TBL Commodities Member Tim Richter Featured at Walmart Sustainability Milestone Meeting

Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Commodities Member Tim Richter Featured at Walmart Sustainability Milestone Meeting

Today, Walmart announced a new commitment to a “sustainable food system” at its most recent Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting in Bentonville, AR.  Among the stories highlighted by the world’s top grocer was one from Triple Bottom Line Commodities member, Tim Richter – who farms in Iowa and Missouri.

Tim shared how he learned about an impressive fertilizer optimization tool, Adapt-N, through membership in the Triple Bottom Line Commodities group – which is a farmer peer group focused on sustainability and facilitated by Vela Environmental, a division of Kennedy and Coe, LLC.   Farmer members of TBL Commodities are connected to knowledge about existing and emerging ag technologies that encourage even greater efficiency, and also to sustainability assessment trends coming from the food supply chain.  This year, TBL Commodities members are undergoing Vela’s ResourceMax™ assessment process which will show farmers how they align with multiple supply chain sustainability efforts, allow for benchmarking members on key sustainability metrics and enable members to negotiate for greater shared value within the supply chain in the future.

At the Walmart meeting today, Tim noted that in 2011, he started using the Adapt-N tool, which provides highly accurate prescriptions for nitrogen use on corn by factoring in multiple variables that have not been fully accounted for by other systems.  Adapt-N is able to anticipate nitrogen stress to avoid yield loss and also, to tell farmers when they don’t need to apply more nitrogen. 

In 2013, Tim used Adapt-N on all of his fields and was able to get 40-50 bushels of increased yield per acre.  This translated into about $150 of additional profit per acre.  Multiply that by several thousand acres and that becomes a big number.  Tim notes, “If this is sustainability, I’m on board!”  Adapt-N is also helping Tim manage environmental risk  like water quality and greenhouse gas emissions.  “The nitrogen I applied ended up in the crop which is where we want it, not in the air or water – so it increases profit while reducing greenhouse gases and water quality problems” said Tim.

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TBL Commodities

Check out our new video!!  Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Commodities is creating a business niche that understands, influences and facilitates the sustainability measurement needs of Continue reading

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Sustainable Ag’s New Pillars: Efficiency, Precision, Technology, Generosity

As we have explored in previous posts on this site, there are many important practices that many farmers are employing and that contribute greatly to global agricultural sustainabiltiy even though they are not the first things that come to mind when the term "sustainable agriculture" is discussed.  TBL Commodities members believe deeply in these values and practice them in managing their farms and ranches.  We are also working with those building sustainability measurement systems to include these important concepts.

Sustainability is becoming an important driver for private business practices and increasingly for consumer choices as we move toward a future with more people, more distributed global wealth and finite resources.  America’s farmers and ranchers have been and remain some of the most efficient and productive producers in the world.  What has not been fully explore and quantified to date, is just how important these factors are in also preserving the environment. 

An important point to remember is that the same measures that save a farmer money on the farm: precision use of fertilizer, using genetically-enhanced seeds that provide more yield using less resources and producing highly efficient livestock; also carry with them significant environmental and social benefits. 

Part of the problem in determining what is sustainable is one of language and priorities.  For an urban consumer looking at the food system, it is not a top priority of theirs to know that farmers have saved money – even though this is an essential part of farms being able to continue to provide inexpensive food for consumers.  These consumers want to know that their food is safe and grown in a way that preserves the natural resources we all share.   Likewise for the successful farmer, protecting the environment is not something they view as a separate part of their business – but rather, it is intertwined in protecting the assets they steward.  The most successful farmers can only continue at that level if they are also protecting the environment that supports their natural resource business. 

In a very real way, urban consumers and successful farmers do share the same priorities; they merely put emphasis on different things.

Still, despite the “better than known” environmental performance of many of America’s top farmers, the challenges of 3 billion more people joining the planet in the coming decades will push all of us to do better. (Not to mention feeding the existing 7 billion that already strain our resources.)  Farmers will need to continue to look for ways to produce more using less – and to adapt to increasing resource constraints in sustainable ways.  Retailers and food companies are already beginning the process of quantifying the sustainability of their products and they will need to work diligently to make that information as transparent and understandable as possible to enable a more informed, “apples to apples” consumer choice.  

TBL Commodities will use its membership in The Sustainability Consortium to help inform and influence the measurement system being created.  By sharing our first-hand experiences with these positive practices and providing scientific research examining their outcomes; we are working to get these new pillars of agricultural sustainability quantified and included as preferential options for meeting sustainability goals.

We believe that something as important as the future measurement and assessment of our industry is worth investing time and some resources to influence.  If you feel the same, we welcome your support and participation.

For more information about joining TBL Commodities, please contact Sara Harper at sharper@clarkgroupllc.com

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Contributing to the Social Side of Sustainability

These series of posts are the result of agricultural sustainability research paired with on-farm interviews conducted by The Clark Group, LLC with 12 farms utilizing some of these practices. 

People & Community

The contribution of farms to the economy and their community is another key component of sustainability.  This is the “economic” and “social” side of sustainability; that is, ensuring the health and wellbeing of employees and community.  Farmers often view both their employees and community as critical resources for sustainability.

