A Semi-Annual Publication of Manomet

Interview with Andy Whitman

Andy Whitman1) You went to the White House as part of a dialogue on dairy agriculture sustainability. What prompted the meeting and who else was involved?

Key people in the dairy industry recognized that the federal government staff would benefit from better understanding the challenges faced by the dairy industry. They recognized that a heart to heart conversation with officials from USDA and agriculture policy makers at the White House could be helpful both ways. It could be a means to streamline so that these programs would better achieve federal policy and help the industry become more sustainable.

Dairy Management Inc. organized the meeting. DMI is a dairy promotion group that's funded by dairy farmers through special federal taxes on milk. There were about 100 people in the delegation, mostly people from the dairy industry. Almost half were dairy farmers and half were staff of dairy food companies with a few people from NGOs like Manomet. We were there to work with the dairy industry, particularly farmers, to broaden their sustainability effort and to develop opportunities for Manomet's growing sustainability work.

2) What is the challenge and opportunity with dairy agriculture sustainability?

First, you should understand that every challenge the dairy industry faces is also an opportunity. An example, greenhouse gas emissions, energy, and production are key challenges, but the opportunity is to take on all three issues with one action. If you reduce inputs such as energy and fertilizer, you reduce cost and GHG emissions and increase efficiency. For dairy food companies, most emissions come from using fossil fuels, which are a major cost for them. Dairy food companies are experimenting with using dairy waste to generate methane and electric­ity to power their plants and displace the use of fossil fuels. Similarly, dairy farms can use manure to generate methane gas and produce electricity to sell to power companies, as is happening in Vermont.


"If you're nervous about
climate change, you should
be really concerned about
whether we will be able to feed
the world in 50 years."

[Ed note: On the farming side, about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the cows themselves, "outgassing" from either end. Another 25 percent comes from the manure.]

If the industry can reduce energy use, that is a win across-the-board because it will reduce GHG emissions and reduce vulnerability to volatility in energy prices. One of the key GHG emissions is nitrous oxide. You can better manage this emission by feed­ing your cows a slightly less-rich diet. It could cut your milk production a little, but it would cut your costs even more.

3) Was the White House meeting a success? What were the key topics of discussion?

Yes, the White House staff got a better understanding of the challenges facing the dairy industry and how the federal government is addressing them. Also, it helped the farmers and processors reset some expec­tations of the federal government programs and staff to a more realistic level.

What was striking was the candidness of the White House staff. They said "We don't
know everything," "We lack the ability to get out on the ground." I think they realized that they could have spent a month on the road trying to reach half of these farmers — instead they were all in one room. [The White House staff was] very upbeat and positive about the industry coming to them. They displayed a great willingness to listen.

They asked farmers: "What do we have going on that is helping you, or can we do something different?"They wanted feedback on how they can improve programs. We split our time between general dairy agriculture issues and energy issues.

A key dairy issue was nutrient management, managing manure and fertilizers through the whole farm cycle. And that goes hand-in-hand with water quality issues. The industry calls it nutrient management but from a human and societal standpoint it really comes back to water quality.

4) You recently presented your analysis of dairy farm sustainability performance for the Massachusetts Dairy Association. What did you find?

My 30,000-foot view is that the Massachusetts dairy industry – from the farm side – has significant positive impacts and few negative impacts.

The low negative impacts can be attributed to two things, the quality of farm stewardship and the effective farm regulations in Massachusetts. The quality of practices of the farmers was pretty high. There may be a couple of watersheds where dairy farms might impact water quality but overall their impact was very low relative to other land uses.

Massachusetts dairy farms, relative to the indus­try nationally, are pretty small. This allows the cow manure to be dispersed over a large acreage where it is likely to become part of the soil instead of running off into streams and ponds. They are relatively well-dispersed. You don't have a 5,000-cow dairy farm in Massachusetts, if you had one of those you have to put a lot of things in place to avoid negative impacts.

But when you have a bunch of smaller farms, dis­persed, it's going to be hard for negative impacts to roll up together and be widely felt. The negative impacts may be the lowest of any state in the United States.

The positives are pretty high because a lot of the farms are mixed business, they do some other activity that benefit local communities. This includes contributing to the ability of communities to buy local food.

The dairy industry liked the presentation a lot. My hunch is that it probably even surprised them a little bit.

5) What is the future for agriculture sustainability, with Manomet's programs and beyond?

The field overall is going to become increasingly more important because global food demand will increase faster than population growth. People are going to be farming more. The industry is already farming the best ground now. They are going to be moving onto ground that we're not farming right now, wetter or steeper ground where negative impacts will increase. Expanding agriculture will have a greater impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services than climate change. If you're nervous about climate change, you should be really concerned about whether we will be able to feed the world in 50 years.

That's why it's important for Manomet to be involved.

We'll continue to work with the national dairy industry. We're working with them to develop a sustainability framework, to take what we learn to the ground and work with regional partners and take our lesson back to the national level. We are working with investors to help them measure and manage for sustainability on farm operations on three continents.
We're exploring how we can move the needle with agriculture sustainability.

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