Farming is fundamental to growing the food, feed, and fuel upon which our fast-growing global population depends. Sustainability in agriculture is a focus on continuous improvement with innovative technologies to grow a safe and affordable food supply using fewer natural resources, which can help preserve native habitats while keeping our farmer stewards economically viable.
In my role working with farmers at the United Soybean Board (USB) and, previously, with the Soil Health Partnership, I’ve seen firsthand how organizations that rely on agricultural products and conservation groups are increasingly recognizing the connection between a secure food supply chain, clean water, productive soils, and a stable climate. They know if they are going to meet their sustainability goals, they must collaborate with the agriculture sector. Cultivating partnerships along the food value chain and with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in this space are key to helping build a safe, healthy, and sustainable food supply chain for consumers around the world.
Often we don’t celebrate how U.S. farmers are already enhancing soil health and local ecosystems, which also deliver safe, nutritious, and sustainable products. Farmers are the pillars of rural communities and are essential to the long-term economic stability of those regions. Thus, the long-term sustainability of farms is incredibly important not only from an environmental, but also an economic, point of view. I truly believe if farmers have access to more technology, along with healthy markets to make a profit, their sustainability efforts will bear even more fruit.
One of the key collaborations that I have developed in my career to give farmers access to technology and to help enhance on-farm sustainability efforts is with The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Together, we have provided farmers with a range of resources, including educational assets and combine cover crop seeders.
TNC is a global environmental nonprofit, working to create a world where both people and nature can thrive. It was founded in the U.S. in 1951 through grassroots action and has grown to become one of the most effective and wide-reaching conservation organizations in the world with more than one million members.
“Our diverse staff work in 75 countries and territories to carry out our mission to conserve the land and water on which all life depends,” says Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, director of agriculture engagement strategy in North America for TNC.
TNC’s conservation priorities are firmly aligned with farmers’ inherent commitment to steward the lands and waters upon which their livelihoods depend, explains Vollmer-Sanders. “Conservation science, peer-reviewed research, and innovative data, technology and financial solutions are among the tools that underly TNC’s work with farmers.”
“Farmers are among our greatest allies in conservation, and that’s a two-way street. We need farmers to be successful, so our aim is to advance nature-based, farmer-led solutions that are both economically and environmentally sustainable for growers, communities, and nature,” she said.
In this piece, you’ll learn more about precision tools, soil advancements and first-hand accounts of sustainable practice adoption from farmers, like Ed Lammers in Nebraska. For Lammers and many others, using soil health and nutrient management practices has been second nature for generations, long before the term “sustainability” has become so widespread. Farming with a goal of economic, environmental, and social sustainability is essential to the success of every U.S. farm – all 2.02 million of them.
Sustainability is Not One-Size-Fits-All
Sustainability practices are not one-size-fits-all for farmers. What works on one farmer’s land on the Great Plains may not be a viable solution for a grower in the Deep South. And what one grower is doing on his or her land may not even be a good fit for a neighbor just a few miles up the road. Many sustainable practices are interconnected and build upon each other; it’s up to each farming operation to determine the best combination for his or her farm. For example, farmers may begin by practicing reduced tillage, progressing to no-till, and then adding cover crops. These practices allow farmers to work toward continuous improvements in soil health, nutrient management and water quality, while reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Partnerships Key to Conservation
TNC recognizes the importance of public-private partnerships, including teaming up with commodity groups, agribusinesses, food companies and other sectors to raise awareness of conservation and provide resources to make implementation simpler and more accessible. Among the organization’s recent farmer-facing efforts including collaborating with the dairy industry and Syngenta to develop a sustainability framework to help support farmers in the adoption of best management practices that benefit production while addressing GHG emissions.