Contributing to the Economy

Agriculture is an important part of the economy of the United States – both rural and overall.  This has been especially true the past few years when much of the larger economy has faced slower growth while agricultural commodities have performed well.  The total value of net farm income in 2009 was more than 62 billion dollars.[1]  U.S. agriculture is responsible for 16 million jobs – not just on farms, but also in cities and towns across America.[2]  Plus, according to the 2008 U.S. Agricultural Census, there has been a 49% growth in sales from farms directly to consumers since 2002—representing $1.2 billon that stayed in local communities and produced direct economic benefits.[3]  

Providing Quality Jobs

Many consumers would be surprised to hear that large-scale farms often provide well-paying jobs.  Employee compensation for labor on U.S. farms in 2009 totaled more than 24 billion dollars.[4]  A 2009 survey from the Ohio State University Extension Service found that Ohio farms were paying an average wage + benefits compensation rate of $14.42/hour to farm workers — and that's just an average!  In addition to above-average salaries, the farmers interviewed for this project often offer an array of top benefits to employees such as:

  • a work vehicle
  • on-farm housing
  • healthcare plan
  • flexible work hours to allow for attending family events
  • some share of that year’s harvest or other bonus structures to help employees see direct rewards tied to the success of the farm operation and employee safety 

Supporting Community

While difficult to quantify, a best-kept secret is that farms and farm families often give back significant contributions to their communities in terms of both jobs and revenue but also donations of both dollars and effort.  Nationally, there are efforts like Farmers Feeding the World – which gathers donations from farmers which go toward providing gifts of livestock and other food assistance to poor rural farmers in developing countries.  Last year alone, this effort contributed over $1 million to Heifer International.5

But often it is hard to really understand what community support — both domestically and internationally can mean by looking at a set of abstract numbers.  To help provide some context, let's look at what some of the farmers involved in TBL Commodities are doing on this front.

Many farm operations provide significant donations to local schools, hospitals and community colleges.  Of the farmers that participated in this project, there was a wide range and depth of contributions.  Below are a few of the most noteworthy:  

  • Volunteering – many TBL members volunteer their time and money to support local schools or as members of their school board.  Some support their local community college or provide scholarships for ag-related careers. Almost all members provide in-kind contributions to community events such as auctions and festivals while also hosting schooll educational visits. 
  • Buy Local Policies - Many members have created a "buy local" policy as part of doing business.  This means that whenever possible, their operations purchase needed items from local entities rather than from out of town where the cost is likely lower.  
  • Expanding Opportunities in Rural Areas - One member has been part of running a family foundation that focuses on providing scholarships to non-traditional students living in rural areas.  By focusing on expanding the opportunities of those who live in rural areas rather than students who move away, this foundation is helping to build up rural communities.  Another member crafted an extremely generous scholarship program for the children of employees with the operation for 5 years or more.
  • Contributing to Critical Infrastructure – One member provided significant resources to the local rural hospital which helped enable life-flight services to surrounding rural areas. This member and others have also given signficant amounts of money to local community colleges to help build up the resources that can train rural residents
  • Food Support – A member helped start a food backpack and pantry program to send food home with poor children in their backpacks over the weekend, since for many of these kids, school lunches are their main access to food.  The pantry also works with local churches and is a source of food support for poor rural residents.

It is hard to quantify efforts like those described above.  Farmers like those involved with TBL Commodities often don't talk about the charitable works they do for their neighbors — or about the generous benefits they provide for employees.  Getting credit is not why they do these actions, and that, of course, makes their actions all the more generous.  But in an age where people increasingly want to know — or think they already know, what is involved with agricultural production, it becomes important to begin to share these types of actions with the larger public and to consider them an element of a sustainability plan.  Beginning to quantify this type of soft capital will also be a key element in helping those who asses U.S. agriculture's sustainability compared to other countries.  Indeed this kind of generous support and interaction with the surrounding local rural communities is a critical part of what sustains many rural towns today and it is an important part of what will be needed to keep rural America vital into the future. 

[1] USDA Economic Research Service.  2009.  Data Sets / Fact Sheets: United States.  Farm Financial Indicators.  http://www.ers.usda.gov/statefacts/us.htm.

[2] Senator Stabenow.  2011. 

[3] As cited by: American Farmland Trust.  “Growing Local: Helping Communities Grow Local.”  Online at http://www.farmland.org/documents/AFT_GrowLocal09.pdf.

[4]As cited by: American Farmland Trust.  “Growing Local: Helping Communities Grow Local.”  Online at http://www.farmland.org/documents/AFT_GrowLocal09.pdf.

[5] For more information, see Heifer International at www.heifer.org 









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Efficient Livestock Production a Key to Global Agricultural Sustainability

These series of posts are the result of agricultural sustainability research paired with on-farm interviews conducted by The Clark Group, LLC with 12 farms utilizing some of these practices.  

Efficient Livestock Production

Selecting superior genetic stock, using high quality and efficient feed, reducing animal stress allows for getting livestock to their end weight in fewer days resulting in less energy and pollution.

