Farm Progress

Ag Water Stewardship: Field to Market report documents that farmers are producing more with less and quantifying their improvements.

Warren Formo

December 30, 2016

3 Min Read
MORE ON LESS: A recent report issued by the ag alliance Field to Market concludes that crop production in the U.S. has created more yield on less land, with improved environmental outcomes on a per-unit-of-production basis. Reductions in loss of soil carbon was noted, as was progress toward more sustainable crop production.

Efficiency of production is a key element often missing from “sustainability” debates, as though any environmental impact is unacceptable.

If food production was optional, this might be logical. Since food production is not optional, an approach that weighs the ratio of outputs compared to environmental impacts provides a useful measure. It could be argued that the only real justification for any environmental impact is the extent to which an activity contributes to meeting human needs.

Even before sustainability debates went mainstream, competitive and economic forces were driving crop and livestock production in a positive direction. Farmers are producing more with less. A recent report from Field to Market, an alliance for sustainable agriculture, helps quantify their improvements.

Responding to questions from consumer groups and major food suppliers, this multi-stakeholder initiative of grower organizations, agribusinesses, food/beverage/restaurant and retail companies, conservation groups, universities and public-sector partners identified an agreed-upon set of measures or factors contributing to sustainability. Its recently released analysis of sustainability trends, spanning the period of 1980 to 2015, examines eight environmental indicators and five social and economic indicators, and is based on publicly available data, published government reports and scientific literature.

The report evaluates 10 crops grown nationally — corn for both grain and silage, soybeans, wheat, barley, sugarbeets, cotton, potatoes, rice and peanuts. Seven of those are grown in Minnesota. While the numbers cannot be used to assess an individual farm or state, the approach outlined can provide reference values for comparison, and a framework that an individual farmer could use to evaluate his or her own farming practices.

The report concludes that “the crops assessed have produced more yield on less land with improved environmental outcomes on a per-unit-of-production basis. This continued improvement has also contributed to reduction in loss of soil carbon. This significant progress toward more sustainable food, feed, fiber and fuel production is a result of many different technological advancements and greater adoption of conservation practices.”

The primary contributor to advances is increasing productivity, which means more yield per acre farmed, more yield per unit of fertilizer input and so on. Improved farming practices, such as reducing tillage intensity and retiring marginally productive areas, also contribute.

The measures examined by Field to Market apply to crop production, but have implications for livestock production as well. Efficient crop production combined with efficient livestock production multiplies the overall sustainability of food production at the farm level, especially when both occur in the same geographic area. Minnesota is a great place to grow both crops and livestock for many reasons, but one of the most basic is the annually renewable cycle of nutrients between fields and barns.

I am encouraged that the food processing sector, often more critical than supportive of farmers, is a participant in Field to Market. Perhaps its involvement will help it become more aware of the overall progress farmers are making.

Read more about Field to Market and access its reports at fieldtomarket.org.

Formo is executive director with the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.

About the Author(s)

Warren Formo

Warren Formo is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.

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