Hosted by two commercial row-crop farmers, Field Work is a podcast that provides space for frank, realistic discussions about the benefits and challenges of sustainable agriculture. Hosts Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora explore the successes and challenges farmers experience as they adopt new practices, without greenwashing over the difficulties.
Your Field Day is Buffering: Sustainable Ag Navigates a Pandemic
The world has changed in some massive ways since Field Work hosts Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora sat down to record the first episodes of the season back in December. We’re now living amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of 2020, farm incomes were expected to rise. Now they’re projected to dip as commodity prices slump. So that raises the question: what is the outlook for sustainable ag in this environment? What becomes harder-- and what becomes easier-- for farmers wanting to swap ideas about conservation practices? What are the roadblocks or advantages to trying something new right now? In our season finale, Zach and Mitchell discuss these questions with Lauren Lurkins, the Director of Environmental Policy at the Illinois Farm Bureau.
Ag Retailers and Conservation: Can They Work Together?
Samantha Schmidgall, the Agronomy Marketing Manager with Ag View FS in Walnut, IL, is driven by the cooperative foundation of her agricultural retail company.
“If we're not doing what our farmers and our farmer-based board want us to do, we're not checking the box of doing the right thing that day,” she said.
In recent years, her farmer community has encouraged the company to embrace sustainable ag technologies and practices.
“We might have one or two growers that suggest, you know, hey, can you look at this? Can you see if this is cost effective for us? And when we find those things, we're implementing them across our company,” she explained.
Over time, the addition of these conservation practices has evolved into a core philosophy of how they run their business.
“Trying to be the leader in conservation is something that we truly take pride in and our customer owners do as well,” Schmidgall said.
Agricultural retailers have a significant impact on the types of agronomic practices farmers adopt in the communities they serve.
Farmers rely on these companies for everything from seeds and inputs to essential agronomic advice. That role of trusted adviser gives retailers influence with the farmers they work with.
Trust In Food, in collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund, recently published a report called “Growing for the future: Business lessons from ag retail’s conservation leaders”.
The report notes, “More so than almost any other stakeholder, ag retailers are positioned to play an influential role in the continuous improvement of sustainability across the agricultural value chain.”
But many retailers prefer conventional growing over sustainable ag.
“Retailers can be a roadblock to adopting sustainable ag practices if they’re not into conservation,” said Field Work co-host Mitchell Hora, a farmer in Iowa.
That’s why Hora, along with fellow farmer and co-host Zach Johnson, wanted to hear from folks on the retail side who have made conservation a top priority.
Malcolm Stambaugh works with Schmidgall at Ag View FS as a Crop Specialist. In 2012, he began working with his farmers to implement 4R nutrient management.
4R Nutrient Stewardship is an efficient framework for applying nutrients that emphasizes using the right fertilizer source, the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place.
Since 2012, Stambaugh has helped 16 growers participate in the 4R program, and was recognized as one of the 4R advocates of the year in 2019.
Along with their 4R work, Ag View FS encourages all their salesmen to use the ‘maximum return rate on nitrogen,’ or MRTN, tool to calculate the most profitable rate of nitrogen application for each grower.
“Just to make sure that we're doing the right thing economically and we're doing the right thing agronomically,” Schmidgall explained. “It doesn't do any good for anyone to put on an excess of nitrogen that's not getting used in the right way.”
Schmidgall has seen that as more growers adopt conservation nitrogen application techniques, it sparks interest in the larger community.
“When people in the area see that we have more of these enduring farmer 4R advocates… there's a lot of guys that are asking, ‘How do I do that? How do I be a part of that?” she said.
That initial interest in conservation opens the door for Ag View FS to introduce those growers to a whole set of sustainable practices that could benefit their operation.
“It's not only fertilizer, it's not only doing the 4R practices, but it's soil sampling on a grid. It's VRT (variable rate technology) application of lime, phosphates and potassium. It's no applications on frozen ground. It's utilizing cover crops,” she said.
Schmidgall and Stambaugh see that it’s going to take years to refine the best uses of newly developing conservation techniques. Ri
Solar, Wind and Cranky Neighbors
Crop prices ain’t what they used to be, so some farmers have sought out additional sources of income. On this episode of Field Work, Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora talk to Pat Duncanson, a fifth generation corn and soybean farmer in Minnesota who has installed multiple solar panels on his land. We also hear from Fritz Ebinger, who works with farmers to assess their options for solar panels or wind turbines.
Where's the Money for Sustainable Ag?
There’s a whole world of funding that can help to bring conservation practices onto a farm, but wading through the web of federal, state, and private programs can feel like a full time job of its own. So Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora bring on Kevin Norton, the Associate Chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to learn about government cost share programs. Then, Wisconsin dairy farmers Tom Zwald and Todd Doornink explain how their farming community has banded together to find money for sustainable agriculture on their own through the Western Wisconsin Conservation Council.
Be sure to check out a video of Mitchell’s visit to Tom’s farm on our YouTube channel, where Tom describes what he’s doing on the crop side of his farm to protect water, and how his dairy is also re-using water multiple times in its operation.
Farmer Incentives, Mayonnaise and More!
Food companies are seeing a lot more demand from consumers for sustainably-grown food. But how is that demand translating into actual incentives for farmers to adopt conservation practices? In this episode, we bring you the conversation Field Work co-host Mitchell Hora moderated in November 2019 at the Sustainable Agriculture Summit. Panelists included Unilever’s Stefani Millie Grant and Ben Crook from Hellman’s Mayonnaise, who explain how big food companies are trying to encourage more farmers to use sustainable ag practices, and farmer Scott Henry, who participated in Unilever’s sustainable soy program.
Special thanks to the host partners for inviting Field Work to record at the 2019 Sustainable Agriculture Summit. It’s an annual gathering for major food companies, government agencies, academics, conservation groups, and farmers committed to advancing a coordinated and comprehensive approach to driving change in agriculture sustainability. The Host Partners are Field to Market and Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. The next summit will be held in Phoenix, AZ in November 2020.
The New Cash Crop: Carbon
There are certain regenerative practices that help to put carbon back into the ground, which can be beneficial for crops, soil, and the broader environment. Some companies are trying to provide another benefit to these practices -- a way for farmers to get paid. Through emerging carbon markets, companies trying to offset their carbon emissions can pay farmers for the services that take carbon out of the atmosphere. This week, Field Work hosts Zach Johnson and Mitchell Hora talk to Christophe Jose, the co-founder of Nori, one of the companies working to make this possible, about the challenges and benefits of carbon markets.