Description: iStock_000015862938Small.jpgProducing livestock in a sustainable way is about more than the animals being kept “cage-free” or only being “grass-fed”.  Like the term “organic,” these words have been inserted as short-hand for sustainable livestock production.  However, when we look at the rapidly growing meat protein demands of developing countries, it is clear that we will need to employ much greater efficiency than small-scale systems can provide if we are to avoid significant habitat destruction for increased meat production.  This would occur in response to a lowering of production in the U.S. if our large, efficient livestock providers were unable to stay in business.  While modern feedlots are often given a bad image from the media and some activists, they can serve as an extremely efficient way to generate protein with less resources, cost and environmental impact than the more idyllic small-scale and organic systems.

There seems to be a misconception about “corn-fed” cattle – that is, that beef cattle are born penned behind a trough of corn, and spend their whole lives being force-fed grain.  In reality, “grass-fed” and “corn-fed” cattle should really be called “grass-finished” and “corn-finished” (or, better yet, grain-finished), since, for the majority of every beef cow’s life, it grazes on pasture.  Since the days of pre-history, animals have been fed a rich diet shortly before the slaughter, as in the well-known “killing the fatted calf” metaphor.  Ranchers in ancient times knew that feeding pasture-raised animals a richer diet during the pre-slaughter months yielded more, and tastier, meat.  This practice continues today in modern feedlots.  Cattle who have spent most of their lives grazing on pasture are brought to feed lots to increase per-cow meat yield, which is especially important during the winter months when forage is scarce.

Looking closer at grass-finished beef and grain-finished in terms of land use or energy use metrics, grain-finished beef is much better than grass-finished on both measures.  A recent partial life-cycle analysis found that grass-finished cattle took more than twice as much energy and three times the land to produce, per pound.[1]  This is due in part because it requires more individual cows to produce the same amount of meet if they are fed exclusively a grass diet.  Specifically, grass-finished beef requires 4 lives for every 3 grain finished cattle to produce the same amount of meat.[2] For each additional animal, there is more manure and enteric emissions created and more land and feed are needed.  All of these resources add up over time to create significant energy and pollution impacts – especially at the global level.

Another efficient livestock practice is to capture value added through certification and packaging of premium pork and beef.  Typically livestock are sold on the grid, or processed at central facilities that don’t distinguish between grades or types of meat.  By integrating with the food processing and packaging process, producers can add value by grading or verifying the age or source of a particular cut of meat.  This practice is also sustainable because it allows a particular grade of meat to be used for a directed purpose, which uses the livestock in the most efficient way possible.

Grazing and Feeding Practices

Rotational grazing practices, or allowing the ground to “rest” between usage, allow pastureland to re-grow and remain healthy.  Moving livestock across pasture in an orderly manner can avoid over-grazing any one part of the land.  Grazing practices can help manage soil erosion that occurs when over-grazed land does not have the grassroots systems to hold soil in place and store carbon in the ground.

Changing the time of year when cattle calve their young from fall to spring also impacts forage by decreasing winter-feeding.  The benefit of spring calving is less need for feed in the winter – when forage is less available.  Spring calving allows the cattle to graze naturally more so than fall calving.  This process decreases reliance on crops that are harvested and stored; and because fewer crops are needed for feed, the costs (and carbon) associated with planting and harvesting are reduced. 

Effective Livestock Manure Management

Efficient management of livestock manure is important to ensure that manure is disposed of efficiently – producing the least odor, runoff and emissions – or even re-used as fertilizer on cropland.  The reuse of the nutrients in manure as fertilizer keeps those nutrients in plant growth, and avoids the application of additional fossil fuel-derived fertilizer.  Some studies also indicate that handling manure in solid form, such as composting, may also decrease methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, though it may increase nitrous oxide formation.[3]

A manure management plan should be used in conjunction with applying manure to cropland to ensure that nutrients from manure will be used by crops and not over-applied.  Manure can be analyzed for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients to understand the composition of the manure.  Soil tests can be used to measure the nutrient reserve held in the soil profile from previous crop years and applications of fertilizer.  These types of procedures can be used to determine the nutrient needs of the fields to make sure the right amount of fertilizer is applied.  The fields can then be inspected to ensure that resources are meeting production needs.

One example of a manure management best-practice is a flush gutter system that uses bacteria to break-down manure.  Rotating the flushing of different barns or areas on the farm can allow bacteria to grow to an optimal level to decompose the manure.  This type of system reduces odor production while the manure is decomposed.

Another way to manage is with an anaerobic digester.  Anaerobic digestion is a natural process by which biomass, such as livestock manure, is decomposed by bacteria in the absence of oxygen, or “anaerobically”, producing methane and other byproducts or “biogas”.  Anaerobic digestion provides a variety of environmental benefits including odor control, reduced pathogens, and improved air and water quality.  “Green” energy is produced from methane, the primary constituent of natural gas.  In addition, the capture of methane through biogas recovery reduces greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.  However, anaerobic digesters are very expensive (in the millions of dollars) and none of the farmers interviewed were currently using this practice due to cost limitations.

[1]Capper, J. L., & Cady, R. A. (2010). The environmental impact of corn-fed vs. grass-fed beef finishing systems. American Dairy Science Association / American Society of Animal Science 2010 Joint Annual Meeting.


[2]Capper, J. L., & Cady, R. A. (2010). The environmental impact of corn-fed vs. grass-fed beef finishing systems. American Dairy Science Association / American Society of Animal Science 2010 Joint Annual Meeting.




