The earth provides a tremendous bounty of resources – the very essence and existence of the agriculture industry as we know it. Properly managed, these resources can be made sustainable for generations to come. The key, of course, is an ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship.
Indeed, man’s harvest must be a two-way street – a mutually beneficial relationship that requires significant attention to what goes into the ground, air, and water. That’s a complex equation with many dynamic parts, but we find significant impacts through the key areas of pollution control, recycling, and reuse.
Ever the moving target, environmental responsibility grows and develops with the industry’s needs. Ideally, the two advance in lockstep, with equal emphasis on growing the crops and protecting the land.
Here’s a look at some of the ways the agricultural world and its stakeholders are making strides.
For evidence of serious investments in mitigating the environmental impacts of agricultural fertilizers, we look to a Nature Conservancy program inspired by concerns over nutrient runoff from the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB). Comprising Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, this region is one of the nation’s richest growing areas; however, ag nutrients often enter the Great Lakes and its inflows, where harmful algal blooms increase water treatment costs and negatively affect the area’s lake-related tourism industry.
To help remedy this situation, The Nature Conservancy’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program unites the agricultural industry, state agribusiness associations, Ohio State University, Michigan State University, state farm bureaus, state agencies, and other stakeholders. The objective: Encouraging agricultural nutrient service providers to adopt proven best practices through the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship. That formula means “using the Right Source of Nutrients at the Right Rate and Right Time in the Right Place.”
In many of the nation’s watersheds, effective reductions of pollutant loading are reached through understanding of both urban and agricultural best management practices.
This voluntary program guides the nutrient providers with a consistent, recognized standard. The program outlines 41 criteria to be implemented, staggered over a three-year period, with annual evaluation by a private, third-party auditor.
Considering the balance between planet, people, and profit, The Nature Conservancy is aiming to evaluate the “specific impacts of the adoption of practices associated with 4R Nutrient Stewardship, and the impact of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program itself … on crop productivity and profitability, water quality, and perceptions of growers, nutrient service providers, and residents in the WLEB.”
Following a similar path, the Water Environment Research Foundation, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), and the United Soybean Board (USB) have worked together to include agricultural best management practices (BMPs) in the International Stormwater Best Management Practices Database. The goal of this collaborative effort is the clarity necessary to implement more cost-effective and environmentally sound methods for managing agricultural runoff.
In many of the nation’s watersheds, effective reductions of pollutant loading are reached through understanding of both urban and agricultural BMPs. Populating the Agricultural BMP Database, the collaborating entities will draw upon existing research conducted by various federal and state agencies, university researchers, and other related contributors.
(Not) Into Thin Air
Elsewhere, early December 2015 saw Kellogg Company intensify its commitment to climate action by announcing a new plan for ambitious science-based greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets, which includes a focus on helping its agricultural suppliers cut their emissions in half by 2050.
“Kellogg is more than a business. We care about nourishing people with our foods, feeding those in need, nurturing our planet, and living our founder’s values,” Kellogg Company Chairman and CEO John Bryant stated in a company news release. “People care about their food, where it comes from, the people who grow and make it, and that there’s enough for everyone. We must live our values and communicate with transparency to earn our seat at millions of tables every day.”
With a well-founded game plan, Kellogg bases its new goals on the Science Based Targets, a joint initiative by CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, the World Resources Institute, and WWF, which encourages corporate ambition toward GHG emissions reduction through targets consistent with decarbonization levels necessary to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial temperatures.
To help bolster its GHG initiative, Kellogg Company has committed to supporting 15,000 smallholder growers by 2020 to increase adoption of Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA). The company further plans to support the livelihoods of 500,000 farmers through partnerships, research, and training on CSA by 2030.
“We recognize the interconnected and inter-reliant nature of our business with suppliers, farmers, customers, consumers, and governments,” said Bryant. “These types of commitments require cooperation across the full supply chain. That is the only way we can truly be successful.”
Even the smallest of farms generates significant quantities of waste material from sources such as horticultural mulch film, drip tape, dairy bunk silo covers, bale netting, polytwine, feed and pellet bags, irrigation tubing, nursery pots, bee hive frames, packaging, etc. While farmers are allowed to burn brush and other organic agricultural wastes that are generated onsite within a designated property size, environmental laws prohibit discarding man-made waste items by fire. Not only do large trash fires pose high risks of wildfires, they’re also a woeful source of harmful emissions, which threaten air quality, personal health, and agricultural food crops.
So, what does a farmer do with all that waste material? A good place to start is the local agriculture extension office, where farmers often find advice on handling this material, if not a well-structured program to facilitate the objective.
Case in point, the Cornell University Cooperative Extension is now partnering with the New York state Recycling Agricultural Plastics Project (RAPP) to help farmers recycle agricultural plastics. Each county staffs a RAPP local educator, like Chenango County’s Emily Anderson, who coordinates with farmers to share recycling information – much of which remains relevant to agricultural operations nationwide.
“If you think about the environment, as a whole, there’s a big push for environmental sustainability, especially on a farm,” Anderson said. “So, having a holistic approach to dealing with agricultural plastics and other agricultural waste products on your farm is essential to having a more sustainable practice on your location.”
