agriculture; USDA Foreign Agricultural Service; ID 263979.

Putting this in perspective

So where does agriculture stand in relationship to global GHG contribution? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is about 12%.

There is no doubt that methane is a powerful GHG that we want to keep out of the atmosphere. But it does not all come from animals. According to NASA, the methane sources can be broken out as follows: 30% wetlands, including ponds, lakes, rivers; 30% related to oil, gas, and coal extraction; 20% by agriculture, including livestock, waste management, and rice cultivation; 20% wildfires, biomass burning, permafrost, termites, dams, and the ocean. Here are more detailed breakdowns:

Freedom to Choose

We are already so divided as a country on a variety of political and social issues. Why are we doing this with food and our climate? Yes, cattle emit methane. That is a fact. It is also true that humans have creatively adapted to a life of comfort and health for thousands of years. Let’s use methane reduction for cattle as a lesson in innovation to make our food and our planet better. Let the science speak for itself and not let emotions get carried away.

I quickly recall my family and I debating issues at the dinner table, but at the end of the day, we respect each other’s thinking. We are environmentalists. We are fierce advocates of sustainable food, innovation, and making the world a better place while also being pragmatic about protecting humans and animals. And we also realize how incredibly fortunate we are to choose what we eat each and every day.

Expert Take on Defining ‘Sustainability’


Christine Daugherty has both a PhD in plant physiology and a law degree. She is widely recognized as both a deep thinker and active agent of sustainability, working with a wide number of companies and other organizations deeply committed to the idea of sustainability.

Christine will talk to us about the business community’s commitment to sustainability. She will weigh in on the continuing debate on carbon sequestration. And she will help us understand the parallels between sustainability and regenerative agriculture, including soil management practices.

If you believe sustainability is one of the most important topics in today’s world of food and agriculture, you definitely want to hear what Christine has to say.

How Bad is RoundUp? Expert explains


Many of us use glyphosate, or RoundUp, as a weed killer on our lawns and in our gardens. This product also has applications in agriculture, forestry, and commercial uses. Despite its efficacy, there are big questions regarding its potentially harmful side effects on the environment and human health.

Thankfully for D2D and our listeners, Dr. Novy takes the time to educate us on how glyphosate works so we can better understand its pros and cons. And he shares some evidence-based examples of when glyphosate can be used as one tool of many in a toolbox for land and crop management, when used judiciously.

Dr. Novy runs the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, CA, a 37-acre facility with extensive collections of Mediterranean climate plants as well as award-winning children’s gardens. He previously served as an environmental consultant on infrastructure projects in the northeastern United States. Dr. Novy completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at New York University and his doctorate at Rutgers University.

Digging In with Easy Energy


What a waste. And indeed it is when it comes to our food.

Experts tell us we waste as much as 30 to 40 percent of our food along the journey from dirt to dinner. But the folks at Easy Energy Systems are applying modern technology in an innovative way to tackle the problem head on – transforming waste into useful products.

From environmentally-friendly fertilizers, to biofuels, to soil-enhancing, water-conserving products and a whole host of other things, Easy Energy utilizes modular technology to create a renewable energy cycle. Tune in…it’s time definitely not wasted.

5 Ways Cattle & Dairy Cows Can Help the Environment

dairy cows

Dairy cow and cattle farms have been mistakenly blamed for a disproportionate amount of climate change given its production of methane and manure run-off. But let’s challenge this assumption by examining a few ways farmers manage their farms and ranches…

Did you know cattle can play a positive role in climate change, and farmers and ranchers are proactively working to reduce methane output? Here’s how!

1. Livestock is one of the best tools for land management

Ranchers whose cattle roam the land utilize regenerative agriculture. These animals graze on the grass – grass-fed – and while doing so, contribute to the nutrients in the soil. Livestock is used by ranchers to better manage the land, which then benefits not only the soil, but also native plants and wildlife. Healthy soil also absorbs the rainfall better and prevents water run-off into roads, streams, and wetlands.

2. Dairy cows & cattle can cut emissions

The Nature Conservancy highlighted a metanalysis titled, “Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production,” which showed that ranchers who own both grasslands and beef could cut emissions by 50%. This is especially true in the U.S. and Brazil.

How does this work? Well, when cattle graze, their hooves dig up the soil, where seeds then drop in from neighboring plants. Cow manure acts as the fertilizer, and the grasslands thrive because they’re a carbon sink. In Texas, one cattle rancher, Meredith Ellis, is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) a year. This is equal to taking 551 cars off the road.

On a global scale, the map below taken from Cusack et al’s study, Reducing Climate Impacts of Beef Production, exemplifies some of the many emission-reducing tools in the farmers and ranchers toolbelt being executed across the world. This includes production and transportation of fertilizers and feed, water use, animal maintenance, soil management, and machinery use.

3. Grass-fed vs. Feedlot

95% of all cattle start their lives on grass, then finish them in the feedlot. Many argue that feedlot cattle contribute to atmospheric methane more than grass-fed. However, it’s just the opposite. Grass-fed cattle emit approximately 20% more methane because it takes them about a year longer to reach market weight.

In addition, animal nutrition companies are researching ways to further reduce the release of methane anywhere from 3% to 50% through animal feed. Cows burp more when they eat roughage in grass versus a highly nutritious and tailored feedlot diet. When the roughage breaks down, methane is produced.

4. Dairy Digesters

The dairy industry has benefited from anaerobic methane digestors for quite some time now. How?

Dairy farms collect the manure and plow it into domed, rubber-lined ponds next to the barns. Each of these helps capture methane. The methane is then used as electricity for the farm or sold back onto the grid.

Farms that do this are GHG-negative because they use methane instead of fossil fuels to provide their electricity. California has committed to a 40% reduction of dairy methane emissions by 2030 just by using digesters.

5. Cows are actually carbon neutral

Contrary to popular belief, cows are carbon-neutral emitters.

This is because, over time, they do not emit more carbon than they eat. When cows eat plants, they consume carbohydrates, which contain carbon.

After the plant enters their stomach, they bring it back up to chew some more; then it goes back down into their stomach to be digested by the microbes, called methanogens.

This is when a portion is belched as methane and is released into the air. This methane is to blame because it’s 28 times more potent as a GHG than CO2. However, the good news is that it only lasts in the air for about eight to ten years. Then, it converts into one part CO2 and two parts H2O via hydroxyl oxidation.

Dirty Tactics from EWG’s Dirty Dozen

Dirty Dozen's Dirty Tricks

Full disclosure: I buy organic fruits & veggies. I also buy conventional fruits & veggies. For me, it depends on the time of year, the way the produce looks, which grocer or market I’m visiting, and price (those two-for-one berry deals are no joke!). At D2D, we also believe that feeding a growing population requires all kinds of safe, sustainable growing methods. We should have a choice and not be unnecessarily fearful of the food at the grocery store.

What’s at Stake?

If I told you that I only buy organic produce, you’d probably assume that I had the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of contaminated produce memorized for when I go shopping, right? And probably expound on the “horrors” of conventional farming, too. Some of you may not know what EWG is, but you’re probably familiar with their annual “Dirty Dozen” list showing which conventionally-farmed fruits & veggies have the most pesticide residue based on data from the USDA Pesticide Data Program.

But should you really be afraid of these “Dirty Dozen” items?

EWG would give a big ‘yes’ to that one. But wouldn’t you do this, too, if your corporate donations came from Organic Valley, Earthbound Farms, Applegate Farms, and Stonyfield Farms?

Hey, I kinda get it – they’d infuriate their stakeholders if they published information discouraging their products. But their report hurts our health and frankly, our sanity. And at a time when we need it most with rising rates of obesity and chronic illness sufferers in the U.S.

Sad State of Health

Did you know that only 10% of us eat the recommended amounts of fruits & veggies each day? I’m literally sneaking riced cauliflower and diced sweet potatoes into my oatmeal each morning and am barely scraping by in that department. There is no doubt about it: washing, chopping, and preparing five to nine servings of veggies for each family member every day takes a lot of time.

But what about those who can’t even shop for fresh produce? The USDA’s food desert map examines lower-income and lower-access locations where people live far from a supermarket.

You’re Only as Good as Your Data

Though we’ve previously posted on how the USDA and EPA monitor and manage pesticide residues on produce, here are a few points about the margin of safety the EPA applies to our produce, the data gathered by the USDA that shows where produce falls within that spectrum, and how the EWG misrepresents the data to scare the daylights out of us.

Let’s first take a look at data collection and what it shows:

Organic and conventional crops: It’s not a level playing field

“The EPA requires synthetic pesticide manufacturers to conduct a whole battery of tests for initial and ongoing registration. The extensive and costly testing is conducted to determine toxicity on human health from dermal exposure, inhalation, and ingestion, and assesses human health outcomes related to reproduction, cancer, and organ systems.

On the other hand, “natural” organic pesticides are not required to be tested for toxicity and have never received this level of assessment.” 

– Susan Leaman, Toxicology Consultant, Vice President at IDS Decision Sciences

  • Have you heard of copper sulfate? It’s considered an organic pesticide and is frequently used on crops prone to fungus. It’s also one of the most toxic pesticides. Yes, even among synthetic ones.

Toxicity Levels of Various Substances

Sources: National Science Teachers Association, CamiRyan.com

Yes, there is pesticide residue on most produce – both conventional and organic. It’s also in our air. And water. And, our bodies can handle it.

Despite what you may hear on the interwebs, the USDA conducts very rigorous testing on thousands of produce samples for its Pesticide Data Program (EWG’s data source). The USDA then works with the EPA to develop tolerances for acceptable pesticide residue on produce.

  • This is how the EPA determines pesticide tolerance: they identify an allowable level of residue for no health risks based on exhaustive toxicological evaluations. If a residue is at or below the tolerated amount, it is safe by a factor of 100, which means the residue present is 100 times smaller than the smallest amount that would have a negative health effect. That’s a pretty plentiful safety cushion there.

“In reality, exposure to toxins like pesticides is not as simple as ‘this is good, that is bad’. Whether or not something is toxic depends on numerous factors, such as the substance’s form, the amount you are exposed to, how you are exposed, and your genetic make-up.”

– Susan Leaman, Toxicology Consultant, Vice President at IDS Decision Sciences

  • Still scared? Check out this page from Alliance for Food and Farming, which represents organic and conventional produce farmers, to see how much produce you’d need to eat to incur some ill effect from the residue, based on our gender and age range. As much as I love strawberries, I don’t think I can eat 453 berries in one day ????

EWG’s Dirty Data Habits

Let’s take a quick look at how EWG takes advantage of omissions and manipulates data in favor of their stakeholders:

EWG’s desperate search for data to substantiate their position

EWG recycles practically all the same data as previous years and slaps the “2023” on Food Shoppers Guide to make it look meaningful

  • The USDA analyzes pesticide residues with dozens of rotating crops, so each year only select crops are re-analyzed. For instance, this year it was just three crops analyzed that fall under EWG’s coverage: asparagus, cabbages, and sweet peas. Yet they make a big stink about releasing a whole new report, instead of just giving an update on the 6% of data that may or may not have changed since last year!
  • To that end, we don’t know the current pesticide levels of pineapples and eggplants, which were last analyzed in 2002 and 2006, respectively. But both show up on EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” list, without really knowing levels within the last 14+ years.
  • As for raspberries, another delicately-skinned fruit like strawberries (notoriously #1 in the “Dirty Dozen”), they haven’t been analyzed since 2013 – a long time for those overly-concerned with these things.

…When it’s convenient for them

  • Suddenly they’re reporting on shelf-stable goods? Their report vilifies conventional raisins during a time when some of us don’t have access to fresh fruit. What kind of timing is that?
  • And as unemployment skyrockets, they send an email blast asking for money ☹ Sounds kinda culty, too, right? And, I don’t know, maybe directing at least SOME of those funds to a COVID relief fund would make this email seem a little less crude and more helpful at keeping people alive and healthy, perhaps?

EWG Actually Knows Better

The most disheartening part about the EWG’s Dirty Dozen report? They know they’re causing unnecessary panic. Perhaps in light of the current pandemic, they stated in their press release that “…consumers should continue eating plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, whether they are conventional or organic. Doesn’t this seem contradictory to their entire report? So why cause more panic when we’re all already freaking out???

There’s no question that the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables FAR outweigh any ill effects from pesticides – the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients keep our bodies healthy. How else are we to build up our immune systems to help combat this virus?

Uniting for Health

Despite the mixed messages of the EWG report, there’s one common theme that unifies us all in our plight for overall and immune health: to eat more fruits and veggies, no matter the source. Whether explicitly said by nutritionists and doctors, or hidden between the lines in a press release, we all agree that eating more produce can positively affect our immunity against COVID, and beyond.

And if you are still concerned about pesticide residues and pathogens, just rigorously wash and prepare your produce.

Make sure to wash your produce thoroughly under cool running water BEFORE eating or preparing. It is important to rinse…to avoid transferring dirt or bacteria onto your knife, the flesh of the produce or your work surface. The FDA does not recommend washing your fruits and vegetables with soap…however, you may want to use a clean produce brush to scrub firm crops.”

– Maki Yazawa, RealSimple

My last point is for those who are still skeptical…

If you question the USDA and EPA data, just remember that between two stories may lie the truth. So, if you recall that the EPA’s pesticide residue tolerance scale for produce must be “100” at a bare minimum, and “1” is a serving of produce that has enough pesticide residue to cause an immediate ill health effect (as the EWG would like us to believe), that halfway point brings us to “50”. Even at a factor of 50, I would still encourage my family and friends to eat lots and lots of produce. Even then, 226 strawberries are still too many for me to eat at once 😉

Digging in: Dancing Vineyard’s Cynthia & Lauren Russell


Going back to her California roots, Cynthia and her family decided that a vineyard in Healdsburg is just the place for family and friend vacations.

What has started out as a novelty is now becoming a full-scale business.

Naming it Dancing Vineyard, Cynthia and Lauren’s mission is to take the mystery and intimidation out of enjoying wine by creating a product to be enjoyed on all occasions. With their unique crop and acreage, and their focus on the integrity of the vines and soil, we can’t wait to enjoy their wine “for the fun of it”!

Cynthia and Lauren detail the history of zinfandel grapes, their primary varietal, which have a sweet fruity flavor with a touch of spice. These grapes mix well with other varietals to make the desired wine that is enjoyable to drink, and not daunting to purchase. A historic grape, zinfandel was brought to the U.S. from Croatia in the early 1800s. These grapes mix well with other varietals to make the desired wine.

Cynthia graduated from Claremont McKenna College, has her MBA from Harvard, and a Doctorate from the Department of Organization and Leadership at Columbia University. Lauren graduated from Dartmouth and has her MBA from Columbia University. Both Lauren and Cynthia have extensive marketing, consulting, and business management experience.

Soil Science with FFA’s Elszy

soil science

Brennan, an FFA member of the Hanford Chapter in California, loves soil science. His particular interest is examining the effect of fumigating soil to manage plant parasites called nematodes. His research involves examining orchard soils that were previously planted with an orchard to determine the soil’s current health.

Brennan’s previous research focused on examining the health of pruned trees in various fumigated soils to determine if ‘replant syndrome’ was caused by nematode populations. Replant syndrome is when tree fruit yields decrease as trees are repeatedly planted in the same nursery.

Let’s listen in as Brennan explains the practical applications of his work in soil science and what he has in store next for the ag community.

Want to read more inspiring stories from our Future Farmers of America? Click here.

New England Farm Connects Soil to Health


Steve McMenamin is the manager of Versailles Farms, a Connecticut-based market-garden operation at the forefront of regenerative agriculture. Versailles Farms’ mission is to grow food for the community with an emphasis on nutrient density, flavor, and good digestion. 

Steve and his wife, Ingrid, started the farm in 2013 after selling Versailles Bistro, a local institution, taking it out of bankruptcy and earning a 4-star review by the New York Times in 2010.

Steve is also the executive director of the Greenwich Roundtable, a non-profit research and education group, and publisher of best practices that focus on long-term investing.

Steve learned almost everything he knows about agriculture from his grandfathers and YouTube.

 

Digging In: Droughts Drive Smart Water Use


In our discussion, Curt will outline some of the things he and other smart, innovative farmers do to get ready for the worst. We’ll talk about the efforts being made to improve water management as a key element of farm management. We will hear about new technology and the enormous investments being made in tools for reducing water use, and relying on crops with greater drought resistance. We might also be surprised to hear why trade is an important part of the answer to drought.

Climate change is making drought and other weather extremes ever more likely. So take a few moments to join in with Nate and Dirt to Dinner’s Garland West to hear all the things people like Curt are doing to deal with this enormous challenge to our farming system – and our food security.

Garland’s Letter from Atlanta

Ever wonder what farmers do when they aren’t planting, tending or harvesting their crops? And when they get together, what do they talk about?

Dirt to Dinner wanted to know the answers to both questions. So we attended the winter conference of one of our major commodity sectors.

Here’s our report.

To My Colleagues at Dirt to Dinner,

Hello, everybody. And greetings from Atlanta.

I just spent three days in a cavernous hotel meeting room here, listening and watching several hundred farmers and various others across the supply and marketing chain that makes this sector of American agriculture work. They do all the things that keep the sector going — day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out — helping farmers remain successful and responsive to the demands of the world around them, and helping provide consumers and other customers around the world with an uninterrupted pipeline of a widely popular forms of a food they need and like.

I won’t name this particular sector of our agricultural system. To do so would be unfair to all the ag sectors out there. You see, every part I follow in the magnificent, complex agricultural system we have does most of the same things going on around me here. (I will note in passing for the curious among you, however, that health professionals cite the sector as one of the absolute top sources of plant protein – readily available and affordable to customers around the world, and ripe for further growth. I also consumed a lot of Jif in three days. Make of that what you will.)

This convocation is called a winter conference. It’s a rare chance to all come together to think and reflect, to analyze and plan, to share experience and opinion for the collective good. It comes after the harvest is in, but before the orchestrated circus of spring planting gets under way. It comes while they also need to spend long hours keeping the machinery of farming up to date and functioning efficiently, and lining up all the inputs essential to modern production.

The winter conference comes at a time when most of these farmers are busy planning for next year and beyond, analyzing trends in market prices, demand, costs and all the other dozens if not hundreds of factors that shape the bottom line.

After all, profitability is the key to everything – investment, innovation, and all the other things farmers need to do to grow and adapt continuously.

Like I said, to me this group really isn’t all that different from the other segments of our ag system. But they do have some interesting characteristics, and one that jumps out at me from the opening session tells me a lot about the people in the room. The chairman of this event opens the proceedings by inviting the room to rise for the pledge of allegiance.

It’s not an order, probably couched this way to accommodate the current political environment. But every man and woman in the room rises as one to do so. And when they do, I see it less as some sort of old-fashioned embrace of a world gone with the wind than a simple expression of the optimism and strong belief in shared human values I’ve heard across multiple hallway conversations. The next three days tell me my impression is probably spot on.

There is an optimism here – coupled with an unshakeable faith in the importance and value of what this particular sector of the American agricultural system does.

This definitely isn’t purely a chance to get away from home, see some old friends and have a party. The comraderie is there, certainly, borne of common values and a long-shared history of constant effort to get better – in how they produce their crops, how they better serve their customers, how they better understand what the market is telling them about its needs and expectations. There are three full days of serious business at hand.

No small part of the program is devoted to coping with a world that seems to be changing faster and faster every day. The list of issues is amazingly long:

  • What regulators and consumers want from complex labeling requirements
  • How to sort through conflicting points of view on scientific and technical matters
  • How to respond to increasingly stringent regulatory requirements related to product quality, dietary considerations, points of origin, genetics, strange things called ‘non-tariff trade barriers,’ and more
  • How to figure out the role of social media in telling the sector’s story to the wider and wider circles of people becoming more and more important to its success

Break-out sessions focus on existing domestic and export markets. How do we deliver more value to our customers? How do we diversify our offering to match changing customer needs, or to tap into new opportunities to sell our crops? What do we need to do to maintain our best existing markets in the face of growing international competition? How do we make those markets grow? What new markets have real potential for us, and what do we need to do to penetrate them?  What are our competitors doing that we aren’t doing, or aren’t doing as well as they are?

Other long hours go to a review of the aggressive research program funded by the growers. How do we decide where to invest in the solid science people need to fully appreciate our crops? How do we prioritize among research to improve production efficiency and grower profitability, versus research to counter misperceptions or out-right misinformation about the health and safety aspects of our products? And how do we best get the accurate and complete word out to all the people who need to hear it, with so many competing voices and such entrenched yet mistaken points of view? How do we express our story, and how do we tell it better?

It’s a dizzying schedule of important topics, all posing real challenges. To many people, I suppose, the list would simply be too long and tough. The easy way out obviously would be to throw up your hands, walk away, leave it to someone else or some PR agency to deal with, and hope for the best. Just concentrate on the farming. Grow the best crops you can, as profitably as you can. This group will have none of that kind of thinking.

The program highlights a comprehensive three-year strategic plan that cuts across all these issues, and more. It’s the result of months and months of hard work, and it outlines a roster of possible and recommended actions. To an outsider like me, the plan appears to be a bit shorter than the Old Testament, but maybe a tad longer than the New Testament. No matter. This group starts tearing into it immediately with real enthusiasm. To me, it’s an amazing display of the innate optimism and confidence in a better future for our sector, if we all pull together in this.

Yep, I’m impressed by what I see here around me. And it rattles me a bit, too. My colleagues tell me I’ve become a cynical old man, a true curmudgeon about the social and political chaos I see around me, and the fragmentation and polarization of what used to be seen as a society based in certain shared beliefs and characteristics.

These three days have shaken that cynicism, more than a little.

But the crowning epiphany in my realization that at least part of our world is still on track comes in a relaxed dinner conversation with Dan Ward, a producer from my home state of North Carolina. We’re talking about the steady stream of challenges his family has seen over seven generations of farming. I ask him about one of the big topics from the conference schedule – a small matter labeled ‘sustainability.’ The program outlines all the many and costly efforts underway to deal with cropping and production issues, with water use and quality, soil replenishment and regenerative techniques, and on and on and on. How do you ever find time to wrap your head around all of that, I ask innocently enough. He just laughs at me.

“It’s not that complicated to me,” he says as he reaches for his smartphone and in a heartbeat displays the picture that makes up his phone wallpaper. It’s beautiful two-day old baby girl, wrapped in a near Carolina-blue blanket, lying perfectly positioned between two lush, text-book handsome rows of his farm’s top crop.

It’s calendar-quality beautiful.

“In 20 or 25 years,” he explains, “my granddaughter Blakely will have the choice of becoming the ninth generation of our family to farm this land. That will be her choice. My job is to leave this farm in the best possible shape it can be…even better than it is now, if I can. I want her to be able to make that choice because we have something that lasts and she can be proud of.

“I have to stop and think about every decision I make in operating this farm and ask if what I’m doing will help her make that decision, one way or another. And you know which one I want it to be.”

I left the conference on an admitted high.

Perhaps I am an old geezer, long past my prime and admittedly out of touch with many of the popular prevailing trends in thinking and attitudes.

But I found the can-do attitude and sheer work ethic on display here to be cause for optimism. It’s another prime example of the spirit that keeps our agricultural system constantly at work to address whatever it needs to confront to keep doing its job — which is to provide a steady stream of the high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable food people everywhere need.

I also took comfort in the special part of the program devoted to recognizing one person from the food industry for his life-long contributions to the sector. The audience rose as one again in recognition of a highly respected African-American research and development scientist and all he has done to advance to the best interests of farmers and others across the chain from dirt to dinner. Recent health issues perhaps slowed his normal confident stride just a bit, and it took a few moments for him to reach the podium. But the applause never diminished, and the back-slapping and hand-shaking in the corridors afterward made his departure a very protracted event, too. This whole sector just seems to work together far more than I ever fully appreciated.

We’re in good hands with people like this, I thought silently. Our ag system is going to be fine. Just fine.

See you soon.

 

Best to all,

The Ins & Outs of Climate-Conscious Eating

For instance, I enjoy eating meat, and I also care about the environment. Are the two mutually exclusive? Can only those who follow a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet truly be living an environmentally-friendly life?

The idea of a climate-conscious diet and vilifying animal protein got a boost from The Lancet, a scientific and health journal. Their EAT-Lancet diet vilified protein as both unhealthy for consumption and for the planet. However, well-known Registered Dietitian and author of Sacred Cow, Diana Rodgers rebuts some of the arguments against meat in Eat-Lancet. She states a few critical thoughts to those planning to remove meat from their diets:

  • Ridding the world of animals for nutrition would not simply free up arable land for crop harvest—agricultural and animal land is not interchangeable.
  • You need grazing animals for a healthy grassland ecosystem, as their movement stimulates growth, and diversifies the soil microbiome which helps it to serve as a water and CO2 sink. In fact, 85% of grazing cattle land is land that cannot be cropped.
  • 90% of what cattle eat for feed is forage and plant leftovers that humans cannot eat, serving as upcycled food.
  • 50% of meat byproducts, such as the carcass, is used for other products like insulin, leather, footballs, and medical applications.

Overlooked Complexities

A climate-conscious diet is nuanced and complex as you can see from just looking at red meat. Even those with the best intentions may not understand its intricacies.

Let’s imagine a man hypothetically named “John” for a moment. John lives in California and loves the outdoors. He is passionate about the environment and is greatly concerned about his own carbon footprint. Because of this, he has opted for a vegetarian diet, often shaming his meat-eating friends for their “destructive” protein choices.

A few of John’s favorite locally-grown foods include avocados, peaches, almonds, and plums. Well-intentioned John may not know that these vegetarian options have their fair share of impact on the environment and that meat production is actually a massive opportunity for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction.

Let’s take avocados:

Delicious and nutrient-dense, avocados are a staggeringly popular fruit among vegetarian and vegan dieters. However, did you know that avocados are considered monoculture plants, meaning that they are typically grown on a single parcel of land each year?  

Monoculture crops are known to deplete soil because of a lack of biodiversity. Planting in the same place yearly strips nutrients from the earth, forcing farmers to use excess fertilizers to re-invigorate and restore soils for future plantings. While we know moderate fertilizer use can be sustainable, monoculture crops are generally worst for land degradation than polyculture crops.

Okay, well what about peaches?

Peaches are not the most environmentally destructive but John certainly did not realize just how large their water footprint is: it takes 109 gallons of water to make 1 pound of peaches. Peaches grown in areas with low-water reserves exacerbate water-shortage problems.

Almonds are a great treat!

They’re abundant in nutrients and energy-dense. But did you know it takes around 3.56 CO2e (Carbon dioxide equivalent) to produce 2.2 pounds of dry almonds? This is equal to a car driving about 8 and a half miles. Not to mention, it takes 1 to 3 gallons of water to just grow one almond, not including shelling and hulling.  

While the water footprint is high, almonds can have a very small carbon footprint if responsibly farmed. To offset almond’s overall impact, be sure to mix up your nut choices—cashews, peanuts and walnuts have significantly smaller water footprints.

Please don’t take this as advice to eliminate avocadoes, peaches, and almonds from your diet; our bodies need nutrient-dense produce and nuts like these every day!

These examples are to shed some light on the the understated complexities of the foods we eat. We simply do not have the technology to properly provide transparency at every step of the supply chain with every food product to determine its water use, land degradation deforestation, and soil health, and so on.

But we can use trends to direct us to a diet that considers these factors in addition to others, like nutrient density.

Well-Intentioned Dieters

Like John, many of us quickly determine foods to be “good” or “bad,” when the truth is we often don’t know the environmental impact of how a grower farms or a processor packages. We may trust a brand, a label, or a certification, but be cognizant that each food carries with it its own unique footprint.

The only way to stop any environmental impact would be to stop…eating.

But we would be remiss if we did not circle back on our meat discussion. John vilifies his carnivore counterparts for their “destructive” meat consumption. While we know beef a significant contributor GHGs solutions, cattle operations are actually a massive part of a large-scale solution for the reduction of GHGs.

Utilizing livestock for land management and cattle grazing to increase soil microbiome ultimately helps with carbon sequestration. Regenerative ranching can have vast positive effects on our land long term.

If meat is part of your regular and varied diet, be sure to include turkey or chicken as they often require less water, less feed, and less land.

And look into sustainable cattle operations and brands that are transparent with their growing methods and ones use third parties to certify their regenerative practices or partners—you can often find this information on a brand’s website.

For the reasons you just read, some vegans who seek fruits, nuts, and dairy as a primary source of protein and nutrients can actually have a higher carbon or water footprint than a flexitarian dieter who eats one serving of meat per day, and likely struggles to get in their full daily nutrient compliment without protein powder.

Let’s help John find some alternate climate-conscious food choices, shall we?

Climate-conscious foods

Here are a few foods that fall within this category. Of course, we are not suggesting we eat only the following foods. We recommend a varied diet both for your health as well as the health of the environment.

  • Grains like quinoa, farro, and oats are much less resource-intensive to produce. They require less water and land than other foods, and can generally withstand various weather conditions, helping to reduce food waste. They are easily transported and can be stored for long periods.
  • Beans, Pulses, and Lentils are debatably the most easily accessible, affordable, and sustainable foods. These require little water to produce and are natural nitrogen stores, meaning they store nitrogen in the soil for other plants to use—even after their life cycle. They also tend to be a fair source of protein.
  • Nuts & Seeds are great sources of protein. While some nuts have a high-water footprint, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts are less water-intensive and are also a great source of protein and healthy fats.
  • Mushrooms are incredibly versatile and have a very low environmental impact. Mushrooms are excellent at utilizing byproducts of other plants for nutrients to grow—upcycling crop byproducts to support their own growth by using them as natural fertilizers. Mushrooms use as little as 2 gallons per pound and contribute nominal CO2 emissions. Additionally, they are not land-intensive crops and can be grown close together in dark areas.
  • Seaweed is a very cool plant that is full of beneficial nutritional value. It does not require any fertilizers to grow, and it can retain and store high amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen which can help to improve soil run-off. Bonus: it grows faster than plants on land, thus helping decrease CO2.

Regenerative ag practices

We have written at length about regenerative agriculture and its expansive role in combatting climate change. Because it is protective of existing lands AND focuses on regeneration it is debatably the most important variable in climate-conscious eating.

Many growers and farmers are now dedicating their production strategies to focusing on regeneration and sustainability. FoodInsights reports that 19% of US farmers are farming regeneratively, with Rabobank reporting that 70% of US farmers have taken steps towards implementing sustainable agricultural practices.

Because regenerative agriculture works to pull carbon from the air into stores in the soil, it quite literally has the potential to help reverse climate change. Regenerative ag is also not reserved for just organic or conventional farming.

Its strategies can be applied across the board. Brands like General Mills, Danone, Kellogg, Cargill, and Nestle, among others, are investing in regenerative technologies to rebuild biodiversity and eliminate deforestation.

Only buy what you’re going to eat

Food waste is the most important consideration when thinking about climate-conscious eating. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates food waste is between 30 to 40% of the food supply nationally. They also state that 31% of food loss is at the retail and consumer level, equaling 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food.

Food waste occurs due to many reasons—spoilage, issues during drying, milling, or transporting, processing that exposes food to damage and equipment malfunction.

In some cases, it is actually due to consumers not properly understanding the differences between the “best by,” “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” labels. Some well-meaning consumers will toss perfectly good foods in an effort to avoid food-borne illnesses when they are actually tossing out something that is perfectly edible.

43% of our total food waste in the U.S. comes from homes, so it is our responsibility to help combat this. Some common sources of food waste include coffee, milk, apples, greens, bread, potatoes, and cooked pasta.

So be sure to make deliberate shopping lists to avoid overbuying and cooking too much. Freeze foods or share with others if they can keep for future consumption, and know how to read your labels so you avoid throwing out perfectly good food!

Genetically-modified and engineered foods

While genetically-modified technologies have existed for some time now, the last five years have shown us the reality of what feeding a growing population will look like…and it is hitting consumers in the face.

A consumer report from Mintel detailed that the acceptance of GM technologies is rising, and consumers are now leaning into biotech as a major solution for both climate change combatant strategies and feeding the world.

Consumer acceptance of GM technologies is critical in developed countries for purchasing choices, but even more vital, and quite frankly, life-saving for underdeveloped countries that rely on higher yields and pest-control technologies to produce enough food to feed their populations.

 

Between higher crop yields, higher farm profits, and in some cases, lower pesticide use, GM technologies contribute to economic, environmental, and health benefits.

Studies have also shown that GM crops help reduce GHG emissions by supporting carbon sequestration in the soil. This is done by facilitating reduced tillage, lowering the need to put more land under plow, and, in turn, prevents excess CO2 emissions from land use.

Now when you see a GMO label on foods, remind yourself that you are choosing a food that is helping the world, not hurting it.

Fertilizer Restrictions’ Unintended Consequences


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Want to fight climate change right now? Need to meet short-term targets for reductions in greenhouse gases? Then restrict applications of certain fertilizers. That should work…right?

Maybe. Maybe not. The jury is still out. Why? Because of the gap between theory and practice… the ideal and the reality… the noble aspiration and the unintended consequences. It could be that we are pushing ideas too soon and too fast. For instance, if we were to eliminate or drastically reduce fossil fuels before wind and solar are ready for prime time, we would be riding our bicycles to the grocery store to buy only locally-produced food, a particularly hard feat in the dead of winter.

Matching idealism with practical reality

Idealism is a powerful driver of a better world. But it works best only if married to worldly reality. The solutions we all seek for our ag system’s sustainability and responsible role in managing climate issues will take time and cooperation, not a rush to ill-considered magic-bullet thinking and win-lose confrontation.

We’re seeing evidence of that all around us. The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter, with annual sales of roughly $100 billion. But government officials are implementing controversial plans to mandate changes to farming practices to meet targeted reductions in nitrogen emissions and buy-out programs for lands that can’t meet specified targets.  Producers have been outspoken in their concerns about the implications of such controls on the future of the farming sector.

Better still, ask farmers in Sri Lanka about the 2021 flash-cut to organic farming. Without available practical options to replace commercial fertilizers, farmers faced draconian reductions in farm output – and farm income. Reduced production threatened food shortages and dramatic price increases.

The resulting unrest saw an estimated 300,000 protestors take to the streets, prompting violence and forcing a government literally to flee for its life.

A proposed reduction in some fertilizer use by the Canadian government brought a flurry of opposition from farming and trade interests across the middle of the country, where wheat and other crop production is the economic lifeblood of more than one province.

But an interesting fact is that the countries using the most fertilizer are not yet in the political crosshairs.

The driving idea is to embrace new ag production techniques that overcome the problems identified with traditional commercial fertilization. Too much fertilizer, haphazardly applied, more frequently and copiously than needed, can actually harm the soil, deplete it of essential nutritive properties, lead to the release of too much carbon from the soil into the air, and harm the watersheds. Everybody seems to know that – including the farm community, and the fertilizer and input industry that serves them.

Superficially, it sounds oh-so-reasonable. After all, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ag is supposed to account for about 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s substantially less than other sources, such as transportation (27%), electricity (25%), and industry (24%). The fertilizer industry alone is about 1.5%, mainly through using natural gas.

Finding the best balance point

Proper delivery of commercial fertilizers, such as precision farming, helps reduce these risks. It finds the optimal balance point between the use of costly inputs and the crop productivity that makes the difference between profit and loss for producers. The practical reality of farming is the existential need to operate profitably.

Many farmers already embrace sensible regulatory guidelines on fertilizer applications, such as those in Minnesota that spell out when and under what conditions nitrogen may be applied in fields. More broadly, producers are embracing soil-replenishing regenerative agricultural practices. It includes things such as expensive high-precision application equipment, sophisticated analysis of soil nutrient needs, and use of crops and cropping patterns that feed organic biomass back onto the soil to enrich it and make it healthier, among other practices. It means more minimum-till and no-till, and greater use of cover crops.

The roster of innovations and practical, real-world experimentation and data-based decisions expands every day – and not in a committee room or a lecture hall, but in the actual fields where the desire to do good and noble and rewarding things meets cold hard reality.

Also in reality, the key consideration is balance. Farmers aren’t indifferent to environmental issues. It’s more than a do-gooder syndrome. It’s recognition of their status as stewards of the land – people at the front lines of protecting and preserving the natural resources base that makes their lives and livelihoods possible. They want to do the right thing and are working like hell to find the optimal balance point in how to maximize productivity and protect the soil, water, and air that keep us all alive.

It’s simple: the world needs fertilizers to have a prayer of meeting the food needs of a growing world. It needs those fertilizers most in the parts of the world that can least afford them, and places where the alternatives to commercial fertilizers are most lacking.

The desired level of efficiency and productivity remains elusive in many parts of our world. It’s especially challenging in areas without the extensive investment needed to improve the availability of equipment and infrastructure essential to creating more biomass, or advancing education and support critical to higher productivity.

Is regenerative ag the same as organic farming?

Much of the support for mandated reductions in fertilizer applications is based on faith in alternative methods of delivering important plant nutrients. Proponents sometimes simplistically refer to this as greater reliance on ‘organic’ farming. After all, organic farming is predicated on avoiding the use of harmful chemicals.

Casual use of the term “organic’ may be a convenient shorthand for the idea of an environmentally friendly approach to food production. But is technically incorrect in this instance. ‘Organic’ farming is simply compliance with regulatory guidelines on the avoidance of a select group of chemicals in farming. It has nothing to do with the ecological effects of such practices.

In short, ‘organic’ farming is focused on how our food is produced, not the consequences of those practices on our environment – and most importantly, our soil. For instance, the yield per acre for organic corn, soybeans, and wheat is at least 40% less than its conventionally-grown counterpart. Which means, more land under plow to feed the world today. And all organic fertilizers are not manure-based. Organic farming is based on natural nutrients but many of them can be made synthetically.

The more recent thinking about innovative approaches to better fertilization practices is to focus on “regenerative” practices – the complex mix of crops, crop rotations, tillage practices, water use and other conservation practices that rehabilitate and renew topsoil. It focuses on making the soil work harder to provide its own necessary nutrients.

Regenerative agriculture encompasses a more holistic approach to the ultimate goal behind the fertilizer debate – which is building a sustainable food production system capable of meeting the rising demand for food – and especially plant proteins.

The world recognizes the need to take a new, bigger view of how fertilizers fit into the need for a kind of new Green Revolution. We’re moving to understand how to use fertilizers more wisely, and how to deliver critical soil nutrients more effectively and more sustainably. But the solution isn’t an either-or choice. It’s an “and” answer.

Commercial fertilizers, organic farming and the regenerative soil movement are partners in getting the absolute best from our existing natural resources, while actually enriching them in the process. They are partners not just in better management of carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions and best management of climate change. They are partners in feeding the world today and for future generations.

Even with aggressive implementation of soil-enriching practices and superior crop management practices, the responsible use of commercial fertilizers as a component of overall plant-nutrient management still promises to be the difference between failure and survival for many, many growers.

We’re only as healthy as our soil


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Did you know the nutrients you put in your body come directly from your food’s soil?  The healthier the soil, the more nutrients and greater density of vitamins and minerals in your food. You really are only as healthy as your soil—what crops “eat” can influence the nutrients on our own plates.

Dirt to Dinner believes that both conventional and organic farming have a place in our modern-day farming efforts to increase yields on existing land in order to feed a growing global population. That said, regenerative ag practices span all farming methods on both conventional and organic farms and may just be the key to healthy soils and even more nutritious foods.

If you’d like more information on what “regenerative” means, here is more detail.

It’s summertime, so let’s take a look at blueberries. Wild and freshly picked off the bush, these blueberries taste sweet and explode with flavor. In the wintertime, purchased in the grocery store, you run the risk of eating something that might taste like cardboard.

And the differences don’t stop with seasonality and taste: wild blueberries have higher minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and polyphenols, while their cultivated counterpart has higher iron and cadmium contents. Why the difference between the two types? The soil!

As we have previously written, soil is not just dirt. The world within the soil is more diverse than all the species in the Amazon rainforest. It is full of nutrients, minerals, microbiota, and fungi, just to name a few ingredients. All of these microorganisms work together to produce the nutrients that plants need to grow and that we need to stay healthy.

Studies have shown that regenerative agriculture is the best type of farming to enhance the nutrients in the soil. Regenerative farming practices reduce disturbances to the soil while nurturing its biology. These techniques include practices like no-till farming, the use of biodiverse cover crops, crop rotation methods, utilizing sustainable manure, and integrating livestock to support the life of the soil. What is especially great about regenerative agriculture is that farmers can tailor their practices to a specific crop, location and type of land, and water availability.

These farming practices have been shown to increase organic matter in the soil, reduce water evaporation, and improve water-holding capacity. Those benefits, in turn, help support carbon sequestration, reduce erosion, and, as we now know from a study published in Peer Journal, improve the nutritional profiles of crops and livestock grown on regenerative land.

Ultimately, healthy soil = nutrient-dense foods!

Conversely, unhealthy soil can produce foods lacking in nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

The Study

By examining eight pairs of regenerative and conventional farms across the US, researchers compared the nutritional content of food crops grown using the two different farming practices. The findings detailed that food produced on regenerative farms contained more magnesium, calcium, potassium, and zinc, as well as more phytochemicals and vitamins B1, B12, C, E, and K. This study supports the theory that what crops “eat” directly impacts its nutrition.

Participating farmers in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, Kansas, North Dakota, and Montana agreed to regeneratively grow one acre of peas, sorghum, corn, or soybeans. On a neighboring acre, the same crop was grown using conventional methods. Furthermore, one meat producer participated.

“Most notably, soil health appears to influence phytochemical levels in crops,” the authors write, “indicating that regenerative farming systems can enhance dietary levels of compounds known to reduce risk of various chronic diseases.”

The primary variable in this study was the farming technique—one that had been conventionally farmed for years, with the other applying regenerative practices. The study controlled for key variables given the adjacent plots of land, providing consistency with regard to weather, equipment, and soil type.

David Montgomery, professor of Earth and Space Science at the University of Washington, noted that regenerative practices yielded crops with more anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants across the board. He and Anne Bikle are co-authors of the newly released book, What Your Food Ate. Their book goes into great depth to show the correlation between soil health and human health, referencing many foundational studies that set the tone for this new research.

This research is compounded by many other studies, including nutrient density studies, density evaluation tools studies, research on where we get our nutrients, assessments of our current land and soil, soil health in various agricultural systems, and global soil resources.

Linking your health to soil

The links between soil, crop, and human health cannot be stressed enough. Consumers often don’t think of the source of their foods. For instance, when eating a spinach salad, most of us just think as far as the local grocer. But what about the storage facility that kept it refrigerated while waiting to be stocked at retail or the trucking company that transported it from the farm to the wholesaler? Or how about the farm that provided land and labor, the seed that gave the crop life, or all the way back to its life in the ground, the dirt…. the soil?  And while all the links in the supply chain play critical roles in keeping our expansive and complex food system functioning, it all starts with the soil.

We have written at length about the importance of your gut microbiome, a critical component of human health and debatably as crucial as your brain in keeping your body functioning. Let’s think of soil’s microbiome in the same way—a critical yet overlooked component in determining the nutrient density of our food. Healthy soil comprises millions of diverse microbes, including fungi, bacteria, and other compounds. As the newest Peer Journal study states, our school of thought should really be:

“It may be that one of our biggest levers for trying to combat the modern public health epidemic of chronic diseases is to rethink our diet, and not just what we eat, but how we grow it.”

It is easier to see the correlation between the soil and plants, but the study also revealed that the soil impacted the beef producer. The study found that the beef from the regenerative farm versus the conventional farm had three times more omega-3 fats, specifically, more than six times the amount of alpha-linolenic acid (an essential omega-3). The cattle grazing on the land had meat samples taken from both the regenerative and conventional farms. A comparison was made, showing the direct impact that the soil had on the cattle and, ultimately, the beef we will eat.

A solution for carbon sequestration

This research also revealed some environmental implications. With the threat of climate change growing with each passing year, there is a broad consensus that regenerative agriculture could be a scalable solution. Montgomery’s study noted that soil samples from the regenerative plots had twice as much carbon in the topsoil as well as a “soil health score” three times higher based on the USDA’s Haney test for soil health. Other studies also explored the overall soil health of regenerative ag vs. conventional and similarly concluded regenerative ag’s benefits to soil.

The figure above shows the distributions of soil health metrics for regenerative ag (in blue) and conventional ag (in red). SOM is the percentage of soil organic matter, followed by the Haney test scores, as well as the ratios of paired regenerative and conventional farms value for % soil organic matter and Haney test scores.

In the future, when you go to the grocery store, you will soon be able to see the nutrient density and environmental impact of your food. This will be a primary factor in consumer purchasing habits. According to New Nutrition Business, a food and nutrition consultancy, the concept of ‘nutrient-dense’ foods is being mentioned more in the US Dietary Guidelines than ever before.

Companies are also taking note, using farming practices as a marketing tool in selling their products. The appeal to consumers is growing, and thus, so is the prevalence of the value of healthy soil. We are sure to see this reflected in labeling down the road.

Getting consumers on board

It is not just the small operations applying regenerative ag practices on their farms; a few prominent companies are committing to regenerative farming partners for their supply, including PepsiCo, Walmart, General Mills, Unilever, Danone, Land O’Lakes, and Hormel, among others.

According to Mintel’s recent report, The Future of Food Sourcing & the Supply Chain, consumers will pay extra for farmers implementing environmental impact solutions, even in the current inflationary environment. When we did our survey on trusted sources, farmers were trusted along with scientists, healthcare professionals, and educators.

The challenge with soil is that it is hard to get the everyday consumer to think about it, let alone care about it. The hope is that with more prominent research like this, soil health, farming practices, and the nutrient density of your food choices will be top of mind the next time you are picking out your fruits, veggies, proteins or any unprocessed foods, for that matter.

Just remember, all your nutrients come from dirt, so the next time you reach for your blueberries, think: were these wild blueberries, picked off the vine, grown in nutrient-dense soil? Seek food grown regeneratively when possible, to get the most nutrients from your foods. After all, what you can consume each day is limited, so why not make the most of it.

Flying the friendly skies on green fuel

You put your household garbage in the trash. Just imagine that within a few years, that garbage will no longer just sit in a landfill; instead, it will be used to power the jet to take you on a business trip to London or on vacation to Tahiti. Or consider that the used cooking oil to make your french fries from McDonald’s will be collected, refined, and turned into Jet A fuel, the fuel all jet and turbine airplanes use.

And as you drive through America’s heartland, you see farmers in tractors planting soybean seeds, some of which will be used to fuel the airline industry.

Why is SAF so important in the drive for sustainability?

Commercial and transportation aircraft today use a lot of fossil fuels. A lot of fossil fuels.

Every single day, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration deals with more than 45,000 flights involving 5,400 aircraft and 2.9 million people. That’s more than 16 million flights annually, 10 million of them on scheduled airline flights. The airlines handle 12 million pounds of our supply chain each day as well. On a global scale, the numbers are even more impressive – 500 million passengers, riding in aircraft that can consume as much as a gallon of fuel every second. It sounds inefficient, but really because of the passenger load, a large plane like a 747 gets 100 miles per gallon per person.

In 2022, there were 28 million flights, most likely the amount will increase back to the pre-covid number of 40 million flights. A seat on a flight between New York and London emits about 1/10th of one’s annual emissions, around 1.65 tonnes of carbon dioxide. According to The Nature Conservancy, the average person in the U.S. emits about 16 tons.