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Precision & Efficiency: Key Pillars of Global Agricultural Sustainability!

Using technology to precisely measure and place seeds, fertilizer, water and chemicals allowing for less use of these resources while maximizing yield.  Taking advantage of the latest genetically-enhanced seeds to increase grow more while using less.

One of the most amazing recent farming breakthroughs is something along the lines of “iFarming.”  New technology in tractors – such as onboard equipment and software like that shown to the left, that allows farmers to apply seeds, fertilizer and other inputs with great precision.  This technology has the capability of reducing environmental impact and economic costs to farmers since only the exact amount of resources that the seed or soil needs are applied at the time when they are most needed – thereby reducing wasteful over-application or runoff.  In a technical paper on the subject, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) defined precision agriculture as, “A management system that is information and technology based, is site specific and uses one or more of the following sources of data: soils, crops, nutrients, pests, moisture, or yield, for optimum profitability, sustainability, and protection of the environment.”[1]

Precision technology allows farmers to save on fuel, optimize time and labor and reduce costs while improving production.  Researchers estimate that precision agriculture is saving farmers in the United States millions of dollars a year by avoiding over-application.[2]  And, while the farmer sees a direct economic benefit from this technology, all consumers get the benefit of lessened environmental impacts and the ability to avoid the destruction of highly sensitive ecosystems which would otherwise be required if agriculture as a whole were employing less efficient models of production.  Some examples of this type of technology include:

  • Satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) technology and auto-pilot type guidance systems for tractors and equipment allow for very specific timing and placement of seeds and inputs.  This means that farmers can avoid the wasteful process of double application when turning around at the end of a field.  Experts estimate that satellite-assisted steering alone can improve farm efficiency by 2-5%.[3]
  • Precise Pesticide Applications can be achieved by combining pest scouting technology or trips through the field with precise spraying systems.[4]  Guidance systems can be used to apply small amounts of pesticide only upon the stalks of plants without getting any on the leaves.[5]  This type of application – on the right spot and at the exact time the plant needs it – is much more practical than hand labor or multiple applications to accomplish the same task and has the additional benefit of less chemicals and runoff into the environment.[6]
  • Variable Rate Technology (VRT) is another high-tech example of technology that allows for precision application of seed and inputs.  By controlling the type, timing, method and rate of application, farmers can reduce the amount of inputs like fertilizer applied.  VRT systems vary the rate of application of seed, fertilizer, pesticide or inputs over a field based on site-specific information such as soil quality or plant yield.  VRT allows farmers to apply only what is needed when it is needed.  Sensors can also help detect the needs of the field or plants; for example, sensors can determine the rate of nitrogen uptake based on the greenness of the crop canopy.[7]   

Precision technology can be used in combination with tests on soil composition, or, corn stalk nitrogen levels can be sampled to ensure that the right amount of nutrients are being taken up by crops.

Precision farming also offers farmers a better understanding of their operation’s potential and limitations by providing significantly more data to the farmer about their soil types and which practices work best for their specific area.  This has enabled farmers to improve less productive areas, or in some cases, to take marginally productive areas out of production.[8]  Fewer, repeatable paths of travel through the field – made possible by the technology discussed above – also mean less soil compaction and erosion, and better soil quality.[9]

It is worth re-emphasizing that, because precision technology can reduce application of fertilizer and pesticides, its use also means less chemical runoff and better water quality.

Finally, soil and fertilizer also produce nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas; reducing fertilizer application lowers nitrous oxide emissions while maintaining productivity.  A recent synthesis of literature on the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of agricultural land management in the United States estimates that changing nitrogen fertilizer placement using practices like precision agriculture could reduce emissions an average of .33 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (per hectare per year or t CO2e ha–1 yr–1) which translates into .134 metric tons of CO2e/ACRE/year.[10]  The report found that changing nitrogen fertilizer timing could reduce an average of .35 tons of CO2 equivalent (t CO2e ha–1 yr–1) which translates into .142 tons per acre/year.[11]  While

Water Conservation / Precision Irrigation

Technology has made great advances in irrigation and water use efficiency in agriculture.  Examples of technology that increase efficiency and can be used to monitor irrigation include:

  • Center-pivot irrigation systems that apply less water than flooded irrigation (which runs across an entire field)
  • GPS units, monitors and remote controls that can shut-off sprinklers and alert the farmer if there is an issue or overlap with the sprinkler system
  • Systems or sensors that monitor water availability, weather, or soil moisture and plan irrigation based on water needs
  • Technology that delivers ability to vary water system or application across a farm or field based on the water requirements of different soil types or ecosystems

The use of technology has allowed farmers to use water more efficiently – producing more yield with less resources.  Precision irrigation can reduce water over-application, resulting in less water runoff and pollution as well as preserving water quantity in a region.  It can also save energy, which also means fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  A recent report projected that precision irrigation could save water usage on the order of 10-20% and energy usage on the order of 20%.[12]

Water can also be reused on the farm – such as the capture of wastewater from onsite operations or processing – and later applied to fields for irrigation purposes.  In this way, water is used most efficiently for production.  Water used in associated plant operations can also be recycled or heated and cooled using the principles of heat exchange which conserves energy at the same time water is used twice – for cooling a plant and as water for livestock or crops.