Another collaboration is the Nebraska Soil Carbon Project. TNC received a 5-year Regional Conservation Partnership Project award from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency, matched by supply chain companies, to provide farmers with technical and financial assistance as they adopt soil health practices on an estimated 100,000 acres. The project is serving as an Ecosystem Services Market Consortium pilot, which connects farmers to private sector payments for soil health practice adoption for adopting cover crops, no-till, and/or diverse rotations. Enrolled growers will be paid on an acreage basis as a means to de-risk the adoption of new practices. Hannah Birgé, Ph.D., director of agriculture for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, calls this project is a “win-win for farmers and nature.”
“These soil health practices – cover crops, no-till, and crop rotation – can provide crops with improved resilience to extreme weather events by improving the water-holding capacity of cropland soil, stabilizing the ground against wind and water erosion, and keeping fertilizer in place for the cash crops,” says Birgé. “Plus, when croplands are efficient and high yielding – despite extreme weather—it can prevent the conversion of grasslands and other ecosystems unsuited to crop production.”
These same soil health practices can also increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil, instead of in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. “As businesses look for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their supply chains, there is great potential to connect their dollars to farmers who are willing to adopt climate-smart practices on their operations,” explains Birgé. “The climate solution starts with farmers, and so that’s where the compensation needs to flow if we’re going to achieve widespread adoption of these practices.”
The U.S. Soy industry similarly partners with growers in their long-term sustainability endeavors, rooted in conservation programs created by USDA more than 75 years ago. To continue building on this commitment, U.S. Soy farmers, represented by producer organizations, including USB, the American Soybean Association, and the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC), came together to create a national strategy to further enhance U.S. soybean sustainability through the improvement of key performance indicators. Environmental goals include reducing land use impact, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy use.
Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Soy industry responded to international customer requests for a supply of documented and verified sustainable soy by creating the U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP), which verifies shipments of U.S. Soy as sustainable based on a national system of sustainability and conservation laws and regulations combined with careful implementation of best production practices by more than 300,000 soybean producers. The SSAP was created by a multistakeholder group with participants all along the value chain. In 2021, the U.S. Soy industry achieved a cumulative 100 million metric tons of SSAP-verified shipments exported since the program’s launch in 2014, and it’s recognized by the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation’s (FEFAC) 2021 Soy Sourcing Guidelines and Consumer Goods Forum’s Sustainable Soy Sourcing Guidelines, among others.
Examples of Sustainability on Today’s Farms
- Land conservation: in the United States, a number of federal programs exist to assist farmers. The example programs highlighted here are available for farmers to sign up, however, eligibility and the time commitment for these programs have been a hindrance to many farmers.
- The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), one of the largest private-lands conservation programs in the United States, is a voluntary program administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The program’s long-term goal is to reestablish land cover, helping to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat. Over the five-year span from 2016 to 2020, an average of just over one million acres were annually enrolled in CRP.
- Through voluntary enrollment in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the largest conservation program in the U.S., USDA helps farmers to enhance natural resources and improve business operations. Proven results include enhanced resiliency to weather and market volatility, decreased need to use agricultural inputs, and improved wildlife habitat conditions. A new grasslands initiative assists in protecting grazing land uses and conserving and improving soil, water, and wildlife resources. From 2016 to 2020, an average of more than seven million acres were enrolled in CSP annually on active contracts.
- The Conservation Technical Assistance Program (CTA) works through a voluntary conservation network that fosters partnership between USDA’s NRCS conservation districts, state conservation agencies, and private landowners. CTA provides farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners with knowledge and tools to conserve, maintain, and restore the natural resources on their lands and improve the health of their operations for the future. Most technical assistance leads to the development of a conservation plan. Between 2016 and 2020, an average of 19.6 million acres were enrolled in CTA each year.,
- The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, increased soil health and reduced soil erosion and sedimentation, improved or created wildlife habitat, and mitigated against drought and increasing weather volatility. Approximately 11.8 million average acres were enrolled annually in EQIP from 2016 to 2020.
- Soil Health
- Crop rotation: Diverse crops provide various benefits to the soil, which is why some farmers have a rotation of different crops they plant.