“The average level of consumption for a new car is approximately 35 miles to the gallon, which means that in order to burn 18,000 gallons of fuel, which would be used in a single flight between New York and Europe, a car would have to travel more than a half-million miles.”

Simple Flying Editorial Team, May 9, 2021

Now, can you imagine flying through the sky and not adding any CO2 to the atmosphere? That could happen. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), also known as synthetic fuel or synfuel, is touted as the solution to the aviation industry’s contribution to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and ultimately holding back climate change.

A Big, Hairy Audacious Goal: The SAF Challenge

The Sustainable Aviation Grand Challenge led by The Department of Energy, The United States Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging enough production of SAF to:

  • Achieve a minimum of 50% reduction of GHG compared to aviation fuel
  • Supply at least 3 billion gallons of SAF by 2030
  • Replace all petroleum-based jet fuel, about 60 billion gallons a year, by 2050.

By using alternative feedstocks, SAF can reduce emissions between 40% to 80%.

The purpose is not only to reduce environmental impact but also to support energy independence, create jobs in agriculture, forestry, infrastructure, research and development and other areas where America already exceeds at production’

The global airline and transport aviation industry uses about 60 billion gallons of fuel per year. Pre-covid, 98 billion gallons were burned a year while transporting people and products around the globe. To replace just 10% at today’s usage would mean we need 6 billion gallons of SAF, globally. Where are we now?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is a trade association for 290 transportation and passenger carriers across 120 countries and represents 82% of total air traffic. In 2021, IATA estimated that the SAF industry made about 26 million gallons. This equates to…less than 1% of total global volume.

Even so, the industry seems optimistic and IATA states that airlines have about 3 billion in forward purchase agreements and at least 45 airlines now have experience with SAF. Markets and Markets projects SAF revenue to go from $219 million in 2021 to $15,716 million by 2030, at a very aggressive growth rate of 60.8% during the forecast period. But not every country can afford, or desires (think OPEC countries), to fill their planes with SAF. As shown in the chart, Europe, followed by the U.S., lead in creating the SAF demand.

Ideals and reality don’t always align – at least, not at first. As laudable as the purpose behind the SAF Challenge may be, several practical matters still require further attention.

For example, matters of reliability – and safety – need to be clarified, if only to reassure the flying public that the shift to SAF won’t endanger anyone. Consider the special composition of today’s jet fuel – Jet A — and remember that it didn’t come into being without a reason.

What is Jet A?

Jet A is the fuel that all airplanes use. All jet fuel must have good performance and be able to operate in all conditions. It is a particular mixture of gasoline and kerosene derived from the classic barrel of oil. It also contains a complicated combination of over two thousand chemicals and additives.

Of course, when you are flying at 25,000+ feet over the ground, or even 1,000 feet, you want to make sure the aviation fuel has just the perfect combination to fuel the flight. Jet and turbine engines are delicate machines that have been refined for eight decades. They won’t run on just any fuel formula. It must be clean enough so it won’t clog the engines, have a low freezing point for cold temperatures such as -65 F up in the Earth’s troposphere, contain an anti-icing additive, and high octane for fuel-efficiency.

What is the source of SAF’s Wonder Fuel?

It is called feedstock. And it can come from almost anywhere. There are three different generations of feedstocks available. The first generation is ready to go and the second and third will need better technology both to create SAF as well as to scale.

Some of these sources are incredibly hard to believe they could be burned as Jet A. A garbage bag full of old clothes? Yes, jet fuel and diesel can be made from household garbage. This amazing technology combines a gasification process and is converted into synthetic gas. This ‘syngas’ is then upgraded to a transportation fuel using a well-known technology developed in the 1920s called Fischer-Tropsch. Besides municipal waste, this technology is what converts agricultural residues and small woody crops.

But we have a long way to go before the technology can scale up to all the material in landfills. Right now, the focus is on dry biomass. The USDA  and the U.S. Department of Energy created a Billion-Ton Report that states that one billion tons of biomass can be collected sustainably each year to produce 50-60 billion gallons of low-carbon biofuels. Some of which will be used for the aviation industry. An added benefit to using dry biomass is the added revenue for farmers. It can increase income in rural America and support farming communities.

 

But The Sustainable Aviation Grand Challenge reignites the long-term debate about how we use our agricultural products. Should our enormous productive capacity be channeled to feeding people…or machines? Do our environmental concerns trump our obligation to feed a hungry world?

Can we do both?

Sustainability also applies to food security, not just environmental protection. Will crops used as a feedstock interfere with feeding animals and people? Because there is such a variety of feedstocks, the reliance will not be on just one. Having said that, right now, the technology available to scale is mostly in favor of oils from soybeans, canola, palm, as well as other agricultural residues.

Turbulence ahead: Sustainability Requirements

The glidepath to the SAF Challenge won’t be without headwinds and turbulence, either. It’s all about the life cycle analysis, meaning that the fuel must be sustainable over its entire lifecycle. Reducing emissions is the sustainability option that receives the most attention, but other considerations are legal, social, environmental, and managed planning.

For instance, especially in the developing world, is the feedstock made with paid labor? Does it interfere with their food? What about the environmental considerations?

Regarding plant feedstock, it is not enough just to say that the plant takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and the airplane puts it back while burning the fuel. That alone would be carbon neutral. But there is the fuel made to plant and harvest the crop, as well as transport and refine it into SAF. And, while plastic feedstock from landfills sounds very exciting, the fossil fuels to make the plastic contributes to more GHGs in the lifecycle than biomass’s carbon-neutral lifecycle.

Even so, compared to drilling, refining, and transporting oil, depending on the feedstock, SAF can save between 40% to 80% in emissions.

Right now, SAF is called a ‘drop-in’ fuel that is blended with Jet A to create up to a 50/50 ratio. It is called a ‘drop-in’ because at this maximum ratio no modifications need to be made to the engine or other components. However, most airlines and engines are currently approved to a 10% SAF mixture.

Who decides if SAF is safe to fly?

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International makes products safer and improves international standards to make goods easier to trade around the world. As one of the largest standards-development organizations in the world, it has established the criteria for the use of SAF and is relied on by the FAA for their testing requirements.

If the SAF is deemed equivalent to conventional jet fuel, then it is certified to drop in without any regulatory approvals.  If you are curious about the technical aspects of SAF, click here for the U.S. government review of the technical pathways.

It is expensive!

And then there’s the small issue of economics. Is SAF a realistic alternative in terms of cost – or just another greater expense waiting to contribute to ever-increasing inflation?

Expect more for your airline ticket. SAF can cost up to eight times more to produce than petroleum. But it can depend on the type of ‘fuel’ being converted. As of this writing, in the United States, the average retail cost of Jet A is $7.20 a gallon and the average SAF is $8.30. An extra $1.15 or $3.15 a gallon doesn’t seem like much, but if you are filling a Boeing 737 with 6,800 gallons of fuel, it will certainly force passengers to pay more.

On the KLM website, they state that SAF is two to three times more expensive. As a result, they are advising their passengers that they are adding a few euros to their ticket prices based on the distance. The benefit is that each passenger will reduce the CO2 emissions of their flight and contribute to SAF.

Like any new technology, government incentives help reduce the cost. The Low Carbon Fuel Standard in California is incentivizing fats, oils, and grease technology. In addition, the Department of Energy has a $250 million budget allocated to technologies associated with SAF. If incentives are not enough, governments might start taxing the ‘dirtier’ fuel.

Who is ready to fly and meet The Challenge?

Everyone. The FAA, USDA, EPA, trade associations, airlines, food processors, governments and airlines around the world, and the petroleum industry. Just to highlight a few:

  • The IATA is committed to net zero emissions by 2050. The association plans on achieving Fly Net Zero with 65% SAF, 13% new electric and hydrogen technology, 3% infrastructure and operation efficiencies, and 19% offsets and carbon capture.
  • Right now, Airlines for America, another trade association for U.S. airlines, has also approved SAF, but only up to 10% of a blend with Jet A.
  • Started in 2006, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) is a coalition of 450 U.S. and international aviation trade representatives, energy companies, universities, and NGOs. CAAFI encourages the use of alternative jet fuels to promote ‘energy security and environmental sustainability for aviation’.
  • As stated on its site, “Clean Skies for Tomorrow” is an initiative from the World Economic Forum that provides a crucial global mechanism for top executives and public leaders to align on a transition to sustainable aviation fuels as part of a meaningful and proactive pathway for the industry to achieve carbon-neutral flying.
  • The European Landscape is participating, as well.

What is next on the flight plan?

New technologies to make SAF work well are under development, but not yet ready for prime time. For example, hydrogen is a very promising replacement for electric batteries. Airbus plans to burn hydrogen in their engines for fuel within the next 15 years. The only byproduct here is water! Here is a chart by McKinsey of new fuels and propulsion technologies.

Before there are clear skies….

This ‘audacious goal’ still must answer a few questions before taking off:

  1. Can this fuel scale to the level of millions of gallons delivered throughout the world with a new supply infrastructure to the refiners?
  2. Is there a long-term food versus fuel debate?
  3. How long before production costs are in line or cheaper than petroleum?
  4. Will SAF always need government incentives?
  5. Right now, this is a ‘drop in’ fuel of up to 50%. What happens to engines after the 50% mark? Do they have to be rebuilt? What if you have an old engine and go to fill up with more than 50% SAF? Will airports need two different fueling systems?

Can genetically engineered salmon save the world?


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Disclaimer: Dirt to Dinner has no commercial interests or links to the organizations or enterprises we write about – only a desire to call attention to innovative approaches to dealing with challenges facing our food system.

We last spoke with AquaBounty President and CEO Sylvia Wulf and CCO David Melbourne in December 2020, just before Covid’s global eruption. Much has happened since then, including the announcement of the opening of a new facility in Ohio and the first distribution of their genetically engineered (“GE”) salmon into the market. We sat down with Sylvia and David again recently to talk about all that’s happened in the last two years.

The formation of genetically engineered salmon

Founded by Elliot Entis in the early 1990s, AquaBounty has been committed to manufacturing the first commercially produced GE salmon. However, the first salmon AquaBounty harvested in 2020 was conventional salmon, which was done to commercialize the Indiana farm before GE salmon eggs were stocked.

Their main facility is in Albany, Indiana – a 122,000-square-foot property that raises 1,200 metric tons of salmon each year. They’re currently sending head-on, gutted fish direct to customers and working with several processing partners who produce fillets required to fill customer orders.  But this will change when AquaBounty opens its new, first large-scale commercial salmon farm in Pioneer, Ohio in 2023.

Pioneer, Ohio groundbreaking event: Jason Robertson, CRB; Tim Derickson, JobsOhio; Lu Cooke, Governor’s office; Megan Hausch, WEDCO; David Kelly, Innovasea; Leonard Hubert, Senator Portman’s office; Sylvia Wulf, AquaBounty President and CEO; Sam White, CRB; and Ed Kidston, Pioneer Mayor. 

With this new facility, AquaBounty will fully manage the filleting process for the salmon. When they do, they’ll start looking for uses for the unused part of the fish, including composting. Pioneer will not only have RAS, or Recirculating Aquaculture System, technology but will also be close to AquaBounty’s major markets, continuing to allow it to generate  a lower carbon footprint than what we see in salmon produced overseas and flown in.

During the Covid shutdown, AquaBounty continued to grow their conventional fish, but the drop in demand created by closed restaurants helped drive up AquaBounty’s inventory. In response, Sylvia and David elected to donate the entire conventional harvest – about 52,000 pounds of fish – to food banks. The decision helped feed people during difficult times. It also provided time to test, learn, and refine their salmon harvesting techniques. These lessons paid off with the very first harvest of GE salmon that followed.

Exterior plans for Pioneer, Ohio facility. 

Sustainability and Technology

AquaBounty’s production method is also more sustainable and better for the environment than catching salmon from the ocean. Land-based harvesting has shown to be more sustainable long-term than harvests that rely on sea cages. AquaBounty salmon also has a lower carbon footprint since they’re not using air freight for distribution, and they use fewer natural resources since production is in a controlled environment.

The technology that AquaBounty uses allows for a more sustainable fish, as well. They use a recirculating aquaculture system (“RAS”), which means that the water is constantly recirculated, cleaned, and filtered, and then goes back out cleaner than when it came in. This not only allows for cleaner water but also uses less water since it’s recycled. The new farm in Pioneer, Ohio, will draw on the latest technology in RAS and will also give the company opportunities for green and renewable energy down the road.

RAS fish are different from other farmed fish because the clean, recycled water removes some unwanted matter from inside the fish. This helps give it the clean, mild flavor. The technology AquaBounty uses has also allowed them to better understand the fish’s microbiome and how it can be changed in the feeding regimen. The consumer can be assured a clean, nutritious fish that’s sustainably produced and will help meet the growing demand for seafood.

Who’s buying GE salmon?

Personally, I haven’t seen a “GE” label or “bioengineered” disclosure on any of the salmon in grocery stores, so where is this GE salmon going? AquaBounty says that its primary focus for distribution is currently on the foodservice channel, seafood distributors, and wholesalers. They’re currently selling all  of their GE salmon to distributors and wholesalers, and being the only company in their specific market, they’re selling out weekly.

So, are we unknowingly eating GE salmon at a restaurant? Maybe. Restaurants don’t have to disclose the source of their seafood offerings (Yes, it could be from a fish farm in China or any other lesser-traced supplier.) Nor do restaurants have to tell you that you’re eating AquaBounty salmon.  It is important to note, however, that the salmon AquaBounty sells to its customers is labeled as GE and contains the Bioengineered disclosure. Taste alone won’t help, either – GE salmon may even taste better than some of the salmon being served to us today.

What do consumers think?

AquaBounty conducted a survey in 2019 to find out what consumers think about GE salmon. The results: most consumers don’t even know what a GMO really is or what it means to be “genetically engineered.” Many consumers also said that they know they’re not supposed to like foods that have been genetically engineered, but they’re not sure why. Seventy percent of consumers said they had the intention to purchase this salmon.

The concern is not the ingredient profile but the environment. Some consumers worry that the GE salmon will escape from their indoor tanks and end up in the oceans and genetically mix with wild salmon. But AquaBounty is land-based, not ocean-based. Their fish swim in tanks with seven layers of containment, meaning the chances of the fish escaping are nearly impossible.

Environmental benefits aside, will consumers taste a difference? It’s not widely discussed, but land-based fish can often have a ‘muddy’ flavor that some consumers contend doesn’t taste ‘clean.’ AquaBounty doesn’t have this issue.

At harvest time, AquaBounty fish are removed from the grow-out tank (where they are fed and, well, grow), then placed in a clean-tank conditioning unit with fresh water.

For the next 12 to 14 days, the fish swim around in waste-free water. The result: a clean flavor: “Seafood that has a strong seafood flavor can be a turn-off to consumers, so people enjoy the mild flavor,” says Melbourne.

From a nutritional standpoint, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference either. AquaBounty GE salmon essentially has the same nutritional profile as other farmed salmon from Norway or the Atlantic Ocean. The only slight difference you may see is in the fat content. Farmed salmon, in general, is fattier than wild salmon, meaning it has a higher omega-3 concentration. And we want this omega 3 fatty acid in our diet for its myriad benefits.

However, it still is a very slight difference. In fact, when the FDA did their review of AquaBounty’s GE salmon, they found that it’s not any different at all than regular farmed salmon.

Why do we need companies like AquaBounty?

Our global population is growing at an alarming rate. By 2050, we’re expected to have a world population of up to 10 billion people; that’s a lot of mouths to feed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that it’ll take 60% more food to feed these extra two billion people.

The American Heart Association recommends that everyone eat seafood twice a week to lower the chances of developing diet-related illnesses, especially heart disease. Salmon is not only one of the most highly recommended kinds of seafood to consume, but it’s also already second in per capita consumption in the U.S., with shrimp being number one.

So, let’s do a little math here. If there are 10 billion people on the planet, and they all eat the recommended two servings of seafood per week, which would be 104 servings in a year, that’s over one trillion total servings per year. That’s a LOT of fish.

If people start eating the amount of seafood they need every week, where will we get it from? The oceans, rivers, and lakes are already overfished. We need innovations and new solutions; otherwise, there won’t be enough. This is the reason why AquaBounty does what it does.

We can’t shun or turn a blind eye to innovations and ways to grow or produce our food. Companies like AquaBounty will be the reason we have enough food to feed the world. We need new technologies and innovations to constantly keep up with growing demand through a myriad of solutions, without vilifying one another.

Forbidding genetically-engineered foods will not make the world healthier; it’ll just make it a less fed, more hungry, and food-insecure place.

What does the future hold for AquaBounty?

First, AquaBounty embraces e-commerce and wants to sell its fish directly to consumers. Through a sales channel like this, they will be able to sell more fish to the consumer, allowing them to build a relationship and learn how to engage the consumer with the product they’re providing. This includes educating the consumer on their product and the process.

An elevated look inside the planned Pioneer, Ohio facility. 

Sylvia and David also noted that the two things that the world sees as a negative actually helped AquaBounty – Covid-19 and climate change. They found that Covid allowed people to understand the benefits of biotechnology and its targeted way of solving challenges while also being safe and effective.

In terms of climate change, they found that people finally began to understand if we don’t think about our food and supply chain differently, we not only won’t be able to feed the world, but we definitely won’t be able to do it in a way that’s sustainable.

“We can’t eliminate the tools that will allow us to feed the world sustainably.”

– David Melbourne

There’s also a large opportunity for growth for AquaBounty. They’re looking at opening four to five more salmon farms in North America and possibly expanding to the Middle East and South America, as well. Will this allow the United States to hit pause on China, where we get the majority of our seafood?

AquaBounty also says there’s an opportunity for other species to be raised using this kind of technology — not genetically engineered per se, but with similar land-based RAS technology.

Two of these species include shrimp and tilapia. For shrimp, AquaBounty says it can apply its expertise in land-based farming and the understanding they have of biology and water technology to produce more sustainable shrimp.

If AquaBounty can farm tilapia like their land-based salmon, they can produce a more economical fish that’s produced locally and is safer than what we import from China.

As AquaBounty continues to grow and build more salmon farms, their technology will continue to improve. The capital costs will come down, making their GE salmon more attainable for consumer consumption and possibly less expensive than other fish we find in the grocery store. We can’t wait to see where the future takes AquaBounty.

FFA’s Kayla Rossi: Responsibly Managing Livestock

Kayla Rossi of the Soroco Future Farmers of America (“FFA”) Chapter in Colorado lives on her family’s cow/calf operation and developed an interest in the experience at an early age. She runs her livestock operation on roughly 100 acres of irrigated pastureland, raising cattle, sheep and goats. Kayla irrigates, fixes fences, drags meadows, monitors the livestock, and harvests hay. 

In 2021, she was the Future Farmers of America’s Entrepreneurship Winner for Diversified Livestock Production. To hear more about her operations and role at FFA, click here.

My life on the family farm

I am a fifth-generation rancher. My family began ranching in the early 1900s by owning a small herd of Hereford Cows and growing potatoes.

Progressing into the mid-1970s my grandpa and uncle worked in the local coal mine and managed summer yearlings, which eventually led to the building of our cow herd that we have today.

A cow/calf operation allows us to have a permanent herd while producing calves to sell later in the year.

Having a cow/calf operation allows us to make breeding decisions that are best for our location, learn the importance of delivering the calf, keep accurate records on the cows, calves, and bulls, and know when to wean our calves to prepare for selling them.

What’s the process of running such a large operation?

I run my sheep, goat, and cattle enterprises on 100 acres of irrigated pastureland from my dad. I can lease these 100 acres through a labor exchange agreement, as it’s part of the family-owned ranch.

At the beginning of my SAE [FFA’s supervised agricultural experience], my dad taught me proper management and husbandry skills.

This enabled me to become independent over the last two years to ensure my operation ran smoothly.

What kind of work goes into maintaining the farm?

To be successful in my SAE, it is my responsibility to uphold my labor exchange contract. This includes irrigating, which I do from mid-May to early September. I learned about water rights from my dad and grandpa and the local water commissioner. This gave me an understanding of how much water I must use and where I need to get it in the pasture.

My family begins harvesting hay in late July. It is my duty to run the racking tractor because I am the youngest and that is how everyone starts on the ranch.

I do know how to run other equipment, but my sole responsibility is raking hay.

Farming challenges & opportunities

What is the most challenging part of your job on the farm?

The most challenging part of my job is time management. Every day I have to focus on all enterprises, which can be troubling. The best way that I can overcome this problem is through recordkeeping.

Solid time management skills allow me to understand what is going on in my operation, what enterprise needs the most hours of work out of my day, and what animals need attention.

I have to ensure I am giving enough time to each of my different enterprises while maintaining the responsibilities of my labor exchange.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I love breeding and kidding, lambing, and calving all my livestock. I take pride in knowing that I can breed my livestock with the animals that I have, and I get to see the end result.

Lambing season is the first major event of my year in late January. This requires me to check my ewes every few hours, and I get the ewes to the lambing jugs in the barn if there are babies.

I lamb until late February. Then, I calve in mid-March.

I love calving because it has been my life since I was a little girl. I have learned a lot from living on our family-owned/operated cow/calf operation. Later, I kid in early June to give me some time from when calving season ends in late April.

Goats are hard to raise in the cold, so I try to do it in the beginning of summer. This is to ensure they live to the time I sell them.

What is the most rewarding part of your job on the farm?

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing all my hard work pay off. The biggest example was with my proficiency application. I applied for the Diversified Livestock Proficiency award at my state-level last February 2021.

This application allowed me to explain my operation through prompts. When announced as the Colorado state winner, I revised it to be sent to the National level. Little did I know that I would be announced as a National Finalist in this area in August of 2021. I prepared for the interview that would allow me to show my knowledge of my operation.

At the 94th National FFA Convention and Expo, my Diversified Livestock Proficiency was announced as the National Winner. I was filled with excitement.

This taught me that while the work may be challenging, I know I am finding success at a job well done.

Creating the path for growth

What is an example of a regenerative practice that you’ve instituted at your operation? 

A particular regenerative practice that I have implemented in the livestock operation involves integrating livestock and crops.

In the spring, garrison grass begins to grow. I put cows out to graze the grass prior to irrigation. Grazing before irrigation reduces the amount of garrison grass that matures.

What is your best piece of advice for young people looking to focus their careers in farming?

The best piece of advice that I can give young people looking to focus their careers in farming is to not give up during the hard times. There are many days that agriculturists face where life seems to not be going their way, especially during droughts. However, the FFA has taught me to not give up because the rising sun symbol introduces a new day in agriculture.

Jupiter Ridge: Regenerative Stewards of the Land


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Nestled on a bluff atop a 1,200-foot-high ridge in Iowa, surrounded by dense forest, Jupiter Ridge Farm is an ideal landscape for growing all types of mushrooms, vegetables, and perennial flowers.

The Importance of Regenerative Agriculture

Will and Adrian farm on land leased to them by the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). The land was donated to SILT by Steve Beaumont (on far right in above photo). To farm here, Jupiter Ridge – and all SILT farmers and ranchers – are required to have third-party certification to affirm that their agricultural practices are regeneratively grown.

For Jupiter Ridge, this means applying environmentally-responsible growing methods, like healthy soil building, cover cropping, crop rotation, compost amending, using all-natural fertilizers, and minimizing chemical use for pesticides.

These measures ensure that their farming practices give back to the land in some way. As Will explains, they are only temporary stewards for this land, and they will eventually pass it along to another farmer. It is critical that their operation continues to improve the soil, making sure it is full of nutrients and microbes.

It’s important to note that the term, “regenerative agriculture”, does not have any globally definitive guidelines that state whether one operation is effectively regenerative or not.

But operations like Jupiter Ridge use these farming practices to make real and lasting changes.

When we asked Will and Adrian why regenerative ag was important to them, they did not hesitate in their response:

“We are honored to be able to grow whole, healthful food for our community while ensuring the sustenance of those who eat it, but also the health of the land it came from.

We have always felt a ‘beyond organic’ spirit when it comes to farming, taking it a step further and always making sure we’re putting life and health back into the soil after every crop.”

– Will Lorentzen, Adrian White

By cover cropping and crop rotation, Jupiter Ridge re-injects micronutrients back into the soil. Rather than ripping up the root system after every harvest, rotational planting allows them to nourish the soil with a variety of new nutrients. Furthermore, cover cropping provides protection against soil erosion, maintains healthy topsoil, suppresses weeds, and deter pests.

This promotes biodiversity and ultimately reduces soil compaction, allowing for better CO2 sequestration in the root system.

Regenerative Ag Practices

At Jupiter Ridge, Will and Adrian don’t just farm mushrooms, they also grow a variety of vegetables and perennial flowers. They believe this not only promotes soil health but encourages large pollinator habitats on the native prairie lands to thrive and expand.  Will explains that by applying regenerative farming practices like planting perennials, it can increase biodiversity, and ultimately serves as a tool on the farm.

“If there is wildlife flourishing around our farm every year — monarch butterflies, beneficial pollinators, pest predators — then we feel we’ve done a good job, too.”

– Adrian White

 “If you look at studies and research, the health of the soil is directly tied to the actual health of the plant foods that grow in it. Abundant soil life is critical for adequate nutrient uptake into fruits, vegetables, etc.”

Will continued, adding that with soil health comes flexibility, explaining that resilient soil allows them to keep their products and production methods varied. Healthy soil increases water absorption to protect against droughts.  This flexibility, he says, is imperative in an ever-changing world.

One of the coolest things to see on the farm are the tangible results of these efforts: when farmers help the land, the land then helps farmers.

“We had a pest problem take care of itself this year with no needed actions taken from us because of the flourishing perennial environment. Soldier beetles that thrive in the surrounding prairies fed on the pest and took care of the job! If we didn’t grow sustainably or regeneratively, this wouldn’t have happened,” Adrian White commented.

Measuring the Success of their Hard Work

While the most formal method of measuring success in regenerative ag is to measure carbon sequestration, Jupiter Ridge has identified other ways to realize the effects of its regenerative practices. With carbon sequestration measurements not yet scalable and mainstream, Jupiter Ridge measures their increased yields, decreased inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, as well as increased resiliency of the crop — like in the example of the soldier beetles.

“The subjective feedback we get is from our customers. Returning customers, chefs, and CSA members say it all—they want more of the quality food we grow, which keeps them coming back. If people are pleased with the quality, beauty, and flavor of the food we grow, then we feel we’ve grown regenerative food very effectively.”

“We also use responsible forestry techniques to source the logs for our shiitake and other mushroom production. We also use things from off the waste stream as much as possible.

We’re also planting more and more perennial crops each year that require less maintenance and tillage. Some of our practices are sustainability requirements in our one-of-a-kind land lease with SILT and encourage good soil erosion prevention techniques.”

 Challenges and Misperceptions to the Operation

Farming regeneratively does not come without its challenges. Will and Adrian both note that the timing and terminating of their cover crops is difficult. Furthermore, perennial crops are expensive when they are not sold. He points out that growing regeneratively demands labor, time, and investment.

“Even if people can charge more for regenerative to compensate for their labor and time, the process of making a considerable profit margin is far more challenging than most other businesses.”

While Will and Adrian don’t think that any misperceptions exist at this early stage in regenerative ag, they want people to know that it is more than a buzzword. It is a way of connecting eco-friendly farming practices to climate change and soil health.  This, they believe, is another incredible and impactful step in the sustainable movement to better our world.

But so much of what goes on at a farm is invisible to the consumer, leaving many of us out of touch. That’s why Jupiter Ridge supports ongoing traceability efforts and believes the best way to know where your food comes from is to shop local. An added benefit? Regenerative operations are often started without immediate financial rewards, so shopping directly from the farm helps to offset these financial burdens.

Trading Carbon and Talking Plants


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Over the holiday break, my family was lucky enough to escape Omicron and go to the Virgin Islands. Some of us went diving a few times. On our various dives, we saw a wreck from 1867, colorful coral fish, barracuda, a shark, and even an octopus.

Afterward, as we sat on the beach with cold drinks, we enjoyed looking at the crystal blue water and the sailboats bobbing up and down. I thought to myself, if you didn’t spend time underwater, you would never understand what was beneath the seemingly benign surface.

The same can be said for soil.

As you drive or fly over the countryside, you’ll see picturesque farms and beautiful landscapes. And underneath, there is a dynamic, ever-changing microbial environment that affects our health and the Earth’s environment. The world of soil that supports everything green – including 95% of our food– is just as hidden as the abandoned ships and fish beneath the waves.

And just like ocean life, soil is critical to our future. Healthy soil has a tremendous benefit besides growing our food: it efficiently stores carbon, cleans our water, and give us the nutrients we need in our food.

Saving the soil for future generations

As a civilization, we have degraded our soils up to 10 times the rate of rebuilding. Since we have been farming the prairies, the Nature Conservatory reports that the U.S. has lost about 60% of its original organic carbon content in the soil. In the days of the buffalo, the United States had 18 inches in topsoil; today, on average, there is around eight inches. Future generations are facing climate change, nutrition security, and soil degradation.

Yet all is not lost. It is ironic that as we search for a climate change solution, we also urgently need to save our soil. The challenge today is to produce more food for more people with less land under plow with degraded soils, using less water and fewer energy resources. Soil carbon sequestration seems to be an answer for both.

In a previous D2D post, we addressed trading carbon credits between those who emit carbon and those who sequester carbon. According to Carbon Credit Capital, a company that matches carbon emissions with carbon capture programs, the average American emits about 20 tons of carbon each year, equivalent to driving 48,000 miles in a car. To find your carbon emissions, the EPA has a household carbon footprint calculator.

As a solution to climate change, farmers and ranchers are encouraged to measure the carbon they are pulling out of the air and storing in the ground as they grow their crops. They can sell this carbon in the form of a carbon credit.

In a quick search online, I found a couple of examples, one being Truterra, a farmer-driven sustainability platform. They work with farmers to evaluate carbon sequestering practices and match those who believe in the power of ‘farm-to-form’ and are looking to buy carbon credits. Indigo Ag contracts carbon agreements with farmers and identifies buyers to sell credits.

We wondered: What does all this additional carbon do to the soil?

Carbon’s critical role with soil

Carbon is present in every living thing – and it has helped the Earth thrive for the past 3.5 billion years. Plants and trees need CO2.

Someone once told me that our food system is just the commercialization of photosynthesis. Plants absorb sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2), and water (H2O) to create their own energy.

Plants release the oxygen back into the air (luckily for us, as we need it to breathe). The water absorbed by leaves acts as a transport system to bring carbon down through the leaves to the roots and then into the soil.

Looking underneath the surface, you need a microscope to see the diversity of life. There are more organisms in a single teaspoon of healthy soil than people on our planet!

Soil is full of minerals, organic material, living organisms, gas, and water. One could call it the Earth’s brain, teeming with algae, fungi, nematodes, and bacteria that all merge together to give the plants nutrients.

CO2 is the nutrient that gets pulled down through the roots – a liquid carbon pathway. Plants convert this to sugars which feed the microbiome. The more food the plant provides to the microbiome, the more prolific the root system.

Plants and their microbiome have a symbiotic partnership that enables both to thrive. The plants feed the microbes in the soil. In return, the microbes in the soil feed the plants, much as our gut hosts the individual variety of microbiomes that give us antibodies to fight illness.

Each plant hosts their unique microbial community that surrounds its roots. This is called the rhizosphere – an area looking much like an old-fashioned hairnet, holding 100 times more microbes than in the surrounding soil. It is one of the most biodiverse and dynamic habitats on earth!

Part of the rhizosphere’s community is the mycorrhizal fungi. They increase the amount of space in the soil where the plant can take up nutrients and water.

Carbon as plant food

The more carbon a plant has, the more carbon it pulls out of the air. Carbon helps feed the microbes that keep plants healthy. Basically, the plants ‘pour’ carbon in the form of carbohydrate-rich exudates into the rhizosphere and the surrounding community of mycorrhizal fungi.

Plants and mycorrhizal fungi have had a relationship for 475 million years, working together to influence the Earth’s biosphere.

This partnership can reduce CO2 levels by 90%.

The higher the chlorophyll content in the leaf, the higher the rate of photosynthesis, the more carbon pulled out of the air, and the more mycorrhizal fungi. And so the cycle continues.

The plants then feed the beneficial microbes. The exude is a blend of amino acids, vitamins, and phytochemicals. The microbes hungrily consume this cocktail of nutrients. In return, these microbes protect and defend the plant from pathogens wanting to take them down.

As David Montgomery and Anne Bikle so eloquently explain in their book, The Hidden Half of Nature:

“Plants can’t run or hide but they have defensive strategies such as botanical swords (thorns) and shields (waxy leaf cuticles). Microbial recruits do the job below ground, taking on the role of palace guards to protect their botanical ally. Imagine a plant’s root system as a castle in an underground landscape harboring microbial bandits and invaders.

In this way, plants use carbohydrates (and other compounds) that only they can make to attract and build a community of microbial bodyguards that displace, deter, or take our microbial enemies.

Did you know the carbon in soil enables plants and trees to communicate with each other? As we learned, carbon increases the microbial community. The mycorrhizal fungi can move through the soil and deliver phosphorus to areas of scarcity, letting fungi receive carbon.

This allows plants to have their own secret language through 100 different chemical signals among the microbes in the rhizosphere. They warn each other about pests and fungi so they can put up a protective defense.

What type of farming best suits carbon sequestration?

In part, sequestering carbon is why regenerative agriculture has shown such success to both the plants and the soil. Certainly, pulling carbon out of the air and into the soil is the most efficient way to sequester carbon.

But another entry point for carbon to make its way into the soil is through no-till agriculture. By not turning over the soil with a plow, the organic material remains on the surface, protects the soil from blowing away, and helps it to absorb water. As it decays into the ground, it produces carbon as a nutrient for the soil.

Regenerative agriculture also includes planting cover crops to keep the soil safely covered from erosion and to maintain a living root system in the soil to provide adequate carbon nutrition levels for the hungry microbial communities. Farmers also rotate their crops each year which increases plant and microbial diversity in the soil.

Gabe Brown, a prominent regenerative farmer from North Dakota has increased the carbon and the yield on his farm. You can see the carbon increase as he layered in cover crops, diverse crops, and livestock.

This brings to mind what Dave Albert, from Misty Mountain Farms, said when he drives by his neighbor’s farms, “You can tell a farm has unhealthy soil when there is a lot of mud on the road after a rain — a sign that the soil quality has deteriorated so much that it simply just washes away.”

The agricultural system is a marvel – and the future of our society.

Solving the riddle of climate change – and defining the role of healthy soil in that solution – won’t come about by the efforts of any single government agency, global company, or the efforts of just one person. All have a role to play, certainly. But a solution will come about through a collaborative and cooperative effort across every part of our modern food chain.

How can we help?

The farmer is the foundation for that work. The people who are farming today are on the front lines in combating climate and nutritional deficiencies in the soil. What is done on the farm or ranch to enrich soil (and to protect our air and water) make up the building blocks of the solution. Farming and the ag community are both a positive influence to improve global warming, as well as ensure nutrition for our plants and us.

Your part in helping farmers capitalize on their carbon sequestration is to look at carbon credits to help offset your carbon emissions. McKinsey estimates that in 2020, buyers retired carbon credits for about 95 million tons of CO2. By 2030, they predict the annual demand could go up to 1.5 to 2.0 gigatons of carbon. Or, put another way, the market could be between $20-50 billion.

This is one more situation where we can unite around food. Governments, businesses, and consumers can encourage the efforts made by farmers by rewarding responsible soil-health practices. It is both individual efforts and collaborative achievement that gives us the most modern and efficient food system in history. We got there as a united country.

We’ve got questions for you, 2022…

Dear D2D Readers,

We have rounded the corner of the New Year. While we don’t have a crystal ball, we are curious about what the future will hold for food and agriculture as it continues to innovate with new technologies, advances in scientific discoveries, and better information along the value chain from the farmer to the consumer.

Governments and companies are changing the way we address food security, the environment, and consumer health. At D2D, we have covered some of these subjects previously but are now looking harder at how the future will be shaped by those who grow, trade, process, and consume food.

Here are the key questions we see shaping agriculture and our food system in 2022. We’ve included a few links to our previous posts to provide some background information on these topics, but only by exploring ideas can we find meaningful solutions to these challenging questions.

Geopolitical: Trade

What are the trade implications of Xi and Putin, leaders who are looking for homogamy, to expand their borders through military presence as well as social and economic pressure? What does that mean for tariffs, trade, and agribusiness overall? What food and agriculture imports and exports with the United States prevent them from going too far?

As countries expand their reach to acquire cornerstone commodities such as energy, food, and rare minerals, what will be the U.S. and European response? Are sanctions enough?

What does food security mean for China and the rest of the world?

What does agriculture look like in a communist, socialist, and democratic country? What works and what doesn’t? What lessons can we learn from Venezuela?

What does the United States trade? What are the interesting storylines with imports and exports?  What happens in those different markets?

What role does the FDA and USDA play? What does the consumer need from government regulators?

Climate & Agriculture

How can we sustainably feed the world without expanding agriculture’s footprint?

The cattle industry is under attack for emitting methane. What innovations will continue to improve feed digestibility and methane digesters for cattle and dairy?  What is the role of cattle for grasslands and soil?

Will carbon become a new currency? Will the consumer be trading carbon credits? Will the farmer benefit from sequestering carbon in their fields? What are the economic implications along the entire food value chain – from dirt to dinner?

Will regenerative agriculture scale to make a meaningful difference in creating and building up our soil? Can large-scale farming truly sequester carbon?

How will our understanding of the soil and human gut microbiome give us better farming practices as well as nutritional health?

How are the Environmental, Social, and Governance goals of companies changing how food is grown? What are the implications to both the farmer and the consumer?

How soon will rural America have access to stronger internet, such as broadband?

Consumers: Health & Nutrition

Which companies reward their employees to make the connection between the food they eat and health care costs? By focusing on employee and family food plans, which companies have alleviated short-term sick days and long-term illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer?

What advances in genetics will help scientists and doctors tailor nutrition for individual needs?

Will food continue to unite us culturally and individually or simply become another means of highlighting our different agendas and interests?

What does the future hold for the alternative protein industry? Will they continue to be adopted by the consumer?  Will they significantly displace dairy, poultry, beef, and pork? Will the consumer adopt them wholeheartedly or will people eat a mix of proteins? Which countries have the most innovation and acceptance?

What will the aquaculture industry look like? Will the consumer demand more transparency on imported, wild-caught, or farmed fish?

Consumers want to know where their food comes from. What advancements will be made regarding food traceability? Blockchain, DNA testing, and sensors for animal traceability are just a few of the technologies that will bring full disclosure to the consumer.

How can the food system shape and create a healthy narrative for the consumer? Which companies are taking the lead in creating healthy and ‘good for you’ foods that can be found in the center of the grocery aisle?

Home delivery is not just the milkman or your favorite Instacart shopper. What are creative and innovative delivery solutions for both groceries and take-out meals?

What are you particularly concerned about as we move into 2022? Write to us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com to add in your own ideas!

FFA’s Nicholas Mello: The Importance of Seed Science

Nicholas Mello of California’s Hanford Future Farmers of America (FFA) Chapter is a finalist in the Agriscience Research–Plant Systems Proficiency field. Plant systems proficiency…what does this mean, exactly? Nick conducted research at Zonneveld Dairies, comparing the yield per acre of three different hybrid corn seed varieties planted on 95 acres each to determine the highest yielding variety.

Nick learned that nearby Zonneveld Dairies was interested in investing in higher yield producing corn seed variety to feed their dairy cattle. Mello developed and designed this experiment to ensure that each seed had the same acreage and grew under the same conditions. Dirt to Dinner had the opportunity to communicate with Nick about his experiment’s findings and his FFA experience.

Want to learn more about Nick’s research? Check out his video here.

Defining Research Objectives

Describe your Agriscience research experiment in detail for our readers—how did you develop the idea, what problem were you trying to solve, and how did you go about achieving results?

My agriscience research experiment compared three hybrid corn seed varieties based upon the yield they produce. These hybrid corn seeds are being used for silage for Zonneveld Dairies. I compared 3 branded hybrid seeds: Dekalb 67-44, Masters Choice 6522, and Croplan Genetics S5700. These seeds were selected based upon their similar and outstanding characteristics to grow in the Central Valley conditions, such as high heat and drought.

The goal of my experiment was to find which hybrid corn seed variety would produce the greatest yield to help the farmer generate more revenues and help Zonneveld save money in feed and make more money by providing the cows starch to produce more milk for dairy cow feed.

I hypothesized that out of the hybrid seeds, the Dekalb 67-44 seed would produce the most yield per acre due to its size and coating. I separated each seed into three 95-acre fields, totaling 285 acres of experimental land. I collaborated with DeKalb agronomists and 3D’s Family Farming about crop management, irrigation scheduling, and fertilizer management.

I then prepared the ground of each 95-acre field by ripping the soil in the fields, two passes of disking to break down the soil to be soft, then furrowing the ground into rows, and pre-irrigating the land so the soil has moisture for planting. I then planted the seeds at 34-35 thousand per acre.

We waited till the corn sprouted to begin soil compaction and injection of UN-32 fertilizer. After this, I irrigated the corn with 3D’s Family Farming and maintained the corn with fertilizer. Our goal was to reach 300 units of UN-32. I maintained the corn till it was a hard dent and was at peak starch. Starch is the nutrient that will allow the dairy cow to produce more milk.

Danell Custom Chopping came to harvest the corn, where I recorded the weight of the trucks and silage to find the total amount of yield. Masters Choice 6522 produced the most yield at just over 32 tons per acre, Croplan Genetics produced just under 31 tons per acre, and Dekalb 67-44 produced 28 tons per acre, going against my hypothesis.

Why this experiment? Have you always been interested in seed technology?

What got me into this experiment and interested in hybrid corn seed varieties is from working at 3D’s Family Farming. I work in the summer there as a tractor mechanic and operator. When I ran this experiment, my father, who normally furrows and does groundwork, had to take time off because he had surgery on his thyroid to remove cancer. Another worker also had to take time off. This opened the opportunity to step up and gain responsibility in the business and gain knowledge in farming.

When I found out that Zonneveld wanted to plant different hybrid corn seeds for silage, that sparked my interest in hybrid corn seed varieties. I collaborated with Dekalb Agronomists Barbra Kutzner, Pete Lain, Robert Fahey, and Jacob Lehar, who provided expertise on both hybrid corn seeds and crop management.

Crop Tech’s Future in Soil…and Beyond

This is such an exciting field that seems to be constantly evolving and innovating. How do you see seed technology advancing in the future?

I see technology evolving to make better crops that will hopefully help continue to fix the problems we face in agriculture. Agriculture has made a lot of advancements in technology and machinery. I can see technology evolving further in that field, as well as with hybrid crops and GMOs.

I believe technology in hybrids and GMOs will allow agriculture to produce more crops with fewer resources such as water, fertilizer, or other crop inputs such as potassium and phosphorus. This is especially true in California where water is scarce and creates more yield with less ground to feed a growing population.

Looking ahead to 2050, where there will be more mouths to feed, what do you think is the key to feeding this growing population? And why?

Advancements in modified crops and machinery will be vital in providing for this ever-increasing population. Maybe crops can be modified to require fewer resources such as water and nutrients from the solid but still produce more yield or crop.

This modification would allow for more production and may even allow our ground to last longer because the crops will take fewer nutrients from the ground. This modification in the crop can also enable more resources to be used elsewhere around the world or in agriculture.

Machinery advancements are needed to make agriculture more efficient in the production aspect of groundwork such as disking, ripping, furrowing, crop maintenance such as injection rigs and spray rigs and harvesting such as choppers, and also the repair and maintenance part of agriculture as well. Parts need to become more accessible for repair and maintenance.

These advancements will allow agriculture production to be faster, possibly allowing farmers to double-crop their land to produce more. This will also minimize the downtime lost when a tractor or implementation breaks.

These advancements with crops requiring fewer resources while producing greater yield and improving crop efficiency via machinery will allow agriculture to keep up with the growing population.

A Vast Array of Careers in Ag

We love to share about the diversity of career opportunities in the ag space. We know farmers and ranchers are just one piece of an enormous ag puzzle. Where do you see yourself in the ag field in the future? And why?

I can see myself in the agronomy field of agriculture as a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) or research agronomist to continue experimentation and also try to find new ways to help agriculture.

I am currently pursuing a biology degree at UC Merced, focusing on ecology to use in the agriculture field. My dream job would be either a research agronomist or CCA because a research agronomist does similar actions such as my experimentation and also tries to find new ways to help agriculture.

I want to make a change in agriculture and try and solve one of the many problems agriculture is facing. I would also enjoy being a CCA as it helps farmers with their crops and production.

I would enjoy both of those careers because they are both involved in science which is my favorite subject, and understanding plant science and the interaction of plants with the soil and the environment is crucial for agriculture.

If you could advise other young people interested in seed science or agriculture in general, what would it be?

My advice to other young people interested in seed science is that it’s complex but exciting. Don’t let the complexity of genetics steer you away because this is a field of research that will be needed in agriculture to help solve the problems that agriculture is facing.
My advice for young people interested in agriculture is that it isn’t just farming and animals. There are so many aspects to it, and I’m sure one may have your interest for a career.

Also, don’t believe all the stereotypes and bad things in the media about agriculture because a lot of it isn’t true, and it just gets generalized over all of agriculture. The best thing to do is to actually get involved in agriculture through classes, FFA, or even working in an agricultural job.

By being involved, you learn the true experience and knowledge of what agriculture is all about. I would like to also say that although agriculture seems to be frowned upon by many, please remember that we eat, have shelter, clothing, other jobs, and actually survive because of agriculture because everything depends on it.

Gratitude and Community Building with Farming

Many of our regular readers are farmers. Is there anything you would like to leave them with – a piece of advice? Something to consider? A call to action?

I would like to tell farmers please don’t give up even if times are rough because everyone depends on you to feed them and provide resources. Although I understand you don’t always get thanks or appreciation, I know that I appreciate agriculture. I know I’m not the only one and know that a whole community is out there supporting you.

I would also like to say to farmers that many kids are willing to go into agriculture in this future generation, but not enough for the future of agriculture.

I would like to ask that farmers and any agriculturalist who listen please try to draw in the younger generation’s attention to agriculture and don’t try to push them away from it.

My family tried to warn me of the hardships of agriculture as if trying to push me away, but I found my roots there and am happy I did. Agriculturalists can reach the younger generations through FFA, agricultural advisors, and a big one is social media. Use social media to try and draw their attention to truly understand the different aspects of agriculture, which may help them find their passion by holding events or tours of agricultural business and destroy these stereotypes of agriculture.

Let’s try to get the younger generation into agriculture for the world’s future, but also have them understand that agriculture isn’t just farming, dairies, and cattle, but so much more and a great big community that is more than happy to teach anyone that decides to explore agriculture.

How Is Ag Helping Battle Climate Change?

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When President Joe Biden announced his goal of making the United States carbon neutral by 2050, a lot of eyes immediately turned to the agricultural sector.

After all, farming and ranching accounts for about 38 percent of land usage worldwide – more than 12.4 billion acres – with the land in the United States alone using about 44% in some form of agriculture and food production. Farming and ranching have big carbon footprints, certainly.

But the good news is that crops produced every day on this land also draw carbon from the air and store it in the earth, helping offset greenhouse gas emissions and regenerating healthy soil. The cattle on the range help enrich the soil, which grow the grasses that sequester carbon. In fact, we need carbon for our plants and trees to grow, giving ag a promising opportunity to help battle climate change through practices that will reduce costs, improve yields and boost profits on the farm.