High-Yield Varieties

There have been many advances in the varieties of crops and livestock available to producers that have allowed farmers to produce an ever higher yield using less resources.  

A stunning technological leap that many consider of greater impact to human welfare than the transistor or computer has been called the Green Revolution. The “green revolution” describes the advances in agriculture and productivity that started mid-20th century in large part due to the creation of high-yield crop varieties.

For example, hybridization and genetic modification have been used to create crop and livestock varieties that have higher rates of growth with lower resource requirements.  Hybridization is a form of genetic modification that involves crossing the genes of one variety with a related breed or species.  Plants and animals have been hybridized or selectively bred for certain traits for thousands of years.  Another form of genetic modification is called genetic engineering.  Unlike hybrids, this type of genetic modification is done by altering a gene or splicing genes from unrelated breeds or species.  Crops are often genetically modified so that they are more resistant to pesticides and herbicides, more tolerant to extremes, or produce a higher yield.

Agricultural sustainability discussions often intentionally exclude genetic modification out of a sense that the precise manipulation of genes is to be distrusted, and from fears of potential ill effects.  Yet this is an issue that must be re-evaluated in order to meet the global sustainability challenges ahead.

As long as products are rigorously evaluated for their potential impacts to human health and the environment – and this is currently required by several laws and regulations in the United States – then these products should be acceptable.  Noted environmentalist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand points out in his book Whole Earth Discipline:

“The fact is that there is not a shred of any evidence of risk to human health from GM crops. Every academy of scie

nce, representing the views of the world’s leading experts — the Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian, French and American academies as well as the Royal Society, which has published four separate reports on the issue — has confirmed this.

In 2001 the research directorate of the EU commission released a summary of 81 scientific studies financed by the EU itself — not by private industry—conducted over a 15-year period, to determine whether GM products were unsafe or insufficiently tested: none found evidence of harm to humans or the environment.”[13]

Hybridization and genetic modification can create varieties that produce more yield with less need for water, energy and chemical inputs because of traits like enhanced resistance to drought, disease or pests.  New technologies are also exploring crop varieties that can promote the sequestration of carbon or the fixation of nitrogen, improving plant growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Higher yields are also desirable in livestock production.  Beef or hogs have been bred to create stock with better genetics that gain weight faster on fewer resources.  Now, with better genetics, producers can achieve a higher yielding, better quality product on fewer resources resulting in the production of fewer emissions.

Intensive Efficiency

Not every location is appropriate to grow wheat – or oranges.  Growing a crop under the best conditions for that particular plant type lowers the need for water, energy, and inputs like fertilizer and pesticides.  Crops grown in the right location under the right conditions reduce the potential for weather-related loss or damage and lower need for energy and input usage.  Furthermore, when crops are intensively grown in limited and preferable conditions, it reduces the need for converting natural ecosystems into agricultural use.[14]  All of these things should be considered – conditions, growing efficiency, harvesting, processing, and transportation – when considering the footprint of a particular crop or product.

Large-scale, efficient agriculture can play an important role in reducing the environmental impact of crop production.  As an article questioning the sustainability of ‘locavores’ pointed out in the New York Times,  “ . . . Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.”[15]

Intensive agriculture can be more efficient and result in fewer emissions.  For example, a recent study by Stanford found that high-yield agriculture has avoided the production of more than 590 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the latter-half of the 20th century.[16]  As Robert Paarlberg’s book, Food Politics: What Every One Needs to Know states, “Agricultural scientists often believe there will be less harm done to nature overall by highly capitalized and specialized high-yield farming systems employing the latest technology. Increasing the yield on lands already farmed allows more of the remaining land to be saved for nature.”[17]

[1] USDA NRCS (June 2007) Agronomy Technical Note No. 1. Retrieved at: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/management/files/agy_1.pdf


[2] Langcuster, James, University of Alabama. "Precision Agriculture Saving Farmers Tremendous Expense." Western Farm Press. November 24, 2010. http://westernfarmpress.com/management/precision-agriculture-saving-farmers-tremendous-expense.


[3]O'Driscoll, Cath. "Extra Precision Agriculture." Chemistry & Industry, July 26, 2010: 18-21.


[4] USDA NRCS (June 2007) Agronomy Technical Note No. 1. Retrieved at: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/management/files/agy_1.pdf


[5] Roberson, Roy. "GPS guidance systems expand capabilities for a broad spectrum of farming operations." Western Farm Press, December 2007: 17, 20.


[6] Ibid.


[7] O'Driscoll, Cath. "Extra Precision Agriculture." Chemistry & Industry, July 26, 2010: 18-21.


[8] Langcuster, James, University of Alabama. "Precision Agriculture Saving Farmers Tremendous Expense." Western Farm Press. November 24, 2010. http://westernfarmpress.com/management/precision-agriculture-saving-farmers-tremendous-expense.


[9] Ibid.


[10] Alison, J. Eagle, R. Lucy Henry, P. Lydia Olander, Karen Haugen-Kozyra, Neville Millar, and Philip G. Robertson. Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential of Agricultural Land Management in the United States: A Synthesis of the Literature. Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, 2010.


[11] Ibid.


