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.