A Solution – Carbon Trading

Here is how it works. Those businesses that emit carbon will buy carbon credits from those who sequester carbon, avoid carbon, or capture emissions. In the case of agriculture, a farmer naturally pulls carbon out of the air just by growing crops or raising cattle on the range.

Let’s say a corn farmer with 1,000 acres wants to participate in this program. The conversion is approximately 0.5 tonnes of carbon per acre, but it depends on whether the farmer utilized no-till, reduced fertilizer, restores wetlands, plants, trees, etc. They would sell their carbon credits to a broker who would then sell it to a company, such as Microsoft, or an individual who emitted carbon and wants to offset it.

What’s the story behind carbon sequestration?

The overall effort is referred to as “carbon sequestration” – a systematic approach to expanding on-farm efforts to lock carbon in the soil through better farming practices. No-till and low-till farming, use of cover crops, smart crop rotation, expanded plantings of perennials, rotation of cropping, and animal grazing all contribute to keeping or pulling carbon into the ground and out of the atmosphere. The result: less of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that many scientists say too much promotes rising global temperatures.

Today, more and more farmers and ranchers are embracing the idea of carbon sequestration, both as a responsible environmental practice and a means of improving their own economic sustainability. The government, various academic institutions, and some important private enterprises are establishing practical methods of measuring the results of on-farm carbon sequestration efforts and building an effective marketplace to establish a value for their results.

The challenge here will be to ensure a verification process that works for each farm in each state with different types of farming practices and soil health.

But the benefits to farmers and society don’t end with reduced CO2. Science also shows that these practices are important to the entire “regenerative agriculture” movement, which seeks to promote an improved and sustainable approach to generating and maintaining the healthy, vital soil needed to feed this and future generations.

It all remains very much a work in progress, but the initial efforts have proven highly appealing to the farm community and all others with an interest in a better environmental future.

A recent study by the University of Missouri’s Division of Applied Science found very encouraging results of efforts to date. Rising food production levels over recent decades have indeed raised the overall greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, the study found. But expanded use of cover crops, no-till, and other carbon-capturing techniques have helped fuel a decline in the per-unit emissions for both crops and beef. In plain English, “we are producing more units of food at less greenhouse-gas emission per unit of food than before,” according to authors Ray Massey and Cammy Willett.

Analysis done at the 2015 Paris climate conference contended that even a small increase in the levels of carbon in soil would have a major environmental benefit.  Called the “4 per 1000” initiative, scientists argued that increasing soil carbon by just 0.4 percent annually would offset an entire year’s increase in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel emissions.

What’s the Value of Sequestered Carbon?

Carbon sequestration in agriculture is in many respects an extension of a well-established environmental principle encompassing energy, industrial and other sectors. As far back as 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sought to reduce the emission of sulfur gas – and resulting “acid rain” — from coal-fired power plants.

Credits for reduced emissions helped spur the needed transition to more environmentally friendly practices – and helped usher in the idea of a marketplace for these “carbon credits.” The industry could use these credits to offset actual emissions, in effect buying time to make costly changes while still advancing the larger goal of lowering harmful emissions.

A “carbon credit” typically represents one metric ton of CO2. The prices paid for carbon credits vary widely, based upon the industry or sector involved and changing market factors. A carbon credit within agriculture currently is in the range of $30 per metric ton and remains fluid as more and more organizations enter the marketplace.

There is a question as to what the price has to be in order for the farmer to make a profit after incorporating some sequestering practices. It could be as high as $35 per ton. Studies on the subject provide varying estimates of just how much carbon can be sequestered per acre, depending upon the production techniques employed, soil types, water conditions, and numerous other factors. One study found no-till alone could sequester an average of 0.3 metric tons per acre per year – or roughly an extra $10 for every acre of cropland.

Sounds great. So what’s the problem?

Part of the challenge facing the carbon sequestration efforts rests in the sheer complexity of the task.

The first challenge is to collect enough data to deliver precise result metrics. The effectiveness of carbon sequestration in farming varies by several factors — soil types, soil health, climate conditions, water presence, to name a few. Fine-tuning the analytical process demands extensive data collection and careful analysis by agronomic experts. That work will be critical to developing a better understanding of the most effective practices in each production area or individual farming situation.

But an aggressive effort on that front is already underway across many leading universities and private institutions. Coupled with advances in data analysis services available to farmers, this work promises to help refine the assessment process and lower the costs of current expensive analysis.

Another big task is the development and refinement of carbon credit markets.  How will farmers and ranchers be rewarded for their success in locking away more and more of the carbon blamed for climate change?

As with any new economic phenomenon, the emergence of carbon markets has produced what may seem to be a complex and fragmented marketplace.

The government, private enterprise, and opportunistic market players all seem to be working to create markets attractive to producers, while Congress and the Biden Administration continue to wrangle over the development of comprehensive and cohesive policies and regulations for a major agricultural economic frontier. Amid all the discussion and debate, Economist J. David Aiken of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln calls the current environment “the wild, wild west.”

One major market has emerged for industries subject to stringent environmental regulations. The coal-fired energy plants that once dominated energy production helped pave the way for the development of the markets needed to buy carbon credits.

Today, energy, chemical production, waste management, forestry and lumbering, industrial manufacturing interests, and other non-agricultural enterprises actively seek to purchase carbon credits, most often through private agreements.

Efforts by the Obama Administration in the wake of the Kyoto climate accord to develop the Chicago Climate Exchange showed the difficulties that come with such an ambitious undertaking. The exchange sought to create a market for greenhouse gas credits but died amid congressional opposition to the Obama approach to GHG regulation.

Legislation to create a carbon bank through the U.S. Department of Agriculture remains before Congress, with bipartisan support from farm-state and other legislators with a genuine concern about climate change and the positive role to be played by the agricultural sector in dealing with it. Progress in advancing the bill, however, remains complicated by the larger political logjam regarding legislation deemed by political leaders as having higher national priority.

Many private and commercial entities have entered the market space, seeking to develop networks of producers willing to help build the needed data banks in exchange for financial payments based on acceptable measurement standards and techniques.

The challenge will be for companies to add up all their carbon emissions and figure out how much they need to offset with a carbon credit. This will be a time-consuming and arduous process. Economists like Aiken predict dramatic growth in these “voluntary carbon markets,” citing the work of Stephen Donofrio at Forest Trends, who projects growth of 1,500 percent by 2030 for them.  McKinsey predicts a $50 billion market by 2030.

What comes next?

The role of carbon sequestration within U.S. agriculture is increasing – but the road ahead will be long and winding.

A large part of the frustratingly slow pace can be traced directly to Washington, D.C., and more specifically, Capitol Hill. Clear direction in the form of agreed policies, standards, and regulatory guidelines would do much to advance the adoption of the environmentally friendly practices important to dealing with the climate change challenge.

But there’s good news, despite the frustration with Washington. The agricultural sector isn’t waiting for D.C. legislators and bureaucrats to find the answers needed for a climate solution.

Farmers and ranchers recognize the value of exactly the practices at the core of carbon sequestration – and the broader set of practices that contribute to soil health and comprehensive regenerative agriculture. Environmentally smart practices already are part of the production and land stewardship approach taken by farmers today. Creation of carbon markets will serve to speed and expand adoption of such practices. Not to mention offer another income source for farmers.

The farming and ranching community already is one of the most environmentally aware and committed sectors of our society.  Its members know that responsible environmental practices aren’t just the right thing to do but the smart thing to do as well. They know we all have a role to play in dealing with the climate change that threatens all of us. And they know that these practices can have a major positive effect on their own economic survival, beyond an additional income stream.

Soil sequestration practices cut costs. Over time, they enhance yields. And maybe most important in an era of rising costs and smaller margins, they mean a stronger bottom line — and their own operational sustainability.  

The Gabels: From Wall Street to little Grassy Creek


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Farming is more than a business to people like Sandy and Laura Gabel. Sure, the money side of the farm is important. Very important. It takes money to run a 1,000-acre cow-calf operation anywhere, and it’s no different here in central North Carolina.

The cost of farming operations

Currently, little Grassy Creek has about 100 cows and 95 calves split among two herds. Separately, they have 17 replacement heifers (future moms, 3 bulls, and 2 or 3 feeders (cows on feed for harvesting). They all need shade from the summer sun and shelter from the winter winds, and of course careful monitoring for proper nutrition needs and overall health. Then there’s the cost of managing the artificial insemination program that produces healthy animals, as well as animals of the right type for this environment and with the ideal developmental traits.

Vet bills have to be considered, as is the cost of genetic specialists for upgrading the herd over the long term. Probiotic regimens that aid digestion and nutrient absorption also must be thought through. There’s always a need for some new machinery, or an addition to the storage barns, or improvements to the water storage and distribution system. But thinking and planning are just the first part of the job of raising cattle.

Some piece of equipment always seems to need maintenance or repair. The temporary fences that define different grazing areas have to be moved every day, and posts replaced when an ambitious cow decides to expand her horizons.

Fixed fences that define the farm boundaries need mending, and some surrounding scrubland will make good pasture when it’s cleared. Existing grasses and ground covers need to be managed constantly to preserve productivity.

Here, no-till and other soil-protecting practices are the long-held norms, not some new idea or government dictate.

The herds have to be patiently shepherded from one grazing area to the next, and the temporary wire fences (none barbed, ever) relocated. And there always seems to be a few calves that need that little something extra to thrive – special food, special medication, or just plain old special personal attention.

Then there are the other animals that seem to have accumulated since it all started here in the early 2000s. Seven horses, including a couple of rescues. Alpacas Max and Ziggy – another rescue story.

Chickens and guineas, and of course the German shepherd pup Shadow and big sister golden retriever Lynka curled up quietly in front of the iron stove in the corner.

From 5:30 a.m. till well after everyone else has gone to bed, there’s something that needs to be done. Something else that needs to be considered. Some new idea to think about, or some potential problem to head off.

Longing for longer days

“You never get everything done,” Sandy says in passing, with Laura nodding energetically in agreement.

Why would anyone give up a successful three-decade career in the high-flying world of the New York insurance industry for a life like this? What makes the bucolic world of cattle-raising in the rural mid-South more appealing than a life on Wall Street? In Laura’s case, why pass up the prominent career in education she enjoyed? Why trade all that for this?

“No, it’s a lot more than money,” says Sandy, in what soon proves to be his usual measured, quiet and reflective voice. “It’s more about finding something that gives real satisfaction.” He continues,

“Maybe satisfaction isn’t exactly the right word. This is passion.

As sincere as his answer obviously is, it seems a little hard to accept – at first. But spend a day with Sandy and Laura, and you quickly recognize they probably have nailed it exactly right. It’s not just a chance to make a living. It’s a chance to actually live.

Sandy and I ride one of his well-worn ATVs for a quick tour of the farm, and an introduction to the cows and calves that wander slowly and quietly around us, like a rising tide of brownish-red Herefords. “We should have 110 moms, come September,” he observes as we ride among this particular herd. He sounds surprisingly like a proud parent.

“I’m really a grass farmer,” Sandy jokes as we ride. “I spend so much time thinking about what grass to plant, how to get it to grow, how to make sure it will stay productive. Grass is everything for an operation like this.”

We all seem to be so very – content. The sky is bright Carolina blue, the lush grass Sandy manages so carefully is so green that Ireland would be envious. The air is rich with the smell of nature. “You see the beauty of this every day, everywhere,” Sandy says in passing, almost under his breath. “In the animals. In the land. In everything.” On this day at least, God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.

“How can anyone not be moved by this – at least a little?” Sandy just smiles, the corner of his mouth turned up ever so slightly at the visitor’s revelation of what he discovered long ago. “The word you’re looking for is serenity,” he says. And he is absolutely right.

Creating new roots

The die for this special kind of life probably was cast very early in life. Sandy’s father was another successful businessman who grew up on a farm outside New York – not a play farm but a real working farm, with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and more.

Even as Sandy’s father toiled at his career in the Big Apple, he also enjoyed the farm life on his own special North Carolina retreat, not all that far from where we sit today. Farming is in this family’s genes.

Graduating from nearby Duke University also probably played a role in Sandy’s decision-making. The growing Raleigh metropolitan area long ago swallowed up the old family farm that gave the family so much satisfaction. But proceeds from its sale provided the seeds for little Grassy Creek Farm between the state capital and the Virginia border. Initially, the land needed a lot of patient work to restore its productivity, “and to clear out a hundred years of accumulated garbage,” Sandy remembers.

The farm has grown steadily over the years, in size and sophistication, and so has the satisfaction that it provides. So what’s the secret, the magic formula for making the demanding world of cattle raising so satisfying?

“Our goal isn’t to maximize profits,” Sandy says over a cup of hot tea after our farm tour. “We probably could make more money selling specialized beef products to some of the local markets. I might even make more money planting some pastureland to specialty hays for the horse-feed market. But that’s not our big objective.”

The obvious follow-up question: what is?

“To leave something for the future…a sustainable farm for the future… something important… something worthwhile.” Sandy and Laura say the same things, almost in unison.

We’re trying to build up an operation for our kids and future generations, they explain. We want to leave behind a farm that is built around doing the right thing in every aspect of our operation. In how we treat the cows. How we protect the land and the water. In finding better ways to produce beef, and do it in a way that works best for all of us, from the animal to the farmer to the consumer. In making farming an appealing way of doing something important in the world and finding joy in doing it.

“People today simply don’t understand our agricultural system,” Sandy says. “They take it for granted. They need to see how modern farming is important to all of us, and the whole world around us. To our common future.”

Laura agrees completely. “I think it’s fun to have people come out to the farm and just walk around and look at what goes on here,” she says.

“Giving folks a chance to ask questions gives children – and adults, too, for that matter – is the best way I can think of to teach them about what we do.”

On-site visits may be the best way to educate people, but it’s far from the only way.

“I’ve started posting a few short videos on our farm Facebook page that show some of the tasks that go on around here,” she adds. “There’s one with Sandy baling round bales, and there’s one with Sandy feeding the replacement heifers.

You can hear him telling them ‘good morning’ which is something he always does – and that’s one reason why our herd is so settled and docile. Sandy’s out there every day among them, and it makes a difference.”

When Sandy and Laura say things like that, it doesn’t sound idealistic, and certainly not corny. These are people who don’t just say things like “do the right thing” and “leave something lasting for everyone.” They mean it. They live it.

And after a too-short day with them, I see that they are right. And I know I should want to, too.

Serving Up Sustainability at Fast Food Restaurants


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According to the CDC, 36% of Americans eat fast food daily. That’s almost 90 million people going to a fast-food restaurant every single day. And most have three items: chicken/hamburger/salad, a drink, and fries.

That’s well over 286 million individual wrappings, cups, straws, and clamshells thrown away day after day.

The 325,000 total fast-food locations across the U.S. present a massive opportunity to curb waste and boost sustainability efforts based on the sheer scale of fast-food chains. And the opportunity extends far deeper when you consider the effects these companies have on their supply chains to practice these efforts.

Whether it is Starbucks testing out an entirely plant-based menu, McDonald’s trialing a plastic-free concept store, Subway changing the companies they source their ingredients from, KFC pledging that all consumer-facing plastic packaging will be recoverable by 2025, or Taco Bell committing to make all of its packaging compostable and recyclable, each of these businesses is leading the way in their industry’s sustainability efforts.

These initiatives are honorable and necessary to combat our growing environmental crisis, but we are left with some questions:

  • Will the consumer be willing to pay more for sustainability?
  • What practices actually work to reduce their carbon footprint and decrease waste and pollution?
  • Furthermore, which third-party companies regulate these “green” claims?  Or are they internally regulated? If so, do we trust that internal oversight?

But first…will we pay more for less waste? 

It is a mixed bag. A Nielsen study from October 2015 showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to shell out more money for sustainable goods. Of those global consumers, millennials rank the highest in support of sustainability and willingness to pay with an overwhelming 73% on board.

A 2018 analysis from Statista supports this claim, detailing which age groups are willing to pay more, and even went so far as to break out how much more they are willing to pay.

A recent survey by GreenPrint found that nearly 64% of consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, but almost 75% of them struggle with how to identify these products.

How do they know what they are getting is more sustainable? A challenge many fast-food companies are looking to solve.

But do these polls convert to actual shopping behaviors? The brand giant, Unilever, found that while about 4 out of 5 people say they are inclined to buy from environmentally-friendly companies, consumers don’t actually follow through with their wallets.

Other studies show a consistent gap between purchase intentions and behaviors. Despite polling about environmental concerns and reported positive attitudes of consumers towards green products, it is estimated still that only about 25% of those attitudes translate into spending. Consumer cognitive dissonance will always be a challenge with data gathering and polling biases.

The question is who bears the cost of innovation in sustainable packaging until enough volume is achieved to be competitive with existing packaging? Is it the producer? The fast-food restaurants? The consumer? What is the inelastic price point where the consumer just won’t pay more for sustainable food? Would consumers pay 10 cents more per burger at McDonald’s to help share the cost of sustainability? For instance, McDonald’s sells 2.36 billion burgers every year. That would bring an additional $236 million in “sustainability” sales.

What methods of “green” packaging really make a difference in the fast-food world?

The Dogwood Alliance recently detailed a best-practices roadmap for “greening” fast-food packaging. It said that environmental stakeholders must make sustainability a corporate priority and this starts from the ground up. Foundational steps include embracing corporate leadership on sustainability, using a full life-cycle supply-chain approach, reducing overall packaging, and increasing efficiency.

As you drill down past the foundational level, the next tier requires that fast-food companies increase their usage of recycled and/or biodegradable fibers, work to eliminate paper originating from controversial forestry practices, increase in-store recycling and recovery, eliminate toxic inks and labels, and change the composition, weight, and size of its packaging.

Fast-food companies have taken note and have mirrored sustainability efforts after these key principles, rather than arbitrarily creating a set of their own green goals.

But here I am, an educated consumer left with one overwhelming question in my head…

How in the world am I going to figure out if the fast-food companies I choose to enjoy actually follow these standards?

Fear not: there’s a website that will do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Green Restaurant Association tracks businesses and measures food companies based on their environmental footprint, ethical workplace practices, animal welfare commitments, product safety, and marketing strategies to children.

Who is regulating these green initiatives?

Many small brands turn to organizations like Climate Neutral, Foundation Myclimate, and Global Ecolabelling Network for their stamp of approval.

However, not all companies operate or seek to be wholly verified by a third party, especially the big guys. McDonald’s and PepsiCo, for example (the latter owns KFC and Taco Bell), have crafted internal policies to address green initiatives and environmental efforts.

These companies have made similar statements, claiming to work towards the conservation of natural resources, recycling, pollution control, and the pursuit of alternative oils that can be repurposed. While these green plans appear robust and thoughtful, is internal governance enough for consumers to trust that these initiatives really are being put in place?

Good governance is critical to managing our impact on the world. Our governance structures help us to prioritize ESG issues effectively and guide our actions and performance across issues. Engagement with our Board of Directors, cross-functional leadership teams and working groups, and Franchisees and suppliers ensures we have robust governance mechanisms in place to manage these issues and can deliver long-term value for stakeholders.

— excerpt from McDonald’s Purpose and Impact statement

While internal governance is critical, it is not the only means of approvals and certifications that big chains use to provide consumer trust and verification. They may not work with regulatory bodies that can put a stamp on an entire organization. But most of them do, in fact, work with a rigorous group of organizations at an ingredient level to ensure they are meeting and/or exceeding the requirements for their sustainability goals.

What about sustainable food ingredients? 

The influence fast-food restaurants have on overall sustainability is tremendous. Holding their suppliers accountable has far-reaching benefits as many of their producers also sell to grocery store chains. Fast food companies are now answering questions. Where does the meat come from? Is it grown humanely? Is chocolate or coffee grown with fair labor practices? How do we know?

We spoke with Christy Johnson, former Vice President at Papa John’s International Inc., who shared some insights as to how they make “better ingredients, better pizza.” Johnson explained that while there is no overarching regulatory body, they partner with organizations such as the Whole Wheat Council to ensure that their crust is 90% whole grain, and with the Clean Label Project for their toppings so they comply with their regulations. Papa John’s even went so far as to remove 14 ingredients back in 2016 that were not up to the standards of these partners.

While this might mean Papa John’s spends more than $100 million each year to ensure that they are implementing and maintaining these clean label changes, it also offers an avenue of trust for the consumer.

“Papa John’s attempts to always be fully transparent—sharing data and information with the consumer about how and where ingredients are sourced, as well as the mechanisms for ensuring the best quality is imperative for consumer trust.”

– Christy Johnson, Former Vice President at Papa John’s

How to present meaningful data that’s impactful for the consumer

Nicolas Brosens, Strategic Sourcing Officer at McDonald’s, turned the idea of internal regulation on its head, explaining that it is less about the consumer-facing regulatory stamps and data than it is about true transparency and traceability initiatives. McDonald’s is currently working to create a network on their website where consumers can eventually type in an ingredient or menu item and see where it came from, how it is treated, what the environmental impact is, and so on, as verified by their farming partners, processors, etc.

McDonald’s has long been a leader in the sustainability space, and it continues to be at the forefront of sourcing, packaging, and general renewables. As it turns out, McDonald’s, and most large fast-food companies, have a slew of data points on various sustainable measures, sourcing information, green analytics, and more. It is not a matter of having the data; it is a matter of figuring out how to present that data in a meaningful and impactful way to the consumer.

As in the case of Papa John’s, many certifications are held at an ingredient level. McDonald’s shares a similar model, with ethical sourcing as a critical part of their overall sustainability strategy. They have partnered with organizations like RSPCA, FARM, Forest Stewardship Council, PEFCTM, Conservation International, RSPO, ProTerra, RTRS, GRSB, AIM-Progress, and others to help them regulate and monitor the traceability of all ingredients, including ingredients in their livestock feed products.

Coffee is another industry where certification comes into play with regulation. Brosens stated that all coffee and coffee beans in the EU are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, while other regional McDonald’s work with the Fair Trade Organization — deforestation being a massive component of their green strategy.

While the efforts being made by many fast-food chains are progressive and impactful, this does not mean that all fast-food chains are as committed to going green. It is also important to note that many of these companies are in the inception stage and have set goals of five, ten, fifteen years from now till the next impact measure.

Here is a list of a few companies and their environmental strategies and/or sustainability reports so you can make an informed decision on where your next drive-thru order will come from!

                        McDonald’s  |  Papa Johns  |  Taco Bell  |  Panera                                                                           Starbucks  |  KFC  |  Chick-fil-A                                                 

7 Things to Know about Indoor Farming


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I walk into my local grocery store, grab one of the wet wipes to sanitize my cart, and head to the produce section. I pick up some strawberries and raspberries for my smoothies; celery and carrots for my afternoon snacks; and some butter lettuce…but wait, where is the kale?

It takes me a moment to scan the area, wondering where they could have moved it, and then I see it: a glowing, light-filled series of shelves filled with greenery interspersed with dill and parsley and all kinds of other herbs – and they all appear to have their roots still intact.

As I take a closer look, I read the signs: 

“We believe your herbs should not have to travel more than you have” and “By keeping the roots on, we keep all the flavor and goodness” and “We’re growing herbs in-store using 95% less water.”

I pause for a moment, considering the other items already in my cart…

My carrots, celery, and butter lettuce don’t have the roots on them, and they have had to travel across many states to get in my cart.

Does that make them less nutritious? Or worse for the environment? Or less flavorful?

Infarm, the company behind the installation in the grocery store, combined indoor farming with the “internet of things” technologies — to create a controlled ecosystem with an optimal amount of light, air, and nutrients. While considered a vertical farm, this type of farm falls within the larger umbrella of a group of farming techniques called Controlled Environment Ag (CEA). This includes greenhouses, indoor farms, and vertical farms that apply a combination of engineering, plant science, and computer-managed technologies to optimize growing systems.

As it turns out, there is a lot to know about this field of farming…

1. You can grow almost anything using Controlled Environment Ag

Did you know that 90% of our U.S. retail grocery tomatoes are grown indoors? There are more tomatoes grown indoors than flowers! There’s been a remarkable shift from just 20 years ago when that number was closer to 5-10%. Indoor agriculture employs a series of hydroponic technologies to grow almost anything.

When I spoke with Joe Swartz, Vice President at American Hydroponics, he explained that:

“CEA can grow just about anything, the technology is there. You can grow a banana tree if you’d like, but you must look at it as a matter of economics. Leafy greens and produce like tomatoes are more prominent not because that is the only thing you can grow but because it allows you to maximize space. These are also crops that can be sold at a market premium, that consumers will pay more for, for higher quality — such as tomatoes.”

Leafy greens, however, are the real growth driver here. About 90% of our leafy greens are still grown in fields, but over the next few years, market trends suggest that we will see that number shift to CEA.

More than 21 million pounds of lettuce is consumed in the U.S. every day, and while the amount of lettuce we consume has not changed significantly in recent years, where it’s coming from will. This is said to be the most significant opportunity in the indoor growing space. As of 2020, that translates to about 74 acres of operational vertical farmland in the world. About 41,000 indoor farms exist in the U.S. alone, from large to small operations.

2. The location of greenhouses and indoor growing facilities is critical

Gotham Greens is a well-known greenhouse situated on a rooftop in Brooklyn. I never stopped to consider that the location was anything but an available space with sunlight. The truth is, a ton of strategic planning goes into indoor farming location selection. The key considerations are how best to use waste energy. Heat, wind, air conditioning, electricity — these are all vital components of any indoor farming operation.

Neal Parikh, former VP of Capital Markets and Corporate Development at BrightFarms Inc. and current Managing Member at Lattice Impact Partners, explained that tapping into alternative energies is paramount to cost savings and sustainable efforts.

For example, greenhouse farms like Gotham Greens can harness rainwater from rooftops to reuse for irrigation. CEA locations near landfills can make use of the waste methane – these types of locations are considered co-generation facilities, in other words, facilities nearby that generate an energy source that the indoor farm needs. Locations near factories can take advantage of the waste heat or CO2 that they need to farm. This carbon capture or carbon sequestration from neighboring businesses saves time, money, and energy while reducing labor.

Another consideration, as the Infarm ads I saw in the grocery store suggest, is that farmers want their production location to be as close to their distributors (or grocery stores) as possible, to cut down on complications caused by traveling long distances. As both Neal and Joe pointed out, certain crops must travel long distances to be affordable, but there is an opportunity in indoor farming to bring producers closer to the end customer. To feed a growing population, we must include all kinds of farming as options for consumers.

3. Food safety is a top priority

As we’ve all seen in the news from time to time, leafy greens are the most vulnerable to food safety issues. The latest E. coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce have still left some worry in our minds. This is because leafy greens are produced and processed in such mass quantities that it is often hard to trace an outbreak. In CEA, E. coli, for example, can be traced back to one batch of romaine to isolate the incident quickly and accurately. Additionally, indoor farming allows for variables like animal waste contamination to be controlled and eliminated.

Between Yuma, Arizona and the Salinas Valley in California, these areas produce over 98% of the lettuce grown in the U.S. What greenhouses and indoor farms can provide, and all CEA for that matter, is a detailed tracing and inventory system, which makes pinpointing a specific batch more manageable than any other method of farming.

The CEA industry also upholds a rigorous standard for food safety, regulated by the CEA Food Safety Coalition. One of the first standards they formalized was standards for leafy greens.

4. Helping with climate change and population growth

CEA addresses many of the same environmental impacts that conventional or organic farming is addressing—but takes it one step further. We know the population is growing and estimates say we will reach upwards of 10 billion by 2050. This type of growth causes an imbalance in food demand and supply. Indoor farmers believe (and we agree!) that we need to embrace all kinds of farming methods and technologies to feed our growing world.

Controlling climate variables is much easier indoors than outdoors. With the technology of indoor agriculture, farmers can customize the temperatures, light exposures, CO2 intake, and more, for each plant they grow. As discussed earlier, conserving natural resources and upcycling waste heat is another chief benefit of CEA.

5. There are many challenges associated with CEA

CEA is a double-edged sword. One of the biggest hurdles, and debatably the reason why the indoor ag space is not more prominent, is that the initial investments in space and technology are immense.

Global Indoor Farming Technology Market Trends

As Joe Swartz alluded to earlier, profitability is a concern when it comes to crop selection and what to grow. There must be enough demand for the crop that a consumer will pay a higher price for a plant grown with controlled inputs.

In addition to the steep initial investments, operating costs are also astronomical. Producing sunlight, oxygen, air conditioning, and water filtration systems are no small line items. These challenges not only make it arduous to start a CEA, but hinder profitability in the short term – and if not run efficiently – in the long term.

The consumer-facing debate is that CEA is not considered organic because it is not grown in soil, therefore they cannot label as such. Supporters of indoor organics say that organic food is more about pesticide use (or lack thereof) than being grown from soil. This debate continues, making it difficult to land on an enticing marketing strategy for foods grown indoors. (We say conventional, organic, or CEA – each option is nutritious and should be available for the consumer to choose from!)

6. There is no magic to indoor ag; it takes hard work, just like traditional farming

Just like row cropping, indoor ag requires the same inputs—air, nutrients, sunlight, CO2, water. Furthermore, the technical acumen required for these operations is steep. The difference is that these inputs are produced inside, artificially, rather than naturally.

This requires specialized machinery, multi-faceted hydroponic technologies, and smart picking and packing systems. The development and implementation of hardware and software can be likened to the occupational knowledge of farming equipment in the field. Labor is also needed, as it is with organic or conventional farming.

While the methods are different, the result is the same: safe, good-for-you foods.

7. Vertical farming is not a new concept 

Vertical farming—a thing of the future! Well, not exactly. Automated greenhouses actually started popping up in the 1980s. Millions of dollars were invested in large greenhouses in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The technology was sold to the consumer as “by the 1990s, all of your food will be grown in a greenhouse mega farm!” Well, that never happened.

Robotic greenhouses and lettuce factories sprouted up thanks to a significant generation of public interest, which led to a fair degree of investment. Unfortunately, the technologies failed miserably. They were not market-ready, affordable products. This lack of demand led to closures. It took over 20 years to regain both consumer trust and substantial enough investments in the industry.

The good news is that technologies now exist to make vertical farming not only possible but economical.

Saving Our Soil…One Billion Microbes at a Time

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

The Dirt

Soil microbes are hard to see and understand, yet we know that they have a significant impact on plant health, your health, and the Earth’s health. New microbial research and technologies are beginning to change how we understand and direct the soil microbiome to increase soil fertility and plant health, which then help our understanding of your microbiome.


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Pouring algae on the soil, sequencing soil DNA, and measuring soil diversity are just a few of the new technologies used to keep our soil from becoming just ‘dirt’. And it seems as though diversity is the key. When I hold a teaspoon of healthy soil in my hand I squint and try to see the billions of microbes. Apparently, in this little amount there are more microbes than all 7.8 billion people on earth today. This handful has greater diversity than all the animals and insects in the Amazon Rainforest. This is a powerful group made even more exciting when you think they originated from our celestial bodies.

Since the beginning of time, these soil microorganisms are fungi, insects, bacteria, algae, and more than happily coexist in the soil. They control soil pathogens, reduce disease outbreaks, keep plants nutritious and resilient, give plants the power to pull carbon out of the air, make land less prone to wind and water erosion, clean and filter water, and are a source of human medicines.

As a D2D reader, you have likely read about the projected increase of the global population to 9 billion people in just 30 years. That means more fruits, vegetables, and row crops needed to feed more animals and more humans. To achieve this growth, the traditional thought has been that farmers will need more and more pesticides and fertilizer to eliminate bugs and increase their yields. Or do they?

A Booming Agricultural Microbial Market

New entrants in the biostimulants space. Sources: iSelect Funds, IDTechEx.

Think of the microbiome in the soil like the one in your gut. Similar to your health, plants need diversity in the soil to keep you healthy and strong. Microbial technology is a serious solution that uses bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoans, and yeasts instead of conventional agrochemicals.

Companies in this niche produce biostimulants. These include biopesticides, which are natural materials like canola or baking soda that eliminate pests, and biofertilizers, natural fertilizer compounds such as manure, algae, or decayed material that increase the availability of nutrients to the plants.

Additionally, since microbial crop protection poses fewer risks using than conventional pesticides, the EPA generally requires less data and has shorter review times before the various solutions can be used in the field. This reduces the timeline to development by years and the cost of product development by millions of dollars.

According to Research and Markets, the global agricultural microbial market is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.5% and reach $11 billion by 2025 from approximately $6 billion in 2020.

Innovations in the microbiome tech space have to address the challenges of soil needs.  The goal is to increase yield and reduce pests, and weeds with less chemical inputs – all while enhancing the soil microbiome. While this is a highly fragmented market, it is dominated by just a few players.

Innovations in soil microbiome technology

Here are four examples of new technologies that make our soil healthier…

AgBiome partners with the microbial world to improve our planet.  Started in 2017, the company is focused on discovering and developing innovative biological and trait products for crop protection. On March 23rd, Mosaic Fertilizer Company and AgBiome announced a collaboration to develop biological alternatives for soil health.

AgBiome is sequencing a library of microbes sourced from environmental samples from across the globe. As of today, the North Carolina company has more than 90,000 sequenced microbes and identified 3,500 insect control genes from that collection. Their technology can discover microorganisms and proteins that kill insect pests, fungal pathogens, and weeds.

For instance, Howler, the first of AgBiome’s biological fungicides, harnesses the power of the plant microbiome to create an efficacious fungicide with multiple modes of action that provide preventative, long-lasting activity on a broad spectrum of soilborne and foliar diseases.

Biome Makers measures the biological quality of soil to deliver agronomic insights to farmers. Based in Sacramento, Biome Makers was created to solve a fundamental problem facing the future of food: How do we recover the microbial diversity in today’s modern agriculture system?

Using an AI system, Biome Makers assesses the health of a field based on a farmer’s current practices as well as the soil functionality for any crop. What is the right soil microbiome community for a specific farm and farmer?

Working with Bayer and about 70 other ag input manufacturers, they will help farmers understand what works well and how it affects their soil’s health. It’s about measuring crop health and functional biodiversity by using DNA sequencing and intelligent computing.

Their team reads more like a Silicon Valley group with experts in genetics, software engineering, microbiology, agronomy, and data science. We are not in Kansas anymore…

Pivot Bio provides a clean alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. In April 2020, the company raised $100 million co-led by Breakthrough Energy and Temasek. Their technology reduces nitrogen fertilizer and increases crop yields.

Fully half of the world’s food supply is dependent on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, yet overuse, misuse, and runoff can bring serious environmental impacts such as dead zones and C02 emissions. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen – and the only crops that can take it out of the air and convert it into a nutrient are soybeans, alfalfa, and cowpeas.

Wheat, corn, and rice don’t have this ability – therefore they need fertilizer.  As Pivot Bio explains: “Nitrogen is essential to life. It’s a building block of proteins, DNA and amino acids. When plants have the right amount of nitrogen, they grow well and yield abundantly. Pivot Bio makes nitrogen fixation as natural as breathing for the microbe. Microbes inhale nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and release ammonia to plants. Enabling nitrogen-producing microbes as a crop nutrition tool for farmers will transform agriculture.”

MyLand replicates algae in native soil to grow as fertilizer. “Building strength beneath the surface,” explains Board Member, Bill Buckner, in reference to the company’s purpose. MyLand takes live, native microalgae from the farm to improve soil health, increase crop yields, and capture carbon.

Each farm has its own naturally specific algae – just like we have our own gut microbiome. MyLand technicians go out and take samples and isolate which algae are the most suitable for multiplication. They grow the algae in small vessels with lights and correct temperature. They make millions of cells and it is put back in the soil through the farmer’s irrigation system.

As a result, farmers use approximately 25% less fertilizer, 15% less water and reduce tillage by 40%. Voila, yield increases by about 25% and revenue by 40%.

Beyond farming and onto human health

Direct contact with the soil is key. When my oldest son was just a toddler, he was my garden helper. He would happily eat handfuls of dirt and my pediatrician assayed my worries and told me it was good for him. Now I understand why. As humans have evolved over time, we have had a close relationship with the earth first through hunter-gatherers then through farming, and now to our children crawling and running around the garden.

Humans and soil share common bacteria such as lactobacilli which breaks down our food and soil’s organic matter. We can even look to soil to give us new antibiotics that would kill multidrug-resistant pathogens such as MRSA.

But for more than half the global population living in cities and suburbs, this gut connection to the soil is missing. We primarily receive our microbiomes from the food we eat.

The above chart illustrates the difference in human contact with the soil from pre-industrial days to today.

Hot topic: The link between soil health to human health

We eat what we sow, so to speak. The essential nutrients, such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, that we need to thrive as humans come from the soil (originally from the stars). In speaking with Dr. Stephen Wood, Sr. Scientist of Agriculture and Food Systems at The Nature Conservancy and Lecturer at Yale, “Very simply, plants receive their micro and macronutrients from the soil.

“In order for humans to thrive, we receive those same nutrients that come from the plants.” Dr. Wood highlighted studies undertaken in parts of Africa that show a correlation between low selenium and zinc in the soil with low levels in the blood of the local population who ate the local rice.

But he is quick to point out that this is not as simple as low levels of nutrients in plants equate to low levels of nutrition in humans. While there is emerging research, the actual evidence where “soil management impacts human health through changes in crop nutrient densities is small.”

In Africa, where nutrition and food scarcity are real issues, studies have been done but the correlation is not always strong. The chart below shows the inconsistencies of zinc in the soil versus in the corn, cowpea, millet, and sorghum.

Even so, we want healthy, not degraded soil, to produce a higher yield of crops to feed a growing population. It is because of the nutrients in the soil that the plants receive their nutrients. While industrial fertilizer gives specific nutrients to help crops grow, increasing the organic matter helps build the microbes in the soil to increase yield.

Regenerative agriculture practices such as cover cropping, no-till farming, and adding livestock from time to time all help increase the diversity and abundance of microorganisms.

How do changes in microbial soil affect the future?

There are benefits to increasing the microbial content of soil – but it is not a perfect science. The added microbes only live in the soil for about three months and can easily be taken over by other microbes. They are hard to apply – which is tough for small holder farmers. Finally, if too much is applied for too long, they can saturate the soil of salts and nutrients.

That said, the technologies keep improving. If we can grow our food with healthier soil and less fertilizer runoff and create better nutrients in our plants and soil we will have a healthier planet and healthier people.

Climate-Smart Farming Paves the Way Toward Carbon Negative


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The purpose of AgMission, a 2020 partnership with the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action (USFRA), is to collect the best research data related to greenhouse gases (GHGs). FFAR funds pioneering scientific research in critical areas of our food and agricultural systems. To support AgMission, FFAR is currently funding over $50 million to support climate change research. USFRA supports sustainable food systems through its broad network of U.S. farmers and ranchers.

To make intelligent decisions about bettering soil health and reducing GHGs in the atmosphere, AgMission will create a massive research platform that provides farmers the intel to farm according to the most effective and applicable carbon sequestration practices. Farmers have long known how various conservation practices protect the natural resources they rely upon for a living and which ones contribute to their long-term financial success.

But making decisions about sustainability and profitability requires more than a collection of ideas; it all begins with good, solid facts.

And that’s what AgMission wants to create.

How is this supposed to work?

Each year, 33.1 billion metric tons of GHGs hit the atmosphere globally, with 5.1 billion coming from the United States. China emits the most – sending up to 10 billion metric tons. Of course, this is not all terrible, as we need carbon to survive.  Without it, our landscape would look more like Mars. Carbon is found everywhere on Earth and is even 18% of our body weight.

According to NOAA, when carbon dioxide (CO2) goes into the atmosphere, about 50% remains there, while 25% is absorbed by plants and trees and 25% by the oceans. If farmers and ranchers could absorb at least 10%, it would certainly help the soil while removing GHGs.

2 million U.S. farmers and ranchers are responsible for growing our food and keeping us fed and healthy. They are environmental stewards for 44% of U.S. land. Globally, it’s more like 38%.

They have proven to be remarkably efficient and productive in delivering an amazing array of foodstuffs the world depends upon.  But rather than bask in the gratitude of a hungry world, farmers and ranchers have faced what seems to be relentless criticism – if not an outright attack by some – for contributing approximately 10% of U.S. carbon emissions and 36% of methane.

As you can see from the chart, crop cultivation, a.k.a. tilling the soil, and deforestation is the most significant contributor to GHGs, with livestock methane emissions as a close second.

Is it possible to bring ag-related GHGs down to a negative 4%? 

AgMission thinks so. If all the farmers in the United States adopted soil-smart farming systems such as no-till, cover crops, rotational grazing, manure management, methane-reducing animal feed, and variable-rate fertilizer application, then the soil would be healthier and more carbon would be pulled from the atmosphere.

Recently, The Nature Conservancy, with participating organizations such as the University of Oregon, Ohio State University, Woods Hole Research Center, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian, led a study to determine natural climate solutions for the United States.

They estimated farmers could reduce GHG emissions equivalent to 21% of what the U.S. emits each year. This is 11% more than what is estimated that the agricultural sector emits in the first place!

 

 

 

 

 

“The majority (63%) of this potential comes from increased carbon sequestration in plant biomass, with 29% coming from increased carbon sequestration in soil and 7% coming from avoided emissions of CH4 and N2”

 

 

 

 

For this to succeed, collaboration among all climate-oriented agricultural scientific researchers, as well as support from the global farming and ranching community, is critical. That is why AgMission will spearhead this effort with over $50 million in funding the research. This database for all farmers and ranchers will help them determine which carbon-sequestering methods would best suit their farm, crop, weather, environment, and soil health.

Sequestering carbon benefits the atmosphere, but also the soil. Think of soil like the foundation of a house. Carbon, like the wood frame, provides physical stability for the soil that improves oxygen, water drainage, and retention while reducing the risk of erosion and nutrient leaching.

What do farmers think?

Is it realistic to put this pressure on the farmers? Will they participate in the carbon exuberance? Rather than be offended, farmers and ranchers have responded with their usual ‘can-do’ spirit by supporting efforts to improve their practices to protect the environment and promote sustainability.

AgMission will consider this initiative to be successful if the land farmed and ranched becomes resilient to future climate-related shocks and stresses, food productivity increases, and the food supply chain is secure. This is a huge opportunity – and responsibility for farmers and ranchers across the country.

I spoke with two inspiring farmers, Meredith Ellis, a cattle rancher from Texas, and Anne Meis from Nebraska who grows corn, soybeans, and cattle, as well as serving as Chairwoman of USFRA and board member of the Nebraska Soybean Board. What did they think of AgMission’ s big hairy audacious goal (BHAG)?

Do you think about carbon sequestration when you farm?

Meredith: I ranch for the soil. We are part of a pilot program where our carbon is measured by the Ecosystems Services Market Consortium, a subsidiary of the Soil Health Institute. Our ranch is sequestering 2,500 tons of carbon (after enteric emissions) each year – equivalent to taking 551 cars off the road.

Anne: Every day we think about soil health. Our livelihoods depend on better production and healthy soil. Our goal is to grow crops and to continually try to regenerate that healthy soil.

What do you think about monetizing carbon?

Meredith: I am a progressive farmer and believe in the five principles of soil health, water quality and water quantity downstream, carbon, and biodiversity. When you can commoditize these products, then it will turn the farmer’s eye to more than just beef, rather focusing on additional products such as carbon, water, and biodiversity.

Everyone I have talked to wants to be part of the solution. But I am fearful of policy markets that can miss their goals. For instance, the California cap and trade policies were not incentivizing the conservation of existing grasslands and forests. So it was easy to sell that land, develop it, and release the carbon back into the atmosphere. Another example is the Black Land Prairie in Texas – it used to be 12 million acres. Now it is only five thousand.

Anne: The idea of measuring carbon is highly fragmented. We need an organized system so all this work can really take hold. This is the goal of AgMission.

Do you think farmers would find AgMission’s database as a valuable tool for best soil health practices? 

MeredithData sharing is absolutely critical for collaboration across all disciplines. The more information I have, the more accurate and effective my decision-making process can be moving forward. I urge everyone not to underestimate the enormous amounts of data we ranchers collect that can help greatly in our national and global sustainability goals.

Current data and modeling show my cattle operation is a carbon sink. Now let’s take the next step and answer the question: Why? What is giving me the biggest bang for my carbon buck and how can I improve that number?

Anne: USFRA and FFAR are leading the efforts to gather the science to measure carbon capture. Farmers work in a wide variety of soil types and ecosystems. There are many practices that contribute to healthy soil, efficient water use, and conservation. Farmers have always relied on science to help them make best practices decisions for their unique farms and now others are seeing value in the contributions farmers can make to ecosystem services.

Let’s hope this system evolves as incentive-based and not regulatory. Farmers want to use the best tools for best soil health practices for the best outcomes.

Data-sharing is a critical component of AgMission’ s objectives. How do you and other farmers feel about sharing their data? 

Meredith: I feel like the research community has not put enough effort into understanding the nuances of our operation and the data we collect and why. If anything, I feel a great urgency to share my data with the scientific community, specifically my biodiversity observations as it relates to our dwindling historic grassland and forestland ecosystems which my cattle all home. As willing as I am to share my data freely, I feel the need to remind the scientific community of the decades of knowledge and decision-making skills in a number of areas necessary to become a land steward. Ranchers have to maintain a rich dialogue with scientists and policymakers throughout the decision-making process in how to move forward – or any effort made behind a desk without a producer’s input will likely fail.

Anne: We are constantly analyzing our data and measuring our soil. We know there is a hesitancy among producers that data will be taken from them and then used to restrict and regulate us. That should not be the case. For instance, telling farmers that certain spots on their farm need to be restricted on specific fertilizer or pesticide regulations. We don’t want someone behind a desk telling us how to farm.

Regenerative Ag in Your Own Backyard


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When Steve Hall bought his 43 acres of farmland in the Appalachian foothills more than a decade ago, he quickly discovered the difference between his dreams and farming reality. The land wasn’t as productive as he had hoped. “More rocks than dirt, really,” he remembers. But he talked with knowledgeable local producers. He sought out experts. He experimented, observed, and learned.

And in the intervening years, a lot has changed – the productivity of his land, and the attitudes of a lot of people who think and act like Steve.

Moving Beyond Gardening

Today, Steve and his two sons operate “Hall’s Regenerative Agriculture”, a consulting company that provides hands-on help for an increasing number of home farmers from the city, suburbs, and elsewhere on how to make their own contribution to the growing focus on sustainability and regenerative practices.

Colin Hall (left) and his father, Steve Hall, work with an expanding roster of clients to apply basic regenerative ag principles to home landscaping and gardening. Photo courtesy of Sonya Mull.

“I’ve worked with bank presidents and average homeowners,” Steve notes. “But they all seem to want the same thing – to use whatever space they have responsibly, not just to look nice or produce a little food. They want to feel like they are doing something worthwhile for the earth we all share.”

Steve has helped clients with as little as one-tenth of an acre, to some with dozens of acres, or more. “I help some folks in rural areas,” he observes, “but more and more it’s people in the suburbs, and even some in the city. It’s about the attitude and awareness people have of our world and our environment, more than how much land they have to work with.”

“The interest in this isn’t really so much a flood as a rising tide,” he notes.