[12] Marks, Gary. "Precision Irrigation: A Method to Save Water and Energy While Increasing Crop Yield." March 2010. http://www.slideshare.net/GaryMarks/precision-irrigation-a-method-to-save-water-and-energy-while-increasing-crop-yield-a-targeted-approach-for-california-agriculture.


[13] Brand, Stewart. (2009). Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Viking Adult.


[14] Tilman, David. Kenneth G. Cassman, Pamela A. Matson, Rosamond Naylor & Stephen Polasky.  Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices.  Nature. Aug. 8, 2002.  Vol. 418.


[15] Budiansky, Stephen. (2010, Aug. 19). Math Lessons for Locavores. The New York Times.


[16] Burney, Jennifer, Steven Davis, and David Lobell. "Greenhouse Gas Mitigation by Agricultural Intensification." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 15, 2010.


[17] Paarlberg, Robert. (2010). Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press.








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Caring for the Land

This post is the result of agricultural sustainability research paired with on-farm interviews conducted by The Clark Group, LLC with 12 farms utilizing these practices.  We hope this information can help begin the process of identifying sustainable practices for several key agricultural commodities, and help lead to a system that allows consumers to be connected to products containing these sustainably grown ingredients.

Land Care

Preserving the land's ability to grow crops year after year by protecting the soil, its moisture and nutrients.

Conservation practices that benefit soil and water quality include:

·       No-till or reduced tillage (pictured to the right): involves drilling down through the previous year’s stalks and leaves to plant the new crop.  Cropland is left unplowed between harvests.

·       Increasing the amount of crop residue from harvest: using equipment like the Shelbourne header which harvests grain high on the stalk and leaves behind a tall length of stalk residue standing on the field after harvest

·       Crop rotation: a process of growing different crops sequentially on a given field to ensure soil fertility is maintained since different crops require different nutrients from the soil

·       Cover cropping: involves growing a crop between regular commercial cropping periods for the sake of returning nutrients to the soil, holding soil in place and otherwise preventing wind and water erosion from a field

·       Reducing fallow periods: decreases the amount of time that fields are left uncultivated since a field with nothing growing on it is more susceptible to wind and water erosion

·       Reserving areas or field corners for grassland or other vegetation: fields are often irrigated using center pivot systems that leave field corners less productive.  Planting these areas to native grasses helps preserve the land and creates valuable habitat for wildlife.   

The significant amount of residue left behind by reduced tillage techniques creates something like a blanket that sits on top of the soil and holds in water, prevents fertilizer run-off and soil erosion from wind and water.  Ultimately this practice increases the soil’s strength and fertility over time. 

Preserving Water in the Soil

Conservation practices like those discussed above are also beneficial for lowering water and wind erosion and improving soil and water quality.  Crop residue on the field can also capture precipitation like rain and snow.  The effects of these conservation practices on water include:

§  Surface water quality improves because with less runoff the amount of sediment and sediment-bound chemicals carried in runoff is reduced[1]

§  Evaporation of water from the soil, and the need for water application, improves as practices like conservation tillage are effective at increasing soil water infiltration[2]

Reducing Greenhouse Gases

These conservation practices also have the ability to capture a major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and store it as beneficial soil carbon in the ground. Plants and trees naturally convert carbon dioxide (or CO2) into carbon and give off oxygen.  The carbon is stored in their roots and deposited into the soil.  Because reduced tillage does not fully turn over the soil, it allows the greenhouse gases that have been stored in the ground to remain there.  Since this type of planting requires fewer passes through the field and less fuel-intensive machinery to plant crops, farmers utilizing no-till methods are also reducing the amount of GHG emissions created in comparison to farms that do not utilize these methods. 

In addition to reduced tillage practices, the other conservation measures discussed above also contribute to storing more carbon in the ground.  This is because plants take on this function naturally – therefore, any practice that improves the amount of plant growth on land or the length of time where plants are actively growing – is also improving the soil carbon content of the soil and reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  The chart on the following page provides an average snapshot of what many of these practices can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  Since there are many different greenhouse gases containing varying degrees of global warming potential, standard practice is to convert all GHG into a measure called carbon dioxide equivalent or CO2e.    

Mitigation Potential for Crop Management Practices[3]

Change in management on existing croplands

Soil Carbon tons CO2e/ acre-1/yr-1

Average Net Impact,  tons CO2e/acre-1/yr-1

Maximum U.S. applicable area in millions of acres

Change in Tillage Practice (Conventional to no-till)




Change in Tillage Practice (Conventional to conservation till)





Eliminate Summer Fallow




Use Winter Cover Crops




Diversify Annual Crop Rotations




Include Perennial Crops in Rotations




Organic Soil Amendments (especially manure)




Switch From Dry Land to Irrigated




Irrigation Improvements





Wildlife Habitat Enhancement

Reduced tillage and harvest practices also provide high quality wildlife habitat by creating food, water and shelter for wildlife that would otherwise not exist – especially during the winter months.  Studies have found that when stalk residue is high (greater than 15 inches) and left on the field, there is a significant increase in the benefit to wildlife habitat.[4]

Finally, because conservation agriculture is good for soil, it also improves crop yield and production.  Conservation practices keep existing farmland in peak production, which means less pressure is placed on converting new or virgin lands into agricultural use.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands.[5]  CRP is administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The program encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter-strips, or riparian buffers.[6]  Farmers receive an annual rental payment for the term of a multi-year contract, and cost sharing is provided to establish these practices and compensate for the revenue lost as a result of not harvesting a crop on those acres.[7]

This program reduces soil erosion and sedimentation, improves water quality, establishes wildlife habitat, enhances forest and wetland resources, and protects the ability to produce food and fiber for the long term.[8]



[1] Hill, P. R., & Mannering, J. V. (n.d.). Conservation Tillage and Water Quality. Retrieved from Cooperative Extension Service, Purdue University: http://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/WQ/WQ-20.html.