- No-till or conservation tillage: Increases the amount of crop residue on the ground, which reduces disturbance to the environment under the surface. This is based on soil type and other factors. Genetically engineered (GE) seeds require fewer resources and make it easier to use these conservation tillage techniques.
- Cover crops: Proven to add organic matter, improve water infiltration, and reduce erosion. Providing a living root system in off-season cycles leaves a food source for the microbial community, which helps with carbon sequestration and GHGs. A global analysis from the University of Illinois shows cover crops can boost soil microbial abundance by 27%.
- Precision technology: Practices such as GPS and variable rate application of inputs, like fertilizer and water, help improve resource use efficiency throughout the growing season. The ability to manage the rates and placements of crop resources precisely allows less input waste and more profitability. And GPS technology such as autosteer tractors helps to reduce fuel usage.
- Yield maps and soil tests: Layering data allows growers to focus on areas of their fields that need improvement.
- Water management: Impacts from agricultural activities on surface and ground water can be minimized by using best management practices that are adapted to local conditions. Many farmers are adopting more practices such as buffer strips and tiling designed to reduce nutrient runoff, increase productivity, and save growers money.
- To help solve the problem of excess nutrients in waters, TNC, together with the agricultural industry, state agribusiness associations, universities, and others, created the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program – Right Source of Nutrients at the Right Rate and Right Time in the Right Place. This voluntary program provides a consistent, recognized standard for nutrient service providers in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio where surrounding waters drain into Lake Erie.
- Rotational Grazing: Reduces sediment and nutrient runoff by using grazing rotations in different fields for cattle and other livestock.
This infographic shows some of the sustainability methods employed by U.S. farmers.
Driving Conservation Through Satellite Technology
Access to technology is sometimes a limiting factor for growers to adopt conservation practices. TNC and USB are aligned in working on ways for farmers to access more technology tools that would lead to even more sustainability practices on farms such as satellite imagery.
Beyond tried-and-true sustainability techniques on the ground, satellite imagery also helps farmers to adjust their management practices. While still a newer innovation, satellite technology is developing at a rapid rate, delivering a variety of uses for production agriculture.
The Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS) is a widely available data-driven tool with the potential to unlock soil health solutions for the agriculture industry and conservation benefits for people and nature. OpTIS uses publicly available data to annually map and monitor cover crop development, detect plant residue, and document the level of adoption of soil health practices for the U.S. Corn Belt. The tool was developed, tested, and applied by Regrow Agriculture, the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), and TNC and has received significant public and private funding and support.
Conservation Starts on the Farm
U.S. Soy, The Nature Conservancy, and a host of others in conservation and the food and agriculture industries are working to support farmers with the resources and tools they need to nourish a growing population, while safeguarding their livelihoods and protecting the Earth’s land and waters. Included below are examples of how farmers are embedding sustainability in every aspect of their farming operation, while balancing their livelihood of staying in business and making a living to support their families.
We Want to Be as Good Stewards as We Can Possibly Be to What’s Been Entrusted to Us
Nebraska Farmer Balances Conservation Needs on His Land
Ed Lammers grows soybeans, corn, alfalfa, and utilizes rye, radishes, and turnips as cover crops on his Hartington farm in northeast Nebraska. He also raises cattle, managing a 150 head herd.
Lammers has worked for 38 years in production agriculture and is a fifth-generation farmer. He personally understands the importance of inheriting a sustainable and productive farm and plans to do that for his son who he works with every day. Establishing sustainable practices will not only benefit his son, but also his grandchildren who would represent the seventh generation.
Farmers, he emphasizes, are the first line of conservation. As a steward of the land, Lammers relies on a combination of sustainable practices including innovation, technology, conservation, safety, and reliability to preserve the environment today and to leave it in better condition for each proceeding generation.