Most of his clients, he says, look for diversity in plants, trees, and other growing things that not just produce some food but maintain the health of the larger ecosystem. “You see some strange combinations sometimes,” he adds. “You want perennials that come back year after year, giving up something edible but also co-existing with each other to replenish the ground and maintain a healthy balance.”

Making the right choices can mean having food from your own land “nine, and maybe even ten, months of the year in this area,” he notes. Maybe just as important, some of these planting configurations will continue to generate environmental benefits that span 50 to 70 years – and maybe more.

On this day, his clients are Ted and Sonya Mull, and their son Connor and daughter Avery. Ted is a medical doctor, his wife a nurse, and his kids two typical suburban high school students. They contacted Steve after realizing their plans to do some landscaping improvements could have a lot more than cosmetic value.

Short-Term Work for Long-Term Results

“It dawned on all of us that what we were doing was more important than just planting a few bushes, or getting our garden plans in order,” Ted reflects. “Maybe it was the effect of being locked away and having so much time to reflect. But we saw a chance to do something more important – something that mattered a lot more than how our place looked.”

Adopting the regenerative approach to home landscaping and gardening led to the addition of a wide variety of plants, all with beneficial environmental qualities.

Making their own small contribution to a healthy and sustainable environment was just the starting point, according to both parents. Ted explains, “Today, it’s so easy for us to forget what it takes to produce the food we eat every day.” He continues:

“We don’t see the effort and the expertise that goes into growing the food we need. Doing this helped remind the kids exactly what it takes to produce food. It teaches them about how connected we all are to the earth and how important it is to make sure we keep that earth healthy and thriving.”

“Covid has been tough on all of us,” Sonya adds. “There’s the isolation and distance from other people, of course. But for kids, there’s also the sense that things are out of control, that the future isn’t what it once seemed to be. Doing this has helped them see a kind of regeneration through nature. We’re doing things that speak to the future – a better future. It sounds kind of like Mary Poppins or something that usually will make teenagers roll their eyes. But they have gotten into this. It’s been great for them. For all of us.

Avery, in fact, soon enlisted friends from school to be part of the regenerative project. Together, they planted trees, shrubs, and other growing things. And as they did so, they talked with Steve, and they learned about the environmental value of the things they planted.

The mix of plants and trees proved to be more diverse than anyone had considered. Beyond the usual suspects of cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and other backyard garden staples, Steve advocates lots of berries – currants, goji berries, sunchokes, pawpaws, and more. Black walnut, pecan, maple, apricot trees — “and lots and lots of blueberry plants and apple trees,” Steve adds with a hearty laugh. “People love those, they are good for you, and they are critical to balance in so many situations.”

To the right: Avery Mull, Gabby Sutcliffe and Sarah Katy found that a home landscaping project could be valuable both to a sustainable local environment and their own understanding of regenerative agriculture. Photo courtesy of Sonya Mull.

Every situation is different and demands some thinking and careful planning. “The big thing is to understand how all different types of growing things interact with each other and the world around them,” Steve notes. “It’s a dance…planting the right things in the right places and treating them right. It’s thinking not just about right now but what happens next.”

Steve’s parting advice? “Don’t just go stick some things in the ground and expect to get the results you want. Think about it. Do some research. Ask somebody who knows more than you do. What you are doing is important, so take the time to do it right.” He also provided some great tips to introduce regenerative ag in our backyards, no matter the size…

10 Simple Tips for Home Regenerators:

  1. Plant trees in pairs to promote effective pollination
  2. Always place taller plants to the north so smaller plants get the sunlight, too
  3. Use eco-friendly sun-blockers to control weeds (cardboard, hemp mats, cocoa mulch, burlap)
  4. Don’t skimp on nitrogen fixers (such as beans, clovers, and lupins)
  5. Consider investing in a simple device to monitor nutrient levels in your soil
  6. Diversify what and when you plant to help stagger your harvests
  7. Monitor your water use carefully to avoid overwatering and water waste
  8. Consult your local ag extension agent or gardening expert to find out what is right for your situation. Also, ask about micronutrient accelerators — plants that help gather micronutrients and minerals important to local soil replenishment.
  9. If you use commercial products to nurture or protect your plants, always follow label directions closely
  10. Observe what works well and what doesn’t. Take good notes and learn from them. Share them with your neighbors.

For a more comprehensive look at how to make your home gardening and landscaping more regenerative, check out this “Food Forest” article at Modern Farmer.

Need more help or have a comment for Steve? Contact him at bolohall59@gmail.com.

Foster Brothers Farm: Covering Good Ground

We are pleased to have Bob Foster of Foster Brothers Farm write about the farm’s cover crop practices. Based in Middlebury, VT., the dairy farm supplies milk for Cabot cheese products through the Agri-Mark cooperative. The farm also recycles cow manure for their “Moo Doo” compost products sold around the Northeast. Foster is a member of the New England Dairy Association and serves on the Board of Directors for the Soil Health Institute.

When you drive past a farm field this winter, you might be curious about what’s growing there. Yes, growing. At our dairy farm and farms across the state, we’re growing plants on our fields — even in the winter. 

We keep the growing season going 365 days a year with cover crops, like winter rye (shown in the photo at the top of the page). You’ll see fields throughout Addison County and across Vermont green with cover crops still growing as long as the temperatures are around 30 degrees. When temperatures dip even colder or fields are covered in snow, winter rye will go dormant then renew growth in late winter.

Vermont recorded nearly 30% of its available cropland planted to cover crops in 2017 according to the Soil Health Institute, and we’re increasing that number every year. The U.S. average is only 5.6%.  

Covering Ground for Soil Health

Why does this matter? Farmers are covering what were once barren cornfields in the winter because we’ve seen the scientific benefits like carbon sequestration, reduced erosion and nutrient runoff, and flood mitigation. We pair that with reducing tilling or no-tilling in the spring for even greater gains in each of these areas. 

More people are now starting to understand these benefits, too, as documentaries like Kiss the Ground call attention to the fact that without healthy soil our society is in trouble.

Cover crops help us solve the issue of climate change because they are an amazing carbon sink. UVM Extension agronomists estimate that if all 80,000 acres of Vermont’s annual cropland had a cover crop, the carbon sequestration would be equivalent to taking over 51,000 cars off the road. 

To the left: Kirsten Workman, an Agronomy Outreach Specialist at UVM Extension, demonstrates the benefits of rolling cover crops and no-till planting for soil health at a field demonstration at Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury.

George Foster of Foster Brothers Farm (far left in photo) volunteered to share the farm’s conservation practices as part of a tour of area farms with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition.

Another reason we use cover crops is to help the soil hold more water. As extreme weather events like heavy rain and flooding become more common, we need our soil to absorb that water and stay in place.

On an acre-by-acre average basis, developed land can contribute up to four times more phosphorus pollution through runoff than farmland and seven times more than forested or natural areas (Lake Champlain Basin Program). According to Food Solutions New England, 85% of the farmland in New England is managed by dairy farmers and is keeping land from being developed.

Putting it into Practice

At Foster Brothers Farm, we grow 900 acres of hay, 550 acres of corn, plus 300 acres of soybeans and small grains to feed our cows. In the spring, our winter cover crop needs to stop growing so it won’t compete with the corn we need to plant on the same field.

Farmers do this in several ways, depending on their goals and conditions. Some harvest the cover crop for feed for the cows, some flatten it down with machinery, some till it underground, and others will kill it with an herbicide like Round Up®, also known as glyphosate. At Foster Brothers, we’ve experimented with doing all of these methods.

The winter rye cover crop is pushed down by a roller-crimper on the front of the tractor. Corn is planted directly into the flattened winter rye at the same time using a no-till planter pulled behind the tractor.

On our farm, the biggest environmental benefits come when the cover crop is not tilled and is left to decompose into the earth, building organic matter, increasing water infiltration, and protecting the surface of our soil. Either rolling it down or using herbicides means there will be no tillage on the field, which dramatically reduces our carbon footprint and helps maintain healthier soil. We have seen this with our own eyes as we have watched our soil improve dramatically as we adopted this conservation cropping system of no-till and cover crops. 

Our soil is biologically active, and we want to take care of it just like we do our cows and people.

Managing Pesticide Use

We recognize that some people have concerns about the use of glyphosate. We don’t take the use of herbicides lightly. We are raising our families on our farms and we share the same concern for safety. We employ certified experts to ensure we utilize these tools safely and only when needed. The time, amount, and method of application of herbicides is extremely precise, specific to the crop, and regulated by EPA and the State of Vermont.

The U.S. EPA, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as other regulatory authorities in multiple countries, continuously review registered pesticide products and have repeatedly confirmed that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and are not carcinogenic when handled according to their label

Most farmers I know have reduced their use of longer-lasting and more toxic chemicals, instead favoring safer and less persistent chemicals to achieve the same goals. Glyphosate is one example of this. It is applied to a growing plant (the cover crop or target weed). It breaks down quickly and is safer for humans, animals, and the environment compared to other options when handled appropriately.

Looking to the Future of Farming

The latest biotechnology innovations enable farmers to practice more regenerative farming techniques and are just one tool that farmers can choose to use. 

I believe agriculture is at the heart of solving a lot of the issues we face like climate change, flooding, and the water quality in Lake Champlain, and there are many paths farmers can choose to get there. Farmers started on this path to improve soil health because protecting the environment is in our blood.

Most agriculturists aren’t out waving the flag about what they are doing. But, as people become more interested in how our food impacts the environment, it’s time we shared how we’re getting the job done while also providing people with things they can use, whether it’s milk, cheese, compost, or other farm products. 

When talking about sustainability, the media and research often focus solely on greenhouse gas emissions or one component of how we run our farms. Few think about the big picture including the positive impact local food production has on food security, nutrition, and our economy. 

The saying is ‘there is no such thing as free lunch,’ but dairy farmers are on track to continue to provide affordable, nutritious food with little impact on the environment. The movement we are building is nationwide and the dairy industry has set our sights on being carbon neutral by 2050.

Every farm has something to contribute and I’m proud to do my part.

Lucy Stitzer x Farm Journal: Soil, Plant & Human Health

Thinking about Regenerative Ag with Lucy Stitzer, Dirt to Dinner and Nate Birt, Vice President of Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative, was originally published on Farm Journal’s AgWeb on March 2, 2021.

Nate Birt: We hear a lot these days about conservation, or sustainability, or regenerative ag. But soil health is really a fundamental building block underlying every ag system, no matter what terminology we use. It even made it into the Super Bowl this year! What are you observing about soil health in the world of food and ag, and what should farmers be paying attention to?

Lucy Stitzer: Chipotle’s marketing captures the idea of a cleaner, happier, more future facing farming. What does this mean exactly? 

Personally, I think that it all starts with the soil. When I first started learning about soil, I didn’t think it was very glamourous or exciting. But when I realized how alive it is – I started paying more attention.

Did you know that in one teaspoon of healthy soil – there live over 7.8 billion microbes – more than all humans on Earth today. Compare that little teaspoon with the human microbiome – and we have 100,000 billion microbes floating around our entire body – about the size of a mango. 

And these little organisms in the soil are more diversified than all the life – plants and insects – in the Amazon! Because of the Earth’s carbon dance of life, 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are found in the soil. 

Healthy soil means a healthier environment and healthier humans. Regenerative Agriculture makes the soil healthier, have more nutrients, takes carbon out of the air, and retains water. This is different from the concept of sustainability which has broader meaning including animal welfare, human labor, and deforestation. Regenerative agriculture is primarily focusing on the soil itself, however many see it as the panacea to save the world from climate change by pulling carbon out of the air. But we can’t just get there with one type of farming and one answer.

What big-name companies or brands are stepping up their commitments to soil health and regenerative agriculture? What can we learn from these announcements as farmers? 

Walmart is committed to having zero emissions by 2040 – restoring 50 million acres of land will help them achieve their goals. Danone will help achieve their regenerative goals by helping farmers make the shift to regenerative ag by locking in long-term contracts with farmers to guarantee stable profit margins.

And Land O’Lakes, a farmer cooperative, has partnered with Microsoft to help farmers with their rural broadband which, in turn, enables them to have ‘intelligent agriculture solutions’ so farmers can keep their soil healthy by fully utilizing precision agriculture. NRCS is also trying to help farmers invest in conservation practices by providing federal financing, as well as from private capital.

“We seem to be divided on everything…let’s use food to bring people together.”

– Lucy Stitzer

Regenerative agriculture refers to the ability of farmers to strengthen ecosystems through their farming practices – yet you refer to the challenge of balancing regenerative practices as part of an entire food and ag system. What can the larger food and ag ecosystem do to support farmers holistically, including regenerative agriculture adoption?

I think companies, the government, and the entire ag ecosystem can recognize that there is not just one answer to growing our food. There is a tendency in our country to take sides. We seem to be divided on everything from immigration to impeachment to the welfare state to education and religion. Bringing the food to your dinner table doesn’t have to have the same divide. Let’s use food to bring people together – unite the country. There is not just one answer to growing food. Regenerative agriculture is a great answer for the soil – but it is not the only answer.  

Incorporating different agricultural practices into farming will certainly help the soil. But what we have to guard against is putting one type of farming on all farmers. Just as people are unique, so are farms — their soil microbiome, their environment. Every farmer should have a choice on how they grow our food. What works great in Kansas doesn’t work in Missouri. 

Finally, trading carbon credits created at the farm is beginning to be a reality. Farmers would have additional income by selling the carbon they have sequestered in their land. There is still a lot to iron out here – but it is being discussed as a way to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and provide additional farm income.  

It’s not as simple as every farmer adopting a cookie-cutter set of conservation practices or products. How should farmers be thinking about learning the lay of the land, then customizing sustainability to fit their needs? 

I am not a farmer – so my only thought here is for farmers to tell their story. Let people know how you grow your food, farm the land, use different technologies, take care of your soil and your watersheds.

Agriculture is being thrown under the bus as degrading the environment when the reality is that farmers are generally more environmentally conscious than most of us.

In addition, compared to any other industry, farming is the ONLY one that can be carbon neutral.  

What are you reading/watching/listening to that you’d recommend farmers check out? For example, The Wall Street Journal just published an excerpt from a new book this past weekend highlighting the accomplishments of precision agriculture and many ag sectors, such as livestock, in lowering environmental impact. 

On Saturday, Robert Paarlberg, an agricultural economist wrote an excellent piece in the WSJ reminding us that farming practices over the years has gotten better. Science and technology such as precision agriculture, seed genetics, and irrigation management, have helped reduce pesticides and fertilizers while yields have increased. Growing our meat and producing our milk takes less water, less feed, less land, and fewer animals than it did in the ’70s.  How can we continue this trajectory?  

A great page turner on soil is The Hidden Half of Nature, by David Montgomery and his wife, Anne Bikle. He is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and she is a biologist and environmental planner. They write a fun and fascinating book about the soil microbiome.  I loved it and learned a lot. 

I also watched Kiss the Ground. It was thought provoking. It explained regenerative ag very well and highlighted Gabe Brown, a North Dakota regenerative farmer. However, I wish it had a more balanced view on the different types of farming. 

I would like to end with a couple questions for all of us. How can we use creative thinking, technology, and science to advance our food system? How can we push past political agendas and just ‘do the right thing’ for human and environmental health?

 

Check out Lucy’s full interview here:

 

Building a Sustainable U.S. Beef System

We are pleased to introduce Sasha Gennet, Ph.D. as a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner.

Sasha heads up The Nature Conservancy’s Sustainable Grazing Lands strategy in North America, where she leads an interdisciplinary team of science, conservation, policy, and communications experts to achieve widespread adoption of conservation management practices on U.S. grazing lands, as well as protection and conservation of working lands. (Above image courtesy of TNC.)


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I wasn’t one of the lucky kids who got to grow up on a ranch. No one back then would have expected me to work on livestock production and grazing lands. We lived in the suburbs, and I come from a family that had mostly worked in factories, not farming. I was even a vegetarian in my teenage years, on the grounds that I didn’t want to eat an animal if I didn’t know and feel good about how it was raised (which is still true).

My love for the outdoors and need to be near nature led to my early career as a botanist and restoration ecologist. Through my early jobs and in my graduate school research in grasslands and on ranches, I learned two key things about land stewardship:

  • Livestock is one of the best tools available for managing land to benefit soil, water, and biodiversity. Essentially, good grazing management in the right places is good for native plants and wildlife; grazing animals can help manage fire risk, and strong rural economies rooted in ranching help slow urban and agricultural sprawl.
  • Ranchers are deeply committed to protecting the natural resources that make their livelihoods possible. This is true of ranchers in California, the Great Basin, the Dakotas, Florida – all across our country. For example, Meredith Ellis, a second-generation rancher in Texas, uses soil health and sustainable grazing practices to help sequester carbon, withstand extreme weather events, safeguard water quality, and provide consumers with beef they can feel good about buying. You can check out her story here.

Those early years spent studying grasslands and working on ranches instilled a deep appreciation in me for the people who dedicate their lives to producing food and the many—often overlooked—contributions they make to land management.

Now, through my work with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I’m lucky enough to partner with local ranchers to promote the conservation value of grazing lands and advance sustainability goals across the complex beef supply chain.

By partnering with family-owned cattle operations to test new on-ranch practices and collaborating with food companies to source sustainable beef products, we’re working to mainstream livestock production practices that actively restore and regenerate nature—practices that are good for ranchers and the environment.

To get there, we must first understand the value of what’s at stake, acknowledge the challenges that stand in our way and define a clear path forward.

The Vast Footprint of Working Wildlands

More than 770,000 cattle operations span the United States, and 90% are family-operated. The ranches and grazing lands where beef cattle live most of their lives total about 775 million acres nationwide. That’s the size of Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana combined.

These incredibly diverse lands include native grasslands—the least well protected habitat type on earth— like the iconic prairies of the Great Plains as well as the rangelands of the Great Basin and desert Southwest, savannah of California, and pastures in the Southeast.

This part of the U.S. agriculture system contributes $76 billion to our economy. But these private, public, and tribal grazing lands provide more than economic benefit and food. These “working wildlands” also provide wildlife habitat, secure freshwater, and help mitigate climate change by drawing more carbon into the soil.

Farmers and soil health practices are a big part of the picture, too, since most beef cattle are finished on grain after spending a large part of their lives on grazing lands. In fact, as much as one-third of the 90 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. ends up as feed.

There’s too much common ground between ranchers, farmers, and conservationists to not work together toward mutual goals. The people and families who care for these valuable lands are the backbone of rural economies and essential to a world where nature and people thrive.

Challenges and a Path Forward

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has worked for decades with farming and ranching communities to collaboratively advance conservation. We have supported numerous voluntary conservation easements, partnered with local organizations, supported federal funding for ranch stewardship and protection, and used our own lands to research and demonstrate how livestock can help regenerate nature.

While successful in many ways, those efforts have yet to ensure long-term conservation across these vast and varied lands and communities. In fact, many grasslands and rural communities that depend on these lands are experiencing greater challenges and risks than ever before: land values that outpace profitability from livestock grazing, more droughts and floods, and market shocks like we saw in 2020 due to COVID-19.

In recent years, TNC has expanded our work to engage more deeply with initiatives and companies in the beef supply chain, engaging and advancing robust sustainability programs.

Given its importance economically, and strong influence on natural resources, the beef industry—from farmers and ranchers to restaurants and retailers—is uniquely positioned to help safeguard and steward nature, while benefitting producers, rural communities, and consumers.   

So, what can the beef industry do to ensure a healthy environment, while ensuring ranchers and farmers sustain their livelihoods and deliver quality food products? A seemingly simple but essential first step is for leading companies to recognize that healthy, functioning ecosystems and thriving agriculture operations are the foundation of a secure and equitable food system. That then needs to lead to committing to improving the environmental and socio-economic sustainability of their supply chains, setting robust goals, and investing in implementation, including tackling climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It also includes working diligently with civil society, producers, and other companies to define and identify a path to environmental and socio-economic sustainability, for example by actively participating in the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

Collaboration Is Key

Several companies are making significant commitments. Last year, Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club U.S. announced new aspirations to source fresh beef products more sustainably by 2025, with a focus on grazing management and soil health across an additional 12 million acres. This announcement came after TNC worked with Walmart to identify opportunities and actions to improve sustainability in its beef supply chain to help improve soil health and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

In collaboration with TNC and the University of Minnesota, McDonald’s analyzed their beef and chicken supply chains to identify climate mitigation opportunities. Based on this work, McDonald’s is now building programs with their suppliers to meet their company’s ambitious 31 percent greenhouse gas reduction goal.

Our work with McDonald’s and Walmart led to the development of a Roadmap for a Sustainable Beef System, which is helping more companies identify opportunities and take action to make improvements within their supply chain while tracking progress toward their environmental goals.

In essence, we’ve created a science-based approach that can help companies create solutions that are environmentally beneficial and economically favorable for producers while delivering a product that meets consumers’ expectations.

Sustainability needs to be the business-as-usual approach in the U.S. beef industry in order to ensure long-term food supply, economic security for ranchers and their communities, and a healthy environment for us all. Taking that a bit further, the food production process needs to actively restore and regenerate nature, and there’s no time to waste. Seeing two of the world’s largest purchasers of beef take proactive steps to achieve sustainability within their supply chains signals tremendous momentum in that direction.

But much more needs to be accomplished, quickly, and we can only get there by working together.

Q&A with FFA’s Tyler Gardner

Future Farmers of America (FFA) is the premier youth organization preparing members for leadership and careers in the science, business, and technology of agriculture.

To support FFA’s members and their contribution to ag, Dirt to Dinner is please to introduce Tyler Gardner. Here is a Q&A from Tyler’s point of view.

Tyler Gardner is one hard-working college student. His education in ag started with working various positions at his family’s cranberry marsh. As his experience broadened, his mission evolved to produce healthy and sustainable food for generations to come.

Tyler, tell us a little bit about your background, family, and studies. 

I grew up and currently live on one of my family’s cranberry marshes in Pittsville, Wisconsin, a small town in central Wisconsin.

I am currently attending the University of Wisconsin River Falls and majoring in Agriculture Business. 

I hope to use my degree in Ag Business to obtain a job in the ag industry and eventually come back and work within the family’s business.  

What is your favorite part of working on your family farm?

My favorite part of working on my family’s farm is the feeling of pride and ownership. It is not just a job, but it’s a way of life for my family.

My father taught me from a young age the value of hard work and to never quit until the job gets done. These values have always stuck with me and it reminds me to keep working hard because someday that marsh could be mine.

It is also very rewarding to work throughout the summer months on a crop and then see your hard work pay off in the fall.

“It is just a great feeling of accomplishment to know that all the early mornings and late nights over the summer paid off to grow your cranberry crop. Seeing the final crop at the end of the year is by far the most rewarding feeling and it is one that is truly hard to describe unless you’re a grower.”

Tell us about your cranberry operation…how long has it been in the family? 

My family’s cranberry operation began back in the early 1990s with my uncle, Butch Gardner, and my father, Tom Gardner. The first cranberry bogs that they planted were on the marsh that I grew up on. They proceeded to grow the family business by building and planting more cranberry marshes in the Pittsville area. They then began to buy other marshes around the state. 

We currently operate around 2,000 acres of cranberry bogs. Along with growing cranberries, my family also has built cold storages and cranberry processing plants. This has streamlined the processing for our cranberry juice concentrate and sweetened dried cranberry products.

How is farming cranberries different from other crops? 

Cranberries are a crop that needs to be taken care of all year long, but once springs rolls back around that is when the cranberry vines come out of dormancy and they begin to start growing again. 

What is needed to grow cranberries is sandy soil, a large water source, and the correct climate. The cranberry’s root systems grow best in the sandy soil because cranberries need more acidic soil to grow in. The sandy soil also makes it ideal for drainage.

It sounds like cranberries can’t grow just anywhere…

Cranberries need to stay moist, but cannot be saturated for long periods, because it can create rotten fruit and damage the plant’s roots. We also need a large water source to grow cranberries, because in the summer months we need to irrigate the plants, and then in fall, we need the water to harvest the crop. We also never use any high-pressure wells, rather we reuse water from large bodies of water such as ponds and reservoirs.  Lastly, having the correct climate is the last most important part of growing this fruit.

Cranberries can only be grown in certain parts of the world because of their very specific climate needs. The area where I am from, for example, is a perfect area because cranberries need warm summer months for the growing season, the cool falls months to change their color, and the cold winter months so that they can go into dormancy until the next growing season.

How do you harvest your crop?

Harvest for this crop begins with the flooding of the cranberry beds. Our cranberry beds are in a rectangle shape with dikes and ditches surrounding them, this makes it possible to add and take water off the cranberry beds. Once there is about a foot or two of water in the cranberry bed, we then take a large rake attached to a tractor and drive into the cranberry bed and knock the berries off the vine.

Once they are all knocked off the vines then we added another two feet of water into the bed to completely flood the vines. Cranberries naturally have 4 little air pockets that allow them to float to the top of the water.

Then we take float boom to corral all the cranberries together and then we take a berry pump and pump the cranberries out of the bed and put them into semi-trucks to take the cranberries to market.

Cranberry vines produce a crop every year and usually do not need to be planted twice or every year. There are even some cranberry vines that are over 100 years old and still producing a crop. But the biggest reason why people do replant or renovate cranberry beds is to create a better producing bed with vines that are going to give them a better yield.  So yes, we do use the same vines (bushes) and reuse (plant) exiting vines into new beds. When we plant cranberry vines, we take the cuttings off existing cranberry vines and place them into the ground into a new bed. It takes about three years for these new cranberry vines to develop and start producing well. 

What is processing cranberries like? 

What makes our cranberry operation unique is that we can clean, store, and process our cranberries ourselves. The process for cranberries begins with the “cleaning station”. Cranberries are hauled into the station with semi-trucks and they are stored and cleaned. In the cleaning process, only the best berries are selected to be placed into storage. After the cranberries are cleaned and sorted, they are placed in large wooden boxes and then sent to the freezer where they stay until they are needed for processing. Fresh cranberries can stay in the freezer for up to two years before they are processed.

Cranberries are cleaned and sorted using machines such as shaker tables and specialty cleaning equipment made for cranberries. We don’t use robotics during the cleaning process, but before the cranberries go into further processing, we use robotics to sort out all the light-colored berries or any unusable cranberries that were not taken out during cleaning. 

The cranberries are then taken out of the freezer and transported to the proccing plant, where they are processed into jams, sauces, juices, and my favorite, sweetened dried cranberries. 

Tell us about your pest and weed management practices. 

Because of our abundant acreage across Wisconsin, we have hired and trained our scouting team. This way, we have resources for our growers year-round on all pest, weed, and other growth management practices. This team works hand-in-hand with each property manager to discuss, discover, and decide what is best for that particular property. 

Our scouting season starts in early May and goes until late August where the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) team surveys the marsh and identifies weeds as well as monitors pest pressure.

The team then correlates the information with growing degree days and pheromone traps and will conclude if anything is at an economic threshold—or is at the level where is it damaging your crops enough that you will see a decrease in yield.

If a weed or pest hit an economic threshold, the team and the manager will come together and decide on the best solution promptly. Because we are growing fruit for human consumption, we are extra cautious and sustainable in all our practices here at Gardner Cranberry.

What are some of your sustainable practices?

We take a lot of pride in our sustainable practices as a large cranberry grower in Wisconsin. All the fruit we grow is approved to the highest market standard and can be shipped anywhere in the world. The unique thing about cranberries is the large amount of water we recycle and reuse during all seasons of the year. We have reservoirs that hold our water for all irrigation, frost, and flooding events. These large reservoirs bring with them a diverse ecosystem that includes anything from floating peat bogs to native Tamarack trees and migratory birds.

Because our system is naturally integrated, our top priority is always to use sustainable and regenerative practices.

We understand our system works best when everything is in its natural state and can work together. During the springtime, we have an opportunity to do a spring flood to control our first major pest of the season – the spanworm. If the timing works out, we use our water to flood up the cranberry beds until the vines are fully submerged and we keep it on for 48 hours to kill any live insect activity in our vines.

This is a great regenerative option that we conduct at least once every season. By doing this, we naturally eliminate a large pest concern and we avoid using any alternative options.

We want consumers to understand that our family not only eats these cranberries, but we also live and work on these properties – it is essential for the land to be healthy, safe, and sustainable for generations to come.

~  ֍  ~

Stay tuned for more Future Farmers of America stories like this. If you would like to get involved with FFA, visit www.ffa.org.

If you’re a fellow FFA and want to share your story or tell us about an inspiring member, please email us at info@dirt-to-dinner.com – we’d love to hear your story!

Regenerative Ag: The New ‘Sustainable’


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At a high level, Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming practices based on decades of science and applied research that when combined, helps to enrich soils, increases biodiversity, improves watersheds, and ultimately harnesses carbon in the soil.

The premise of Regenerative Ag is to replicate nature instead of conquering it. It promises to increase yields, enhance the health and vitality of farms for generations to come, as well as provide resilience to climate instability. But not all farms apply these principles the same way. Because there is no stringent set of guidelines for what is considered “regenerative farming,” each operation will vary the application of these practices, as well as how they measure the success of their regenerative efforts.

Soil can save our planet? And reverse climate change? Regenerative ag is also a tool to reduce CO2. Even though agriculture, forestry, and land use account for approximately 18% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, these claims about soil are only partially true. Farming practices and soil health are just a piece of the puzzle to carbon emission reduction.

The Trailblazer: Gabe Brown

The face of the regenerative ag movement is North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown. After nearly losing his 1,760-acre family farm outside Bismark due to a series of massive hailstorms, blizzards, and successive crop failures, Brown turned it all around. Having been introduced to the central ideas of regenerative farming over the years, it was not until he aggregated his learnings and applied them simultaneously to his farmland that he was able to boost microbial activity in the soil, retain carbon, and restore ecological balance.

As Brown explains, regenerative ag is a real paradox: the best way to achieve it is to do less, not more. 

Gabe Brown used synthetic fertilizers like many other farmers in his area but decided to try something a little different when he removed them altogether. Brown then experimented with planting several one-acre plots with varying monoculture cover crops and then on one plot, he planted everything together in what he called a “biodiverse polyculture cocktail.” What he witnessed over two very dry and challenging months was that productivity was three times greater on the polyculture cocktail plot.

Since Gabe’s polyculture plot also realized higher yields than his neighbors, he was determined to find out how this was possible. His water filtration rates also skyrocketed, going from a one-half inch of water filtered per hour to one inch in only nine seconds. To further measure his success, he conducted carbon-retention testing using soil samples.

Given these dramatic results, Gabe no longer applies synthetic fertilizer. He practices rotationally grazing his livestock on these plots, leading to increased soil health and yield. Many farmers find they reduce synthetic fertilizers with this method, but few have gotten to the point of eliminating them altogether without negative yield effects.

Compared to the typical 10 to 30 tons of carbon stored in conventionally-farmed soils of the Northern Plains, Gabe has found “where we’ve done in-depth, significant testing, our soils have 96 tons of carbon per acre in the top 48 inches”.  Many agree that measuring carbon sequestration is the best hope for demonstrating the power of regenerative agriculture, though not all operations will have the ability to use this measurement technology.

What Makes Something “Regenerative”?

At the core, regenerative agriculture is the practice of farms finding various ways to draw substantial carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But it is much more than that: it enriches the soil by diversifying its microbiome, preventing erosion, and increasing its water. Regenerative ag can be done with a variety of methods, including no-till farming, crop rotation, and animal grazing, just to name a few. But all methods must adhere to these four key principles:

(1) improving soil, water, and biodiversity

(2) creating unique combinations of these farming practices to suit each operation

(3) ensuring these practices work for the landowner, farmer, producer, and all other stakeholders

(4) continually grow and evolve practices to reach maximum potential

How is the Success of Regenerative Agriculture Measured?

One of the more contentious debates within regenerative ag is how farmers measure the successes of their operations. However, efforts are in the works to make quantifying regenerative ag an affordable, relatively pain-free process.

Currently, the majority of farmers calculate their reductions of inputs and increased crop yieldsto determine the effectiveness of their particular regenerative ag practice. This includes decreased pesticide use which ultimately reduces overhead costs, increases yield, retains water in the soil, and enhances resilience to pests and drought.

Subsequent Investigations

Dirt to Dinner seeks to answer these questions in subsequent Regenerative Ag posts:

  • How does carbon make the soil healthier, and by how much? Who benefits – the farmer? The consumer? The environment?
  • What is in it for the farmer? And will the government mandate specific practices? A deeper dive into carbon credits versus incentives.
  • What does the ramp-up to becoming regenerative look like? How long does it take soil to be regeneratively productive?
  • What is the payback for farmers to compensate for the ramp-up period? Does the yield increase in all cases? Or is it location specific?
  • What are the stories of other farmers successfully practicing Regenerative Ag?

Have questions about Regenerative Agriculture that you would like answered? Let us know here.

Behind the Scenes with a Local Beef Farmer


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“My ancestor’s life was tough, and their values of hard work passed down from generation to generation. We were taught to ‘stay by the stuff’ and keep a steady resolve to get through every major crisis that impacts your life. We have taught our children to wake up in the morning and do the very best job on the day they have been given.” 

– Dave Albert, owner of Misty Mountain Farms

Dave’s family has been farming the land for six generations, since his ancestor, John Wolfgang, first turned the soil in 1854. An immigrant from Germany, Wolfgang and his fiancé landed in Philadelphia. Once they married and acclimated to America, they pushed their few belongings in a wheelbarrow over 200 miles before settling on 110 acres in Trout Run. Clearing trees, picking rocks out of the soil, tilling the soil, and cultivating a crop was not an easy way of life in the 1800s (or even today).

Six generations later, the Alberts farm ~300 acres grazing multiple species of livestock, including Angus cattle, Texel/Suffolk sheep and lamb, and pastured poultry, including chickens and turkeys. To support this effort, they grow row crops of corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola. The main focus of tillable acreage is for forages and cover crops. The balance of their operation is dedicated to improving the pastures.

Soil Health Translates to Profitability

“A healthy soil will produce the same amount of yield, if not better, without any inputs such as pesticides and commercial fertilizer.”

Misty Mountain Farm is profitable because Dave believes that soil health is the foundation of any farming enterprise. With farm incomes generally down across the country, this is a big statement.

He utilizes no-till farming to grow corn, soybeans, and barley with limited inputs of commercial fertilizer. Imported poultry litter is readily available and he uses approximately 200 to 300 tons per year. When expanding his land holdings, it takes him about three years before the soil has enough organic matter to support the crops he harvests.

No-till means that Dave will simultaneously plant multiple cover crops such as rye, Austrian winter pea, eco-till radish, and multi-species clovers. These covers are planted post-harvest and stay on the fields until it is time to plant his corn and soybeans. He will plant the spring seeds right over the cover crops without turning the soil. The cover crops then turn into food for the trillions of soil microbiota and ultimately his row crops of corn and soybeans.

How does Dave know his soil is healthy? His definition is that he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides.

The level of input determines soil health, which then allows the farmer to achieve target yields combined with optimal profitability. In addition, this summer was a drought year with only a couple of inches of rain a month. Yet his crops were healthy and strong because of the soil biodiversity. When it finally did rain, the ground absorbed the water like a sponge. He says you can tell a farm has unhealthy soil when there is a lot of mud on the road after a rain — a sign that the soil quality has deteriorated so much that it simply just washes away.

Organic or Conventional? Neither – Regenerative

“We live in a world where production and monoculture crops are the norm. To get the highest yield, you need the highest inputs but yet we have a market structure where profit is not there.”

Regenerative agriculture is when you not only protect the land but you make it better than when you first started farming. It enhances the ecosystem around the farm or ranch by enriching the soil, protecting and improving the watersheds, and increasing biodiversity — all while improving crop yields.

Dave is a student of agriculture. When Dave was a high school junior, he won first prize on a paper about cover crops at the state-level Future Farmers of America convention in Harrisburg. He then graduated from Penn State in 1984, with a degree in Animal Science. That is where he met Holly, who also grew up with an agricultural background.

In 2007, he was a participating member of a team of soil scientists who traveled to Europe to study organic waste recycling. Dr. Richard Stehouwer led this team, spending two weeks in Germany and Austria. While ferrying down the Rhine River on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Dave saw the town of Wiesbaden, Germany where his great, great, great grandfather, John Wolfgang Albert, was born. An unexpected highlight of the day for sure.

Dave spends his winter months reading and learning from soil experts such as Ray Archuleta, the founder of Understanding Ag, LLC, and Gabe Brown, a regenerative farmer from North Dakota, who has a 5,000-acre farm with 20% higher crop yield than the county average. 

Conservation: Protecting the Chesapeake Bay

Streaming right through Misty Mountain Farm is West Branch Murry Run, one of the five headwaters that ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay. One of the more pristine rivers, the Loyalsock was the 2018 Pennsylvania River of the Year.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chesapeake Bay was floundering under a high nutrient load from the hundreds of farms leaking their fertilizer, manure, and pesticides into the rivers that fall in the watershed area.

Recognizing this issue, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation set up a series of grants for farmers to keep the run-off clean by establishing buffer zones between the farm and the watersheds.

In 1999, the Alberts were the first in Lycoming County to fence an 80-foot buffer between their cattle and the stream. At this time, the stream was warm, semi-polluted, and had no trout. Instead of trout, which are an indication of cleanliness and purity, they found only a few chubs and crew fish.

Just buffering the stream produced dramatic improvements. So much so that in 2017, they celebrated a 100-person ‘field day’ that included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and State Rep. Garth Everett. They enjoyed a Misty Mountain beef barbeque, talked about soil health and water quality, and examined the stream for a 9-year improvement.

Working with students from the Lycoming College Clean Water Institute, they shocked the stream, temporarily paralyzing the fish, to see what fish now inhabited the ecosystem. A brown trout popped up. Now, trout flourish in the cold, clear, and oxygenated water that provides not just places to hide but also clean gravel for their eggs.

How Dave Grows Beef

Dave’s proprietary cattle feed produces beef with such tenderness that ‘you can eat it with a spoon.’

The crops he grows feed his 150 head of cattle. In the summer, they graze on improved pasture and cover crops in his fields. For the wintertime, the cow-calf pairs are fed mostly forages and corn silage. The finished ration is fed year-round in a finishing barn post-weaning. Both spring-born and fall-born calves are weaned at 10 months of age.

Dave says the key to a high-quality eating experience is prepotent genetics for marbling, coupled with a consistent energy release in the rumen, to allow for a steady rate of gain and growth. Cattle are harvested at the peak of perfection in quality grade. Harvest weights average 675 lb. on the rail. Plating a ribeye steak that is manageable is key to his restaurant trade.

As we sat in the warm sunshine, his pregnant cows trotted over to see us and investigate if we had any food. We heard his bull over in the nearby field wanting to visit the cows. Dave is careful what breed he uses for his Angus cattle. When I asked him if he used antibiotics, he said, ‘sure’.

He continues, “the other day, I had a pregnant cow who was about to calve. She contracted pneumonia and was terribly sick. I gave her an antibiotic cocktail, she lived, and the calf lived. If I hadn’t, I would have lost both of them. It is inhumane to let them suffer.”

As a nice push to gain valuable nutrients on pasture, Dave raises poultry, including chicken and turkey.

Customer Transparency: Strong Local Market

“Consumers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

For five generations, the Alberts have been selling their beef into the local market in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding area. They use three local USDA-inspected processing plants to turn their cattle into cuts for both the local restaurants as well as the farmer’s market. Since Covid, the local market has boomed! Per-month sales have doubled over the previous year. Slaughter dates are now being held for all of 2021 and into 2022.

The consumer wants to know their farmer. Misty Mountain Farms has long enjoyed a loyal following. But since Covid, more of the consumers who previously shopped in local supermarkets have bought his beef from the local market. Dave and Holly meet with consumers to inform them how they raise and feed their cattle from the time they are born. Customers love the taste and consistency of the Alberts’ meat.

Here’s how the farm prepares the cattle’s feed for winter…somewhat meditative to watch!

Their customers’ trust in Dave and Holly has placed the couple in the education business. Dave says, “we meet people where they are at. We don’t make a judgment on their knowledge, we just make a product that keeps them coming and we explain how we get there.”

This shows how important the farmer’s brand has become. The consumer wants great taste and flavor, but also to trust their food producer. Dave could just as easily sell his cattle to one of the ‘big four’ meat processors. It would be sold to the grocery store market and get absorbed into the retail system. There, the very same consumer would see the ‘generic’ beef and walk away not knowing the unique care that Misty Mountain Farm takes to grow their cattle.

Farmer & Rancher Election Survey Results

Our thanks to the hundreds of farmers and ranchers who took time during a busy season to tell us what they think about how the two major political parties are addressing their interests and concerns in the 2020 election campaign. These responses will help D2D do even more to tell your story.

Given this heated political environment and neither presidential platform addressing highly-specific plans for agriculture and food production, we set out with a goal to better understand the issues affecting American farmers – their concerns, hopes, and thoughts about the next four years.

A look at our respondents

Our survey launched in late September and amassed 300 completions from U.S. farmers and ranchers. Respondents provided a good cross-section of the farm and ranch population. They tended to be:

  • 45 years of age or older, and overwhelmingly politically aware and engaged
  • Diverse, across all types of farms sizes and crops/livestock
  • Dispersed geographically with a heavy concentration in the Midwest, reflecting the overall national character of farming and ranching

Cutting to the chase

Overall, respondents believe the Republican party is stronger on general farm economics and trade, and earned consistently higher marks than the Democratic party across all areas of interest addressed in the survey. 

Furthermore, respondents believe Republicans better understand their professional challenges and that the party will better support them by promoting their sound farming practices.

Democrats fared relatively better on questions related to environmental protection, food safety, diet, and nutrition – but still trailed the GOP in each category.

Putting issues in order

Farmers and ranchers have a lot to say about the obstacles they face daily to sustain their way of life for their staff, families, livestock, and customers.

When presented with a specific laundry list of potential issues, three out of four respondents cited a trade-related matter as one of their three biggest worries today, especially the unsettled state of relations with China. Just over half said farm income was one of their top concerns, as reflected in both the cost of inputs and availability of subsidies and economic support programs during an especially weak and unsettled farm economy.

But which issue is most important?

When asked to write in detail about what either administration could do right now to help them, most respondents addressed anticipated needs, such as free trade and less government regulation. But a surprising number of respondents looked beyond particular policies and roadblocks and instead, demanded some diplomatic aplomb for the parties to work together and get these issues remedied.

Politicians’ biggest misperceptions

Despite many farmers and ranchers preferring the Republican take on key issues affecting their operations, respondents won’t be giving either political party a free pass on their approach to food and agriculture. They weren’t shy about offering advice to both candidates on how to better connect both politicians and the larger public with the people who produce the nation’s food.

In summary, they believe they are a very misunderstood group. Respondents felt that politicians think they don’t care about the environment, don’t understand the physical and financial demands to run a multi-faceted operation, and that they are just ‘dumb hicks wearing overalls’.

When asked what particular misperceptions about farming and ranching need to be addressed, respondents offered some often colorful comments:

“They [think we] play in the dirt all day.”

“That we are not astute business people. They do not recognize that we are managing multi-million-dollar business enterprises. They do not recognize that we know a balance sheet and that we are better educated than the majority of the US population.”

“We don’t want to have to live on government subsidies.”

Many respondents felt the average politician doesn’t see farming and ranching as a demanding profession that requires shrewd business and operational knowledge. Additionally, respondents believe they also fail to grasp the economic stakes of modern farming and the risks that come with it from so many directions.

Delivering a message to candidates

Farmers and ranchers also had some equally blunt advice to politicians when asked about what they’d tell the presidential candidates if they had the opportunity:

“We provide the best, safest, and cheapest supply of agricultural products in the world, but have to go through expensive risk to do so.”

“Production ag needs markets and fair trade, not subsidies, to succeed long-term.”

“You are both full of manure.” 

The overriding sentiment expressed in this open-ended question was that respondents felt as though the food system they operate every day for every American and countless others around the globe goes unnoticed by politicians and consumers alike. Farmers and ranchers remind us that “we in the middle of the country matter, too”, feeling forgotten or only catered to around election years.

And many expect better treatment for others, too — even presidential candidate to candidate. One piece of sage advice: “Get along with each other’s party…do what is best for America”.

Farmers remain resilient

Despite the litany of misperceptions that need to be addressed, the farmers and ranchers who responded to the D2D survey remain surprisingly optimistic about their future.

After almost seven years of declining income and sustained economic stress, seven in 10 respondents say they are optimistic about the future of their operations.

Making changes on the farm

When asked unaided about the biggest changes they’re currently facing in ag, most individual respondents described several ways they’ve continued their operations amid such instability. They’ve done everything, from cutting costs to utilizing marketing and technological strategies to adding new product lines and income sources.

Get ready…

So who do farmers foresee as president in 2021? Two-thirds of our respondents predict a victory for Donald Trump on Nov. 3.

In Closing

This feedback garnered from farmers and ranchers – our readers and friends—are not the end of the discussion, but just the beginning. Please stay tuned for further efforts to engage and empower our farmers and ranchers who sustain us and our families every day.

To review all quantitative responses in this survey, please click here

5G’s Revolution: Will Ag be Ready?

Cropduster airplanes are a familiar sight in the skies over farms worldwide — spreading fertilizers, surveying crops, and keeping an eye on cattle herds. But, as drones and other unmanned aerial systems have grown in popularity, innovative companies have begun finding new uses for these “eyes in the sky.”

One example is SlantRange, a company based in San Diego that is working to improve agricultural efficiency and productivity by flying drones over farms and using remote sensing and analytics to provide on-demand crop performance data and real-time insights. Agriculture producers are using its platform to better target their precision ag efforts, doing everything from measuring stress conditions across fields, determining plant sizes, surveying infestations, and more.

It’s a powerful tool, but it’s facing one significant challenge: connectivity.

“At a bare minimum, we’re using imagery that can distinguish individual leaves in the field,” explains SlantRange CEO and co-founder Michael Ritter. “To do that, we’re talking about a resolution on the order of a centimeter or smaller, and that translates into several gigabytes of raw data per acre.”

Many farms, especially those in remote agricultural regions with poor internet service, just aren’t yet ready to handle this type of network load. To date, SlantRange has used mobile computing solutions – effectively setting up a local network in a truck and parking it near the field while its drone works to support the connection – but there is a better solution on the horizon that could throw open the doors to advanced new applications for agriculture: 5G.

With this next-generation technology, the company hopes to make “digital farming” a reality, implementing state-of-the-art cost and time-saving solutions, like:

  • Cameras capable of up to 5x the resolution of today’s hardware
  • Sensors that gather spectral band information to isolate key markers of plant health
  • Imagery that adapts to sunlight and weather conditions to ensure accurate prescription management and forecasting

All these benefits will make farming much more efficient. Less chemical applications, better crop knowledge, more efficient water usage, better crop breeding information.

What is 5G?

There has been a lot of talk around 5G in the news lately, but little discussion of the actual definition. Right now, your voice, the photos you share, and all data that leaves your computer travels through the atmosphere. It is all in one piece when it leaves your phone and computer – but then travels in a disarray of atoms through the air. It must come together in a readable or listable form at the receiving end.

The best way to explain this technology is to think of Legos. Legos, you say? Yes. Visualize 4G as a simple Lego airplane. It leaves intact, the parts fly through the air separately, and then must be put together right before it lands. Now take a table-sized Lego spaceship. 5G will allow this complex structure to leave, disassemble, fly through the air, and come together much faster than the airplane. The real value of 5G is that massive amounts of data will be transmitted through the air and at faster speeds.

