As hunger grows for assurances that food is raised sustainably, farmers Ron Moore, Brian Hlavinka and Kamren Koompin have stepped up to the plate to provide answers.

The three farmers are among thousands of U.S. growers who’ve begun using measurement tools designed to assess the sustainability of their farms. At the same time, their data contributes to developing a composite picture of the sustainability of American farms.

After using the new tools on all or parts of their operations, the farmers give them mixed reviews. They say the tools – which can be time-consuming – may be successful in achieving documenting the overall sustainability of U.S. farms. But they come up short as a cutting-edge farm management aid.

The tools largely confirmed that the farmers were on the right track in terms of sustainable practices. But there were no “ah-ha” revelations that changed the way they manage their farms. And sustainability measures such as soil erosion don’t always match up with reality on the ground.

“If you can see an area where you can make improvement, that part is worthwhile,” says Moore, who farms near Roseville, Ill., and has focused on sustainability issues for the Illinois Soybean Association. “Recent changes I have made were not driven by what I learned. But they confirmed these practices make me more sustainable.”

Multiple approaches

A dozen or more sustainability-measurement tools and/or standards are used by various farm, agricultural industry, food retail and other groups in the U.S.

The farmers worked with two of the tools. All three used the Fieldprint Calculator, an online tool developed by Field to Market, a coalition of 50-plus grower organizations, agribusinesses, conservation groups, retailers, universities and others.

Moore also used an online sustainability assessment tool developed by the National Sustainable Soybean Initiative (NSSI). NSSI is funded by the United Soybean Board and implemented by more than 500 growers in Wisconsin and Illinois through soybean groups in the two states in its first year.

The Fieldprint Calculator assessment is based on a field-by-field review of farming operations. It estimates field-level performance of seven sustainability indicators, including land use, conservation, soil carbon, irrigation water use, water quality, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

The NSSI tool takes a whole-farm look at sustainability. It uses a questionnaire format, using economic, environmental and social criteria to assess sustainability.

 

Testing the tools

By Moore’s count, the NSSI sustainability tool took an hour to complete for his entire farm. The more detailed Fieldprint Calculator took an hour for a single field.

“I chose a representative field for Fieldprint Calculator,” he says. “It would have taken me several days to do this for all 30 of my fields.” Moore learned that his practices are better than average in terms of soil loss and carbon sequestration. Greenhouse gas emissions were lower than the national average, too.

The NSSI tool also confirmed his farm ranks well on sustainability measures. “I was fairly confident that my operation is fairly sustainable, but I wanted to find out what these programs would say,” he says.  

Koompin, American Falls, Idaho, has experience with an updated version of Fieldprint Calculator that has been integrated into software he uses in through Syngenta’s AgriEdge Excelsior program. That cuts the time requirement to a few minutes of data entry for a full Fieldprint report on his family’s entire 8,000-plus acre operation.

“Our time investment to document sustainability is minimal,” says Koompin, who provides sustainability information to General Mills, where he markets wheat. “This really puts a visual on the fact that we are moving in the right direction from a sustainability standpoint.”

Ultimately, to be successful, “Fieldprint Calculator needs to go in the direction of integrating into management tools farmers already are using,” adds Jennifer Shaw, head of sustainable sourcing at Syngenta and a member of the Field to Market executive committee. “We want to make it as simple and efficient as possible.”

A trial run with an early version Fieldprint Calculator several years ago highlighted the challenge of being an early user of the tool, says Hlavinka, who manages farming operations for Hlavinka Cattle Co., East Barnard, Texas. Some of the results were at odds with his observations, especially on erosion, which the tool said was excessive. “Our ground is as flat as a board,” he says. “We have very little erosion.”

Nevertheless, as the tool is refined, he interested in trying it again.