Innovation: Several years ago, Lammers began to plant his corn in 15-inch rows rather than the typical 30-inch rows, which he says has been beneficial for his farm. “With the narrower rows, I’ve used fewer chemicals and have even seen a bump in my yields,” Lammers reports, “and that’s always great for economic sustainability. But the real plus here is the environmental advantages – the narrow rows have helped build my soil profile. On my property, soil erosion is an issue and the additional residue from the stalks has helped to control runoff.”
Technology: Lammers relies on data to help him make sound decisions for his operation. Advances in technology over the past 10 years have provided Lammers with the capability to use irrigation more efficiently. “I’m able to take soil measurements and program them into a mapping tool. This helps to determine water speed. A slow pivot in some areas helps to hold water more efficiently, while a faster pivot is better in other places,” Lammers says. He reports that less runoff helps him to not only minimize erosion and optimize production, but also conserve water.
Conservation: Soil conservation goals for his fields are to help keep the soil and nutrients in place, which will increase his production and his field’s resiliency to weather events. He accomplishes these goals by planting in narrower rows and using cover crops, such as rye, radishes, and turnips. Lammers is self-motivated and proactive in field activities to protect his soil.
Safety: Lammers would not grow products that are not safe for his family and works hard to ensure that all the products that he produces on his farm have followed all safety standards. He also invests in the technology to help protect his crops as they aid in economic sustainability of the farm.
Reliability: It is important to Lammers that people know that farmers that can be relied upon to be productive, along with being stewards of the land. “U.S. farmers are reliable producers of grains and oilseeds year in and year out,” says Lammers.
In addition to raising row crops and representing the soy checkoff as a farmer-leader, Lammers also manages a 150 head herd of cattle. Each year, he purchases 200 head of calves to finish along with his home-raised calves. Lammers says that, for him, raising cattle is a commonsense option, pointing to a creek that runs through the farm with a grassy pasture alongside it.
He utilizes rotational grazing where cattle are concentrated in one area of the pasture, then moved to another section. This helps him to allow ground to recover. Lammers has seen that as the cattle move on, the grass comes back lusher as it initiates new growth.
The United States has one of the largest grassland acreages in the world – 655 million acres of pasture, range, and grassland. Lammers emphasizes the stewardship aspect for grazing land in the same way that hands-on management is necessary for growing crops. The key to making a grazing system work is managing the balance between production and use of forage throughout the year. Lammers reiterates that while he and other farmers work privately to manage their grazing land, sustainable long-term public and private partnerships also exist in the U.S. to protect grasslands.
Raising beef cattle, Lammers explains, is a natural fit for his operation. While cattle create additional revenue for the farm, he also receives nutrients from the cows’ waste, used for natural fertilizer. “The grass, cattle, and crops all create a circle of life. As a farmer, I find this lifecycle to be rewarding,” he says.
Balancing Conservation and Profitability
TNC has talked with farmers in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, who are using soil health and nutrient management practices with positive economic and environmental outcomes. Check out their stories at the links below:
- Sixth-generation Michigan farmer Doug Darling credits his natural curiosity and willingness to experiment as part of his success. Darling uses grassy strips at the edge of fields, which he calls the “simplest, easiest, least expensive thing a farmer can do to help mitigate nutrient runoff.”
- Todd Hesterman, a fourth-generation farmer in Ohio, focuses on water quality and soil health. “If you don’t keep learning, you disappear,” Hesterman says.
- Mike Werling, a fifth-generation farmer in Indiana, has a strong focus on soil health. “My yields are steadily increasing just like the national averages are, but I’m not at the high end of yields. I’m at my optimum returns per acre,” says Werling.
- Sixth generation Indiana farmer Sarah Delbecq works to balance conservation with profitability. “The practices on our farm clearly affect our farm. But they also affect things off the farm, and we know what we do will impact others downstream, others who share this environment. We want to be as good stewards as we possibly can of what’s been entrusted to us.”
 Land unit acres are counted once when the program has been used to apply one or more practices on that land unit in a given fiscal year. Therefore, land unit acres may be counted multiple times across fiscal years.