At the most basic level, 5G is the fifth-generation mobile network that debuted in 2019, replacing the 4G networks that provide data connectivity to most current smartphones and mobile devices. Its big selling point is capacity and speed. 5G will extend high-speed mobile service into new areas, effectively bringing full, uninterrupted internet experiences to every customer – regardless of the rural destination. Farmers will be able to have instant access to all the crop, soil, and weather information on their fields.

Think of 5G like Wi-Fi, but instead of being tethered to your home or office, it’s available everywhere – all the time.

5G is expected to positively affect all industries, but may have a greater impact on the food industry, in particular. Logistics can finally go digital, supply chain tracking can be fully realized, energy companies will have better insights into the grid, and much more. 

5G on the farm

5G will be especially groundbreaking on the farm. “5G technology will allow farmers to cultivate their crops in a more ecologically responsible manner,” says Ryan Douglas, a cultivation consultant who works with cannabis companies. Access to this type of connectivity will greatly improve producers’ ability to track inventory, which is of particular concern for cannabis companies that need to keep up with regulatory tracking demands.”

But regulatory tracking is just the beginning. Douglas continues, “Drones equipped with 5G technology can be used to monitor large outdoor crops for nutrient deficiencies, pest infestations, and disease outbreaks. Problem areas can then be spot-treated, instead of applying fertilizer or pesticides to the entire crop.”

It will also enable 24/7 drone monitoring of fields, allowing farmers to pinpoint the exact moment to harvest based on supply chain needs and adjust fertilizer and irrigation needs on a plant-by-plant basis to maximize yields. Real-time soil analysis can help producers decide where and when to plant to ensure the best possible crop for their current and expected conditions, while autonomous tractors can manage the harvest themselves, circling the fields while the farmer sleeps based on data being gathered and analyzed by remote sensors.

Implementation in the Field

While the agriculture industry has been slow to adopt other new technologies, 5G is coming along at a good time, after many farmers have adopted farm management software, 4G sensors, and other new tools. They’ve seen the power of these platforms; the expanded bandwidth of 5G will only make them better.

Dr. Kuang-Ching Wang, a professor of engineering at Clemson University who was involved in the development of the first-generation Internet, explains, “we have been working closely with agriculture to push a vision of the future of food production, all the way from building smart farms, to connecting them through these new networking technologies, to all the other systems technologies that will be built on top of these network capabilities. Our goal is to make agricultural production much more efficient and also to integrate artificial intelligence into this whole picture.”

5G can bring a lot of promising applications to life, he says, by focusing on data-enabled systems to help make agriculture more efficient. For example, when developing smart farms, it’s one thing to invest in farm robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT). But, how do you deploy massive numbers of sensors into your environment and then consume the data that they collect right there? Not in an office somewhere, but right in the field. You need a powerful remote connection to make that happen.

It’s the same with automated agriculture. The technology exists to gather sensor data and manage automated harvesting systems, but it will take 5G coverage to get those robots all talking to each other and the farmer.

A number of startups are working to solve this problem, and legacy brands like John Deere are on board, as well, partnering last year with Verizon to expand the 5G use cases for agriculture. This built on John Deere’s 2017 acquisition of Blue River, an artificial intelligence company that is now developing new machine learning, deep learning, and robotics tools for the company’s farm equipment.

Challenges remain

There’s a lot of promise here, but another problem exists: 5G is just part of the puzzle. To get these new ag applications off the ground, the underlying fiber optic networks will have to be extended out to rural areas, as well. In addition, all the sensors that capture the data will have to be upgraded to handle the speed and data capacity.

“It’s a whole ecosystem that has to be transformed,” says Dr. Wang. “But the promising note is that we do see these efforts happening, not just driven by the 5G industry but rather by this new global awareness of the data-driven future of agriculture.

Getting the fiber to the farms is difficult, but there are some projects underway to make it happen.”

This includes the National Science Foundations’ Broadband 2021 effort to boost broadband infrastructure, as well as the $400 million the organization committed in 2016 in support of the White House’s Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, which continues to fund new wireless technologies and applications to support widespread adoption and more robust networks for commercial use. And in December 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture made $550 million in funding available to deploy high-speed broadband internet infrastructure in rural areas across the country. Just this month, the Federal Communications Commission voted to offer $16 billion in subsidies for rural broadband buildouts this year as part of its Rural Digital Opportunities Fund.

“There is a clear consensus that, for us, the next challenge is really not about just pushing a faster network or cooler applications in the cities,” Dr. Wang says, “but rather how you bring together complete broadband capabilities, including the rural communities.”

But is 5G Safe?

Further challenges exist within the field of personal safety.  Because the emerging 5G technology is essentially packed with higher levels of energy radiation than 4G, the major fear is the potentially adverse health effects on humans and animals.

The most pressing question that scientific and health organizations, like the World Health Organization, are currently exploring is finding out if the type of radiation emitted by 5G is safe non-ionizing waves, like radio waves and infrared, or harmful ionizing waves, like x-rays and gamma rays. Current studies on 5G’s radiation type are not clear cut.

Even if 5G emits non-ionizing radiation, we still have to consider how much more radiation we’ll be exposed to. The Environmental Health Trust believes that currently, “5G will require the buildout of literally hundreds of thousands of new wireless antennas in neighborhoods, cities and towns.” However, according to Dr. Steve Novella, a professor at Yale, and editor of Science Based Medicine, the amount of radiation we are talking about is a frequency less than light. “You go out in the sun, and you’re bathed in electromagnetic radiation that’s far greater than these 5G cell towers.”

SOS: Save Our Soil

As you may know, we have written about why soil is so important. We need it to grow our food, clean our water, and recycle CO2. 11% of our entire Earth is used for crop production, which we need soil to complete. Yet, we still take soil for granted. Let’s dive into why we are losing soil and how we change this trajectory.

CIA world factbook

Soil loss

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 33% of the world’s soil is moderately to highly degraded, or worn down, due to erosion by wind or water, drought, loss of soil or organic carbon, loss of biodiversity, destruction of ecosystems, habitat destruction, and pollution.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that, because of degradation, half of the topsoil on Earth has been lost over the past 150 years. This is critically important because it threatens our ability to provide food for a growing population and jeopardizes the quality of our environment. Soil is a finite resource…its loss and degradation is not recoverable within the average human lifespan. Unless we drastically change our ways.

The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service explains managing soil health, or improving soil function, as “mostly a matter of maintaining suitable habitat for the myriad of creatures that comprise the soil food web.”

This agency has developed four primary drivers of soil health to improve soil function:

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible
  2. Grow as many different species of plants as you can
  3. Keep living plants in the soil as often as possible
  4. Keep the soil covered all the time

What is stopping them from achieving this state of soil health is industrial agriculture, which is cultivating crops on a large-scale by the use of intensive actions and chemical fertilizers.

Dr. Bill Robertson, an expert on soil restoration and professor of Crop, Soil, & Environmental Science at the University of Arkansas states, “soils are different everywhere you go…I grew up around Lubbock, Texas and I went to school in College Station, and the soils are different in both places.”

He says that this was even the same in 1995 when he moved to Arkansas. “That was my first experience with soils that have low organic matter and are pretty weathered. In Lubbock, when it would rain I’d sink down way past my ankles, but here in the mid-South with the types of soils we have, a lot of times after rain you don’t even leave any footprint in the soil.”

Why is this happening?

According to the FAO, there are many reasons why we are losing our soil, from erosion, poor farming practices, rain intensity, and wind. Even though we have learned a lot from the days of the Dust Bowl, we have not completely adopted best practices everywhere.

Tilling the soil with a tractor works crop residues and turns over the soil. While initially it aerates and fertilizes, in the long run it causes great damage to the soil. It changes the natural balance of the soil, leaving it dry and compacted so that it can’t support microbes like healthy soil can.

Compacted soil reduces airflow, water filtration, and impacts root growth. Remember, we need these microbes because they act like a fertilizer in the soil. No-till farming allows the crops to decompose into the soil and prevents erosion via wind or water.

Overgrazing by cattle is another reason we are losing soil because it weakens plant growth. A lack of plant growth reduces root mass in the soil, which in turn increases runoff and causes high soil temperatures.

What’s the solution?

One solution is to plant a cover crop, which is planting a particular crop specifically to improve soil quality. By doing this, the cover crop can help feed soil microbes and act as a sort of “glue” to hold them together while the soil rebuilds its microbiome. A second solution would be to introduce root systems. By doing this, the structure of the soil improves because space becomes available for air and water to regenerate the soil.

Dr. Robertson has begun to implement cover crops in some of his side-by-side fields. He says, “in fields where there are cover crops and that are fed soil microbiomes – they can hold 6-8 inches of rainwater per hour.

Conversely, bare, tilled fields only absorb ½ inches an hour.”

According to his research, for those crops that had a 1% increase in organic matter in the soil and added microbes, there is almost an extra inch of water retention per hour. This tells us that by improving the microbiome in the soil, it’s possible to reduce the need for irrigation, and, in return, build healthier, more resilient crops and boost yield without increasing cost.

It makes sense and further supports our point of why industrial agriculture is so detrimental to our soil. As natural microbes and bio-pesticides are absorbed into the soil, taking the place of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they are better able to support robust plant growth. This leads to bigger yields, better resistance to pesticide stress, and an all-around healthier ecosystem.

“We can work against Mother Nature for a while,” he adds, “but after a while if we can just figure out how to work with the natural process, life is much simpler for everybody.” He continues with, “A lot of farmers treat their soil like they’re building a house and then tearing it down, improving soil structure but then coming in there with deep aggressive tillage and destroying all they built. You never get anywhere doing that.”

“Making” healthier soil

Farmers are also taking steps to ensure healthy soil every day. By increasing the organic matter in soil, you can improve its long-term health and performance. Similar to how you drink and eat pre- and probiotics to improve your gut health, farmers incorporate organic matter, such as crop residues, animal manure, compost, cover crops, and perennial grasses and legumes to feed the microbial community in the soil.

Soils deliver ecosystem services that enable life on earth (FAO)

Researchers also agree that soil health improves through diversified crop rotations, minimal soil disturbance (no-till and reduced tillage), and the use of cover crops. These practices are the basic principles that underpin conservation agriculture. As a result, farmers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.

The good news is that there is a worldwide effort among government agenciesNGOs, and food and agricultural companies to provide education, research, and funding to farmers, ranchers, and landowners to help improve, manage, and sustain healthy soils.

Global status of human degradation of soils (FAO)

For too long, we have cared too much about what the soil can do for us, and each year it grows a little more tired, depleted, susceptible to pests, disease and water shortages, and we are all responsible. It is up to us, farmers, ranchers, soil scientists, legislators, and consumers, to invest in our soil once again.

Soil Health Institute

How are NGOs helping?

The Nature Conservancy 

The Nature Conservancy identifies three main reasons why soil conservation is critical:

  1. Fighting climate change: Soil contributes to the recycling of CO2 in our environment because it contains double the amount of carbon than our atmosphere. Soil degradation leads to a decrease in soil maintenance of CO2, which, in turn, will act as a barrier to fighting climate change.
  2. Sustainable food production: We know that healthy soil is crucial to agriculture and crop production. When soil becomes lost, unhealthy, or eroded, this stands in the way of achieving sustainable food production.
  3. Protecting the habitat and biodiversity: We know that soil regulates water, but when erosion occurs, this can cause a loss of nutrients in the soil and an excess of nutrients in water systems. This could lead to problems in water diversity and can even negatively impact the water that we drink every day.

This is why the Nature Conservancy prides itself on being an advocate for soil and implements different practices including, restoration of biodiversity, carbon sequestration, lower sedimentation, and crop productivity.

The World Wildlife Fund

The World Wildlife Fund is known for being advocates for animals and nature, but they are also advocates for the soil, too. Soil erosion leads to an increase in infertile land. An increase in demand for food production has led to the conversion of natural vegetation in forests and grasslands to cultivating crops in man-made farm fields and pastures.

The World Wildlife Fund says this is problematic because agriculture, “often cannot hold onto the soil, and many of these plants, such as coffee, cotton, palm oil, soybean, and wheat, can increase soil erosion beyond the soil’s ability to maintain itself.”

What is Soil?

We live in a world with a growing population where understanding the importance of vital elements has never been more necessary. Understanding all that sustains us, and keeps us healthy, is critical to our survival. At the root of that is soil. And what better time than now to appreciate the outdoors, when we’re eager to be out of our homes and in our backyards and gardens! Look out the window – plants, crops, trees, lakes, rivers, streams, gardens, grass…are all supported by the often misunderstood “skin of the earth”.

So let’s get to know our soil to make us better home gardeners and, more importantly, better stewards of healthy soil for the greater good.

What is Soil?

It is a natural body on the land surface of Earth, made up of minerals and organic matter. Soil has many jobs, including:

  • Providing our plants with the minerals and nutrients needed to give them proper nourishment which then keeps us healthy
  • Holding in moisture, preventing flooding, giving us groundwater, and keeping water intact for crops to grow
  • Modifying the atmosphere by providing a massive carbon sink for the Earth’s CO2 cycle by emitting and storing CO2, water vapor, and other gases
  • Purifying the water as it enters the ground
  • Providing a habitat for everything, from groundhogs and gophers to bacteria and fungi
  • Recycling nutrients so they can be used over and over again
  • Finally, it is also the foundation for photosynthesis, which is needed to grow our food

Soil vs. Dirt

Soil is found in layers with the “litter zone” on top. This layer is what we can see and where we find matter, like twigs and leaves. After that, there’s the topsoil, the subsoil, and rock fragments and bedrock at the bottom. That is a lot more than just a pile of dirt!

The most important layer is the topsoil, where all plant growth takes place. But it is a long, slow process. Because it is made from crushed rock and decaying plants and animals, it can take thousands of years in colder climates and hundreds of years in hot, wet climates to make just one inch of topsoil. Crushed rock is the time-consuming part.

Think of the rich, dark soil that was formed by the glaciers when they came down across North America and other parts of the world. A combination of glacial pressure, wind, rain, and basic weathering broke down the rocks into smaller fragments. As they break down, the minerals from the rocks dissolve into the earth.

Take a look at the soil in your hand, rub it between your fingers. Those shiny particles could be crushed rock from the glaciers millions of years ago.

Some Fun Topsoil Facts:

  • One earthworm can digest 36 tons of soil in one year – that is equal to five elephants!
  • There are over 70,000 kinds of soil in the U.S.
  • Five tons of topsoil spread over an acre is as thick as a dime

Soil is also formed by decaying roots, old plant material, and living organisms, which help break it down.  As dying material degrades into the soil, it provides nutrients for vegetation, as well as enriching the microbiome. These microbiomes are arguably the most important part of the soil.

The Soil Microbiome

When you hold soil in your hand, what you can’t see with the naked eye are the billions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and other microorganisms. These are known as microbes and, this collection is commonly referred to as the soil microbiome.

When in proper balance, the microbiome stores and cycles nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, and provides stability and support for growing plants. It is truly the foundation of a natural regenerative process that has existed on Earth for millennia.

Microbes act like a fertilizer. They help plants change nitrogen from the air for growth and maturity, absorb phosphorus for health and vigor, and can protect a plant from fungal disease, like botrytis, or gray mold. This is the fungus we see most on our spoiled, inedible strawberries.

A diverse microbiome is an essential ingredient to healthy food and nutrition and is responsible for the micro and macro ingredients for our daily 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables, protein in wheat, and healthy animal feed for our protein. The more microbe diversity in your gut, the healthier your gut and overall immune system. A spoonful of soil? It is generally thought that by working in the garden, you inadvertently ingest soil – and healthy microbiomes for your gut.

Ever wonder how some plants grow in dry conditions? Microbiomes! The microbiome in and around the roots of that plant helps it survive amidst drought and heat. Scientists can isolate these microbes and apply them to crops with drought conditions. For example, the company Indigo Ag has developed microbial-treated seeds for wheat to increase plant health in the face of water stress.

Microbes perform critical functions in soil food webs, such as decomposing organic materials, cycling nutrients, and improving soil structure. (USDA NRCS)

Did you know? Penicillin, tetracycline, and streptomycin are just a few of the several hundred antibiotics originating from soil microbes.

Combating Desertification & Land Degradation

 

We all have special days in our lives that we remember and celebrate – birthdays, anniversaries, holidays – as well as those remarkable people who always remember these special days and surprise us with a telephone call or a thoughtful card. I’ll admit I don’t routinely fill this role, but today, I’m happy to remind everyone that June 17, 2020 is indeed a day to remember: it is the United Nation’s global observance of Desertification and Drought Day.

You might be thinking, “wait, what day is that?!” Well, on June 17 each year, people around the world concerned about the scourge of desertification, land degradation, and drought work to raise awareness and promote solutions to these important issues.

Think this day may not pertain to you? Think again. These intertwined issues of desertification and drought are related to broader issues such as the food we eat, farmer livelihoods, water quality, soil health, ethnic and gender diversity, wildlife biodiversity, refugees and social migration patterns, the rate of deforestation, and the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. This topic is the fulcrum to gain leverage for many of the positive changes you’d like to see in the world.

Put simply, as our consumption increases, the health of the land on which we produce food, cloth, and other goods decreases. Severe weather patterns, such as excessive rain or drought, can quickly degrade plant growth and cause soil erosion. Farm management practices, like grazing duration, excessive tillage, poor irrigation practices or leaving the land bare of plant growth, can instigate a decline in productivity.

Once soil deterioration starts, a downward spiral can ensue, causing a once productive landscape to look more like a desert. Deserts are harsh places to live – food production is difficult and people who find themselves in these places tend to move on. Hence our deserts become deserted.

At this time, over one-half of the global agricultural lands used for food production are considered moderately to severely degraded. Furthermore, they are being abandoned at an unsustainable rate and many are challenging or impossible to restore.

soil degradation

Depending on the type and extent of degradation, the land may never be suitable again for food production or it could take several decades to rebuild the topsoil. In China, for instance, roughly 20% of the productive farmland soils are now contaminated with heavy metal pollution. A large portion of this land may never again be fit for food production, but other areas may be rehabilitated to serve as livestock feed in the future. China, India, and other countries with severe land degradation issues are increasing imports of certain food items, which in turn, drives agricultural expansion in countries such as Brazil or Indonesia. Of course, some former ag lands reverting to nature could be a benefit to biodiversity, climate, and broader ecosystem health.

But restoration work takes time, concerted effort and considerable nuance.

It is imperative that we reverse the desertification trend to avoid creating more lands in need of restoration.

The high rate of abandonment is one of the main drivers for converting existing forests or open savannahs to agriculture. Taken together, this land-use change makes up the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the global food system. Without meaningful change to this degrade-abandon-convert trend, experts predict we will burn through another 400 million hectares – an area twice the size of Mexico – at the expense of natural ecosystems – over the next 30 years.

Surface land use chart courtesy of Growing Better Global Report, Food and Land Use Coalition (2019).

For my organization – The Nature Conservancy – the trend is deeply alarming and unacceptable. We face not only an unprecedented loss of nature, but also food security and economic challenges if we can’t reverse this trend. Consider:

  • Today, the expansion of agriculture into natural habitats is the largest driver of biodiversity loss globally.
  • Plus, after 10,000 years of agriculture, virtually none of the new land coming into production today is the highest quality land for food production.
  • In addition to the priceless loss of biodiverse species, these inefficient land-use dynamics cost the global economy several trillion dollars annually.

Thankfully, there is a business and science case for change that is gaining traction. Actors throughout the global supply chain are taking steps to slow the conversion trend and deploy a suite of regenerative management practices to restore existing agricultural areas.

Planting diverse cover crops annually to improve soil health is perhaps the one regenerative management practice that if widely adopted, could do the most to restore degraded croplands.

In the U.S., for example, the past decade has seen small but steady increases in farmers utilizing cover crops to maintain and restore croplands. While every farm has a slightly different set of circumstances to consider, most farms will start making more money by routinely using cover crops by the third year of adoption, if not sooner.

Over the next decade, our task at TNC is to assist the farmers and ranchers who have successfully restored their lands utilizing these regenerative soil health management practices to transmit this knowledge through various means to millions of their peers around the world.

We can all play a small role in this process, too. Simply by eating a more diverse diet – trying something new – we will send market signals to food producers to incorporate more diversity into our agricultural landscapes. Several thought-leading chefs are taking “farm to fork” considerations even further by using new ingredients to support the health of our soils – from dirt to dinner, if you will.

We are encouraged by the growing attention to these issues, especially among practitioners. Farmers, ranchers and pastoralists around the world are recognizing they can move beyond simply sustaining their land resources. They can adopt management practices which restore and revitalize the health of ecosystems.

Today, as we observe Desertification and Drought Day while still in the grips of a global health crisis, we do so to call attention to this important issue.

But I hope that I’ll have the occasion to remind everyone in ten years that June 17, 2030, is a day for celebration – a celebration of a decade well spent embracing the solutions to this vitally important global challenge.

Want to learn a few facts about desertification? See our infographic below to learn more:

Demanding Equality: Women Farmers in Africa

Editor’s Note: These days, it feels like a challenge to find stories of unity and empowerment. So we feel very honored and proud to present our readers with these uplifting stories of three African women farmers who not only challenge the status quo, but have dramatically improved the well-being of their families, their countries…and beyond.

In sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers make up 80% of all farms, with women comprising at least half of the work force. However, a pervasive gender imbalance exists here, with men dominating the industry and given opportunities and resources their female counterparts can only dream of. Motivated by the stories of their mothers and their own experiences in rural Africa, these three inspiring women, Ruramiso Mashumba, Slyvia Tetteh, and Sussana Phiri, have created a better life for themselves, their families, and all women farmers through their educational and empowerment efforts.

From Ghana to Zimbabwe to Zambia, here are the stories of our farmers.

These are the stories of Ruramiso Mashumba, Slyvia Tetteh, and Sussana Phiri, exemplary women who have changed the face of farming in Africa. Together, they unify their voices through their Facebook page, Women Who Farm Africa, which shares resources, experiences, and information to empower women around the world. They take pride in Africa’s culture of leaving no one behind by educating women on preventing food insecurity and encouraging their role in strengthening the local and global economies.

These women believe that “closing the access gap between men and women farmers would increase agricultural productivity by 2.5 – 4% in developing countries – thus reducing hungry people by 150 million. The result is a thriving community, country, and world.

Ruramiso Mashumba, CEO & Founder, Mnandi Africa

I was born in the capital city of Zimbabwe, Harare. My mother worked in the rural areas. I remember when we were younger, she used to sit us down and tell us about the women she worked with in agriculture. Many of times they couldn’t afford to send their children to school if there was a drought in the country. The women worked tirelessly day in and day out to earn just a few dollars.

From that age, I made up my mind that I, too, want to work in supporting women in rural communities.

When I was 14 years old, my dad bought a farm and I was moved to a school next to the farm that had a focus on agriculture. This is where I learned about commercial agriculture and the power it had to transform the rural economy by transforming lives of farmers. I decided to further my studies at school and receive a diploma. My experience wasn’t easy. The school was not ready for women. They didn’t have a uniform for us. I had to wear khaki shorts, shirt and long knee-length socks as there was no uniform for girls.

For two years, I studied agriculture at my school. Throughout the entire time, I was bullied. They called me a boy because of my uniform. I remember the boys would pull my chair and laugh at me every day.

Despite how difficult it was, I was determined to make sure I didn’t give up. I felt I must persevere because I was an example for little girls in my school who were younger than me. I wanted to show them you can achieve anything, even when the odds are against you, if you put your mind to it. So I made sure I studied hard.

After two years, I graduated third in my class out of fifty students. I’m happy to report the two people above me were also girls.

We stuck together and yes, we did persevere.

I then went on to further my education in the UK. I remember my first day on a British farm. These farmers were so cool! They had tractors, combine harvesters – worlds apart from the women my mother described in her story who farmed with manual tools and torn clothes.

After I graduated, I decided to return to Zimbabwe. My goal was to change the face of my country’s agriculture. I was encouraged and motivated. I wrote a business plan.

I remember the day I finally got an appointment to see my bank manager. He was dressed smartly in a pin striped suit and looked very important.

I sat down anxiously and presented my proposal. After what felt like a lifetime, he inhaled and said, “Young lady how old are you?” I replied 25 years old. He said, “Hmm…do you have collateral?” I replied, “No, just my University degree.”

He replied, “Soon you will be married and what will that mean for our money? Hmmm, unfortunately, we are unable to assist you.” I went home in tears.

I sat down with my parents crying. My mother got up, got a box, and took out her savings she had put aside to buy a car and said, “My girl, you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it. Now, go and conquer the world.”

That year, I planted 1 hectare of cabbages, oilseed vegetables, and king onions. I used the knowledge I had learned at university that farming is a business and within one month, I was already selling, and my product was very successful.

The reason for my success was because of the education I gained not only in practical farming, but also business management, which included modules like how to secure markets.

As a result of my high-quality products, the next year I got my first big break. My company was contracted by a local producer to grow snap peas for them to export into the EU and became their first woman grower, as well as their first grower younger than 30 years old.

The company had seen proof from the quality of my current crop that I was competent to produce high-quality product for them to export.

I have since shared my story and inspired other young ladies in rural areas, as well as in the urban areas. I tell them that agriculture is male-dominated, but women farmers can and should stand shoulder to shoulder with men.

Together, we can do more. Together, we can change the image of the continent and we can feed the world.

Today, I am the first woman chairperson of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union youth. I have represented women in ag across the world by sharing not only my story, but also the stories of the many women food producers who need access to education in agriculture, technology, and finance.

A lot of people see me today winning awards, traveling the world, farming with tractors, working with planter and center pivots, and think I have arrived.

In many ways I have, but honestly, as a farmer I am still faced daily with army worm, increases in pests and diseases, and climate change. I understand personally how hard things are and have the education to know that there are solutions. That’s why as a farmer, I have become an advocate for women in science.

Together, men and women can feed our growing population. Science is not moving fast enough for us as farmers. We need seeds that can adapt to today’s challenges and my involvement with Cornell’s Alliance For Science is motivated by my strong belief that science needs to hurry up.

The technology is there. I conclude by this popular African saying, “alone you can go faster, but together we can go far”.

Let’s come together — farmers both men and women, scientists and innovators — to help feed the world and leave no man behind.

Slyvia Tetteh, Administrator, Chamber of Agribusiness, Ghana


My name is Slyvia Tetteh. I’m from the United States of Africa; specifically, Ghana.

Famous Ghanaian educator Dr. James Kwegyir Aggrey famously once said: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation”. I believe this to be true. I want to share with you why I’m dedicating my life to empowering the women farmers of Africa.

My passion for empowering women began with my mother, Lawrencia Larbi. Despite so many obstacles, my mother had a dream of completing her education. Unlike here in America where families live on farms, in Africa our farms are usually located far away from our homes, and you must travel by foot because the paths are too narrow for vehicles. My mother would wake up every day at 4am. She would do this to help her parents feed the family and to raise money for her education. After putting on her school uniform, she would walk one hour to work on our family farm.

After working for several hours, she would then walk upwards of two hours with her mother to the market. There, they would sell our farm produce, and sometimes banana leaves. My mother did this every day. Only then did she depart for school. Unfortunately, some days it took hours before she and grandma could sell any of our farm produce. Often, by the time they made enough money, morning classes had already ended. Sometimes they did not sell anything until midday. By then, it was already too late for my mother to go to school. My mother was pressed between a rock and a hard place.

She was the youngest in her family. Her brother and sisters had found this schedule impossible to maintain. She had worked so hard to try to finish school, but eventually reality hit her. It was literally and physically impossible to follow the daily routine and achieve academic success. With no other options, she had to marry early and start a family, just like generations of women before her.

While she was being educated, my mother dreamed of becoming a lawyer and eventually a Legislator who served her nation. But with no support financially, and unable to achieve an education, my mother had to give up her dream.

My mother was seventeen when she got married.

No one should give up their dream at seventeen years old. My mother was determined to give me and my sisters the opportunities she didn’t have. And she did. She didn’t always have the money to keep us in school. But despite the fact that she didn’t finish school, she remembered everything she had learned. When we couldn’t afford school, she used her knowledge to homeschool us. I believe my mother was an exceptional woman, but in terms of what she did with the education she had, she was not atypical.

In my country, if you educate a father, he is expected to take his education out of the home and into the workplace to earn money for his family. A woman’s role is to stay home with her children. When mothers are educated, they keep their education in the home and use it to educate their children. If you educate a woman, you educate her children, and by extension, her community. A nation of educated women is an educated nation.

Out of 80% of women farmers with children in the 1990s, I’m one of the lucky ones to obtain a higher education. I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Information Studies. My mother’s hard work gave me the opportunity to stand on this platform before you here today. This is why I work so hard to help other women. My mother’s unwavering dedication to educate me drives my passion.

Today, I educate womenI work with women farmers so that they can farm successfully and more easily using modern agricultural biotechnology. I do this because I believe if you educate a man you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation. Our male counterparts also have challenges, yet the current system advances men. Men hand their farms down to their sons from generation to generation.

Therefore, only less than 20% of agricultural land in the world is owned by women farmers. Because men own their land, they have the collateral to secure loans to buy machinery, which allows them to scale their farming.

Meanwhile, so many women are still farming with manual tools.

Research has shown that women farmers produce 70% of food found on the continent, and yet 5 million people die of hunger every year. 5. Million. People. To be able to feed the continent with the expected population increase of 1 billion, things must change. Women must have the tools they need to farm more efficiently, maximizing output on every inch of farmland. Strong policies must be put in place.

The only way to bridge this vast gap of inequity is to educate women. Women Farmers Must. Be. Empowered. Equally. In order to increase yields and achieve sustainable growth, women must be educated about agricultural biotechnology and have access to other available breakthrough technology. Only then will women become productive, independent, and financially stable. Families with educated women are empowered to provide for themselves. Unlike my mother, these families can realize their dreams. There is no reason we can not empower the women of Africa to empower themselves. We. Can.

And when this day comes, we will be able to say the following: We have educated women. We have educated an entire nation. And the world IS a better place.

Sussana Phiri, Farmer & Advocate of Zambian Agriculture

I am Sussana Phiri and I am from Zambia. Chilanga is my hometown. Zambia has abundant arable land, many water bodies, and hardworking women. Zambia is home to a vibrant mix of cultures and is also widely considered to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming nations in the world.

In America, you’re either a farmer, or you’re not. It’s not that simple where I come from. In my country, we are all farmers. When I was little, my father made small farming tools for me and my siblings. They were cute. We weren’t doing much, but it was our introduction to farming being a part of the fabric of our lives. We farmed during the rainy season so we had enough maize to feed our big family through the next year.

My mother always used to say “pang’ono pang’ono ndi mtolo,” translated it means: ​bit by bit causes a heap.

Although we didn’t have endless supplies of food, we all worked together, bit by bit, to ensure we never went hungry. I am so thankful. ​No child should ​ever​ go hungry. Like many people in my country, there were early mornings, long days, and late nights. All day, every day, every year. By the time I was 22 years old, I was studying remotely to earn my degree in education, while farming my family’s land and also teaching pre-school.

Seeing children I worked with suffer because they did not have enough to eat was painful. Despite being hungry, these children worked hard and went to school every day. Theirs is a difficult yet inspiring story, but that is not the story I want to share with you.

I want to share a practice in my country which hurts me, but inspired me to make change.

I want to tell you about a practice called mashanga – a practice which taught me to question what is not right and think outside of the box for solutions. After the rainy season, we wait for the maize to dry. Once it dries, my family harvests it. Mashanga is what happens next, but it shouldn’t happen at all. ​After Harvest season, women with little babies on their backs would ask for permission to go on our land. We would grant it and they would walk through the field, looking for ​any grain we had accidentally left behind. ​They would walk our field for hours, hoping to find any scraps we left behind, and then they would go to other fields after that.

Mashanga is considered normal in my community. Mothers with little babies on their backs, looking for scraps.

This practice made me realize many things. First, in order to live in a better world you must question the world you’re in. Second, just because things have always been done one way, it does not mean they are right, fair or just. And finally, there can be better ways to do things than the way we have always done things. We must question what we think is normal to create change. And if we are to feed every hungry child, we must question what that looks like.

In Zambia, women farmers comprise over 70% of the farming labour, yet they do not have access to information on how to farm better beyond just thinking farming is a way of life.

We also do not have access to technology that would reduce labor while providing greater yields. Women’s work is not valued as it should be given the majority of labor we provide.

We can question this. It should not be normal. No. Things must change. ​Women farmers in Africa are feeding the African continent even under unfavorable conditions. But it is not enough. 1 in 4 children go undernourished everyday. Now imagine the year 2050, when Africa’s population is projected to have 2.4 billion people. ​We cannot move forward accepting things as they have always been. ​This is not sustainable.

pang’ono pang’ono ndi mtolo… bit by bit causes a heap.

I am a twenty-five year old who is working for that heap of change.

Change does not have to happen overnight, but it can and we must work bit by bit to cause a heap.

Today, I am a co-founder of the Women Who Farm Africa campaign. Women Who Farm believes that if we empower women farmers in agribusiness, agricultural technologies, and communication, we can​ feed the world in 2050.

Whether you are a business expert, scientist, communications expert, farmer, or policy maker, you can contribute a bit to create ​a heap of food for all of us. ​

Bit by bit, we can create change together. ​It’s time ​for a new normal, one that empowers women.

It’s time for a heap of change, a heap of change that feeds the world.

 

Can Technology Save Urban Farming?

vertical urban farm farming

Population growth, more food production, loss of arable land, water resources, and CO2 emission concerns are all on the forefront of food producers.

Given the fact that the U.N. predicts that 86% of the developed world’s population will live in cities by 2050, shifting food production to urban centers would seemingly solve all of these problems. Vertical farms have begun to sprout up like skyscrapers, packing massive production scale into an area as compact as a city block. While today, they are mostly used for microgreens, optimism prevails where existing rooftops could be repurposed to grow row crops. Vacant lot spaces could find a new use feeding the population.

According to Pitchbook, about $250 million has been invested in the top 25 Indoor Farms and related technologies. Environmental sustainability is a draw for impact investors. AeroFarms has four farms in Newark, New Jersey, one of which is the largest in the world: 70,000 feet and harvests up to 2 million pounds per year using 95% less water than field farming. Another contender, Gotham Greens, supplies Whole Foods in the New York City metro area with pesticide-free produce from their rooftop greenhouses.

Consider the potential impact:

  • Urban farms can be set up next to its consumers, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation and storage
  • They take up far less space than traditional, land-based farms, enabling them to create far more end product per acre and potentially making up for the loss of arable land
  • They can reduce the need for pesticides, eliminate the risk of extreme weather, and be built to conserve water and other traditional inputs 
  • They can be built effectively anywhere people live, bringing high-quality, nutritious food to growing communities all over the world, no matter the climate or land quality

A Promise Delayed

At least that’s the theory.

But, in reality, urban farming continues to lag behind its potential to disrupt the food system due to a range of shortcomings. Firstly, we eat more than just lettuce. Indoor farming is excellent for tasty greens, but expanding to staples in our diet, like fruits and vegetables will be tough with the technology that exists today.

And does this method actually reduce farming’s carbon footprint? Vertical farming operations might actually be more resource-intensive than outdoor production, given their reliance on artificial lights, water distribution, and climate control.

That’s on top of the fact that most urban farmers still can’t make a living at it, according to a 2016 study published in the British Food Journal.

As of today, urban farming – particularly the vertical farms that are envisioned to occupy skyscrapers and rooftops all over the world – is too expensive, too resource-intensive and too niche to truly reach its potential as a revolutionary new form of agriculture.

The Future of Food?

Could new technologies rebalance this equation and bring urban farms into wider use?

That’s the hope of a new generation of farmers and innovators working on ways to bring the power of Silicon Valley to the food we all eat, whether it is grown on an outdoor farm or in a warehouse. These efforts include everything from combining big data analytics and machine learning with genome editing to design better crops; creating robots that can pick apples, raspberries and other foods; and even using drones to gather insights that farmers and ranchers can use to more accurately plan and manage their facilities.

These new capabilities include:

Big Data Analytics: “Leaders in the agriculture industry have begun to use machine learning as a competitive advantage,” says Yochay Ettun, CEO and co-founder of cnvrg.io, a startup platform that is working to help data scientists manage and build machine learning models. For food producers, this has the potential to improve efficiency by offering everything from more accurate crop yield prediction to species recognition.

 “Machine learning has the ability to disrupt every industry, from agriculture to finance to travel. If society continues to invest and support its data science teams even in the agriculture industry there can be changes as drastic as the industrial revolution.”

– Yochay Ettun, cnvrg.io CEO & Co-Founder

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also making inroads in the controlled environment of indoor agriculture, in part because there is so much about farming that’s universal. From temperature to water, to nutrients, humidity and more, every single farm or indoor operation is managing the same seven to 10 different functions. The only difference is the scale of what they’re doing.

IoT can bring any scale down to size, adding in automation features that help small operators scale.

“Just think about how much more efficient your business can be when you can know what’s going on and be able to control your system remotely without staring at the plants all day,” says Dan Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Grow Computer, a company that is developing what it calls “an operating system for indoor agriculture” that will enable operators both large and small to harness the full potential of IoT and automation for ag applications, regardless of the hardware they’re using.

The five functions Grow Computer is providing to growers right now include monitoring, controls, automation alerts, and data, all of which can be managed from any internet-connected device. The idea is that a farmer can choose their own component tree, their own layout, their own processes, and then layer the software on top of it all, basically functioning like Microsoft Windows for everything that goes into an agriculture system.

“The biggest challenge that we see in urban farming is that, unless you have a tremendous amount of investible capital to build out your system, it’s really hard to be profitable,” Nelson explains. “You don’t get the benefit of these systems that large international agriculture companies get when you’re the small grower that’s trying to convert a small warehouse into a farm.”

“What we’re hoping for is that we’re going to help people build better vertical farming businesses at any size by helping them optimize their systems, getting them to the point that their competition is.”

– Dan Nelson, Grow Computer CEO & Co-Founder

Sustainable Lighting: According to Prof. Marc van Iersel of the Horticultural Department at University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, the typical indoor farming operation has to dedicate as much as 60% of its budget to energy costs alone, usually due to the artificial lighting that is required to support the system. As of 2019, this electricity is costing U.S. indoor farmers as much as $600 million per year.

This puts urban and vertical farmers at a disadvantage to their outdoor competitors, who get their light from the sun – for free, not to mention the substantial carbon footprint that goes into that power production.

A number of companies are currently working to address this shortcoming, building sustainable, LED-based lighting systems that are cheaper to run and designed to better support the plants they’re illuminating. New advances in LED light technology can, according to the Washington Post, do everything from change “how plants grow, when they flower, how they taste and even their levels of vitamins and antioxidants. The lights can also prolong their shelf life.”

Sananbio, the sister company of the world’s largest LED chip maker, Sanan Opto-Electronics – is bringing this promise to market with its photobiology technology, which is based on the interactions between light and living things. Its core focus is the optimization of lighting spectrums to allow plants to thrive at all stages of growth.

Per the company: “Our unique spectra has been trialed on a multitude of cultivars and our results have shown that by optimizing the spectrum based off of the cultivar we are able to increase nutritional value, drive unique genetic expression, increase active naturally occurring chemical compounds, and shorten flowering times.”

And that’s just one example of how smarter lighting can make things easier for vertical farmers.

Automated lighting systems, which can control when lights are on and off as well as optimize these cycles to maximize yield, can help operators not only cut down on management costs but prolong the life of the LED lights themselves.

The average LED lasts for about 50,000 hours, or more than 13 years if used for 10 hours per day. Optimization systems can improve the impact of these on periods to extract maximum plant benefits while extending the lives of the lights themselves.

Big Companies are Taking Notice

These innovations aren’t isolated to startups and growth companies either. Some of the largest technology providers in the world – including household names such as GE and Bayer – are also working on innovations for indoor agriculture.

Logiqs, for instance, a global logistics provider that has been designing and building warehouse automation and horticulture systems for more than 40 years, has introduced GreenCube, a modular indoor growing system that incorporates standard components from the company’s existing pallet storage systems and other growing racks. It is designed to work with the company’s automation equipment and sensors, which are also standardized, in order to keep the function of the entire system as simple as possible.

As Logiqs explains: “The goal of our design was to make a truly sustainable vertical farming system, from both an environmental point of view as well as from a financial standpoint.” And it’s worth noting that major food brands are buying in, as well.

“By partnering with urban farms, we can reduce our footprint, increase food security and livelihoods, and improve biodiversity,” says John Tran, Director of Sustainability & Responsibility at Pernod Ricard, the European alcohol conglomerate that today owns Absolut vodka, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Kahlua coffee liqueur, and other brands. The company launched its “Sustainability & Responsibility Roadmap for 2030” this past April.

“We’ve seen an increased use case for urban farming in 2019,” Tran says. “While limited space poses a challenge for high-scaled consumer products, we view it as supplementing traditional farms while also solving for some of the most pressing issues in highly dense urban areas. Urban farming provides a total value, increasing biodiversity and reducing ecological impact, which will help us improve our agricultural footprint and achieve our sustainability goals.”

2 Trade Deals and Plant Food in a Pear Tree: Top News in 2019

This year’s reporting sets the stage for some tough discussions for the ag industry to what no doubt will be a series of challenges in 2020 – and beyond. Though it seems out of our hands, we as consumers have serious pull here based on our purchase decisions. And for the future of food and agriculture at large.

Overview

“Gee, that’s a tough one. So much happened it’s almost impossible to pick just a few!”

2019 has been jam-packed with news headlines affecting our choices in food, the well-being of our farmers, and how new technologies will disrupt the industry. Every day, we’ve heard and read about…

  • Throughout the year, farmers remained highly focused and surprisingly hopeful on trade issues, especially involving China and our North American trading partners
  • African swine fever is reshaping entire markets, with the virus resulting in 40% of the global pig population to be culled
  • The ongoing RoundUp trial regarding glyphosate has enormous implications for farm production, Bayer’s balance sheet, and legal stakes with human health
  • Investment in ag technology has exploded in areas such as big data, precision farming, and food supply transparency, with all sorts of new doors opening for all parts of the food system
  • And the rapid developments in genetic engineering, such as GMOs, CRISPR, and synthetic biology, have created an ongoing debate over their regulation worldwide
  • A focus on soil health and other dimensions of ‘regenerative agriculture’ has become more critical for the health of future harvests
  • Claims and counter-claims have been made about finding the right balance between a healthy diet and best use of natural resources for our global health
  • Food labeling requirements have gathered steam as consumers drive greater demand for transparency along the entire supply chain
  • Food insecurity once again is on the rise around the world, as the United Nations reports

So, how do you pick from that hefty list? Here’s my attempt to weed out the most critical issues as we come into 2020. Take a look at my countdown and let me know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter!

#4. Food Safety.

The African Swine Flu swept through Asia and decimated the pig population. There are 770 million domestic pigs on various farms worldwide – at least 300 million have died. That is a lot of pigs to bury. China was hit the hardest as they have 440 million pigs – almost half of which have been affected. This does not only have implications for the hog farmers, but it shows how quickly a virus can spread around the world.

Food safety and animal welfare are critical components here:

  • How can we improve the quarantine process for animals and poultry?
  • Will the African Swine Flu virus spread? What are the implications?
  • Will the reduced pork supply change our buying habits? If so, what other forms of protein are we likely to eat?

This is an incredible amount to think about as we head into the new year, and we are only on the first point!

 #3. Weather alert.

When a 95-year-old corn and beans farmer in Central Illinois, who is still farming the 1,500 acres he owned since the 1920s, says he can’t remember a worse spring for planting in seven decades of farming, we all should pay attention. Add lingering wet conditions to the mix, and you have the prescription for significant harvest delays and losses – we’re talking up to half of last year’s corn and soybean crop levels in parts of the upper Midwest.

Bad weather is nothing new for farmers, of course. But the extent and severity of this year’s bad conditions caused huge damage, disrupted lives and entire communities, and only complicated the production picture for farmers already reeling from steady income declines.

Maybe more significantly, these reports may prove to be harbingers of the bigger questions yet to come for agriculture about climate change:

  • Will consumers accept seed technology and gene editing to help crops grow in wetter, cooler, drier, and/or drought conditions?
  • Can the four-row crops, canola, soybeans, cotton, and corn, be modified to grow in new climate regions?
  • Are there specialized crops that are more adaptable to varied climates?
  • What technologies and farming practices will be implemented to keep our soil secure? No-till farming and cover cropping quickly come to mind here.

And focusing on farmers is just a piece to a much larger puzzle. The right response to climate change involves all industries: from the municipalities, to the golf course, to the housing developer and homeowner, and beyond.

#2. It’s all about the trade.

I wish I had a dime for every time the word “China” appeared in a farm-related story this year. By now, we’ve all figured out just how important China is to U.S. agricultural interests – not just soybean producers, but a lot of other growers, suppliers, and people along the supply chain, too.

That political football has been kicked around all year, with a fair amount of optimism with China’s agreement to buy $50 billion in agricultural goods, up from $23.8 billion in 2017 (52% of which was comprised of soybeans). We hope to get this all sorted out so we can get back to normal in a huge and growing trade relationship.

Finalized on December 10th, the USMCA (U.S.- Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly NAFTA, was a win for American agriculture. Canada and Mexico are integral to our trade health, as these countries are the U.S.’s first and third largest export markets for food and ag, respectively. Together, this equals about 28% of total food and ag exports in 2017. The USMCA is anticipated to increase US ag exports by $2 billion. Even though NAFTA was a free trade zone, there were still some tariffs and quotas.

The new USMCA will be a win for U.S. dairy farmers, as this agreement will open up opportunities for milk products such as cheese, cream, and yogurt. It will also expand U.S. poultry and egg market access to Canada. Mexico and the U.S. will have the same grading standards for ag products. Finally, the three countries will have the same sanitary standards, based on science as well as agricultural biotechnology and gene editing.

As Trump pushes forward with success on these fronts, it still brings forward new questions for the future:

  • What will China buy to reach $50 billion? More soybeans?
  • Will trade always be used as a leverage point between the U.S. and other countries?
  • How can we protect the U.S. while still ensuring we have global fair trade?
  • Will we have other multilateral agreements such as USMCA?
  • Will China’s theft of intellectual property continue to occur?

#1. Plant-based protein.

I used to call it “alternative meat,” but the story is a lot bigger than that now. Plant-based meats, eggs, fish, milk, leather, and even collagen for your skin, are here to stay. The speed with which companies like Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats gathered steam (and investor dollars) absolutely amazed me in 2019.

According to AgFunder, ‘The alternative meat market sales growth is expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $140 billion ten years from now, growing to 10% of the total meat market.’

But let’s put this in perspective: the total animal products industry in 2018 was close to $2.23 trillion and is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2025. There is plenty of opportunity for all types of protein producers. But I never would have expected to be deluged with fast-food ads on television pushing exciting new vegetable-based burgers, or to see so many people willing to give it a try.

To me, that’s surprising, but in a very good way: consumers should have a choice. They should be able to choose products that meet their tastes and align with their values.

If someone wants to eat a veggie burger or a meat product produced in a lab, for health reasons, for environmental concerns, for moral values, so be it. Just don’t tell me that I have to eat one or the other. Let me choose. But let me choose facts, not marketing. Let the markets work.

As more and more consumers indicate their preference for plant-based foods, what implications does this have?