[2] Hill, P. R., & Mannering, J. V. (n.d.). Conservation Tillage and Water Quality. Retrieved from Cooperative Extension Service, Purdue University: http://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/WQ/WQ-20.html



[3] Alison, J. Eagle, R. Lucy Henry, P. Lydia Olander, Karen Haugen-Kozyra, Neville Millar, and Philip G. Robertson. Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential of Agricultural Land Management in the United States: A Synthesis of the Literature. Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, 2010.



[4] Rodgers Randy D., “Effects of wheat-stubble height and weed control on winter pheasant abundance.” Wildlife Society Bulletin Y. 2002, vol. 30, No. 4, pages 1099-1112.



[5] USDA NRCS. (2011). Conservation Reserve Program. Retrieved from www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/crp



[6] Ibid.



[7] Ibid.



[8] Ibid.










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Examining Sustainable Practice Categories

This post is the result of agricultural sustainability research paired with on-farm interviews conducted by The Clark Group, LLC with 12 farms utilizing these practices.  We hope this information can help begin the process of identifying sustainable practices for several key agricultural commodities, and help lead to a system that allows consumers to be connected to products containing these sustainably grown ingredients.

Sustainable Practices Overview

The common elements found among all the farm interviews were a focus on precise application of inputs (things like seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and water) and the use of technology to maximize yield and livestock weight with far fewer resources than were needed in the past.  The adoption of a holistic systems-based sustainability approach ensures the ability to pass on the operation for generations to come.  Below is a chart summarizing the sustainable practice categories that were investigated followed by upcoming posts that dive into a more detailed discussion of each category.

Land Care Efficient & Humane Livestock Production
  • Applying conservation tillage or no-till where possible
  • Utilizing buffer strips in wetter areas
  • Planting cover crops to help condition soil and prevent erosion
  • Using a crop rotation schedule and other practices to enhance soil organic content and improve or maintain soil fertility
  • Participating in the Conservation Reserve Program or independently applying conservation measures to enhance biodiversity and create wildlife habitat
  • Minimizing the time and resources needed for livestock to reach end weight
  • Incorporating superior genetic qualities into the livestock herd through better breeding choices
  • Reducing animal stress to increase weight gain efficiency
  • Using a balanced approach of pasture and grain feed to maximize nutrition, taste and minimize environmental impact
  • Using feed additives to improve animal health and weight gain
  • Managing manure as a resource rather than a waste 
Precise Application of Inputs Caring for People & Community
  • Use of GPS tractors with “auto-steer” capabilities
  • Use of variable rate fertilizer and chemical applications to target and limit amounts used
  • Use of irrigation sensors that alert the farmer if the system is broken
  • Applying the right kind of irrigation system for the job
  • Investing in superior and precise genetic traits that enable greater yield maximization with minimal inputs
  • Pairing precision with intensification to increase overall efficiency
  • Donations to local community in cash and service
  • Employing a “buy local” policy when possible
  • Providing high quality jobs with benefits such as work vehicles, health care and housing
  • Scholarship programs for local students and/or children of employees
  • Providing a share of the harvest for employees




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Expanding the Sustainable Ag Prescription

Increasingly, people are becoming interested in the sustainability of our food system.  A 2009 Green Shopper Study by the accounting firm Deloitte found that, “Sustainability considerations either drive or influence the buying decisions of more than half the shoppers interviewed.”[1]  Meanwhile, far fewer consumers have direct experience with the modern agricultural system.  As the U.S. Department of Agriculture points out, less than 2% of the U.S. population works full time on the farm – and far fewer than that are responsible for the majority of agricultural production.[2]

This trend is not negative, but a problem is emerging:  People are becoming distrustful of large, remote producers of food.

At the time of the 2000 Census, America’s population was nearly 80% urban and this percentage continues to grow.[3]  Adding to this dynamic are the filter of news reports that greatly magnify any problem that arises within the food system, a growing consumer focus on obesity, health and processed foods, and the claims by some that modern farming is destructive and the result is an increasing distrust in a food system most Americans barely understand.

It is expected and commendable that people want to know where their food comes from and to be assured that it is safe, healthy and grown in a way that is good for the environment and for the community.  For many people, the term “sustainability” sums up these desires.  Unfortunately, sustainability is a term that already has numerous definitions attached to it – resulting in confusion and often, disagreement about the term’s meaning.  Applied to agriculture, sustainability has become synonymous in the minds of many with “small, local and organic.”  Increasingly, consumers believe that these practices are necessary means to accomplish safe, healthy, environmentally-friendly and pro-community products.  

