(Posted Fri. Feb 24th, 2012)

Farming ForwardFeb. 24:  Ken McCauley remembers getting Maryland’s Jamie Jamison to tackle the sustainability issue during McCauley’s term as NCGA president: “I remember him telling me, ‘this is not fun.’ At that time, people just didn’t want to talk about the issue.”


Times have changed, and sustainability has become an important issue for the National Corn Growers Association, and with good reason, according to Don Glenn, the Alabama grower who serves as vice chair of the Production and Stewardship Action Team.


“So much of what is being brought forward from outside agriculture is practice-based,” says Glenn. “If you do A, B, C, and D, you’ll be labeled ‘sustainable.’


Don Glenn“We think yield and production need to be factored in. If you don’t produce enough to feed the world, it’s not sustainable. And you have to be financially sustainable. If the farmer can’t afford to feed and educate his children, it’s not sustainable.”


McCauley offers another argument for NCGA’s deeper involvement in the issue: “Sustainability is being elevated at the processor and retailer level. A lot of companies have sustainability efforts, and they have to write in something about how the meat was produced, and that means they have to account for how the grain was produced.


“The grain buyer is plugging in numbers to satisfy the next level in the value chain, whether we know it or not. We can’t afford that – if somebody else is doing the counting, you don’t know if you’re getting credit for all you’re doing.”


NCGA’s sustainability agenda is advancing through two major projects: Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture and the National Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture (NISA), both of which are significantly producer-driven.


“Field to Market started about four years ago with funding from major commodity groups like NCGA,” says Glenn. “It’s very much production-based, not just a list of practices. It involves being more efficient with our assets and it looks at both practices and increased yields.”


Gary Edwards, an Iowa grower, is NCGA’s point man for the Field to Market project.


Gary Edwards“We started with discussions of what is sustainability,” Edwards explains. “You have to look at the differences between 20 years ago and now and decide how we measure whether something is an improvement or not.”


That research led to Field to Market’s first report in 2009, which showed that from 1987 to 2007, per-bushel U.S. corn production became much more sustainable, reducing land needs by 37 percent, soil loss by 69 percent, irrigation by 27 percent, energy use by 37 percent and emissions by 30 percent.


To help farmers, “we decided to come up with a calculator you can use to calculate your sustainability right now, then calculate what you can do to improve it,” says Edwards.


The result is a matrix that allows farmers to look at the relationship among multiple factors.


“We have done the work on land use, sediment loss, greenhouse gas emissions, irrigated water usage, and energy use,” he reports. “It was just released online on January 1.


“The calculator isn’t complete yet. We are still working on biodiversity and the water quality matrix – it’s very difficult and that’s why it’s not done – and we haven’t started yet on socio-economic and health metrics.”


Available by clicking here, the calculator includes several other features important to growers: It is free, it allows them to keep farm data secured and private, and it allows them to test the effect of environmental decisions on management costs.


“It works for corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton,” notes Edwards. “We’re trying to show how sustainable farming is and that we can meet the standards.”


Ken McCauleyThe NISA project also began with growers, according to McCauley, who tells how he became involved.


“I was one of very few grain producers that worked with the Leonardo Group. They wanted to create a sustainability standard: If you do this and this, you are sustainable. Farming is just not like that. There are too many variables. Anyway, at one meeting they showed their hand, and we left and formed NISA.”


NISA’s goal is to develop a roadmap of farm management systems that growers can tap into to achieve sustainable results – and verify them. It also aims to provide a common playing field, regardless of crop or location and to offer science-based, regionally appropriate tools.


The NISA model system, tentatively scheduled for roll-out by late 2012, is being refined by growers like McCauley.


This is part of the Farming Forward series. What do you think? Start a conversation on our blog, or enter the discussion on our Facebook page.