  • Are consumers getting the facts about meat and dairy, or is it marketing?
  • As consumers move away from meat, how are they getting their daily recommended protein requirements?
  • Demand for plants and meat will rise as our population grows. How do global producers sustainably meet demand?
  • What kind of labeling information does the consumer require to make an educated choice?

This is a profoundly important story about how responsive our food system is proving to be. Consumer tastes and preferences are changing as society changes around us. That should surprise no one. But the story of how fast and how well the food system can recognize that change and accommodate it is indeed newsworthy and earns my number one spot for the Top Food and Ag story of 2019. It will be fascinating to see where the story goes from here.

Soil Health: A Personal Chronology of a Global Paradigm Shift

Michael Doane is a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner and will be sharing a series of articles on how restoring our lands is the best tool for sustainable food systems. Read his first post on Land Degradation: The History Lesson We Are Still Learning.

Michael is the Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water for The Nature Conservancy. Michael started farming at a young age and is a partner in his family’s cattle and row crop farming operation located in Kansas. He combines his passion for agriculture with his love for nature in leading one of The Nature Conservancy’s top global priorities to provide food and water sustainably.

A Journey Begins

I drove my tractor and disk combination to the edge of the field and paused to survey the scene. Across a vast area was an overrun combination of weeds, large and small, and crop residues. It looked unruly, not cared for properly, and I was about to fix that. It was my first time to turn the soil on this farm and at just 18 years old, I felt a sense of energy about the task.

Having grown up on a working farm, I embraced my role as steward of the land. I didn’t know much about this particular field, but I knew the farmer managing it before me had some wild ideas on how to farm. The field always appeared overgrown; I had never seen it clean and neat, freshly turned to cleanse it from weeds and prepared for planting.

The opportunity in my mind was to make good on what I saw as neglected duties of the previous farmer to manage the field properly.

Little did I know I was about to begin a lifelong journey to understand soil health.

I pulled into the field and prepared the disk to turn the soil, anticipating a long day of working a rough, compacted field. But, as I lowered the disk into the field for the first time, I didn’t feel or hear the tractor begin to pull as I had experienced so many times before. I quickly craned my neck to inspect the situation behind me, fully expecting a breakdown – either the disk had not descended into the soil or perhaps it had somehow become unattached from the tractor. Instead, the disk was there and doing its duty, slicing through and aggressively turning the soil.

The soils in North Central Kansas are variable but mainly light brown in color. From my tractor seat, I noticed the soil in this field was much darker than any field I had ever worked. Perplexed, I stopped the tractor to get a closer look. I knelt into the soil, running my hands through it. The black, moist soil had an overpowering earthy smell of fertility and goodness, unique to anything I had experienced so far in my young farming career.

At the time, I was unable to make sense of what I experienced that day, but I was pleased with the growth of several successful crops on that wonderfully productive piece of non-tilled ground.

Fast Forward

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself in the seat of a small tractor towing a newly developed planting drill, delightfully named the Happy Seeder. I made a few passes with the drill and noticed how elegantly it mulched and placed the crop residues from the prior crop neatly between the new rows while it simultaneously opened a narrow slot to plant a new crop of wheat and place a small amount of fertilizer without turning over the soil. This no-till drill was unlike any I had seen before. The field was located in rural India, within the state of Punjab and the research complex of the Borlaug Institute of South Asia (BISA).

This region in Northwest India is in the midst of a major transition in their food production. Food security in India was achieved within a short and critical window of time, earning Dr. Norman Borlaug international fame as the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. An iconic example of the “Green Revolution,” this region increased food production as a result of advanced plant breeding of staple food crops such as wheat and rice and aided by the benefits of irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides.

But after many years of benefits, the situation has now changed. The once productive aquifer supporting the paddy rice and wheat cropping system has dwindled. In an effort to maintain paddy rice production with much less groundwater, the planting dates of the paddy rice, as a matter of public policy, have been shifted to take greater advantage of the monsoon season.

But this new cropping system is having unforeseen consequences. With a compressed window of time to harvest rice and plant their wheat crop, farmers have started burning the rice residues in the field, which allows a single pass of tillage to prepare the field for wheat planting. Tragically, the residue burning practice has caught international attention for the human health hazard it creates.

The Happy Seeder, however, offers an elegant and cost-effective solution to this problem. As documented by a recent Science article, the Happy Seeder allows the farmers to plant their wheat crop in one field pass – without burning the residue or tilling the soil. The Nature Conservancy is now cooperating with several partners to unlock the full deployment of Happy Seeders across the region with the goal of eliminating residue burning.

The Paradigm Shift

My experience of planting with the Happy Seeder in India and the curiosity sparked in me as a young, aspiring Kansas farmer were separated by 25 years and a global paradigm shift around soil health.

I now understand the farmer whom I followed into the field of my youth was on the right track – he simply didn’t have access to the knowledge, techniques, and innovations farmers now enjoy. He appreciated what I did not know at the time – tillage is devastating for soils.

Tillage destroys the biological life and functionality of a delicate living ecosystem in ways we can now comprehend and manage to avoid. While he was ultimately unable to achieve his vision in a profitable manner, what he left behind was healthy soil, full of life and highly productive. My conventional management practices at the time – which depended heavily on regular tillage – went on to extract this productivity.

Tillage is still a common management practice on nearly 90% of global croplands. As tillage continues, the life of the soil is interrupted, depriving it of plant cover and roots, making it more prone to erosion, unable to retain and cycle water and nutrients efficiently. Tillage in croplands is one of the primary drivers of land degradation, but it doesn’t need to be.

Over the past 25 years, a global movement to eliminate tillage in agricultural croplands has taken shape. My experience with the Happy Seeder convinced me we now have the technology to bring productive, zero-tillage cropping systems to farmers worldwide at any size and income level. This technology and the development of other no-till systems are also being deployed in the organic sector, whom we must thank and acknowledge for keeping attention on the priority of soil management.

When zero-tillage systems are paired with the regular planting of cover crops and more diverse crop rotations, soils currently on the slow but steady path toward degradation anywhere in the world can be restored to their prior glory as productive, living ecosystems. The paradigm shift to prioritize soil health is an ecological and human health imperative. Thankfully, our family farm made the switch to zero-tillage during my personal chronology of this movement and we are now utilizing cover crops and more diverse crop rotations. I am now confident any farmer in the world can acquire the knowledge and technology to make the paradigm shift too, reversing the looming land degradation threat one field at a time.

The Dirt to Dinner Team: Giving Thanks

Every day, we take for granted that we can just walk into a grocery store and pick out exactly what we want to eat. Do we want chicken, beef, or tofu for dinner? All year, we can drink coconut water, count on fresh strawberries, and be assured of 20 different types of coffee. This is thanks to the entire supply chain: from farmers, farm workers, food processors, truck drivers, food companies, to our local grocery store and its employees who stock the shelves so we can find precisely what is on our shopping list, no matter the time of year.

Lucy is Thankful for the Grocery Store

In the ‘60s, my sisters and I knew exactly where our food came from. There was a very small market called Waytonka in our Minnesota town. It had wooden floors, ceiling fans, the butcher in the back, and penny candy in the front. Aside from the candy, we ate what was local: milk and eggs were delivered to the back door by Meyer Brothers Dairy, ‘Your Lake Minnetonka Neighbor’.

In Minnesota, canned vegetables were a winter staple. As a result, our parents had a large vegetable garden and our job was to plant, grow and harvest. A lot of our childhood was spent on a small family farm while our parents traveled. We would help feed the hogs, milk the cows, and ride horses. If we wanted chicken for dinner, we went to the barn, found a plump one, cut off its head, plucked it and got it ready for the oven.

Today, I am thankful for the grocery store. Though the days of trotting out to the barn are memories that will last a lifetime, I am thankful for human ingenuity that enables me to pick up my hemp hearts to put on my Greek yogurt, buy Norwegian salmon to have for dinner, and yes, boneless skinless chicken breasts that are ready to be grilled, from a store less than 5 miles down the road.

…And Concern for the Earth

I am thankful that people are starting to ask questions about our food and changing the industry for the better. Questions like ‘is the food grown sustainably?” or “are the animals treated with compassion?” and “how transparent is the company or farm to the consumer?” quickly come to mind. I am thankful that we have new technologies like smart sensors, big data, and precision farming that address these issues. Today, with new businesses like Herddogg and iDecisionSciences, and websites like Crowd Cow and McDonalds, people are learning how their food is grown.

Hayley is Thankful for Healthy Foods

I am thankful for the healing power of foods. There is no question that what we choose to eat affects our health, and researchers have provided an abundance of studies proving just that. For instance, studies have shown that foods like blueberries, broccoli, avocado and chia seeds can help reduce inflammation to combat chronic illnesses.

Of particular interest to my family and me is diet related to brain health. My grandmother battled Alzheimer’s and dementia for years, but because she adhered to the MIND diet later in life, we are confident that it brought her more years with us. And for that, we are grateful. The diet has been found to slow and potentially reverse the effects of dementia, and is something I’m already trying to implement into my daily life.

Along the lines of healthful foods, our industry is constantly creating food innovations that provide us with nutrient-rich products. Two products that quickly come to mind are Tagatose, an alternative sweetener with micronutrients, and genetically-modified Golden Rice, which has the potential to save thousands of lives.

One last consideration is plant breeding technologies as a means of healthful foods. With food technologies like GMO, CRISPR, and synthetic biology, we cannot overlook how genetic engineering can increase the healthfulness of our foods.

I am excited about the prospects of genetic engineering to make our food healthier, more nutritious, and sustainable. 

Hillary is Thankful for Choices

Before joining Dirt to Dinner, I thought I knew what “organic” meant and what GMO technology is, especially as a self-proclaimed “foodie”. But over two years later, I can say without hesitance that I knew very little about our food system and that I now choose to not be scared into buying particular products based on misinformation.

No other circumstance brought this into light for me than the birth of my daughter last September. Prior to her arrival, we were a family of three – my husband, our four-year-old son, and me. Adding a fourth into our family excited all of us, but her birth brought much fear as complications arose during delivery, leading to her immediate transfer to a large hospital via ambulance.

In her following weeks of recovery in the neonatal ICU, I was visited by nutritionists, lactation consultants, and other certified pediatric and maternity professionals. I was alarmed at the variance of information when it came to my diet as a nursing mom. My favorite recommendation was “eat non-GMO oatmeal every morning for good milk production”…as if there’s a GMO version of oats???

When I finally focused on what was best for my baby girl and me, my choices became much easier…as they were backed by science.

It’s wonderful to see options of organic and conventional produce at our market, but what matters most to me is that I buy fresh foods that will provide my family with the most nutrients. My go-to is conventional produce, but if the organic raspberries look better, or the store only has Pink Lady apples grown organically, I’m happy to get those. But it’s amazing to have a choice – and to choose healthy. Because of these choices, my one-year-old daughter is happy and thriving. And I’m grateful to always be learning more about our food system.

Garland is Thankful for Perspective

One of the benefits that comes with growing older is a richer sense of perspective on things. Despite all the problems that we deal with every day, and the clatter of so many angry and questioning voices around us from so many directions, the bigger picture starts to come into a lot sharper focus. Now don’t get me wrong…I still see all the challenges and issues that confront our modern food system. I grow annoyed and sometimes angry at the lack of vision and understanding that gets in the way of using science and technology intelligently and responsibly to solve all those problems, and more.

But when I sit with my family and celebrate the incredible bounty that nature makes available to us, all the usual worries and frustration give way to something a good deal more optimistic about the food future. I’m thankful for the people who are working every day to make that system work better.

The men and women pioneering new and better ways of growing crops and animals sustainably and in line with the values that define us all as a society.

The scientists and engineers developing technologies to deliver safer, more wholesome food, and more varieties and with greater abundance for us all. The field workers and merchants and plant workers and food technicians and dietitians and researchers and logistics experts and countless others who make an incredibly complex supply chain work, and work well, on a global scale.

You’ve made food plentiful, available and more affordable than ever before, and that is no small accomplishment. Thanks to you, as I sit at the Thanksgiving table this year, I can celebrate not just the bounty on the table before the four generations of the West family seated around me. I can sleep well this night no doubt having eaten far too much, and talked and laughed and remembered far more than I probably ever have before. I can be thankful because I have faith that our food system will rise to whatever challenge is put before it. That future West generations will have the ability to enjoy what I’m enjoying today.

Now if you could only help me figure out a way to do something about the belly that seems to grow larger every year…

D2D is Thankful for our Dinner Plates

The Dirt to Dinner team is thankful for each and every piece of food on our plates and the journey it took to get there. While we all eat multiple times a day, we rarely stop and think about just how it got there. We take this convenience for granted and expect it without question every time we go food shopping.

But this way of thinking often causes distance from the growers and producers – creating a food disconnect. It is not anyone’s fault by any means; it is simply far too easy to overlook the time, resources and love that goes into growing the food that sustains us. So now we can take the time to be thankful for all the men and women who are a part of our global food system.

From the seeds cultivated over hundreds of years to produce our crops, to the farmers who plant and plan and harvest, to the animals providing our nutrition, for the packers at the processing plants who prepare the food for our purchase, to the drivers who take the food to the store, and the grocery staff who helps to close the supply chain loop for us…we thank you all this Thanksgiving for your hard work and dedication to our health.

Our Agricultural Extension Service: From Gardening to Food Safety

Have you ever visited, or even heard of your local agriculture extension program? Extension services provide an amazing array of resources, instruction, and assistance to people everywhere – from those living in the inner city to the most rural locale –to educate about food and farming and to help bridge the distance between dirt and dinner.

The United States’ Cooperative Extension system is a vast network of offices and resources specializing in all things ag, from helping you plan your seasonal veggie garden to providing assistance to large farm producers. These services are available nationwide at the county level and you can find your local office here. What’s remarkable about the system is that it’s backed by local colleges and universities to provide current information and in-depth research for the county’s specific location.

In this post, we take a look at how one state’s extension service works to fulfill the ambitions laid out in legislation dating back more than a full century. We spoke with Dr. Gary Bates, director of the The University of Tennessee’s Beef and Forage Center and professor of plant sciences at the UT Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville.

The program is a huge undertaking

Over 400 agents, working in offices, fields, and homes across Tennessee’s 95 counties, backed by university researchers, scientists and scholars. Education and support to 71,000 families, over 200,000 children and nearly a quarter-million people engaged in farming and food production. Practical help and instruction for more than a half-million state citizens, to the benefit of all 4.3 million Tennesseans.

In this case, the “undertaking” is the University of Tennessee’s Extension Services program – the outreach program of the school’s Institute of Agriculture. Its mission: to improve people’s quality of life and solve problems through the application of research and evidence-based knowledge about agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, 4-H youth development, and community development.

Behind the somewhat cool institutional language, the real message is far more compelling.

“Our extension services seek to answer real-life questions,” according to Dr. Gary Bates, director of the University’s Beef and Forage Center and associate professor of plant and soil science. It’s learning for the real world, not just a classroom or a course exam or even a dinner-table discussion.

“Our approach is to look at three sectors in what we do,” Dr. Bates explains. “There’s the ag side – the producers. Then there is the average person, the homeowner, and consumer — urban, suburban and rural. Then there is the 4-H.”

Why does the 4-H get such special attention?  “Here in Tennessee, we have one of the larger 4-H groups in the country, roughly 180,000 kids. Sustainability is all about the future, and those kids are our future.”

Through the extension program, young people learn not just basic agronomics or animal husbandry or sustainable farming practices but also a host of other demanding subjects. “A lot of science goes into feeding the world,” Dr. Bates says.

“Just look at what science has done in our lifetime to boost corn yields. We’re feeding a bigger, hungrier world thanks to science. Think about the importance of plant breeding, how we can use drones to be more productive, how to turn precision agriculture and big data into practical improvements in how we farm. We help kids understand all that, and how important and exciting career in agriculture and food can be for them.”

“Farming isn’t Jim-Bob in a pair of overalls today, if it ever really was,” Dr. Bates notes. “If you are interested in science, agriculture is one of the best fields you can go into. What we do helps kids see that.”

Teaching Life Skills

But that is far from the sole focus of the extension service, he adds quickly.

“Our programs help develop those young people, and not just to farm. We want people to know that their food didn’t just spring up magically from the ground, or just appear on a grocery shelf or a restaurant plate from thin air,” Bates says. “But we use agriculture to teach life skills. How to care for animals and plants and other living things. How to be responsible.  How to work with others, and to listen and communicate with people, including public speaking. And a whole lot more.”

That philosophy is nothing new. It’s been part of the extension service program since the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.  Even then, the Act’s objectives went beyond education for rural Americans in agricultural production to home economics, leadership and other skills contributing to an improved quality of life.

Dr. Bates notes that commercial producers represent only about 2 percent of the state population.

“You would be surprised at how many other kinds of agriculture are out there – home gardens and small part-time operations, local food businesses like restaurants and sidewalk markets, and that kind of thing,” he says. “And beyond that, there’s one really important thing to keep in mind: everybody eats.”

Dr. Bates also emphasizes the importance of extension services to people in making the best use of food, not just producing it.

We help people learn how to set up and manage a home budget, how to prepare food safely, how to plan out a wholesome, nutritious meals for the whole family, how to manage your time wisely… pretty much anything we can think of that will help people and families live better lives.” 

Through the extension services, local operations offer instruction in small-acreage agricultural production for home gardeners and part-time producers.  They sponsor farmers’ markets and local community gardens. They provide courses in food preparation and nutrition, and even advice on budgeting and managing small business operations.

“It’s a continuous education process,” Dr. Bates explains. “It can’t stand still, or stop thinking about new ways to help people.  We’re constantly evaluating what we do and how effective it is, and how we can do it better. Above all, what we are doing is helping the entire local community to have locally produced food and to use it safely and wisely.”

What Lies Ahead

What are the biggest challenges? What issues are you wrestling with today?

As with every industry, keeping pace with technology presents its issues. “There are new systems, new equipment, new management programs, new everything, it seems some days. We have to stay on top of all that, and be prepared to help people understand it and what it can do for them as producers –and consumers.”

The fast pace can create a new sense of urgency, too, Dr. Bates notes. “People want answers faster. They want help faster. They want results faster. That keeps us on our toes, to say the least. We have to be responsive, and we work really hard to do that.”

He also points to complications arising from the cyber age. “There’s tons of data out there. We want to use the science and research generated by the University to accomplish something in the real world, to make things actually work better or deliver more.”

Then there is social media, he adds. “How do we use it to help consumers learn about food and where to find it and how to prepare it and so on. Our extension agents are clamoring for help in understanding how to make the best use of social media.”

Healthy Ag, Healthy Economy

Why is that ambitious goal of promoting the general welfare of the state population the role of the extension services?

Dr. Bates has a quick answer to the question: “Why shouldn’t it be?”

“We’ve built our programs around the simple idea that if our state economy is going to be healthy, we have to have a healthy agricultural sector…we want everybody in the state to be able to benefit from that.  Not just the men and women who produce agricultural products…we teach people how to get the most from that system, in how they choose the right foods, how they preserve food and avoid waste, how they prepare safe meals for their families, and on and on and on. We teach everyone how important it is to make the system truly sustainable.”

So extension services are about far more than helping farmers make more money?

‘We’re working to make sure our ag sector thrives, and that it is profitable, sure, but also that it is sustainable,” he adds. “When we do that, we give our agricultural system real stability – and make sure it stays a cornerstone of a healthy state economy.  Those aren’t just words we say, either.  We’ve got people in 95 counties working to make sure it’s a lot more than just talk.”

Thoughts from a Bystander

Whether we’re a farmer, manufacturer, or consumer, extension programs, like the University of Tennessee’s, help us produce more of the food people need and want, profitably and sustainably. They help us develop new and better crops and more alternatives for meeting our food needs. They help us feed our families with better, safer, more nutritious foods. And they help us waste less. They help us make the best use of our natural resources, and preserves and protect them for future generations.

Like they say again and again across the extension service network, we’re all in this together.

Land Degradation: The History Lesson We Are Still Learning

Michael Doane is a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner and will be sharing a series of articles on how restoring our lands is the best tool for sustainable food systems.

Michael is the Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water for The Nature Conservancy. Michael started farming at a young age and is a partner in his family’s cattle and row crop farming operation located in Kansas. He combines his passion for agriculture with his love for nature in leading one of The Nature Conservancy’s top global priorities to provide food and water sustainably.

A Step Back in Time

After a recent day of working on our family farm in Kansas, I sat down with my grandmother for a visit. I asked her to recount the days of her youth, coming of age in the same rural setting we still call home. She shared several stories, but one included imagery still so clear for her that it brought a history lesson to life for me. She told me of how her mother would hang wet bedsheets up in one room of the house where the family would huddle to protect themselves from the dust storms severe enough to penetrate the dwelling as well as their lungs.

During Grandma’s childhood, farmers and communities across the U.S. plains discovered that just one generation of soil mismanagement could ruin a landscape and destroy livelihoods.

History Repeats Itself

While the Dust Bowl era is often seen as an anomalous, historical and uniquely American experience, the reality is unfortunately different. Agricultural lands around the world continue to slowly degrade. In fact, by the most credible estimates, up to 52% of global agricultural lands are now moderately to severely degraded, with 12 million hectares (30 million acres) per year degrading to the point they are abandoned by the land manager. To put this in context, the global area of abandoned land considered unworthy of the investments required to keep them productive is roughly equivalent to the total cropland under cultivation by farmers in Iowa.

This destruction of productive land is what pushes agriculture to convert additional native habitats at an alarming rate and the pressures are only increasing as we grapple with the task of ensuring ample food supplies for the next generation.

Perhaps the most important factor in biodiversity conservation worldwide is rooted in addressing the land degradation and abandonment problem.

Soil as a Living Ecosystem

This deterioration of previously healthy soils is often subtle and, while the biology can be complex, the concept is simple: soils are living ecosystems and the way we manage the soils can increase or decrease their health and home. For an official definition and glossary of terms on land degradation, read through this helpful Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) website. In short, the most valuable element of land is the topsoil – the top layer of land that supports the growth of biological life – plants, animals, insects and microbes. Land becomes “degraded” when the functional condition of the topsoil is compromised.

This can happen in different ways. The topsoil can erode, which means it is physically removed from the land by wind or water. Just as importantly, the topsoil can die, which implies it was or is alive. It happens somewhat slowly but, as soils lose their health, plant productivity declines and they are considered degraded. Plant growth and vigor is easily observable and hence it can be a good proxy for soil health. As plant biomass declines, especially when droughts or floods occur, the topsoil can spiral down quickly – losing both its structure and life. This rapid deterioration is what resulted in the Dust Bowl history my grandmother recalls so clearly.

Learning from the Past

But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to this trying time in U.S. history, the landscape across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Nebraska had formed rich, biodiverse and healthy grasslands in a semi-arid landscape. Nature worked its magic over thousands of years with diverse plants occupying the land, grazed by enormous bison herds with the intermittent presence of naturally occurring fires and droughts. Despite dry conditions, the continuous plant cover of the grasslands created healthy soils that sustained the landscape during droughts. In fact, the soil became so healthy it soaked up the limited rainfall provided, maintained the grassland and still managed to store the rest deep underground in the immense Ogallala aquifer.

As the United States government sought to expand food production with the onset of World War I, they enticed pioneering farmers to convert the grassland to croplands for the first time in their history, tilling them to produce wheat with initially positive results. The crops were productive, booming demand kept wheat prices high through the 1920s and early success incentivized more entrepreneurial farmers to move west and convert yet more prairie into tilled croplands.

But after several very good years, the yields started to decline. Then an epic drought set in. Farmers tilled and planted as they had before; however, the soils slowly lost their health and biological function. In these dying soils, the wheat followed course, leaving the soil fully exposed with no plant cover to protect it. Year after year, dust storms ravaged the soil, lifting and transporting precious topsoil miles away. Over the course of a decade, a vast landscape became severely degraded, threatening to turn the whole region into a desert.

The U.S. government eventually took decisive action, creating a public agency with a mandate to tackle the problem. But this history lesson is still being learned in regions all over the world where many of the same management practices have continued for a nearly a century, creating mini Dust Bowl experiences along the way.

I am now confident the imagery emblazoned in my grandmother’s memory will not sting the cheeks of future generations as we know the solution: agriculture is its own solution.

Planning the Future with Regenerative Ag

The restoration of degraded lands around the world through regenerative agriculture management practices which prioritize the health of the soil is a solution that not only offers more productivity for our global food system, but also generates innumerable environmental benefits. And the time is now. We have the knowledge to make this transition and are seeing a wide range of new innovations under development that will allow us to accelerate and scale it to benefit those on the land – and ultimately consumers – around the globe.

In the coming articles, I will share examples of how farmers, ranchers and foresters are taking their role as land stewards to the next level by prioritizing the health of their soils.

The next time I visit my Grandma, these are the stories I will share with her, too.

Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?

pesticides

I have a lovely, peaceful vegetable garden in our backyard. Though I spend a lot of time weeding and watering, my very small garden is only for our friends and family to enjoy. If my tomatoes or peppers fail, then my back-up plan is to run to the grocery store or the farmers’ market. The entire vegetable garden experience is for fun, and also a lesson in patience for my children. I don’t depend on the food in my backyard to feed my family of five.

However, for those farmers whom we depend on to feed all 7.9 billion of us, there is no back-up plan when weeds and pests destroy their crop. Weeds strangle plant growth by stealing water, sunlight, and soil nutrients that crops need. Insects defoliate young shoots and leaves faster than you can say “pesticide.”

As a result, farmers must constantly manage the economic and environmental balance between overspending and over-spraying pesticides on crops. Fewer passes through the fields with sprayer equipment means burning less fuel, fewer carbon emissions, and less compaction of the soil. A win-win-win!

So, how does genetic engineering play a role on the farm? These technologies help farmers use less pesticide, less water and less landMatin Qaim and Wilhelm Klumper at the University of Goettingen, Germany completed a 2014 meta-analysis on the global impacts of GMOs.

  • They discovered that GMOs have made incredible changes to our agricultural performance:
    • Reduced agricultural chemical use by 37%
    • Increased crop yields by 22%
    • Increased farmer profits by 68%

Additionally, a 2017 report, Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2016, focused on the pesticide and greenhouse gas emission reduction from genetic engineering, primarily with canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans. Using these GM crops reduced the Environmental Impact Quotient by 18.4%. It also cut down on farm equipment fuel usage via fewer pesticide sprays and no-till farming practices. In 2016, this decrease was equivalent to removing 16.7 million cars off the road. To put this in perspective, this is more than all the cars registered in California!

Less Pesticides

In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the food supply is produced by small-holder farmers – farms with 25 acres or less. Plant biotechnology is finally making it possible for them to feed their families and communities, improve profits and dramatically reduce pesticide use.

In India, farmers depend on brinjal, or eggplant, as a significant source of food and income, but it comes with a cost. A small-holder farmer growing brinjal needs 85-120 insecticide sprays during a growing season, harming both the farmer and the environment. Despite all this effort, the eggplant fruit and shoot borer insect can still destroy up to 80% of the crop.

Feed the Future, a global partnership of research and educational institutions, introduced the Bt eggplant by genetically-engineering four different eggplant varieties to produce a protein from an organic pesticide that targets the pests.

According to Tony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology and director of the Bt Brinjal Project, these new varieties of GMO eggplant now only need about seven sprays a season to control the insects, resulting in pesticide reduction of 92%!

The engineered eggplant is no longer desirable to the pest, thus stopping crop loss. Even more important, the protein does not damage or kill the beneficial insects in the farmer’s field.

In Uganda, 300 small-holder farmers recently grew GMO blight-resistant potatoes for the first time in 2017. Without this technology, they would spend about 15% of their income to spray their crops up to 15 times a season with insecticides, while still losing close to 60% of their crop. Now these potato farmers can increase their income and put less insecticide in the air, soil and their clothing and skin – an environmental triumph.

Nigeria. After almost 10 years of study, Nigeria has approved its first genetically-engineered crop. Black-eyed peas, otherwise known as cowpeas, are an important source of energy, protein and fiber. Nigeria’s small-holder farmers grow about 58% of the world’s supply. Growing cowpea is not easy, as it is susceptible to multiple insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which can cause as much as 90% crop loss. The Institute for Agricultural Research in Zaria, in collaboration with a world-renowned institute in Australia, found that a protein from the soil bacterium can control the pest. This genetically-engineered crop reduced pesticide use and increased yields by about 20%.

Less Pesticides and Healthier Soil

What is often overlooked in the GMO debate is that genetic engineering can create healthier soil and a cleaner watershed next to the farms. How? Let’s go back to my home garden. When I have weeds surrounding my tomatoes, I can just pull them up or hoe them back into the soil. In a small garden, this works perfectly. On acres of land, when farmers till the soil, the water evaporates more quickly, and the soil can blow away.

When a farmer uses Roundup Ready crops, i.e., crops that are tolerant to Roundup herbicide, they can practice no-till farming. No-till farming means farmers do not have to turn over soil to rid it of weeds. This prevents the soil from water evaporation, puts nutrients back into the soil, and keeps the soil dense with organic matter to avoid the soil blowing away. Finally, fewer emissions are released since a tractor doesn’t need to drive back and forth to turn over the soil.

Source: www.GMOAnswers.com

Despite recent controversies regarding Roundup or glyphosate, it has been proven effective to dramatically reduce pesticide applications. Read here for more information on glyphosate safety.

Less Water

Globally, food and agriculture use about 70% of our fresh water supply. While there is the same amount of water today as there was millions of years ago, clean and usable water is not always available to grow crops. According to the FAO, droughts have affected more people worldwide in the last 40 years than any other natural hazard.

Certain GMO seeds can help agriculture use less water and grow more drought-tolerant crops. Scientists believe wheat, corn and soybeans can be genetically modified to require less water. For instance, by altering a plant’s stoma – the microscopic pores in leaves and stems – to save water, these food crops could be extremely resourceful as we attempt to feed our rapidly growing population.

Let’s illustrate this using rice, a vital crop for much of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Scientists have taken a gene related to cabbage and mustard and inserted it into rice as a strategy for plant improvement. Why? Inserting this gene allows for drought resistance, salt tolerance and thicker leaf production, which then increases photosynthesis.

For corn, Monsanto has created a DroughtGard variety to help the plant resist drought stress. This allows the corn to maintain some water without needing to draw as much up from the root system. Drought-resistant corn could increase harvests in Africa by an average of 20%.

Just like my own garden, whether it is vegetables or flowers, it is much more cost-effective and less toxic to my watershed when I grow tomatoes or roses without chemicals. Genetic engineering helps large and small holder farmers around the world do just that.

What Are Dead Zones…and is Ag to Blame?

You may have heard of “dead zones”, a term used for areas in large bodies of water where marine life cannot be sustained because of rampant algae growth. To some ardent critics of animal agriculture, these dead zones can be traced to overdependence on animals as a cornerstone component of the modern global food system.

Agriculture and, in particular, production of beef and dairy cattle, as well as the corn and soybeans grown to feed the animals, are the primary targets under attack. Essentially, almost all U.S. crops feed into the Mississippi River Basin. But there is little, if any, attention called to the other sources of the troublesome run-off that causes massive algae growth.

So how do these dead zones occur? And is agriculture really to blame for these problem areas? And, most importantly, what is being done to bring life back to these dead zones?

How are Dead Zones created?

Dead zones occur from too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, most in the form of run-off from use and misuse of fertilizers, inadequate wastewater control, improperly managed animal wastes, and plain old natural phenomena, such as the heavy rains and flooding that plagued major parts of the United States earlier this year.

Hypoxia is the scientific term for having too little oxygen to support life. In a hypoxic zone, animal life simply suffocates and dies. Hypoxia occurs when excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate the growth of algae, which sinks and decomposes in water. The decomposition process consumes the oxygen needed by other marine life – impairing gestation, compromising egg production, or simply suffocating much of the life in the water.

Dead zones emerge from a complex web of sources:

Where do Dead Zones exist?

Currently, there are approximately 405 dead zones around the world and in different bodies of water, but mostly along coastlines. The Arabian Sea is currently the largest one with a continual lack of oxygen preventing marine life from growing.

The Baltic Sea dead zone is also massive, at more than 23,000 square miles and stretching from Poland to Finland. Smaller hypoxic areas have emerged in Lake Erie and oceanic conditions off the shores of California and Oregon are currently being monitored for a possible return of a Pacific dead zone.

NOAA scientists are forecasting this summer’s Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone or ‘dead zone’ to be approximately 7,829 square miles or roughly the size of the land mass of Massachusetts.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s June 10, 2019 Media Release

The second largest dead zone is the northern Gulf of Mexico. Some industry experts estimate that the Gulf of Mexico supplies 72 percent of U.S. harvested shrimp, 66 percent of harvested oysters and 16 percent of commercial fish. So a dead zone here not only leads to a meaningful loss of shrimp, crabs, oysters, fish, and other marine life, but also disrupts a large commercial industry that provides products in high demand by food consumers. The same situation is also happening in the Chesapeake Bay, where 500 million pounds of seafood are harvested each year, primarily oysters, blue crabs, and striped bass.

Source: World Resources Institute

Waterways feeding the Dead Zones

The challenge in addressing the dead zone problem isn’t just the multiplicity of sources behind the problem.  It’s also the sheer physical size of the area involved.

Waterways such as the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and U.S. Great Lakes draw water from an enormous network of sources.  Potential pollutants can come not just from areas immediately adjacent to the dead zone, but also from potentially huge areas where run-off may occur.

For example, the Gulf of Mexico is fed by the Mississippi River basin – an area that encompasses 33 major river systems, more than 200 estuaries, and drains 41% of the contiguous United States. About four out of five acres used to produce corn and soybeans in this country are within it, as is more than half of all U.S. agricultural land, with an estimated annual production value of close to $100 billion.  Such a vast drainage area shows just how important extensive flooding – like that seen across huge swatches of the Midwest this spring — can be in the creation of a dead zone.

Source: mississippiriverdelta.org

Farming solutions to curb Dead Zone formation

Broad communities of scientists, environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, and others are joining together to tackle the problem – with the encouraging results that merit a continued mutual effort to protect one of the natural resources critical to a sustainable global food system.

In the world of agriculture, there are aggressive educational efforts to commit to responsible crop and herd management. Many farmers are employing technology to help reduce run-off through chemical and nutrient over-application, such as:

  • Precision agriculture combined with “micro nutrient” technology that fosters the application of the precisely correct type and amount of nutrients, herbicides, and pesticides

  • Genetic engineered crops also help reduce the amount of agricultural chemicals

  • Sound conservation practices such as no-tilling, proper crop rotation, and use of cover crops

Ranchers and dairy farmers are also proactively managing animal waste to help reduce run-off and revitalize these dead zones.

In fact, nearly nine out of every 10 farmers and ranchers recently surveyed by the industry’s National Cattleman’s Beef Association say they manage manure and waste in a proper manner that safeguards air and water.

Innovative programs developed by producers have helped find environmentally responsible uses for surplus manure, such as:

  • Expanded use of sanitized and pelletized manure for use in organic farming

  • Distribution arrangements with gardening and landscaping enterprises interested in expanded use of non-chemical fertilizers

  • “Spread the wealth” by finding available surplus storage and composting opportunities for “black gold,” as ranchers often call manure

  • The Environmental Protection Agency is facing lawsuits from environmental groups to speed their updating of wastewater guidelines for animal processing facilities, and public pressure on these companies is growing

Working together for real results

Despite what ag critics may say, there are multiple sources contributing to the problem. Many of the golf courses, housing developments, and other urban development areas that were previously undeveloped are now inadvertently contributing to the rising risks of run-off, and ultimately the growth of the occurrence and size of dead zones.

On the municipal wastewater front, state and federal agencies report an expansion in the number of municipal water management authorities monitoring nitrogen and phosphorus levels in their facilities, and perhaps more important, in establishing limits for each element in discharge levels.

On an even-broader scale, several task forces have been created to find long-term solutions to the management of U.S. dead zones. For example, the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force includes representatives of agencies from almost all states along the Mississippi, from Louisiana to Minnesota, as well as federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Tribal Water Council.

Their goal is to reduce the size of the Gulf dead zone to 5,000 square kilometers (roughly 1,900 square miles) by 2035, with an interim goal of a 20 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus loading by 2025. We have already seen significant progress in achieving its goals.

We Need Common Sense to Understand Risk

wine being poured in wine glass with no sides

This post is featured content from Global Farmer Network and was originally published on March 15th, 2019. The author, Ted Sheely, raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley.

If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too? As a dad, I may have used that line to get one of my kids to use common sense when considering risk.

But sometimes risk can be blown out of proportion. Perspective helps.

There’s a group in California that wants to ban a tool that I use on my farm to help me battle weeds. They go about it by scaring us about the risk. This time, they’ve taken it to the ridiculous. They have tested to find an infinitesimal trace of glyphosate in beer and wine. Let me introduce perspective.

Alcohol is a known carcinogen. It’s on the list on this web site from the American Cancer Society. That risk is in the category of Group 1 from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an international organization renowned for finding almost everything to be a cancer risk. Alcohol falls between Aflatoxin and Aluminum Production on this list.

Alcohol is also on the list from the National Toxicology Program. The American Cancer Society site goes on to explain that things on the list don’t always cause cancer.

Glyphosate is also on the IARC’s list, in a lower group, 2A, falling between Glycidol and working as a hairdresser. There is some controversy as to how glyphosate even got on the list, given all of the studies that have shown it to be perfectly safe. Here’s an article on that investigation.

This whole idea of generating worry about glyphosate is nonsense and driven by an anti-technology agenda. That’s the only thing that explains why people are even driven to test the level of glyphosate in alcohol. What next? Do we test for glyphosate in arsenic and asbestos?

We live on our farm and eat what we grow. My grandchildren play in the fields. If I had any concerns about the safety of glyphosate, I wouldn’t use it. At every step, we use this crop-protection product with great care, following the product guidelines and applying only the right amounts. You might use it to take care of your lawn.

This group that’s stoking our fears says the highest level found in their testing was in an amount so small that a 125-lb. adult would have to guzzle more than 300 gallons of wine per day for life to reach this mark. That’s more than a bottle of wine per minute, without sleep.

I like a good chardonnay as much as the next person, but even I know my limits.

The crazy continues. Even at this level, the group tries to assert that heavy drinkers should be cautious. For people who drink that much beer and wine, of course, glyphosate is the least of their worries. Their massive intake of alcohol is much more harmful.

While there’s no excuse for drinking too much, farmers have many reasons for using glyphosate. This product is popular because it’s effective and much safer than some other herbicide options available. It also works well in a no-till farming system that helps to conserve the soil.

In the end, it’s all about healthy crops, whether they’re the hops and grapes that go into our beer and wine or the soybeans that go to feedlots. When our plants fend off weeds, they’re bigger, stronger, and better able to fight disease. They’re also more delicious and affordable.

You know what? I think I’ll drink to that.

Ted Sheely also volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and is Chairman of the Horizon Growers (pistachios). He has provided leadership to the National Cotton Council, Cotton Incorporated, California Farm Bureau and Westlands Water District. Ted’s long-standing interest and investment in water availability, quality, and use has earned him recognition by the California Water Policy Conference with the Innovative Water Conservation Award. You can email Ted at tsheely@globalfarmernetwork.org

Preparing for Pests: A Gardener’s Guide

gardeners-tools

Spring is coming! So here we are, strategizing about the flowers, veggies, and fruits to fill our gardens. Whether or not we realize it, this practice is something that closely aligns us with our fellow farmers, as we all want the same thing: an abundance of healthy produce grown in an environmentally sustainable way.

This planning reminds us of all the news surrounding pesticides, leaving us with a lot of questions: when should we use pesticides? Which ones are best for our needs – should it be conventional or organic? And what do they actually do to the plants and our surrounding area?

First, consider your garden’s needs to determine which pesticides should be used, if any. We can take a lesson from farmers here by practicing integrated pest management, which some farmers use to reduce pesticide applications. This means closely examining your environmental factors that affect the pest’s ability to thrive, and then creating conditions that they find uninhabitable.

One way to try this is by making sure your soil is full of organic matter; this will reduce pesticide use by keeping plants naturally healthy and strong. You can also regularly check your plants for signs of disease and pests to stay ahead of an infestation.

Should you then decide to apply a pesticide to your garden, consider if you want to go with a conventional or organic product. What’s the difference between them, anyway?

Just like us home gardeners, farmers also carefully consider which pest management products will work best for their crops while keeping their farmland, livestock and local ecosystem safe and healthy.

What Makes a Pesticide Conventional or Organic?

For all pesticides, both conventional and organic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees its regulation and approval for use in the United States. Organic pesticides require additional approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And for those inquiring, yesorganic pesticides do exist and are commonly used on home gardens and organic commercial crops alike.

As defined by the EPA, conventional pesticides have active ingredients that generally include synthetic chemicals used to prevent, mitigate, destroy, or repel any pest. Most organic pesticides are derived from naturally-occurring substances, although there are several approved synthetic substances for use in organic crop and livestock production. (To view a list of approved organic pesticides, please view this page.)

No matter what type of pesticide you buy, the EPA evaluates all pesticides for potential harm to unintended organisms, including humans, wildlife, plants, and waterways. They also assess the hazards of varying levels of pesticide exposure among humans and domestic animals, from short-term to long-term contact. The EPA uses this information to determine the acceptable amount and frequency of pesticide application that allows the product to effectively work while keeping us safe from overexposure. But if proper precautions are not taken with these products, they can be very harmful to us and our surrounding environment, no matter if it’s conventional or organic. Always follow the directions on the bottle!

Common Pesticides by Type

Large food producers and small home gardeners use both organic and conventional pesticides. Here are some popular pesticides for home use that share active ingredients with commercial ag products. Conventional pesticides include RoundUp Grass & Weed Killer, Daconil Fungicide for plant diseases, and Spectracide for insects. If you’re organically inclined, you may consider pesticides like Natria Grass & Weed Killer, Bonide Copper Fungicide for plant diseases, or Garden Safe Insecticide. These are only a few examples of pesticides, but we’re going to look at these, in particular, to show you what to consider when choosing the right one to manage weeds, plant diseases, and pests on your property. So let’s take a closer look by comparing several of these popular products side-by-side…

Weed Killers: Eradicates targeted grasses and weeds via the direct application of the product.

Conventional – Glyphosate: RoundUp Grass & Weed Killer has glyphosate and pelargonic acid as the active ingredients. In addition to using it in our own gardens, these products are commonly used in agriculture, golf course management, forestry, and aquatic environments. Glyphosate prevents the plant from manufacturing certain amino acids essential for plant growth and life, thereby destroying the weed.

As we’ve mentioned in our previous post on Roundup, glyphosate is used in over 130 countries on over 100 different types of crops. This is due to its effectiveness in weed control, as well as its low toxicity to us and the surrounding ecosystem, as determined by the U.S. EPA.

As for pelargonic acid, this has also been shown to be low in toxicity. In fact, it’s naturally present in many foods we eat! Though some studies have shown this acid may not make glyphosate products any more effective, at least we know it doesn’t pose a risk to us.

Organic – Herbicidal Soaps: Common organic weed killers, like Natria Grass & Weed Killer, contain herbicidal soaps that eliminate unwanted vegetation. The active ingredient in this product is an ammoniated, or potassium, soap of fatty acids that strip the surface coating on leaf surfaces, causing dehydration to the plants. The fatty acids are commonly extracted from palm, coconut, olive, castor, and cottonseed plants.

Though irritating to the skin and eyes, these herbicidal soaps are very low in toxicity. However, some of these soaps can be toxic to pollinators, so the best time to apply these treatments is at night when pollinators are not active.

Fungicides: Treat plants infected with black spot, rust, blight, powdery mildew, and other diseases.

Conventional – Chlorothalonil: Products like Garden Tech Daconil’s Plant Fungicide contains chlorothalonil, a synthetic chemical that disrupts fungal molecules, thereby killing the fungus. This pesticide has been reviewed to be of very low toxicity, though an irritant to the eyes and throat if inhaled.

Chlorothalonil has been shown to be low in toxicity to pets, birds, and pollinators. However, this chemical is highly toxic to fish and amphibians, so consider this if you live close to the water or a sewer drain.

Organic – Copper Sulfate: Copper sulfate is a commonly used fungicide. The active ingredient in products like Bonide Liquid Copper Fungicide works by denaturing enzymes and other critical proteins in fungal organisms.

Though this pesticide is considered organic, it’s not without controversy.  Not only can this chemical cause severe eye irritation, but more importantly it is quite toxic and can lead to gastrointestinal problems, organ damage, and even shock and death with extreme exposure. Though the EPA hasn’t determined any link between cancer and copper sulfate exposure, several studies from the National Pesticide Information Center show a link in both humans and animals alike. Additionally, this chemical is toxic to birds and aquatic life, so there are many considerations here as it relates to its use, the environment, and run-off. Given its toxicity, it’s vital to follow the product’s directions for use and seriously consider any effects to your surrounding environment.

Insect Killers: Eradicates insects that can damage lawns and plants

Conventional – Gamma-Cyhalothrin: Insecticide products, like Spectracide Triazicide Insect Killer, contain an active compound called Gamma-Cyhalothrin, a broad-spectrum insecticide that acts as a nerve toxin to pests. This chemical is part of the pyrethroid family, the synthetic counterpart of pyrethrin, an organic insecticide. What makes pyrethroids more attractive than their organic counterpart is that the chemical is more stable in sunlight.

Though not shown to be toxic to us when used as directed, both pyrethroids and pyrethrins can be toxic to honeybees, a crucial consideration for our pollinators. This family of chemicals is also toxic to aquatic life. This is another pesticide that you should only spray at night or evening when pollinators are asleep.

Organic – Pyrethrum: In the same chemical family as triazicide is an organic compound derived from a flower that is highly toxic to most insects, but proven non-toxic to humans. A popular product with this compound is Garden Safe Multi-Purpose Garden Insect Killer. When choosing a product like this, it’s important to realize that although it’s effective against pests, it’s also harmful to our pollinators, just like pyrethroids. Also like its conventional counterpart, pyrethrins are toxic to fish and amphibians, so be sure to keep it away from waterways and drains, and be sure to use in the evening and at night.

Another thing to note with this organic compound is to be careful of other active ingredients commonly found in pyrethrin-based products. Some pyrethrin products are combined with piperonyl butoxide (PBO) to make it more potent. However, PBO is not considered “organic”, so be sure that your product of choice doesn’t include this chemical if an organic treatment is important to you.

Toxicity of Common Organic-Approved Pesticides to All Pollinators

Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s safe for the birds and bees. Here’s a chart showing the toxicity of organic pesticides on pollinators. Source for chart: xerces.org

So, just like farmers do every day, us home gardeners must utilize all the tools in our toolbox to manage pest problems. No matter how you keep pests at bay, be sure to consider not only your plants’ health, but also any animals, waterways, and other environmental sensitivities.

California Megafires and the Effects on Agriculture

wildfire in the background of farm field

California leads the nation in producing 90% of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Grapes, almonds, tomatoes, broccoli and much more are grown in the fertile valleys between mountain and sea. Unmatched by any other state in terms of output per acre, the yield in California is 60 percent higher than the national average.

In addition to being a major produce player, California holds the #1 spot in dairy production in all of the U.S., grossing upwards of $6.5 billion in 2017. Cattle for meat production in California is valued at roughly $2.5 billion.

To round out this workhorse state, California produces over 90% of all U.S. wine.