Here is where a problem occurs:  While the goals that most of us share for agricultural sustainability are good and achievable, the current limited prescription of how and who is considered sustainable is not.  That is to say, when agricultural sustainability gets reduced down to only a few practices – that are in some cases inefficient – the very values that are championed by such a system are actually put at risk when considering the global scale of the challenges we face.  Simply put, inefficiencies are economically and environmentally unsustainable on a global scale.

What is considered sustainable changes greatly if we factor in the economic growth and food demands of developing countries and the nearly 3 billion extra people expected to join the planet by the year 2050.  If these inescapable facts are considered, then it becomes critical to keep existing large-scale, efficient agriculture intact and thriving in the U.S. or else we shall face far greater losses of rainforests, prairies, and wetlands around the world along with an increase in food scarcity and hunger.  The unrelenting facts of a growing population, finite resources and limited amounts of arable land demand that technology and scalability will be critical parts of any real pursuit of sustainability.

In coming posts on this site, we will go through a list of important conservation and pro-community practices that TBL Members are pursuing as part of their business sustainability.  We believe that these practices should be part of how we define sustainability more broadly and that by embracing this way of farming we will have a better opportunity to meet the triple bottom line of success: economic, environmental and social.

[1] Deloitte (2009). Finding the Green in Today’s Shoppers: Sustainability Trends and New Shopper Insights. http://www.deloitte.com/us/greenshopperstudy09

[2] Dimitri, Carolyn, Effland, Anne, & Conklin, Neilson (2005, June). The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy Message. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib3/eib3.htm

[3] U.S. Census Bureau. United States Census 2000.








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TBL Commodities Joins The Sustainability Consortium

“We are thrilled to have Triple Bottom Line Commodities as a part of The Sustainability Consortium,” said Sarah Lewis, manager of the Food, Beverage and Agriculture Working Group for The Sustainability Consortium.

“It is essential to have the producer perspective at the table in the development of the Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System. Producers play an essential role in agricultural supply chains, and having expertise from producers, such as those with TBL, will open the door for identifying opportunities for innovation in minimizing the impacts of products on social and environmental systems.

Together we can make great strides toward creating consistent, scientific and transparent metrics for product sustainability.” 

University of Arkansas

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Triple Bottom Line Commodities Joins The Sustainability Consortium

Growers aim to serve as a resource and improve processes

Follow the University of Arkansas on Twitter @uarkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Triple Bottom Line Commodities, an elite network of large-scale growers of corn, wheat, soybeans, beef, pork, dairy and eco-ethanol, has joined The Sustainability Consortium, an independent organization that provides decision makers and policymakers with a broader understanding of how new and innovative organizational strategies and technologies can assist in meeting various environmental, economic and social objectives. The consortium is co-administered by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University.

“Our growers are very interested in staying ahead of the curve,” said Sara Hessenflow Harper, project director and spokesperson for the group.  “TBL members are creating a business niche that understands, influences and facilitates the sustainability measurement needs of food processors and retailers while adding value to growers.,”

“Learning, connecting and contributing grower perspective are the primary reasons for joining The Sustainability Consortium,” Harper said.  “We recognize that there are numerous emerging private market drivers for defining, measuring and implementing sustainability policies.  Our members stand ready to facilitate the needs of this market and to contribute their direct experience in measuring success through the triple bottom line on food and fuel production.”

TBL Commodities likes the science-based focus that The Sustainability Consortium has adopted as it develops a sustainability measurement system that is useful for retailers and understandable to consumers.

“Our growers want to play a critical role in helping meet the needs of processors and retailers as they respond to increasing concerns about supply-chain security and consumer interest on sustainability issues,” said Harper. “We believe joining The Sustainability Consortium is one of the best means for meeting this goal.” 

Though agricultural sustainability is often linked to smaller, local growers, the larger scale growers who are focusing on sustainability are able to bring an expanded vision and scale to sustainability issues – particularly in the areas of precision technology, conservation farming and employee/community benefits.

 “TBL Commodities members are dedicated to striving for continuous learning, adaptation and improvement of our sustainability performance by embracing technological breakthroughs, system efficiencies and an ethic of community support,” said Harper.

“We are thrilled to have Triple Bottom Line Commodities as a part of The Sustainability Consortium,” said Sarah Lewis, manager of the Food, Beverage and Agriculture Working Group for The Sustainability Consortium. “It is essential to have the producer perspective at the table in the development of the Sustainability Measurement and Reporting System. Producers play an essential role in agricultural supply chains, and having expertise from producers, such as those with TBL, will open the door for identifying opportunities for innovation in minimizing the impacts of products on social and environmental systems. Together we can make great strides toward creating consistent, scientific and transparent metrics for product sustainability.” 

For more information on TBL Commodities, please visit their website:  www.TBLcommodities.com



Sara Harper
Triple Bottom Line Commodities
703-209-9484, sharper@clarkgroupllc.com


Danielle Strickland, director of development communications
University of Arkansas

479-575-7346, strick@uark.edu



Members of the media can subscribe to the Arkansas Newswire weekday email by sending a note to Charlie Alison at calison@uark.edu.


Triple Bottom Line Commodities joins The Sustainability Consortium.


The Sustainability Consortium – www.sustainabilityconsortium.org/ 



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