That’s a substantive point given the estimation that a small dairy farm that uses an average of one large wrapped feed bale each day will generate approximately 1,000 pounds of plastic each season. Expand that figure for larger operations and multiply by the number of farming operations spread across the United States, and it’s easy to understand the emphasis that Anderson and her regional counterparts place on this topic.
It’s unlikely that many farmers would flatly oppose the logic of recycling, but daily demands for time and effort often dim the interest. Moreover, Anderson points to weather and storage options as common impediments that she and other industry educators must strive to overcome.
“Last winter in New York, we had seven months of snow on the ground, so trying to take a piece of bale wrap or an ag bag, getting it dried, and rolled up into a nice pillow [stackable form] and then placing that into covered storage for a long period of time until you can move it to your county’s ag plastics recycling location becomes a difficult task.”
Difficult – but not impossible; and that’s a key point Anderson stresses.
“It’s almost like a change in lifestyle once you decide, ‘Hey, we’re going to recycle all these agricultural plastics.’ You have to commit to it and be dedicated. Otherwise, it becomes ‘Oh, we’ll get to that later,’ and then it all just piles up.”
RAPP has developed markets to recycle most of these products if the plastic is prepared for recycling appropriately. For example, some of these recycled materials end up as landscape pavers, decking, and boat dock planks or raw materials exported to foreign manufacturing markets.
In many cases, farmers can obtain information on recycling programs from their local agriculture extension office.
Since 2009, RAPP has collaborated with local agencies, organizations, businesses, and farmers across New York state to collect more than 1 million pounds of used plastic. Without this effort, much of that waste material would have been sent to landfills, left behind in fields, or burned.
In New York, farmers can obtain more information about recycling from their local RAPP representative, who will visit the farm to evaluate particular needs for the types and quantities of plastic waste and coordinate a recycled-item removal plan.
“There are best management practices, but then it’s a matter of working out a plan of what’s going to work on your individual farm,” Anderson said.
In many cases, farmers can obtain information on recycling programs from their local agriculture extension office. Farmers also can reach out to the Ag Container Recycling Council (ACRC) (www.acrecycle.org/) – an industry-funded nonprofit organization that safely collects and recycles a broad array of agricultural waste materials.
The ACRC administers member funding for cost-effective programs that improve public health and safety, environmental protection, resource conservation, and end-user convenience. The organization also invests in significant research to identify acceptable end uses for recycled container plastic.
Supporting state-level container collection programs, ACRC works closely with the Environmental Protection Agency, state environmental regulatory agencies, and departments of agriculture and natural resources. ACRC also directly coordinates with contractors to granulate and transport flaked containers from state-approved sites.
Among the other notable examples of recycling programs, Virginia’s Dinwiddie County has provided a plastic pesticide container-recycling program to local farmers since 1993. Since its inception, this award-winning program has properly recycled nearly 70,000 containers.
Dinwiddie County also conducts an annual waste oil collection program that helps farmers dispose of motor and hydraulic oil from various pieces of agricultural equipment. Working in conjunction with Appomattox River Soil and Water Conservation District, the county’s collection efforts have accounted for more than 35,000 gallons of oil properly recycled from local farms.
Waste Not, Want Not
In closing, a natural segue off the recycling discussion is one of reuse – both in terms of directing resources to and from agricultural operations. Water’s intrinsic role across the agricultural spectrum keeps it at the forefront of the innovative efforts.
The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) emphasizes this point by telling us that irrigated agriculture in the United States accounts for 60 percent of crop market values, but does so on less than 20 percent of farmlands. The takeaway: Irrigation stands essential for the ag industry’s most highly productive, intensely managed, and internationally competitive sectors.
But let’s play this out a little further. Farms need increasing supplies of water to remain productive and competitive, but rising competition for fresh water resources creates a dilemma for farmers nationwide – how do you continue to improve productivity when your No.1 natural resource draws increasingly higher demand?
That question, no doubt, keeps many brilliant minds passionately engaged with potential solutions such as maximizing the use of urban effluents. To this point, an ARS project spanning January 2012 to January 2017 has been seeking to develop new and innovative water quality indicators – biological and chemical – to assess the quality of reclaimed water and judge its viability for agricultural irrigation.
Central to this research is the careful analysis of the contaminants, pathogens, and nutrients found in treated wastewater used for crop irrigation. Two key areas here are the development of small on-site treatment systems to minimize the bad stuff and the establishment of research-based regulations for how these effluents are managed.
Through this and other reuse innovations, such as agricultural waste products (pecan shells, wood debris, etc.) used for environmentally sound biofuels, respect and appreciation for the nation’s natural resources grows. The focus is more than the land and what the soil yields; it’s a far-reaching vision of sustainability through responsible management.
Caption for top photo: An algae bloom in Lake Erie, July 2015. The Nature Conservancy, area agricultural industry, farmers, agribusiness associations, universities, and others are working to reduce agriculture runoff to avoid such blooms. Credit: NASA photo
This article was originally published in the 2016 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.