However, California’s recent drought and long dry season make it more susceptible to fire. In the past two years, uncontained wildfires have devastated over 7.3 million acres of land in the golden state. That is about the size of Connecticut and New Jersey combined!

Infographic by Sara Chodosh, capturing the intensity of the fires in California in the last five years.

The majority of the 2017-2018 fires were contained within the forests and non-agricultural land, but a number of rangelands, cannabis farms, dairy farms, citrus groves, avocado orchards, and vineyards were affected, making an impact on growers and California’s $50 billion agricultural industry.

 

The rate of burn for the 2018 Camp fire is incomprehensible; increasing in speed from 20,000 acres to over 100,000 acres burned in two days. That rate of scorch is equivalent to one football field burning every second. (Source)

Wine: Unintended Ashy Undertones

Unlike the 2017 fires where most of the wine crop had already been harvested, 2018’s bore witness to California’s most severe fires, which spread just before or at the onset of ripening, when grapes soften and change color.

Grapes are vulnerable to smoke damage because of their permeable skin. Depending on fire intensity, length of smoke exposure and stage of vine growth, unharvested grapes can take on smoky, ashy, or bitter characteristics. Consumers find this “smoke taint” unappealing.

While only a small percentage of wines may have been affected by fires and smoke, and these undesirable characteristics of smoke taint can be managed, winemakers do have to take on added costs in eradicating these flavors to avoid disappointing wine drinkers!

Scorched ground and shriveled grapes at the Michael Mondavi Atlas Peak Vineyard (Source: Winespectator.com)

Livestock Rangeland Scorched

The wildfires had an impact on the region’s farms and ranches, burning buildings, and the grazing land for dairy cows, cattle, horses, and other livestock. Butte County, where the 2018 Camp Fire raged, suffered rangeland losses of 30,000 to 40,000 acres, displaced animals, and destroyed pens, corrals, barns and more.

The Thomas Fire impacted all 7000 acres of rangeland stewarded by the
RA Atmore & Sons and Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust.

“Many of the oak woodlands were lost to the fire, as well as cattle, miles of fences, and other ranch infrastructure. The grasses and other vegetation are coming back. We will be battling invasive and noxious weeds now more than ever. We will need to adaptably manage woody species within the rangeland to achieve realistic goals that serve to improve forage, enhance wildlife habitat and protect our urban neighbors from the devastating effects of wildfire. One thing we learned from the Thomas Fire was “it’s not a matter of if the next Thomas Fire will come; but when.”  Richard Atmore, Ventura County Annual Crop and Livestock  Report, 2017

A cow walks by the flaming hillside in Groveland, California, August 2013. Source: Noah Berger, for National Geographic

Fruits & Veggies Fried

Ventura County, home to 118,000 acres of prime farmland and more than ½ of the total harvested acreage in the country for avocado, lemon, celery, and strawberries, was hit particularly hard during the 2017 Thomas Fire. The fire inflicted severe damage on hillside ranches, consuming forage needed for livestock, destroying barns, irrigation systems, equipment and machinery, and scorching or incinerating several thousand acres of avocado and citrus trees.

“We estimate that we lost 80% of our avocado crop for this year and next. At this point, four months after the fire, we project that over 40% of our avocado trees are dead or unlikely to recover fully. That is over 60 acres. Avocados take several years to come into full production. Even if we could replant right away, we are looking at about 6 years to full recovery.,Realistically, if we replant everything to avocados, it will be many years before we can get back to 2016 production levels.”  –Deborah Brokaw Jackson Brokaw Ranch Company  (SourceVentura County Annual Crop and Livestock  Report, 2017)

As the fires in the hillsides raged, the smoke traveled for miles. This complicated the lives of the farmers and farmworkers and the harvesting of perishable vegetables. The thick smoke haze delayed ripening and harvest, and workers couldn’t work in the fields due to unhealthy air conditions. An already stressed labor situation now experienced shortages of manpower.

Soiled Soil

Wildfires have a direct effect on soil. Contrary to a prescribed burn— which is a healthy burn often utilized by farmers to eradicate weeds or unneeded brush, or by forest rangers to manage forests from forest fires— an uncontrolled wild burn can yield heat levels above 400 degrees. These temperatures can cause irreversible harm to the land.

When the soil is burned at such high temperatures, the organic matter is incinerated. Depending on the intensity and duration of the fire, the recuperation time can be upwards of three years for soil to fully restore nutrients back to its original state. The hard, ashy residues that are left on the topsoil decrease the ability of the soil to absorb water, which increases the likelihood of runoff.

The graphic depicts the inability of water to penetrate the ashy soil, which causes dangerous runoff. (Source)

Because the soil can no longer take in water, there is an increased risk for landslides and flooding. In addition, the silt from the landslides can overrun the reservoirs, contaminate drinking water and create blockages in irrigation systems that supply water to farmlands. Flood risk remains significantly higher until vegetation is restored—up to five years after a wildfire. Mudslides and flooding are the current challenges California is facing in the wake of the recent fires.

How are farmers and ranchers protected from these disasters?

The U.S. Federal government plays a significant role in assisting farmers and ranchers with financial losses caused by natural disasters through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

The Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018 acknowledges the shared responsibility of disaster response and recovery and aims to build the nation’s capacity for the next catastrophic event.

Hemp, Hemp Hooray!

hemp plants against blue sky

An Opportunity for American Farmers

The hemp marketplace is projected to be $1 billion dollars by the end of 2018and close to $2 billion dollars by the end of 2022. American consumers are wild about hemp products, with hemp CBD oil and other CBD-derived personal care products leading the way. Currently, the U.S. has to import hemp textiles from China; hemp seed from Canada, and industrial products from Europe. Now, with clearance in the Farm Bill, American farmers can participate in this market.

What’s so unique about hemp?

Hemp has roots in American history! In the 1700s, America considered hemp a staple crop and its strong fibers were used to make rope, canvas sails, fishing nets, clothing, and even American flags. George Washington grew acres of it on his farm at Mt. Vernon and predicted at one point that it would be a more valuable crop than tobacco. Popular Mechanics Magazine dubbed hemp “The Billion Dollar Crop.”

Hemp became vilified in the 1930s and has been illegal to grow since the 1937 Marijuana Act.  There was one exception to this when the government called upon farmers to grow hemp to help win World War II. Despite this momentary pardon, it has been listed as a Schedule I Drug since 1970. Hemp’s Achilles heel has always been that it looks too much like its bad-ass cousin, marijuana.

Both hemp and marijuana are members of the Cannabis sativa family, but the key difference is that hemp contains less than 0.03% THC (as defined by federal law), which is the psychoactive component that gets you high when you smoke pot. Hemp is grown and harvested around the world, harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD.

Hemp is a versatile and sustainable crop

Other than the extreme desert or high in the mountains, hemp will grow in most soils. The plants develop a thick canopy cover and shield out weeds, thus demanding fewer pesticides. With its long taproot and thick root system, the plant helps nourish the soil. Its seeds, stalk, leaves and even roots can be processed into thousands of products. Think of the growing opportunities for American farmers!

The seeds are high in healthy fats, protein, and fiber and produce food as well as oil paints, printing inks, and soaps, lotions, and balms.

The hemp stalk, which is strong and fibrous, can be blended with other materials to make composites for automobile dashboards, door panels, trunk liners, and other interior parts; or manufactured into handbags, denim, fine fabrics, paper cardboard and packaging, and rope, canvas, carpeting, insulation, and can even be a fiberglass substitute.

The leaves can be mulched into compost, mulch, and animal bedding. The roots can be used as compost. The whole plant is naturally loaded with healthy terpenes and cannabinoids and many varieties are grown to make CBD and other functional medicines.

source: Dandy Graphics

Hemp can be fit into a crop rotation and provide farmers with another source of revenue. Victory Hemp Foods contracts farmers to produce hemp grain for their production facility. According to their analysis, hemp commands a higher net price than corn or soy. In Kentucky, some farmers are replacing their tobacco fields with hemp. In Colorado, some farmers are turning to grow hemp in addition to wheat.

As there is a steady demand for hemp as a raw material, many states are ahead of the game and have taken the regulation into their own hands. Before this week’s legislative vote, 40 states had removed barriers to its production.

According to the 2018 Congressional Research report, Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity, hemp represents a profitable niche market and a viable alternative crop for U.S. growers. In their report on the top 10 producing states,  Hemp Industry Daily provides snapshots of hemp production including sales and market potential.

Because hemp was not allowed to be grown as a large commercial scale in the U.S.,  profitability studies are limited, but research institutions, such as Cornell UniversityUniversity of Kentucky and the State of Colorado are compiling this economic information for farmers.

The Regulations – Hemp wins

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill. The new five-year bill lays out the complex web of policies and programs governing the U.S. food system and includes a major win for the nascent hemp industry.

Hemp supporters, championed by Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are jumping for joy over the loosening of restrictions to grow and harvest hemp, thereby offering the potential to bring in additional farm income. Probably most important is that the loosened restrictions will open up sources for funding and research, and farmers will be able to obtain bank loans and federal crop insurance, an enormous safety net for commodity crop farmers.

“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future.”

-Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Twitter December 11th, 2018

But while it is freed from federal prohibition, there are still some restrictions to grow hemp and you won’t be able to grow it in your gardens like tomatoes, basil or beans. For instance, it must be grown with a THC content of less than 0.03% and the USDA must approve a states’ plan for licensing and regulating hemp. If a state doesn’t come up with a plan, the federal government will provide the framework. The law also states that non-compliant growers can be prosecuted.

Additionally, growing hemp is only part of the equation. As the market expands, so will the number of harvesters, processors, and distributors. This represents an exciting chapter in American agriculture!

Why Should We Care About Bees?

honey bee landing on flower

These hard-working creatures not only pollinate most of the food we eat, but they also make delicious honey! As a beekeeper, I have learned that bees require care much like any other family pet. But how can I keep my bees healthy with the ever-present pesticides in our suburban setting?

This past summer I tried my own method of protecting my bees. On a beautiful sunny day, I interrupted a commercial tree sprayer who was doing “preventative” insect spraying on our neighbor’s trees and bushes. He was perplexed when I told them that I had a honey bee hive in my yard. On one hand, he was under a maintenance contract to take care of trees, and on the other hand, he understood the spraying hazards to any type of foraging bees.

Checking the hive

While I may have made an impression on this sprayer by chasing him down, it is not feasible to manually protect the five-mile radius or 3,200 acres around my house— which is the distance that bees will travel in search of nectar and pollen.

And these types of insecticide sprays, called neonicotinoids, are not the only thing I need to worry about! I have to watch out for the wax moth, small hive beetle, signs of Nosema virus, and the dreaded varroa mite, on top of making sure the “girls” have enough to eat. Are there enough different sources of nectar and pollen for them to forage on? And winter is coming… does my hive have enough honey stores to make it through the season?

 

These honey bees (hives are in the background) are well-cared for and have a nice supply of nutritious forage.

While my bees have it easy with the care I provide (and how fast I can chase down neighborhood sprayers), wild bees, bumble bees and the other 3,999 species of bees in North America might not be as lucky.

We need bees for food!

Pollinators are responsible for 35% of the world’s crop production and 90% of the pollination in wild plants. That equates to one out of every three bites of food we eat and all the wildflowers in the woods and prairies! Unfortunately, the populations of these native bees, butterflies and other important pollinators are shrinking. Imagine your diet without raspberries, almonds or blueberries. If it weren’t for these pollinators fertilizing the crops, we would be very sad consumers!

Leafcutter Bee

Bumble Bee

Digger Bee

Mining Bee

Some of the native bees species of North America.

What is causing this shrinking population? While neonicotinoids are not the only smoking gun, the effects of these insecticides ignite passions on both sides of the debate.

What is a Neonicotinoid?

“Neonics” are used in agriculture, home gardens and even on your pets as an insecticide to kill sap- sucking and chewing insects that eat tender leaves from crops or drive your dog crazy from scratching. Neonicotinoids act on an insect’s central nervous system, causing paralysis and death.

Neonics are applied either as a spray, dust or added to irrigation water. Staple crops such as corn, soy, and canola, use seeds that are pretreated with neonicotinoids. When used as seed treatments, neonicotinoids are taken up by all parts of the plant as it grows. This means that foraging bees and insects may come into contact with neonicotinoids as they are foraging on pollen and nectar.

Tree sprayers such as this are common around suburban neighborhoods. Have a conversation with your contractor to see if spraying is really necessary.

The research against Neonicotinoids is not entirely conclusive.

To study the effect of agricultural chemicals on bees, scientists perform laboratory, semi-field, and field tests. Of these, realistic field tests are the most difficult to conduct, as the variables such as weather and bee foraging patterns are never constant. On the other hand, laboratory tests are often criticized because the exposure to chemicals is manipulated and controlled, and not representative of a bee’s normal foraging activities.

The Pollinator Network at Cornell University compiled an overview of the scientific evidence on neonicotinoids. “Overall, the majority of laboratory and semi-field research demonstrates neonicotinoids can be harmful to honey bees; however, the majority of field studies find only limited or no effects on honey bees.” There is agreement, however, on the negative impact of neonicotinoids on bumble bees.

Bumble Bee loaded with pollen

Penn State Center for Pollinator Research adds, “Wild and managed pollinators face numerous stressors. Honey bees, other managed pollinator species such as bumblebees and orchard bees, and wild bees suffer from exposure to parasites and pesticides, and loss of floral abundance and diversity due to increased land-use. In addition, habitat destruction limits nesting sites for wild pollinators. Unfortunately, these stressors may interact synergistically to produce more detrimental effects on pollinator health.” (Penn State Center for Pollinator Research)

Today’s neonicotinoids are less toxic to vertebrates than the older synthetic chemicals they replaced, but they are still a threat.  And the “organic” insecticides options aren’t any safer. Pesticides approved for organic use can cause significant harm to bees as well. (The Xerces Society provides some very useful information on organic pesticide application.)

How do we manage pests and protect pollinators?

At the Penn State Center for Pollinator Research, biologists call it Integrated Pest and Pollinator management (IPPM), but if you are familiar with the term Integrated Pest Management (IPM), pollinators add a new dimension to this accepted paradigm.

“Neonics – and other pesticides – are valuable tools for growers, but we know that pesticides kill bees as well under the “right” conditions. And bees are exposed to a heck of a lot of pesticides because we are asking them to pollinate our crops. We may not know exactly the extent to which pesticides are responsible for bee populations declines – particularly since so many factors interact – but we know what to do about it – IPPM!”

—Christina M. Grozinger, Director, Center for Pollinator Research, Penn State University.

In this video, Penn State biologists demonstrate that both pest management and pollinator protection can be achieved when they are used in an integrated pest and pollinator (IPPM) context.

 

What YOU can do to help pollinators!

Plant wildflowers and other native plantings in your yard or neighborhood to provide nutritious forage for the bees and other pollinating insects. Provide housing for pollinators. Your local Audubon or State Agricultural Extension will have many recommendations. If you must use pesticides, be selective in your timing and dose: don’t apply when plants are flowering or when bees are foraging.

In the News: Glyphosate (again)

glyphosate-spray-early-crop

For most of us, weeds are a backyard annoyance. Whether they are in a flower or vegetable garden or sprouting up in the lawn, manual eviction is possible. For farmers around the world, however, weeds are a lot more than an annoyance. Weeds in a farm field mean that crop producers must spend valuable time and money getting rid of them before they steal the water and nutrients that crops rely on to grow.

Weeds make a difference in how big the crop is at harvest time, and how much money is left over after all the expenses of production, harvesting, storage, transportation, and marketing are paid.

For close to four decades, the safest and most effective herbicide has been Roundup, made by Monsanto. Its active ingredient is glyphosate – which in geek-speak is “an organophosphorus compound, specifically a phosphonate, which acts by inhibiting the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase.” In perhaps overly simplistic but understandable terms, it’s a salt that dries up and ultimately kills plants.

Why do farmers use glyphosate? Read our post: Is Glyphosate Safe?

Back in 2015, the use of glyphosate took on a strong international political flavor. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization (WHO) agency devoted to cancer research, concluded that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen.” IARC’s methodology evaluated hazard and not risk (coffee is a hazard too if you drink too much of it), and has been widely disputed by many other scientific organizations, including the European Food Safety Authority and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Programdoes not list glyphosate as either “known to be a human carcinogen” or “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The difference of opinion on glyphosate has prompted intense battles and lobbying – in academic circles, in the media, in the courtroom and regulatory arena, and beyond.  Despite the fact that its use reduces the amount of herbicide needed, decreases use of more toxic herbicides, and enables farmers to till their fields less thereby improving soil health, environmental groups have made glyphosate almost an evil incarnate, to be either completely banned or at least extremely tightly controlled.  A new claim or new study seems to emerge regularly, alleging some new danger or additional “proof” of real and serious danger to the public health, the environment or some other vulnerable group. Notably, the EU debated further restrictions on the use of glyphosate or an outright ban on its sale or use but ultimately kicked the can down the road until at least 2022.

Closer to home, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental advocacy group, recently released a report claiming to have found minute levels of glyphosate in 26 of 28 breakfast cereals and snack bars tested.  Such presence should worry consumers, EWG suggested, especially where the health of children is concerned.

Hold on a minute, said others across the scientific, public health and business communities. The levels detected in the study are far, far below the threshold set by even the most stringent regulatory standards. People would need to consume vast quantities of these products over their lifetime before reaching the Allowable Daily Intake.  This is nothing more than a clear effort to cry wolf, using children as a tool to advance an environmental or ideological agenda.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The FDA began testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time in 2016 and released that data in October 2018. According to the agency’s report, no glyphosate was detected in milk and eggs. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As these EWG headlines renewed the controversy, a judge in California substantially reduced to $78 million the initial $289 million awarded last summer by a San Francisco jury to the groundskeeper who claimed his cancer resulted from exposure to Roundup. The ruling came despite hundreds of reviews and studies, most by government regulatory oversight agencies and independent scientists, that has found the popular weed killer to be safe as used.

The size of the initial award had attracted global media attention and raised eyebrows across the business community and around the world.  The recent reduction enabled Monsanto to claim some sort of victory – if only in the chance to repeat the defense of its product.

“There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides, including more than 800 rigorous registration studies required by the EPA and European and other regulators that confirm that these products are safe when used as directed.” (Monsanto)

The EPA, as part of a normal chemical review process, is currently engaged in its latest routine review of glyphosate and will publish its decision in 2019.  However, in December 2017, the EPA published the following:

“The draft human health risk assessment concludes that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. The Agency’s assessment found no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label. The Agency’s scientific findings are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by a number of other countries as well as the 2017 National Institute of Health’s Agricultural Health Survey.”

The release of the EPA’s registration review report is certain to trigger the next animated round of debate.  Meanwhile, expect still more of the steady drip of claims and counterarguments from a broad spectrum of interest groups – public health, environmental, scientific and business, just to name a few.  The headlines aren’t going away any time soon.

CO2: The Greatest Fertilizer of All

wildflower meadow in front of farm

The more CO2 that is available to a plant, the more CO2 it ‘inhales!’ The more CO2 it inhales, the faster the rate of photosynthesis and the greater rate of growth. Additionally, more carbon dioxide provides plants a stronger immune system to protect against disease and drought.

CO2 helps plants increase yield.

“We realize that increases in CO2 concentrations and adaptive management can provide significant mitigation of the negative effects of climate change.” -Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. Craig D. Idso, author of Climate Change: The Facts 2017 and Founder of CO2 Science has closely reviewed the COfertilization effect on agriculture. He has examined a database of over 5,500 studies that include 950 plants that demonstrate how COenrichment increases photosynthesis and yield. The COin greenhouses was amplified from 300 to 600, and in some cases to 900ppm. He found that the large-scale staple food and animal crops  (soybeans, wheat, and corn)also react well to more COin the atmosphere.

Large-scale agricultural crops respond well to CO2 enrichment. In the studies led by Craig Idso, the yield of corn increased by 27%, wheat by 37%, and soybeans by 50%.

 

However, it is one thing to enrich the air in a greenhouse, but how does this work with crops in practical field applications?

Dr. Rob Norton, formerly Director of the International Plant Nutrition Institute, now retired as a consultant, Norton Agronomic P/L from Australia and New Zealand, has completed several studies to understand the CO2 effect on wheat. He used FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide) which is the ability to determine the effect of elevated CO2 on a specific crop. For example, on the same field with the same water, sunlight and fertilizer, he had two sets of crops: one had enriched air of a higher CO2 level of 550 ppm, pumped through sprinkler-like devices every few seconds, and the other wheat crop relied just on the CO2 found in the air at the time of 385 ppm. He found that the wheat grain yield increased by 50%. His research also showed that the nutrients within a plant decreased as the yield increased. (Check out our post on how minerals get diluted as the plants grow bigger with CO2 fertilization.)

CO2 helps plants cope with drought stress.

Plants have leaf stomatal pores that allow them to “inhale” carbon dioxide and release water vapor – the process of transpiration. The more CO2 they have, the fewer pores they create, the less water vapor they release. The plants are essentially storing water and energy in their leaves. Just like humans, when plants are hydrated they grow stronger and stay healthier. This is particularly true for C4 plants such as sugarcane, sorghum, and corn.

Nature Magazine published a report by Daniel Taub, Chair of Biology at Southwestern University, which examined the Photosynthetic assimilation of CO2 to the metabolism of plants. He also completed FACE experiments and compared photosynthesis between CO2 of 385 ppm to an elevated CO2 of 475 ppm – 600 ppm. He found that in the higher CO2 environment plants required less water. This has an added benefit of less run-off which keeps the soil moist over a longer period of time.

Across a variety of FACE experiments, growth under elevated CO2 decreases stomatal conductance of water by an average of 22%…. Under elevated CO2 most plant species show higher rates of photosynthesis, increased growth, decreased water use and lowered tissue concentrations of nitrogen and protein.” (Daniel Taub, Southwestern University)

The more CO2 plants absorb, the greater the rate of photosynthesis.
Image: view from a Super Cub in the Pennsylvania countryside.

Is the Earth turning greener?

Australian scientist, Randall Donohue and a group of researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization looked at the relationship between annual rainfall, rising CO2 and the greening of the earth. Through satellite measurements between 1982 – 2010, they calculated, that yes, indeed, there was a global foliage increase of 11%.

While we are frequently inundated with the consequences of excess CO2 and its relationship to climate change— what isn’t making headlines is how increased levels of CO2 can actually grow more food!

Can research utilize CO2 to increase yield even more?

As a Dirt-to-Dinner reader, by now you know that a higher crop yield on existing land is the holy grail of farming. As the world population grows and our need for sustainability increases, using innovation and technology to get the most of our existing farmland will continue to be critical. Rice is a good start as it provides at least 20% of the energy for over 50 percent of the world population.

Paul Quick, from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, is working with scientists in eight different countries from 12 universities to supercharge the photosynthesis process in rice to increase its yield by 50%. According to the IRRI, each hectare of rice (2.5 acres) in Asia produces enough food for 27 people, as 2050 approaches, that same hectare will need to feed 43 people. They are working to convert rice, which is a C3 plant, to the efficient user of CO2 and water of a C4 plant. This would produce the desired 60% increase in yield.

Is Glyphosate Safe?

glyphosate - roundUp

At my home, we struggle with an ongoing battle against goutweed— a Hydra Lernaia of the invasive weed world. If you pull or cut this weed, it will only sprout more roots underground as a survival response. We researched and spoke with weed experts and ended up turning to Roundup, a glyphosate product, to get rid of it. And after three applications this past spring, the weed was finally gone.

At Dirt-to-Dinner, we have researched and written about glyphosate before and concluded it safe for use as directed. But with the enormous judgment against Monsanto, in California last month, have things changed?

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide – meaning it kills anything green and growing that it is sprayed on. It is the active ingredient in Roundup®, among other herbicides, and is marketed to homeowners and farmers to kill weeds in lawns, crop fields, vineyards, and orchards. Other major users are golf course owners who use glyphosate to keep the greens and fairways pristine and the U.S. Forest Services – for forest management.

Glyphosate is also used in conjunction with herbicide-tolerant seeds for corn, soy, and cotton. So, for example, a farmer can plant Roundup-ready soybeans in the early spring, then spray the field with glyphosate for weed control and not kill the soybean seedlings.

Why do farmers use glyphosate?

Weeds compete with crops for nutrients, water, and sunlight and some even release toxic chemicals through their roots that directly harm crops. Controlling weeds with herbicides like glyphosate is a critical part of field management for farmers to achieve profitable yields. This also affects consumers in that higher yields translate into more plentiful and affordable food.

Additionally, farmers practicing no-till farming may use glyphosate to clear their fields for planting. In this case, farmers use herbicides to suppress weeds instead of tilling their field to rip them out. Reduced tillage means lower fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions from not firing up the tractor a countless number of times. It also means more decomposing matter in the soil which creates a healthy soil. Healthy soil creates strong plants, retains water, and reduces runoff and erosion.

Here is a great video produced by Know Ideas Media explaining why farmers use glyphosate.

How does glyphosate work?

Glyphosate inhibits the activity of an enzyme, called EPSP synthase, which is essential to plant growth. EPSP synthase is not found in humans or animals, and when applied to growing weeds,  just stops them in their tracks.

Once absorbed by a plant, glyphosate travels to the roots, where it is broken down naturally by bacteria and other organisms living in the soil.

How much glyphosate does the average farmer use?

Brian Scott is a soybean, corn and wheat farmer who manages 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. In this YouTube video, he demonstrates that the amount of glyphosate applied to his crops is less than 2 soda cans for every acre of land. Canadian farmer Jake Leguee puts in it another way:

“Here’s the thing about spraying a chemical like glyphosate. An acre of land is 43,560 square feet, which is a little smaller than an American football field. On that acre, 360 grams of glyphosate active ingredient is sprayed. Put another way: 2 cans of beer of glyphosate sprayed over an area almost the size of a football field. That’s 0.015 mL of beer on each square foot – and that includes the solution the glyphosate active ingredient is suspended in. That is an incredibly low concentration. A standard “drop” of water is 0.05 mL. That’s less than a third of a drop of water!”

Is glyphosate safe to use?

The science says yes. Pesticides used on conventional and organic crops are highly regulated and undergo rigorous scientific evaluation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is through this process that pesticides are safe when used according to the product label. In the case of glyphosate, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) and regulatory authorities throughout the world have reaffirmed that glyphosate is safe to use as directed and does not cause cancer.

As farmer Jake Leguee says, “…it has absolutely been the single greatest invention in agricultural history. And it is unequivocally, fantastically safe. It is one of the lowest toxicity herbicides we use on our farm. It is less toxic than alcohol. Less toxic than caffeine. “

What about the findings of glyphosate residues in our food?

Whether farmed conventionally or organically, trace amounts of pesticide residues can find their way into our food system. The question is: how much residue is too much? The answer is: to consume the amount that is too much requires you to eat many, many portions, every day, for the rest of your life!

To understand how much is too much, we need to understand the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI).  ADI is a measure of the amount of a specific substance in food or drinking water that can be ingested on a daily basis over a lifetime without an appreciable health risk. The ADI is set with a large margin of safety, usually 100 times the maximum effect seen in the laboratory. The European Union has set an ADI for glyphosate at 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. The U.S. EPA figures are 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Cheerios™ by General Mills and Old Fashioned Oats by Quaker® Oats were among the favorite consumer products recently tested for glyphosate residue by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group has a history of presenting (or misrepresenting) data in a manner that causes unnecessary fear.

In this household, Cheerios™ was a staple breakfast item in this household during my children’s younger years. I wondered about EWG’s claim that I poisoned my kids.

In the examples below, we use the more conservative European Union Acceptable Daily Intake for glyphosate (0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day).

The science says… The highest level of glyphosate found in the EWG report for Cheerios (serving of 28 grams), was 0.53mg/kg. The highest level of glyphosate found in Quaker Old-Fashioned Oats (serving of 40 grams) was 1.3 mg/kg.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time, released data in October 2018. In milk and eggs, none was detected, according to the agency. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the EPA.

What about the lawsuit against Monsanto?

The California jury ruled based on their assertion that Monsanto intentionally kept Roundup’s potential risks hidden from the public – it did not link glyphosate with cancer. Monsanto maintains that glyphosate does not cause cancer. Decades of scientific studies have shown the chemical to be safe for human use. (If you would like to read more about this case, read here.)

What are the herbicide alternatives?

First introduced in the mid-1970s, glyphosate has low toxicity to humans and animals and decomposes in the soil. While there are certainly other chemicals that farmers use, glyphosate replaced a class of much more dangerous herbicides and is considered the safest and most environmentally friendly herbicide on the market today.

Genetic Engineering: The Future Insecticide?

farmer spraying strawberry fields

Last month, we invited our readers to take part in a survey conducted by Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Science School students. The survey was part of a study on the perception of genetically modified insects used as a form of pest management in agriculture. These insects have the potential to combat crop insect pests without the use of pesticides and insecticides.

The survey had a total of 132 respondents. Most respondents completed the survey via social media or via the Dirt-to-Dinner email. The survey results show a wide acceptance of this type of genetic modification. Furthermore, the respondents support GE pest control over traditional pesticide methods. The results of the survey are below – thanks to our D2D readers who participated!

For more information on this study, please

visit https://shelton.entomology.cornell.edu/diamondbackmoth/diamondback-moth-project-atcornell-university-faq/

 

Soil Microbes in the Spotlight

magnifying glass showing soil microbes in soil

Microbes sustain life on earth. In fact, we live in their world! Microbes (also called microorganisms) grow and reproduce in and on your body, in soil and on rocks, within plant roots and on their leaves, in wetlands, oceans and fresh waterways, and even in space! Microbes decompose and recycle the dead; keep us healthy, make the oxygen we breathe, fix nitrogen, control pollution, are a source of renewable fuel, and feed the world!

microbiome is a community of microbes living in the same habitat.  Your gut microbiome, for instance, is specific to you, and the right balance of prebiotics and probiotics plays an important role in the digestion of food, metabolism, inflammation and immune function. (read our post: Your Second Brain: Gut Microbiota).

Likewise, soil microbiomes play a vital role in the health of plants. When a soil microbiome is alive with interacting bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and earthworms, plants are able to better absorb and hold water, nutrients, and minerals.

Microbes perform critical functions in soil food webs, such as decomposing organic materials, cycling nutrients, and improving soil structure. (USDA NRCS).

Did you know? Penicillin, tetracycline, and streptomycin are just a few of the several hundred antibiotics originating from soil microbes.

Video: The Living Soil: How Unseen Microbes Affect the Food We Eat

Harnessing the Power of Microbes

“Agriculture is the original biological technology, and the more we can learn to work with the soil microbiome, the more we can discover new ways to add value to farmers and return to its biological, and more sustainable, roots,” Jason Kelly, co-founder of Joyn Bio and CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks.

Microbes help plants fix nitrogen from the air for growth and maturity, absorb phosphorus for health and vigor, preserve water to shield from drought, or can protect a plant from fungal disease.

Ever wonder why plants are able to grow in the desert? The microbiome in and around the roots of that plant help it survive amidst drought and heat. Scientists can isolate these microbes and apply them to crops which face drought conditions. For example, Indigo Ag has developed microbial treated seeds for wheat to increase plant health in the face of water stress.

Reducing the application of nitrogen fertilizers is a high priority for sustainable farming. Nitrogen is necessary for plant growth and maturity but can have environmental downsides. Some plants, like legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), naturally “fix” nitrogen with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Scientists at Joyn Bio are engineering the DNA of the naturally nitrogen-fixing bacteria found in legumes to provide meaningful levels of nitrogen to other crops, such as corn, wheat, and rice.

The startup Pivot Bio focuses on enabling microbes to fix and supply more nitrogen to corn. In the future, their ON Technology™ will be used to provide crops with better access to phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients.

BioAg Alliance, representing the combined forces of Monsanto and Novozymes, creates microbial-based fertilizers, fungicides, and insecticides that help plants take up nutrients and defend against pests, disease, and weeds.

BASF, BayerBioWorksCertis, DowDuPont and SyngentaAgbiomeAgrinos ArystaLifeScience BioconsortiaMarrone Bio InnovationsPlant Impact and Valent BioSciences and Holganix are some of the other companies involved with agricultural microbial-based solutions for crop protection and enhancement.

The Agricultural Microbial Market is Booming

According to marketing research firm Research and Markets, this market is projected to reach $6.01 billion by 2022 from $3.09 billion in 2017. Additionally, since microbial crop protection poses fewer risks than conventional pesticides, the EPA generally requires less data and has shorter review times. This reduces the timeline to development by years and the cost of product development by millions of dollars.

“Nature’s toolbox of beneficial bacteria and fungi can help us produce healthier crops with higher yields while reducing the need for fertilizer and other chemicals.”Ejner Bech Jensen, Novozymes’ Vice President for BioAg Research.

Bringing Microbes Home — What does this mean to you?

If you maintain a lawn or a garden, you have hard-working soil microbes already as friendly neighbors! If any of these areas struggle with pests and diseases, there is most likely an imbalance in the soil microbiome. Look into soil micro biologicals to help you alleviate pest and disease pressure without the use of chemicals.

D2D on the Farm: Support Local Farms

Dirt-to-Dinner working at Versailles Farm

More and more mindful consumers are getting to know the farms in their area, attending farmers’ markets, and supporting local growers. And while connecting with farmers and understanding how your food is grown is important, dictating how a farmer should best grow their crops resembles a patient telling a doctor which medicines to prescribe! As a result, organic practices have been overemphasized and the use of genetically modified technology is very limited. The question remains: Is it clear to the consumer how safe conventionally grown fruits and vegetables actually are?

Does local mean organic?

There seems to be an inextricable link between local and organic produce. Consumers often assume when they are buying local, they are also buying organic. According to a survey done by Statista, 96% of those surveyed believe “local” means the produce was grown within 100 miles, 57% think that it is produced by a small business, and 44% believe it means natural or organic. As shown in the chart below, despite the lack of clarity around what “local” means, more and more consumers are visiting farmers’ markets to buy just that.

In reality, local does not mean organic— and there is nothing wrong with that. Despite this fact, there is a push for farmers to produce only organic crops for their local farmers’ markets. However, what the consumer doesn’t always realize is that both organic and conventional farmers have bugs, weeds, and weather issues. In order to get a good yield, farmers must utilize a variety of different tactics. Sometimes this includes pesticides, sometimes herbicides, and sometimes both. Farmers are concerned with soil and their local environments’ health.  When it comes to growing practices, it isn’t black or white. Yes, farmers are often classified as conventional or organic— but there is a lot more to it than that.

In fact, conventionally grown crops are often misrepresented and pitted against organic produce as the greater evil. As we’ve discussed on D2D, conventional farmers create safe, healthy, and affordable produce. But many consumers still believe that organic is healthier and more nutritious because it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. This impression is misguided. For instance, conventional farming practices have traditionally been held to a higher sanitation standard than organic farming, which sometimes uses improperly composted manure as opposed to more sanitary synthetic fertilizer. Or organic farmers may use copper sulfate as a fungicide and pesticide, which can be more toxic to the environment, including bees, than the conventional treatment of glyphosate.

The U.S. organic market reported a record $43.3 billion in sales in 2015 and shows no signs of slowing down. The organic food and beverage market is supposed to grow to $320.5 billion by 2050.  (Source: Organic Trade Association

As we learned on Green Cay Farm in Florida, there are many challenges that farmers face when growing crops. These include, but are not limited to, pest pressure and maintaining healthy soil. Sometimes, to deal with these challenges, a conventional input is better for the land, the farmer, and the crop.

Because there is less technology used in organic farming, inputs are more expensive. This drives up the price of the produce. One organic farmer stated, “it takes $1,800 to weed an acre of organic spinach compared to $150 an acre for conventional.” (Source: Genetic Literacy Project)

D2D discusses conventional farming practices with Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm.

In the case of Green Cay Farm, genetically modified technology could have a significant impact on the quality and availability of their corn and squash crop and would ultimately increase the profits of the farm. As Nancy Roe told us, she would like to use GM seeds but that could negatively affect her CSA subscribers. If she were able to use genetically modified crops she could yield more on less land and apply 1/3 less pesticide to her crops.

Versailles Farm, in Connecticut, takes another approach. Here, the “French-intensive method” is used to grow a variety of lettuce crops, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, edible flowers, and mushrooms. This approach combines conventional and organic inputs to produce roughly 12 acres of food on 1.5 acres of land!

Versailles Farm. The tightly packed rows using the French intensive method produces on 1.5 acres what would normally require 12 acres.

For Versailles Farm, “best practices” means fully utilizing new technologies like soil moisture sensors, irrigation sensors, and (if necessary) synthetic inputs based on detailed soil analyses. The owners, Steve and Ingrid McMenamin combine this with more old-time techniques, like the broad fork, which is a hand tool used to crack the soil before planting to allow oxygen in without disturbing the all-important microbiome of the soil web. They also grow companion plantings, like marigold flowers, nasturtium, lavender, and dill in order to naturally fight off pests. For example, lavender repels cabbage worms.  They can then harvest these companion plants for additional revenue. The bees are able to pollinate the flowers and create the honey made on the farm.

Versailles Farms grows thousands of marigolds in between crops. Acting as a companion plant this little flower is repelling insects, preventing fungus and keeping everybody healthy. Their roots contain thiophene which is toxic to certain nematodes, aphids, and beetles.  Marigolds also attract beneficial insects.

 

“We grow for flavor rather than compliance. Versailles Farm takes a best-practices approach in everything we do.  If organic has a best practice we use it. Same goes for conventional techniques.  Some may question how synthetic fertilizers affect the soil.  We use both organic and synthetic inputs.  We plant a cover crop and amend our soil with compost every year.  We spoon-feed our tomatoes with synthetics because they’re heavy feeders and the flavor is better.  Our soil is healthy and the worms are happy.” (Steve McMenamin, Versailles Farms)

Owners and farmers Ingrid and Steve McMenamin are responsible stewards of the land. They hold Versailles farm to the highest standards of plant culture, hygiene and flavor — they don’t feel compelled to adopt a purely organic regime in order to get a “badge.”

The health and quality of a farm’s land are extremely important to both conventional and organic farmers. If farmers don’t manage their inputs properly they are wasting money, negatively affecting their crops, and hurting overall profitability. We must trust both conventional and organic farmers to do what is right for their land given their seasonal challenges, pest threats, and growing conditions. Get to know your farmers, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the care they take of their land—even if they aren’t solely organic.

Successful farms are those who can marry the best techniques that are applicable to the crop, the soil, and the environment. It is not just one or the other – it can be both!

A big thank you to Steve and Ingrid McMenamin from Versailles Farms and Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm and Farming Systems Research. 

D2D on the Farm: America’s Salad Bowl

The Dirt-to-Dinner Team in Salinas Valley

The D2D team recently took a tour of Monterey County in Salinas Valley, California. Perfectly nestled between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges,  the valley spans 90 miles long and 15 miles wide. The soil is some of the most fertile in the world, created after thousands of years of nutrient dense mountain erosion and the ebb and flows of the Salinas River.

The north end of the Salinas Valley opens to the Pacific Ocean. This marine influence cools the valley and makes possible the wide range of crops found here. With a total value of over $1.9 billion, Monterey County is the fourth highest agricultural producing county in California. (UCDavis)

Two very deep underground aquifers and cool air from the Pacific Ocean contribute to the ideal growing conditions, which enables farmers to plant crops twice per year. Because of its prolific crop production, the area has been nicknamed the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Its top crops are Leaf Lettuces, Strawberries, Head Lettuce, Broccoli, Nursery stock, Wine Grapes, Cauliflower, Celery, and Spinach.

One of the most important takeaways we had from this trip was the care and stewardship of the land, with little differentiation between organic and conventional farming practices. The large and smaller scale farmers in this area— regardless of whether they are conventional or organic growers— are growing sustainably, efficiently, and safely. They take care of the land by employing successful crop rotation, appropriate pesticide use, and using an advanced recycled watering system to irrigate their crops. In fact, 72% of crops utilize water-conserving drip irrigation tape as their main delivery method for irrigation.

Our tour was guided by Evan Oakes, owner of Ag Venture Tours and a former agricultural scientist for the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Salinas. He first showed us one of the few edible species of thistle: the artichoke.

Salinas Valley is the primary U.S. home for artichokes because of the cool breeze coming off the ocean, rich fertile soil, and roughly 200 days of cloud cover, which closely mimics the weather in parts of Italy, the artichoke’s indigenous home.

Artichoke ready for picking from Pezzini Farms

We visited Pezzini Farms, a 4th generation artichoke farm and saw acres and acres of “Green Globe” artichoke plants. Each of these hearty plants can reproduce for as long as 15 years, as long as it is properly pruned!  When artichokes are in season early in the spring, Pezzini Farms sells about 200 pounds per week, and is best known for the delicious menu of cooked artichokes, including French fried chokes, from the “Choke Coach.” We can vouch that deep-fried artichoke hearts are delicious!

Pezzini Farms sorting their artichokes by size. The artichokes roll down a conveyer belt which drops the different sizes in their respective bins.  image: Pezzini Farms

Artichokes are harvested at several different sizes. The jumbos work great to hold a variety of stuffing; the extra smalls are best eaten whole! (image: Pezzini Farms)

The farm utilizes integrated pest management practices, such as turning under the spent plant to nourish the soil and reduce pesticide use. The farmed acreage also utilizes drip irrigation to reduce water consumption and fertilizer usage.

For all you chefs out there, we also learned the best way to identify a ripe artichoke at the grocery store or farmers market… it QUACKS!

After the tour of Pezzini Farms, we loaded up into Evan’s Ag Venture Tours van and began to absorb the vast amount of growing acreage in this area. Fields and fields of dark loamy soil stretching to the horizon.

Currently, the Salinas Valley is early in the growing season. Because of this, our team saw crops in different growing stages. Broccoli was being harvested, while cauliflower was just showing its bud. Some strawberries were being harvested, but other fields had a few weeks to go. Most of the lettuces were being planted or were still in the baby leaf stage. Raspberries were just about to break bud, and specialty crops, such as broccoli rabe, were getting ready to be harvested.







 


Most of the fruits and vegetables produced in the valley is grown for large U.S. growers, such as D’Arrigo BrothersDoleDriscoll and Taylor Farms.  In many cases, small independent growers contract out to these larger firms. The larger parent company (like Driscoll) will operate the research facility which provides information and farming strategy to their contracted growers. However, we also saw large grower operations that were not contracted. Andy Boy, operated by the D’Arrigo family, is a fourth generation family farm that handles all of their packaging and shipping on site as well. In fact, when visiting the grocery store in Connecticut the day following our trip we found fresh Andy Boy broccoli rabe — and it was delicious!

Andy Boy broccoli rabe at the grocery store back home

Many thanks to Evan Oakes from Ag Venture Tours for surviving 1,000 questions a minute from the D2D team!
For more on Monterey County visit the Monterey County Farming Bureau website.

For more on the growers and producers in the area, you might be interested in the following sites:

Andy Boy Produce

Taylor Farms

Driscoll’s

Dole

D2D on the Farm: GMOs

Green Cay farm talking with Dirt-to-Dinner

D2D recently visited Green Cay Farm, also known as Farming Systems Research, in Boynton Beach, FL. Green Cay is a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, that has operated between 10 and 15 acres of farmland for 17 years. CSA means they are a direct-to-consumer farm that delivers fresh veggies weekly or bi-monthly to their subscriber list. The farm grows over 30 different vegetable crops, including tomatoes, beans, broccoli, peppers, kale, squashes, watermelon, and lettuces, as well as different varieties within those crops.

Farm manager Nancy Roe gave us an expansive tour of the farm fields and we discussed the successes of the farm as well as the various challenges they face from season to season. One of the most interesting conversations we had was about a heavily debated topic in Ag. You guessed it…GMOs.

Nancy’s farm does not grow genetically modified crops, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t a fan of the technology!  Because of consumer misconception, Nancy cannot integrate GM seeds into her farm without the fear of losing customers. But, every year Nancy estimates they lose roughly 30% of the crops they plant. And last year they were required to spend more money on pesticides in order to keep up with the disease and pests that threatened their crops.


These leafy greens are still a viable crop but have been the snack of different insects. If you look closely you can see how they have damaged the leaves.

“We cannot grow genetically modified crops because our consumers won’t buy them, but it would help with crop loss. What consumers often don’t realize is that traditional crops farmers plant today have also been modified! The seeds they plant are not the seeds that were originally found in the wild. Using plant breeding technology, scientists have created better crops. Genetically Modified technology does the same thing— just a lot faster. ” Nancy Roe, Ph.D.

The hot, humid climate in South Florida offers its fair share of challenges. Ultimately, GMO technology would allow Nancy to experience less loss on the farm and require fewer pesticide treatments. Corn, for example, is a profitable crop for the farm, but because of pest threat, Nancy must treat the crop 2-3x a week in order to fight off insects and disease. This does not mean she is haphazardly spraying her crop in excess pesticide! She noted, “Farmers don’t put pesticides on their crops because they’re bad people! My grandchildren run through my fields and pick the salad we eat for dinner. Conventional farming is safe. And pesticides are so expensive— we wouldn’t spray our crops if we didn’t have to.”

If she were able to grow and sell genetically modified corn to consumers, she estimates she would not need to treat the crop with any pesticides or herbicides until the very end of the growing season, when the corn silk fly becomes an issue for the crop. In Florida, this pesky little bug will lay its eggs on the corn, which will then bury as maggots under the protection of the corn husk. This is a pest that is specific to the humid temperatures of Florida, so corn growers in a cooler climate might never need to spray any pesticides on their crop! In Florida, if she was able to grow genetically engineered sweet corn seeds she would be able to spray 1/3 less than she does now. Nancy also noted that many organic farmers in the climate are forced to spray more frequently in order to keep up with the pest and bacterial diseases of the south Florida climate. (Yes, organic farmers use sprays too.)

Additionally, this season, the farm’s broccoli and cauliflower crops were knocked out due to bacterial disease and damage inflicted by the Diamondback moth, which eats the leaves and flower buds of crucifer plants. On average their crops are threatened by 8-10 different types of disease and 12 different types of insects.

Diamondback moth leaf damage.

Three years ago, Nancy saw the benefit of growing GE crops first hand. After losing her entire squash and zucchini crop to an unforeseen virus, Nancy was visiting a neighboring farm to discuss the issues and successes the farm was experiencing. When walking those fields, she noticed gorgeous squash and zucchini plants. Because the seeds were genetically engineered to not get the bacterial virus, the neighboring farmer had a great growing season and successfully sold his crop. Since genetically modified crops have been proven safe by 275 organizations, including the FDA, USDA, WHO, EFSA, and NIH, and they help our farmers, shouldn’t we support it, as well?

Farmers are constantly trying to heed the needs of their consumers, but at the same time, they need the flexibility to create a more sustainable farm that not only benefits its customers but also the land and its workers. 

This beautiful purple Brussel sprout crop is actually a loss for Green Cay farm. Due to the hot, humid climate, the sprouts themselves never grew.

Sustainable Ag Series: Farmers

combine and tractor at harvest time - aerial photo

In our four-part series on agricultural sustainability, we illustrate how NGOsgovernment regulatorscorporations, and in this article, farmers, each achieve their sustainability goals as well as how they work together in larger initiatives.

“Growers are performing ‘sustainable practices’ but do not see them as such; they see them as just good farming practices and being good stewards of their land.” – Hank Giclas, Western Growers

The agriculture industry is often criticized for using too much water, using too many chemicals, and adding more carbon to the atmosphere. However, farmers have their boots on the ground and occupy the front lines of sustainability initiatives within agriculture. No farms, no food!

