Farmers have tried to operate sustainably for decades, though for much of history they probably wouldn’t have used that terminology, says Mike Milligan, a fourth-generation producer from Cass City, Mich.
And even though the supply chain today is putting greater emphasis on practices such as cover crops and conservation tillage, the reasons behind them are largely unchanged.
“The goal was to do well. They wanted to make a living for their families,” says Milligan, imagining how his grandfather likely viewed sustainability. “They wanted to pass this on to the next generation.”
Those objectives still guide Milligan, who grows corn, wheat, soybeans, black beans and navy beans in the thumb of Michigan. After graduating from college a couple of years ago, he returned to the farm full time.
Milligan and third-generation producer Kevin Beske of Fox Lake, Wis., spoke about the importance of on-farm sustainability practices and the value of incremental improvements at the June meeting of Field to Market. The Washington-based nonprofit brings farmers together with food companies, retailers and other supply chain stakeholders to define, measure and drive adoption of sustainable farming practices.
Good Records. Most farmers can point out the field where they grew their best-ever corn crop, and they remember their top yield, Milligan says. As new markets open for farmers who can clearly explain their agronomic and livestock practices, it’s important to keep a record of sustainability practices. Both he and Beske used Field to Market’s Fieldprint Calculator (available at calculator.fieldtomarket.org) to set a baseline for practices including water management and nutrient applications. They’ve started benchmarking their annual progress against those initial data points as well as anonymized data of other farmers at a local, regional and national level.
“If you don’t know what you did in the past, if you don’t know what works moving forward, how are you going to be able to consider if it’s worth the long-term benefit?” Milligan asks. “Is it going to move my farm forward in the future? You need to record that just like you need to record yields.”
End users such as restaurants care about where their food comes from, but so do everyday people.
“We want to be our consumer’s friend. We want to be our community’s friend, too,” Beske says. “You have documentation there to show what is happening on the farm.”
Positive Change. These producers view sustainability recordkeeping as another tool for modern farm operations. Milligan is working with Kellogg Company and Syngenta on the Kellogg’s Origins Great Lakes Wheat Fieldprint Project, in which farmers use conservation practices and precision ag technology to protect water quality in Saginaw Bay and the Great Lakes watershed.
“If the prescription works right, you have more total yield and less total nitrogen use,” Milligan says.
Like Milligan, Beske views sustainability as a long-term investment that can push the ag industry forward. To do that, the supply chain must learn from producers.
“We know what works on our farm and what doesn’t work,” Beske says. “With technology, you have to go fast and keep moving.”