While some farmers employ better approaches to farming sustainably, no farmer deliberately damages human or environmental health or wants to waste their inputs, such as water, pesticide, and labor. As stewards of the land, it is in a farmer’s best interest to preserve all of their resources for future generations of farming.


Farmers are on the front lines of sustainable agriculture.

Sustainability encompasses many different initiatives for agriculture.

How do farmers address sustainable agriculture?

The road to sustainable farming is long and complex, simply because no single farming practice by itself establishes sustainability. Farmers are a community that must work together to protect their resources. To get insight into how farmers practice sustainability, we interviewed Nikki Rodoni, founder & CEO of Measure to Improve, LLC, a recognized leader in the fresh produce industry for building and implementing sustainability programs.

Farmers are taking care of the soil…

Rodoni emphasized the importance of healthy soil and states that farmers are already doing a fantastic job at improving soil health. As we discussed in Soil: It is much more than Dirt, healthy soil means healthy crops. Healthy crops lead to more resilient crops that, in turn, help farmers in many other facets of sustainability, such as decreased water usage since the soil holds and absorbs more water, thus preventing running off; less fertilizer usage since healthy soils hold more essential nutrients and reduce nutrient runoff; and less pesticide usage because crops are more resilient and better equipped to fight off pests with their innate defenses.

Healthy soil = healthy crops. The soil is a paramount sustainable initiative for farmers.

All those benefits can be enhanced when farmers adopt and use additional technologies and practices such as soil moisture sensors, precise irrigation methods, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to further increase efficiencies. And to top it all off, the farmer ends up with a higher yield and better quality of the crop.

Healthy soil is a win for farmers and consumers around the world because it increases the soil’s resilience, which in turn increases crop resilience and, ultimately, the resiliency of farming communities.

Farmers are conserving water…

Craig MacKenzie, a New Zealand farmer highlighted on Global Farmer Network, discussed his ability to manage irrigation on his farm from his cell phone. His carrot, radish, chicory, wheat, and ryegrass fields have sensors buried in the soil that send him real-time information about the soil moisture levels. This allows MacKenzie to adjust irrigation accordingly. He’s currently looking into fertilizer sensors to help detect the levels of nitrate, potassium, and phosphorus in the soil.


Ceres Imaging provides an app for farmers to help understand water stress, plant nutrient uniformity, pest emergence, and other issues in their fields. source: Precision Ag

Duncan Family Farms, which operates farms in Arizona and California, also uses sensor technologies as well as plastic mulches and floating row covers to help create and maintain moisture in their fields. Other methods they use to conserve water include growing crops during cooler months of the year to avoid high evaporative heat conditions; using transplants instead of seeds as seeds take more water to germinate, and growing some crops under cover in controlled environments.


Row covers can help maintain soil temperatures, reduce water inputs, and reduce weed infestation.

In addition to the use of sensor technologies to conserve water, farmers are also switching from furrow and overhead irrigation systems to drip irrigation, thus substantially cutting their water use.

Sustainable farming helps to sequester CO2

All these practices have many benefits including playing a role in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations through carbon storage in soil and vegetation called carbon sequestration.Scientists at the  University of California, Davis estimate that U.S. rangelands could potentially sequester up to 330 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in their soils, and croplands are estimated to lock up more than twice that amount—up to 770 million metric tons. That is the CO2 emissions equivalent of powering 114 million homes with electricity for a year.

Sustainable agriculture practices enhance carbon sequestration in soils.

In addition to on-farm sustainable practices, farmers must also work with a wider network which includes local government, corporations, and NGOs.

How corporations, governments and NGOs are working with our farmers

By working together, sustainable agricultural practices can be referenced, measured and validated. There have been efforts throughout the agriculture industry to assist farmers in implementing sustainable practices. While many agricultural companies such as DriscollTaylor Farms, Tanimura and Antle’s Plant TapeJohn DeereMonsantoCargill, and Bunge (to name a few) have their own corporate sustainabilityinitiatives to help guide farmers, there are many joint initiatives as well.

Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform was created in 2002 by Nestlé, Unilever, and Danone to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and best practices throughout the food value chain to support the development and implementation of sustainable agriculture practices.

Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA). Farmers can use the FSA to assess and improve their on-farm sustainability practices while communicating them to customers in a consistent way. Additionally, the assessment criteria meet the sustainable sourcing needs of many companies and can be used by governments, NGOs, universities, and consultants as a reference for defining the scope of sustainable agricultural practices.

Two organizations with more specialized and narrowly focused missions are Land O Lakes’ SUSTAIN and the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops.

SUSTAIN works with their partner retailers, like Walmart, to develop customized solutions that allow farmers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions without reducing their profits. For example, SUSTAIN created a product to help farmers use nitrogen more efficiently and, when used properly, allows them to use less nitrogen fertilizer.

Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC) is comprised of growers, buyers, and public interest groups collaborating to develop and share metrics and stewardship indicators in the specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, and nuts) industry. Alison Edwards, director and facilitator at SISC, spoke to us about the importance of the entire supply chain’s involvement with sustainability. When the whole supply chain is involved, the data being collected on the farm can be interpreted correctly and the sustainable farming story can be told in a more effective way.

Alison talked about the importance of having metrics— “you cannot manage what you cannot measure.” SISC’s metrics allow growers to internally benchmark which sustainable practices work the best for their farm, crop, climate, and soil conditions and report these tangible efforts to buyers and consumers.

In 2012 Campbell Soup Company began collecting sustainability performance metrics from their tomato grower using SISC’s metrics. Over a five-year period, they were able to track water and fertilizer use on their supplier farms. The adoption of drip irrigation across a group of 50 tomato farms resulted in a 22% reduction in average water volume.  By collecting this data, Campbell’s can now concretely demonstrate and share with their stakeholders how their tomato growers are actively adopting best practices and driving real resource conservation.

The government is also involved with sustainable agricultural efforts. For example, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has advocated and established several conservation and soil health programs into the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as supporting working land conservation programs like Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs support farmers and ranchers adopting conservation practices, like crop rotation, cover cropping, low tillage system management, etc., and in turn receive financial and technical assistance for their contribution to sustainability.   

Communicating Sustainability to the Consumer

The farmer-consumer relationship certainly has its challenges. When farmers are trying to implement new and more sustainable practices, it can be nearly impossible to communicate the results to consumers. We know that consumers want to know where their food comes from— but there is little-to-no communication between farmer and consumer. Because of this, marketing experts are telling farmers that they need to tell their stories, to reconnect with and inform consumers about how their farm operates and how their crops are grown and harvested. Walk down the aisle of the grocery store and you will see farmer’s highlighted on milk and orange juice cartons and boxes of cereal. But aside from these ad campaigns, creating a direct link between farmer and consumer is no easy task. Complicating the dialogue is that these days, when farmers make the news, especially regarding environmental issues, they are depicted as environmental villains. Unfortunately, these stories are misrepresentative and ignore the genuine stories of farmers and ranchers who are adapting to and embracing sustainable practices promoting soil health, minimizing water use and pollution, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions while contributing to and improving the quality of the food supply.

Sustainable Ag Series: Governments

looking up at a government building with blue sky above

In a four-part series on sustainability, we are illustrating how farmers, NGOs, corporations, and in this article, government regulators, work together in order to facilitate and execute sustainable objectives in agriculture. We want to better understand how these partnerships affect consumers and our food supply chain.

How do government officials address agricultural sustainability?

The role of sustainability and governments is difficult to define. There is no ‘unified government’. Each town, city, state, and country has its own unique agenda, accountability to their constituents, and the concept of collaboration with other organizations.

Adding further complexity to this equation are lobbyist organizations that attempt to influence regulators from the municipal level all the way up to the country’s legislative system. As a result of these variants, governments can either help or hinder those they have vowed to protect. For example, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Hudson River are cleaner today due to government-imposed pollution controls. The Colorado River, on the other hand, is regulated under numerous contracts, laws, and regulatory guidelines within seven different states, leading to many environmental and river flow issues.


Including the three branches of the U.S. Government, there are many variants within the legislative process. (image source: www.readworks.org)

At the end of the day, government officials have authority. They can allocate the financial resources that support farmers and their sustainability efforts. Additionally, there are many government grants that support scientific research that promotes eco-friendly and sustainable business practices. Elected officials can play a very important role within agricultural sustainability: they create, negotiate and pass the laws and regulations that protect our environment.

For example, the EPA’s renewable energy and clean energy programs are designed to help energy consumers, state policymakers, and energy providers by creating technical assistance and networks between the public and private sector across energy, water, and waste. Agstar promotes the use of biogas recovery systems to reduce methane emissions from livestock waste. The Smartway Transport Partnership is a public-private collaboration between EPA and the freight transportation industry to improve fuel efficiency.

The government can also allocate funds to sustainable projects that are already underway. In November 2015, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $314 million in funding for waste and water infrastructure improvements in rural communities in the United States. Coordinating this initiative is The EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center.

Watch this video on how the Farmer’s Irrigation District in Oregon used these loans to improve and protect the water supply for the area’s farmers.

The authority that governing bodies possess are meant to be helpful— but, there are instances where governments overstep and implement a regulation that may negatively affect agriculture.

In Zimbabwe, for example, GMOs are illegal to grow, sell, and import. The government has argued that this policy protects the environment and makes its sellable crops more favorable for export to Europe. However, the country is still struggling to feed its growing population and poverty levels are rising. If the Zimbabwean government were to legalize GMOs, the drought facing farmers and hunger plaguing the country would finally have a feasible solution.

One solution to help Africa’s farmers produce crops and food is to let them gain access to the crop technologies that millions of others take for granted. (image: GMO Answers)

“We are not picky when it comes to receiving GMO or non-GMO food. The situation is unbearable.”
— Spiwe Mucharanji, Tariro Orphanage Trust

Closer to home, the obesity epidemic in the United States has prompted cities such as Berkeley, Philadelphia, and New York to impose a sugar tax on sugary drinks. While there are conflicting studies indicating whether this has actually curbed consumer behavior, the tax demonstrates the government’s ability to try and persuade certain behavior from consumers. Is it the government’s responsibility to influence personal decisions?

Read Dirt-to-Dinner’s post on the Sugar Tax.

How government regulators work with corporations

“Government and business, acting together, can accomplish a great deal by utilizing each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses.” (Global Sustainability, Mark Lefko)

The public-private partnership is the one that can work well. Many large corporations will work with local governments to better execute and grow their sustainability efforts. As we discussed in our Sustainable Ag Series on Corporations, governments possess a reach and authority that corporations often do not. Therefore, international corporations will work closely with governments to 1) abide by local laws and 2) to enable their sustainability initiatives to have optimum impact.

Unilever, an international consumer goods company whose brands include Dove, Lipton, and Hellman’s, “works with governments around the world to train small farmers in modern agriculture and business methods.” (Global Sustainability). The governments can act as an intermediary between farmer and corporation and provide incentives for these partnerships— i.e. tax credits for corporations and loans for farmers.

Without the help of the local government, Unilever could never accomplish as much as they do.

“We don’t have the capabilities to reach that many farmers, aggregate them, and train them in management, agricultural techniques, board management, social standards, etc. So you work with these different organizations, and as you do this, you secure your value chain, you provide the livelihoods that undoubtedly will come back to you, because obviously, we cannot prosper if these communities don’t prosper.”
-Paul Polman, CEO Unilever

In Xinjiang, China, Unilever is providing smallholder tomato farmers training. As a result, farmers in the program have seen, per hectare, yields increase by 7.5 tonnes, water use reduced by 1500m3, and pesticide spraying reduced by 150g. (image: Unilever)

How government regulators work with farmers

Government funding will provide farmers with financial grants and loans in order to promote and help expand sustainable farming efforts. In the United States, there are many innovative programs and resources provided by the USDA. If you are a first-time farm buyer, for example, the US government will help you obtain access to affordable farmland by providing a special joint-financing loan option.

The USDA offers many programs for small scale farmers. (image: USDA – Guide to Sustainable Farming Programs)

Internationally, governments will facilitate partnerships between corporations and farmers to help encourage local development. In 2015, international food-production company, DSM and the World Food Program, in partnership with Africa Improved Foods Ltd. (AIF) and the Rwandan government, facilitated the construction of a $60m factory in Rwanda. In addition to the commercially sold food made at the factory, AIF also works with the Government of Rwanda to create nutrient-dense foods for impoverished communities, which are distributed by the World Food Program. (DSM)

In addition to providing factory jobs, this initiative also helped farmers improve the local-food processing industry and motivated farmers to utilize sustainable farming practices. The factory currently works with over 9,000 large and small grain cereal farmers.

Another example of regulators working with farmers is the Renewable Fuel Standard of 2005, which was put in place for the benefit of American farmers. Each tank of gas must contain roughly 10% corn or soy, which has been converted into fuel— this is called ethanol.

On November 30th, 2017, the Trump administration continued this mandate requiring US refineries to incorporate 19.29 billion gallons of biofuels into our gasoline supply. This is about 40% of the US corn crop and 30% of the US soybean crop. This keeps corn and soy prices higher than they normally would be, which benefits farmers— but there are significant environmental side effects. Corn and soy are grown on land that ultimately requires more irrigation for these demanding crops. 

Ethanol production requirements may be good for farmers and their production of corn and soy crops but put an ecological strain on the environment. (image: US Department of Labor)

Producing one gallon of ethanol takes half a gallon more water than producing a gallon of gasoline. The issue is that most ethanol facilities are within a 100-mile range of the crops, which means that precious water sources are being tapped, including the Ogallala Aquifer.

Better to use that water to grow crops for food and not fuel.

The ecological strain it places on US farming does not outweigh the monetary benefit of higher corn and soy prices. It will be interesting to see how the US government and farmers will work together in this space moving forward.

How government regulators work with NGOs

“Under ideal circumstances, all three types of entities—businesses, governments, and NGOs—can come together to maximize the power of all three to address the problems of poverty, health, gender inequality, and disease.”

As we saw with the Government of Rwanda’s partnership between DSM, AIF and the United Nations: World Food Program, farmer, government, NGO, and corporation have successfully worked together in order promote change and sustainability.

Heifer International is another NGO that works closely with both farmers and governments to provide microfinancing to alleviate hunger. They teach environmental sustainability to their farmers and promote climate-smart agriculture and livestock production solutions. They do so by lending money to families to help them to buy agricultural products, such as a cow, chickens, or bees. This then helps the family to sell goods like milk, eggs, or honey. Heifer teaches these families how to manage their purchase and grow their livestock, thus helping families become self-sufficient rather than depending on government handouts. In order to expand its global reach, Heifer has partnered with other large-scale corporations and local government officials.


Food Network chef and avid Heifer International supporter Alton Brown explains how Heifer makes a difference through gifts that keep on giving.

How government regulators address consumer concerns

The government is legally responsible for the safety of the people, or consumers, that they were elected to represent. So, while various governing bodies might address sustainability initiatives differently, they all want to make their environment a better place for their current residents and their future inhabitants.

There are many different laws in place that can affect consumers. The United States, for example, has over 30 different laws that regulate the interaction of humans and the environment, This list includes the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which help to regulate and protect air and water quality.

The Clean Water and Air and Acts are celebrated across college campuses and non-profit organizations to motivate consumers to be a part of a healthy living environment. (Image sources: My Clean Water Act and The Clean Air Campaign)

Additionally, on a local level, governments will often monitor town water levels to help maintain the needs of local farmers. If the area is experiencing drought, those living in the town will be asked to stop sprinkler use, take shorter showers, and even turn off the faucet while brushing teeth. While refusing to abide by these requests won’t land you in jail, being a mindful consumer will help to protect the environment.

“Businesses, governments, and NGOs can and often do work together for their mutual benefit and for the benefit of global society as a whole”
Global Sustainability, Mark Lefko

Sustainable Ag Series: Corporations

looking up at skyscrapers

In a four-part series on sustainability, we are illustrating how farmers, NGOs, governments, and in this article, corporations, work together in order to facilitate sustainable objectives in agriculture.

Corporations often are maligned when it comes to their sustainability efforts. In general, consumers perceive small companies or “local” operations to be better and environmentally friendlier than large companies and their wider distribution networks. When in reality, it is often the sustainability efforts of large corporations that influence smaller operations. Sustainability has no borders— everyone is involved.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
-International Institute for Sustainable Development

How do corporations address agricultural sustainability?

Responsible corporations can help improve our food supply chain. Today, it is not enough for corporations to focus solely on making a profit and increasing shareholder value; they are expected to leave the world a better place for consumers and stakeholders alike. In many cases, large agriculture corporations are the leaders in sustainability and create a bar for other smaller-scale companies to follow.

While each responsible corporation generally accepts the same overarching definition of sustainability, they implement it uniquely, according to the factors that are the most important to their corporate practices and the products they are creating. Individual corporations will create a plan for sustainability that is good for the environment, good for business, and good for social welfare. However, it is important to note that not all corporations treat sustainability in the same way. Some use it as a marketing ploy— they don’t ‘walk the talk’. An increasingly important aspect of today’s sustainability initiatives is a verification process to ensure that they are meeting their goals.

How do these large-scale corporations figure out which sustainability efforts to promote while maintaining a profit and achieving their vision? 

Corporations will perform research and poll their stakeholders (customers, suppliers, shareholders, governments) to see what is most important to these key players. Generally, companies will target water usage, food and packing waste, greenhouse gas and energy consumption, farmers, and/or employee welfare. Corporations in the agriculture industry recognize how important the environment is for both current consumers and future generations. They want to be known for responsible, good business practices and will be vigilant about their sustainability initiatives. And, let’s not sugar coat it— they have their brand and reputation to protect, which is a driving force for doing good.

PepsiCo Sustainable Agriculture’s Water Project uses technology and agricultural skills to reduce global water use. source: Pepsico- Agriculture Sustainability

PepsiCo’s Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI), for example, is a program that encourages all of their farmers to continually improve their sustainable agricultural practices. The key ingredients they source are potatoes, corn, oats, and oranges. They “aim to implement specific programs and measurement processes to improve overall agriculture supply chain performance.” Their lofty goal includes topics within the social, economic, and environmental framework of agricultural sustainability.


Source: The Coca-Cola Company 2016 Sustainability Report

The Coca-Cola Company, another titan of industry in the beverage sector, has expansive environmental goals that include water and energy preservation. Looking specifically at their water initiative, Coca-Cola has pledged that for every drop of water they use, they will give one back to the environment. Essentially, they are water neutral.  Coke and their bottling partners set this as their goal for 2020, but they were able to achieve it by 2016! Not only did they use less water, but they replenished it through community water partnerships in 71 different countries.

How corporations work with Farmers

Within the agriculture sector, many sustainable corporate initiatives are often met with backlash. The prime example of this, of course, is genetically modified organisms (GMO). Without getting too much into the debate behind GMOs, regardless of where you stand on this issue, there is no denying that genetically engineered (GE) crops save environmental resources. And many farmers that provide food to big corporations will grow environmentally-friendly GE crops in order to help support sustainability initiatives in Ag.

For example, Monsanto is constantly under fire for “poisoning agriculture” with its GE crops, when in reality the reverse is true. While Monsanto has 17 sustainability efforts, their biggest contributing factor to consumers and our environment alike is to to double the yield size of canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans by 2030. What gets lost in the GMO conversation with environmentalists is that higher yields actually protect the environment. How? This means less land under plow and less water usage, energy, herbicides, and pesticides used to grow non-GMO crops.

Source: Monsanto 2016 Sustainability Highlights

McDonald’s is another company looking to “make a positive difference in the lives of farmers and our planet by advancing more sustainable beef production.” This means that when you sit down to eat a Quarter Pounder, you can be assured that the particular cow was raised by farmers employing the most sustainable environmental practices. McDonalds Canada started a ‘birth-to-burger’ program where for the first time you can track hamburger meat back to the cow it came from. You can be assured that the cow was raised humanely and in a sustainable environment, discover what the cow ate during its lifetime, and know that it was processed with food safety standards. This program is a collaboration with specific ranchers, the World Wildlife Fund, JBS, and Cargill. They currently track 9,000 head of cattle, which supply roughly 2.4 million beef patties.


Source:  McDonald’s Sustainability Reports

Small-Scale Sustainability…

Sustainability efforts can be harder to accomplish for smaller-scale farmers who are trying to eke out a living in the developing world— especially when these farms are nestled next to rainforests. Keeping ancient forestintactct is better and more productive for the Earth than slash and burn farming. Additionally, destroying these forests, which provide tremendous plant and animal life biodiversity, as well as CO2 sinks, is damaging to the Earth’s ecosystem.

According to the Rainforest Allianceattempted agriculture accounts for more than 70% of tropical deforestation. As a result, some of the world’s largest agriculture and food companies have signed an agreement to monitor their outsourced supply chains. Some of these companies and organizations are Carrefour, Walmart, Bunge, Cargill, Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance, and the Nature Conservancy. Unilever, Wilmar, and Hershey also have their own commitments against purchasing goods produced on deforested land. Using satellite imagery, they can track exactly where the crops came from and ensure that the crops were grown safely and sustainably.

How corporations work with NGOs

As we discussed in the first installment of this series, NGOs and corporations create meaningful partnerships to achieve corporate sustainability goals while benefitting farmers and the environment. The Nature Conservancy, for example, is an NGO that has partnered with many different corporations to help achieve various goals within agricultural sustainability.

The Nature Conservancy has recognized that the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission. Businesses around the globe can, and do, have significant impacts on our climate and on the lands and waters that people and nature rely upon for survival. That’s why we are applying our science, reach, expertise in conservation planning, and on-the-ground experience to help businesses make better decisions, understand the value of nature, and ultimately protect it.”

In 2016, the Nature Conservancy and PepsiCo announced a 5-year partnership entitled “Recycle for Nature,” which aims to protect our drinking water through recycling. Their primary goal is to save 1.2 billion gallons of water over five years. This partnership is also working to protect the important rivers and lands that are integral to our water resources in North America.

source: Nature.org

How corporations work with governments

“Much can be achieved by combining the authority and resources of government with the efficiency of a for-profit business.”
Mark Lefko, Global Sustainability

Governments often have more influence and power than private corporations and as a result, companies will work with local or national governments and legislative representation to implement sustainability initiatives. For example, in Terneuzen, a city in the Netherlands, the Dow Chemical Company worked with government officials to successfully re-purpose three times the amount of water, which in turn saves energy equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 13,000 cars every year. (Global Sustainability)

Scott Pruitt, EPA Chief, has been soundly criticized for supporting the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, encouraging discussion about the cause of climate change, and repealing Obama’s Clean Power plan. His approach to environmental sustainability takes a different tact – obtaining immediate benefits. He is working with Walt Disney World to convert 120,000 tons of food waste into electricity. This will help the EPA goal toward reducing the 21% of food waste that fills landfills by 50%.

How corporations address consumer concerns

It all starts with good values. In all successful cases, ethics and transparency are at the forefront of any sustainability initiative. Looking specifically at agricultural sustainability, consumers want to feel more connected to the environment and have a good understanding of where food is coming from. To that end, consumers are more likely to support a corporation if they are successfully supporting the environment and transparent about their corporate practices. Furthermore, employees will go the extra mile if they feel their company has the same values they do.

“Our people feel there is a soul in the company, a purpose. It has an effect not only internally, but also externally– especially for the younger generations. They don’t want to work for a company for the benefits or the pension packages, they want to work for a company where they can say the values match with their own values”.                                                                                            —Feike Sijbesma, CEO, DSM.
Social Media & Corporate Sustainability  Sustainability is important to consumers, who use social media to determine whether the product they are buying meets their personal values. As a result, sustainable brands tend to grow faster than others. For example, Unilever has 16 sustainable brands that grew 50% faster than other comparable brands and represented 60% of overall growth in 2016.

Corporations working together

“If we can find ways to collaborate with those who share our values on the topic of sustainability, we will find that many of our principles are transferable regardless of the industry in which we work.”
Mark Lefko, Global Sustainability.

Finally, many similar-minded companies in the same industry form partnerships to set the standard for their industry. In many cases, they use vision, innovation, and accountability to raise the bar…

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a CEO led organization of innovative companies that spurs the business community toward sustainability in the following area: Energy, Food and Land Use, Cities and Mobility, and Redefining Value.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef defines themselves as promoting an environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes the plant, people, animals and progress. They are a consortium including McDonalds, Cargill, JBS, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association as well as the Rainforest Alliance and the World Wildlife Fund.

The Global Salmon Initiative sets the standard for sustainably farmed salmon. It is represented by a group of salmon farmers from 8 different countries.

The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtableis a collaboration of companies such as Diageo, Danone, Heineken, Coke, and AB InBev in the beer, bottle water, juice, tea, coffee, soft drink, and alcohol business. They are far reaching with over $260 billion in combined revenue, over 2100 facilities across 170 countries and have over 5,600 brands. Their purpose is to advance environmental sustainability within the beverage sector.

Sustainable Ag Series: NGOs

many hands on top of each other-symbol of unity

In a four-part series on sustainability, we are illustrating how farmersgovernments, corporations and in this article, NGOs, work together in order to facilitate sustainable objectives in agriculture.

The term ‘sustainability’ is thrown around a lot…in the media, on corporate websites, in the government—even on D2D! The term is now used so frequently that it often has more than one interpretation.

At Dirt-to-Dinner, sustainability means protecting our global environmental and human resources for future generations while still providing for today’s population. Agricultural sustainability initiatives can address clean water, ocean health, deforestation, soil health, global hunger, food waste, human rights, child labor, and general ethical practices. As you can see, sustainability can wear many different hats.

Sustainability can pertain to anything from clean water to deforestation to global hunger to just plain ethics.

How do NGOs address agricultural sustainability?

NGOs are non-profit, usually voluntary citizen groups that advocate for certain policies and monitor various government initiatives. They often rally around an important cause with the hopes of achieving a specific outcome in government regulations.

Sustainable NGOs are defined as organizations that make “essential contributions to the environment, society, and the sustainability of the world at large.”

You can find an NGO cheering section for just about every cause. While some have lost credibility due to overly angry and theatrical behaviors,  (like chaining themselves to pieces of equipment in order to prevent a corporation from instituting a strategy or business plan) most NGOs have a sound, solid mission to make the world a better place. You may recognize some of these names: World Wildlife Fund, Conservation Initiative, CERES, OxFam, and Heifer International.

NGOs work on their own initiatives and facilitate connections between corporations, farmers, and government regulation. They even help motivate consumers around a specific cause. Here’s how…

How NGOs work with government regulators.

NGOs often advocate the concerns of citizens to the appropriate government regulators. These concerns and differences of opinion can have a lot to do with government spending and the appropriation of funds. For example, there is frequently a debate over the funds given to the Ag industry. In July 2017, Politico reported a proposed $10 billion spending cut to agricultural programs in the United States. In direct opposition to this, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) is lobbying for the 2018 Farm Bill, which advocates for the continued support and funding of American farming. This is an area where different NGOs would advocate for a specific allocation of funds on behalf of stakeholders.

How NGOs work with corporations.

If aligned on culture and mission, corporations and NGOs can work well together. Previously, they were more foes than friends, but today they can create meaningful partnerships. A corporation looks to an NGO for critical research and to help motivate consumer awareness. NGOs also offer support to corporations looking to better monitor their own definition of sustainability. Companies have the jobs, resources, and execution skills that NGOs might not have, particularly in the developing world. They also have relationships with various government regulators.

Today, there is a big emphasis on the importance of corporate sustainability in relationship to how the manufacturing or production of a product affects the environment. How much emissions are used, how much water is wasted, what materials are recycled? These are all questions being asked by consumers, suppliers, and even employees. NGOs have assumed an important role here by helping strategize and create a plan for big business to achieve transparency and realistic environmental sustainability goals.

CERES, for example, is an NGO with over 80 corporate partnerships focusing on issues such as water scarcity, reducing CO2 emissions and human rights. Additionally, Carbon Trust has helped companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola create climate change strategies. In their partnership with Coca-Cola, The Nature Conservancy helped Coke replenish the water equivalent to what will be used in finished beverages by the year 2020. This means that each drop of water that is used in making their drinks will be matched by a drop of water saved in the environment.

“Ensuring that all the people on the planet have the resources and environment necessary for them to survive and thrive, both now and in the future.”

-Global Sustainability by Mark Lefko

How NGOs work with Farmers.

On the ground level, NGOs can connect farmers with corporations to offer financial stipends for their conservation and sustainability efforts. These might include water conservation, cover cropping, or no-till farming. Many small scale farmers are motivated to participate in sustainability efforts in return for financial support.

Conservation International, for example, can provide loans to corporations in order to help create programs that benefit small-scale farmers. For example, CI acted as an influential advisor to Starbucks when exploring the sustainability of coffee trade and how to make the harvesting of coffee beans more environmentally friendly. CI provided Starbucks with a $2.5 million-dollar loan to form Verde Ventures. Verde Ventures in turn provides financial support to small and medium-sized business that contribute to healthy ecosystems. This venture has helped protect and restore more than 515,353 hectares of land and has helped employ 59,000 local people in 14 different countries.

Verde Ventures provides debt and equit y financing to businesses that benefit healthy ecosystems and human well-being, including agroforestry, ecotourism, sustainable harvest of wild products and marine initiatives.

Another example of an NGO assisting small-scale farmers is Heifer International, which has helped over 21 million families around the world obtain farm animals so they can provide for their families and end their poverty and hunger. These are just some of the different ways in which NGOs offer their support to farmers while promoting the principles of sustainability.

How NGOs help consumers.

NGOs help to increase social awareness and motivate consumers around specific causes. Whether they want to rally citizens around impending government regulation or appeal to the moral responsibility of consumers to participate in conservation efforts, NGOs offer resources to support sustainability efforts on the consumer level. For example, Consumers International was founded in order to work on any issues that are facing consumers globally. Additionally, the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) is creating a dialogue between consumers and farmers to help consumers understand where their food is coming from.

Water, Water…Everywhere?

Irrigation equipment on farm field

Our water supply is stressed!

Water is essential to all living things. Humans, animals, and crops rely on a steady water supply in order to survive. But, with a growing population and a finite water supply on earth, we are finding ourselves in a bit of trouble! While about 80% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, it is the fresh water supply that we are most concerned about. Freshwater assumes only 2.5% of all water on Earth – and 90% of this fresh water is located in Antarctica. To put that into perspective, if you were to take all the world’s water and fit it into a one-gallon jug – fresh water would only account for roughly one tablespoon.

Based on current projections, our population is expected to grow .89% per year through 2050. At this rate, that is approximately 66 million more mouths to feed each year! Thus, our farmers are expected to not only produce more food but to use less water throughout the growing process. So, as shifting rainfall patterns, frequent droughts, and population growth put added stress on our water supply, farmers are looking to technology for new ways to reduce, manage, and reuse fresh water.

Water on Earth is a closed system.

There is the same amount of water on our Earth today as there was two billion years ago, but it may be in a different form. Water on earth is recycled daily through evaporation, condensation (clouds), precipitation (rain, snow, or hail), filtration down through the earth, and surface run-off. Consider this: When you drink a glass of water you could be drinking the same H20 molecule that your Grandmother met when she got caught in the rain 50 years ago! That same H20 molecule may have also met the dinosaurs 200 million years ago or, more recently, George Washington in 1789!

Farming requires a lot of water

Growing crops and raising animals requires a lot of water. Worldwide farming activities account for approximately 70% of freshwater withdrawals. Farming in the mid-west, for example, requires millions of gallons of water to keep crops and livestock healthy and happy. These farms utilize rainwater as well as underground aquifers. After this water gets used on the farm, it can take a lifetime to make its way back into an aquifer. In addition to recharging groundwater, water can also run off into streams and/or rivers and end up in the ocean. It may also be evaporated! Water is rarely used in the same way more than once.

The areal and vertical location of the major aquifers is fundamental to the determination of groundwater availability for the Nation. An aquifer is a geologic formation, a group of formations, or a part of a formation that contains sufficient saturated permeable material to yield significant quantities of water to wells and springs. Source: USGS Aquifer Map

Farmers want to conserve water

Technology experts have been working for decades to create innovative technology to help farms save water. Most farmers are very motivated to use water efficiently, and many rely on water-saving techniques in their conservation efforts. (Additionally, as we discussed in our previous post, they must also address soil health to ensure optimal water and nutrient retention.)

There are various ways that technology can be used to conserve water – let’s explore some of the available approaches…

  1. The biotech approach begins with engineering seeds and crops that can grow with less water and have drought resistant properties.
  2. The computer-related approach includes aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking. These systems are helping farmers optimize their water inputs, create smarter irrigation systems, and communicate with each other on water-saving techniques.
  3. Advancements in filtration and membrane technologies have made it more cost-effective for farmers to conserve water.
  4. Absorbent soil additives can increase the amount of water the soil can retain and release throughout the growing season.

Seeds of solution

If you are an environmentalist, then drought-resistant genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the answer to your water concerns. Seed producers are using biotechnology to create seeds that can grow a water-efficient, drought-resistant crop. Breakthroughs in seed technology can help farmers around the world growing in different climates optimize water use.

Digital tools

One of the primary water-related issues farmers face is: where to put the water— as some parts of their field often need it more than others.

Drones help farmers perfect irrigation techniques.  Image source

Thanks to computer-related technologies (aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking), farmers can now determine where the drier part of their field is located. The goal of agricultural aerial imaging, sensor networks, and digital tools (such as data analytics) is to perfect irrigation techniques.

When the sensors detect low soil moisture in a specific area or crop, the control network will turn on the computer-automated irrigation system and turn it off when an optimal amount of water is delivered to that zone.

A single field can differ in slope, land elevation, exposure to the sun, and/or contain various soil types (i.e., mineral and clay content, sandiness, etc.), all of which affect the amount of water needed to grow crops. The development of these computer-related technologies is to allow farmers to more precisely deliver water to meet crop needs on a real-time basis.

In a previous article, D2D described how the use of aerial imaging captured by drones, satellites, and aircraft has been “taking off” in the farming industry.

Large farms today can synthesis data from the fields, the animals, the machines and the barns to run more efficiently.

Normally, growers manually evaluate their soil moisture, crop health, and potential yields on foot or by tractor, but aircraft or drones can quickly fly over their field or satellites can produce a bird’s eye view of the field generating more accurate data often at an accelerated pace. The data produced by the satellite or aircraft imagery can be directly downloaded to a farmer’s smartphone or tablet allowing the farmer to adjust their field management accordingly.

There are many drone companies offering imaging services. Searching the internet for aerial crop imaging companies brings up dozens of entries. However, many of these companies provide only images without any analytics or “actionable intelligence” to make sense of what is shown. DroneDeploy and Agribotix are two startups that offer both imaging services and analytic software platforms where farmers can analyze images taken from their personal drones. Another imaging-as-a-Service company, CeresImaging, captures high-resolution images at specific wavelengths by flying close to the ground. Using various image processing techniques, they generate highly accurate data on every plant in the field then use biological and mathematical modeling to correlate this data to the plant’s physical properties.

Sensing the Earth

Similar to aerial imaging, wireless sensor networks create a smarter irrigation system that allows farmers to customize irrigation to a field’s unique needs. The sensors are placed around a field and continually report various soil measurements, including moisture levels, directly to a computer, tablet, or cell phone. The farmer can then take that information and act on it. More advanced sensor systems have control networks installed in a field’s irrigation system.

CropX, a company with offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco uses publicly available data to generate algorithms for a particular piece of land. After formulating the algorithm, they use data from sensors strategically located within a field to generate detailed information about how much water is needed as well as where and when it is needed. Raptormaps is another company that combines sensor technology with analytics to provide farmers with information to optimize crop inputs and to make decisions based on field and crop conditions.

Additionally, pressure and acoustic sensors wirelessly connected to a cloud-based monitoring system can be attached to a field’s irrigation pipes and groundwater sources. Using sound waves, the sensors can detect and pinpoint leaks in irrigation pipes below the ground, as well as accurately measure a farmer’s groundwater storage. Ag data analytics use the massive amount of information from imaging and/or sensor networks to assess and predict field conditions.

Farmers utilize social media to communicate with one another

Computer use and access to the internet have not only given farmers tools to more precisely irrigate their crops but have also provided a forum to communicate with other farmers about farming issues such as water-conversation. Social networking and mass text messaging have been successfully used in other industries for communication but is now also starting to be used more widely in agriculture.

Studies show that farmers rely on their social network as a primary information source. Farmer-specific social networking platforms are attempting to leverage this natural tendency by encouraging farmers to share their questions and knowledge with others in the industry on issues including water use, irrigation tools, and weather information.

Water re-use and membrane filtration

This approach shifts from water management and conservation techniques to water reuse. Water purification and desalination (a process that removes salt and minerals from water) has been around for decades and is used in mostly arid countries around the world. Israel is a major proponent of water reuse — reusing about 80% of its municipal wastewater for irrigation. Israel not only reuses grey water from sinks and showers but also uses black water – better known as sewage. Following the Israelis lead in water reuse is Spain at 17%, followed by Australia at 10% and the U.S. at less than 1%.

In addition to water reuse, desalination provides another major water source for Israel. Breakthroughs in membrane technology have lowered the cost of desalination technology significantly.

The World Bank reported advances in membrane filtration have lowered the cost from $1 per cubic meter to 50 cents per cubic meter in less than five years, making seawater desalination considerably more affordable water source option.

Graphene membranes can be used for water filtration, gas separation and desalination projects.

There are a few startup companies working on membrane technology. Most startups or academics that develop promising technologies typically sell it to large companies such as LG ChemAquaTechKoch Membrane Systems, Inc.Evoqua Water TechnologiesMarlo, Incorporated, and The Dow Chemical Company are already heavily invested in the water utility markets.

The most popular membrane technology is reverse osmosis – a process that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove ions, molecules, and larger particles (salts) from drinking water. Historically, the reverse osmosis process used a lot of energy, but newer membrane technologies (e.g., nanomaterials and graphene-oxide membranes) and solar powered electrodialysis are able to filter seawater using significantly less energy (although some of these technologies have obstacles to overcome before becoming commercially available).

Soil sponges

One of the most unconventional, exciting and innovative approaches is to add a biodegradable sponge in the soil. These super absorbent polymers that farmers can put in their soil ahead of planting are slowly gaining popularity.

The size of a grain of sand, a polymer particle can soak up to 250 times its weight in water. Absorbing the excess water left behind from crop irrigation, the polymer then slowly releases the water back into the soil as it dries out. Developed at Stanford University, one such polymer is said to help farmers reduce water use by 20 percent and cut water bills by 15 percent. Environmentally, the polymer lasts about a year before it starts to break down without leaving any by-products behind.

Soil: It is much more than Dirt

soil and crops

Many of us don’t give it a second look, but without soil (note: we won’t call it dirt) life on Earth simply would not exist! 95% of our food is directly or indirectly dependent on soil. You wouldn’t be eating very well without it! The soil is an essential ingredient to healthy food and nutrition and is responsible for the ripe fruit you eat at breakfast, the crisp lettuce used in your salad for lunch, and the chicken you prepare for dinner. Thank you, soil!

Soil also supports the foundation for our homes, it helps grow the fibers that make up our clothes, provides the fossil fuels that keep our engines running, acts as a purifier for our water and air and helps control both erosion and flooding. Soil provides habitat for essential organisms and has a big impact on climate stability. (Read more about this in our post, Out of the Air and Into the Soil).


Soils deliver ecosystem services that enable life on earth (FAO)

Soil health is a paramount concern around the world

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): 33% of the world’s soil is moderate to highly degraded due to erosion, drought, loss of soil organic carbon, loss of biodiversity, destruction of ecosystems, habitat destruction, and pollution.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that half of the topsoil on Earth has been lost over the past 150 years.

This is a huge problem! Soil is a finite resource, which means its loss and degradation is not recoverable within the average human lifespan. This is critically important because it threatens our ability to provide food for a growing population and jeopardizes the quality of our environment.

Global status of human degradation of soils. FAO

The Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  Severe drought and wind whipped up the topsoil in the Great Plains, which had been heavily tilled for the previous decade. Image source

The good news is that there is a worldwide effort amongst government agenciesNGOs, and food and agricultural companies to provide education, research, and funding to farmers, ranchers, and landowners to help improve, manage, and sustain healthy soils.

For too long, we have cared too much about what the soil can do for us, and each year it grows a little more tired, depleted, susceptible to pests, disease and water shortages, and we are all responsible. “It is up to us, farmers, ranchers, soil scientists, legislator, and consumers, to invest in our soil once again.
Soil Health Institute

What is healthy soil?

Do you grow your own veggies? If yes, you know that they grow better and have fewer pests and diseases if they are grown in a soil that is rich in organic matter. Adding composted kitchen scraps, well-rotted manure or bags of purchased compost to the soil supports the beneficial biota living in the soil.


Examing soil: The presence of earthworms is a good sign of soil health!

These billions of beneficial organisms–bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and beetles — feed, digest and decompose the organic matter and in turn improve soil tilth, texture, aeration, drainage, and nutritional content.

The soil food web is composed of billions of organisms that decompose organic materials, cycle nutrients, and improve soil structure. (USDA NRCS)

A single gram of healthy soil contains millions of organisms, most of which we cannot see with the naked eye or have even discovered. (Photo: FAO) Test your knowledge of soil!  Click on the image.

“Making” healthy soil…

By increasing the organic matter in your soil, you can improve its long-term health and performance. Similar to how you can drink and eat pre and probiotics improve your gut health, farmers incorporate organic matter such as crop residues, animal manure, compost, cover crops, and perennial grasses, and legumes to feed the microbial community in the soil. These practices are the basic principles that underpin conservation agriculture.

Researchers agree that soil health improves through diversified crop rotations, minimal soil disturbance (no-till and reduced tillage), and the use of cover crops. These practices are the basic principles that underpin conservation agriculture. As a result, farmers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.

Farming from the Thermosphere

man controlling drone flying above field

At D2D, we often discuss the importance of feeding a growing global population while keeping our environmental resources secure for future generations. The fact is, world population is growing at a fast pace— so, we need to find ways to better manage and preserve our existing resources. For example, we have investigated indoor agriculture and crop biotechnology as innovative ways that our farmland and natural resources have benefited from technological advancements.

What do drones and satellites do?

For generations, farmers have relied heavily on old fashioned senses, such as touch, smell, and taste to ascertain how their crops and soil are managing through the growing season. Today, they have the advantage of relying on advanced equipment and heavy-duty machinery to efficiently and productively sow seeds, apply fertilizers and pesticides, feed animals and harvest crops. Now, technology is taking crop management to the skies. Drones and satellites are new, exciting tools to help farmers reduce chemical inputs, manage water usage, ensure animal welfare, and increase crop yield.

Helping Farmers manage their crops

During a typical growing season, farmers face many different types of challenges, such as weeds, pests, and weather inconsistencies. Drones and satellites allow them to monitor and handle these impending crop threats as quickly as possible.

For instance, the average drone can cover over 160 acres of cropland in one hour and satellites can take detailed pictures every 24 hours to identify weed species, plant heights, population densities, and specific types of crop damage caused by pests.

Close examination of a crop

This data helps farmers quickly recognize problem areas, such as water and pest issues. Invariably, drones and satellites have a positive environmental impact as farmers are able to manage their chemical inputs, increase their yield, and minimize machine passes through the field, hence minimizing pollution.

For those not familiar with drone technology, a drone is considered an unmanned aerial device vehicle (UAV). They are commonly used by amateur and professional photographers as a flying camera to take cool pictures, document events, or make movies. They have also become very useful to survey weather systems or act as a surveillance device for the U.S. military.

The technology that makes drones so effective is imagery that measures wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, which enable a farmer to see specific areas where crop inputs need to be applied. (image source)

Companies such as AgEagle and DroneDeploy offer services that take aerial infrared images to detect the health of crops. The images are processed and consolidated, and a specific “prescription” map is provided to the farmer.

However, some farmers find it more efficient (and cost saving) to operate the drones themselves. Drone image mapping can be used by corn farmers in Iowa, potato farmers in Idaho, fruit growers in Georgia, or cattle ranchers on the remote plains of Montana. In fact, some vineyards in California use specially-designed drones to look like hawks to scare pesky birds away from their grapes.

Robert Blair, a wheat farmer in Idaho, recently invested in drone technologies and praised the effectiveness of drones. “Instead of spraying 100 percent of the field I’m spraying exactly where it is needed instead of across the whole field. That’s huge to be able to identify those areas to treat before the treatment takes place.” (AOPA Pilot Magazine)

Some drones can even take the place of a crop duster airplane and spray the crops. However, this is mostly used for fruits and produce. Source

Helping farmers manage their animals

Animal farmers are using drones to monitor their cattle in the field and in the feedlot. Drones help provide answers to questions like: are any of my cattle sick? Have any wandered off? Are there predators harassing my animals? This new technology is starting to play an important role in how crops and animals are grown and managed. 

Drones keeping an eye on cattle

A cowboy can see, via a drone, whether any animals are sick by a hanging head, shaking body, or excess heat coming off the cattle. On large-scale dairy farms, drones can quickly ascertain who is limping, who has strayed away from the herd, and who might be suffering from mastitis (an udder infection).

For instance, cattle are social animals. Cows that spend time in the feedlot like to be with their fellow cow-brethren from the ranch. If they feel sick they don’t want to leave the herd to go to the infirmary. So, when the cowboys ride the pens checking on the animals, a cow can actually “fake it” and pretend to be healthy because he doesn’t want to be separated.

Drone view of a mixer box feeding cows.

While drones have many great benefits, not every farmer has a drone waiting to fly out of the barn.

While flying over 160 acres an hour is a lot of ground to cover, they eventually run out of battery power! The farmer also needs to operate the drone, and even if it is pre-programmed it needs to recharge. Additionally, in order to be precise, they have to fly exact coordinates. Thus, drones have not been implemented into all farming practices quite yet. AgFunder reported a 68% drop in investments in agricultural drone technology for 2016.

Up to the Thermosphere! Satellites

Source

Of course, we all know how satellites provide GPS to get us to our destination. Satellites are rocketed into the thermosphere by companies such as Geoimage, who set up satellite constellations with 150 or so stations circling the earth. Recently, Planetary Resources raised $21 million with their Bayer CropScience partnership.  They will have a ‘constellation of 10 Arkyd 100 microsatellites in low Earth orbit’.  The images are refreshed daily and are incredibly clear and precise, pinpointing locations to a 5-meter radius. The data is compiled and downloaded to an intermediary, such as Descartes or IntelinAir, who make sense of this data along with weather forecasting and agronomy analysis to provide agriculture mapping for crop and soil analysis.

Satellite images provide a color map of soil and crop health.  This is not as easy as it sounds as there are many variables which occur from day to day, such as the atmosphere, cloud cover, shadows, angle of the sensor, the angle of the sunlight, etc. Additionally, pixel size, the number of satellites, and the quality of near-infrared wavelengths are all considerations to reliable data.

Yet, the data has to be consistent and trusted. To be a successful farmer, one has to know and understand any changes in the color or health of the soil, water, plants, and weeds. Are there more or fewer pests? Is the crop darker or lighter? Are there more weeds or less? Is the soil appropriately hydrated compared to yesterday?

Satellite imagery helps farmers maximize their harvest and minimize damage to their fields. Source

Using an iPhone or computer, satellite technology allows the