A Semi-Annual Publication of Manomet

Can Agriculture of Today Feed the World of Tomorrow?
By: Bridget Alexander

Do small scale dairies in New England and up-state New York have an answer?

Cabot

The world population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. The current population is over seven billion. That is a 35% increase in population. However, the expected demand on agriculture will require a doubling of food production.

Developing countries like China and India will have the more dramatic population increases, but it's not just a numbers game. Increased individual wealth, urbanization, and westernization of diet in developing countries will contribute to the doubling in food demand—specifically, a diet with more meat and more dairy.

All these new dairy cows, beef cows, pigs, and chickens need to eat, too. Grain crops, which could be fed directly to humans, will be grown as animal feed to match the world's changing dinner plates. This is one of two reasons agricultural production will have to increase at a rate much faster than population growth.

The second reason the world may need to double agricultural production is the ever-increasing use of food crops for biofuels—ethanol, made from corn or sugarcane—biodiesel, made from palm oil, just to name a few examples. Unlike fossil fuels, ethanol crops are renewable.

However, a lot happens in between. It would be great if we could just cram a few corncobs into our gas tanks. Unfortunately, a lot of energy, pesticides, and fertilizer go into converting the plants into usable fuels, and it is a legitimate scientific and social question as to whether using corn for fuel is a net gain for the environment and climate, or for the well-being of disadvantaged and underserved people.

Many people view the life-cycle assessment of ethanol as worse than fossil fuels for the atmosphere. Crops that get diverted to fuel can cause forestland to be cleared elsewhere around the globe to make up for the food shortfall—also referred to as indirect land use change. In this scenario, overall greenhouse gas emissions have increased. The other issue is that ethanol does not replace gasoline gallon for gallon—it takes more than a gallon of ethanol to yield a gasoline gallon's worth of mileage.

Scaling up agricultural production to meet the demand of nine billion people by 2050 has many implications and challenges, including land use, consumption and pollution of natural resources, and energy use all in the face of climate change, which can make crop yields per acre even lower.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) report from April 2014, growing food in a warming climate, subject to droughts and extreme weather, is going to make farming more expensive with higher energy usage—resulting in crop damage and lower yields. The IPCC went on to name crops and farm products that will serve as leaders in this trend. Milk is included in the top five. Cows produce more milk in cooler climates between 25ºF to 65ºF.

All these extra cows for milking and meat production mean more manure. Manure produces methane gas, the second leading greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. Depending on how manure is disposed of or repurposed, more manure often means less clean water and a certain aroma in the air—and that isn't good for agri-tourism, a $704 million dollar industry in the U.S.1.

LivestockFigure 1: Livestock feed requires on average 7 kilocalories input for each kilocalorie generated. The range extends from 16 for beef production to 3 for broiler chikens, with milk somewhere in between (Bender 1992).

Feeding these animals will require more grain production, which will require clearing the land for row crops, especially in developing countries. This will impact forests, which impact the animals who live there, and so on, affecting biodiversity. Conventional growing methods apply chemicals in the form of pesticides and fertilizers—some of which stay in the soil, and find their way into drinking water through runoff. Organic methods often employ fungicides and approved pesticides, too. Both methods can utilize techniques such as integrated pest management. Conventional versus organic is not black and white.

Capacity and efficiency go hand-in-hand. Take your freezer, for instance. It has a maximum capacity of a certain number of cubic feet. If you fill it haphazardly, with items askew and randomly piled, you will end-up with wasted space—wasted capacity. However, if you orderly place items according to size and shape, a la Tetris, you have optimized your freezer's capacity.

On the other hand, overfilling the freezer, maximizing the space, will lead to negatives, like food falling out onto the floor every time the door is opened. You have to strike the balance to get the most out of what you've got.

According to the USDA's 2012 Census of Agriculture, there are 36.4 million acres of cropland that are "idle or used for cover crops or soil-improvement, but not harvested and not pastured or grazed." Another 12.8 million acres are categorized as "other pasture and grazing land that could have been used for crops without additional improvement." So, in the U.S., we are not even growing on all available farmland. However, it should be noted that these USDA designations include farmland in the federal Conservation Reserve Program2, a program that promotes conversion of ag land into wildlife habitat.

SOMETIMES IT'S NOT JUST LAND USE...

…but farm management and practices, true efficiency measures that optimize agricultural production. A better managed, more efficient farm will produce more food—feed more people—with fewer negative impacts to the countryside on which it exists, and improved economic benefits for the farmers. This is very applicable to dairy farms.

Small scale dairies in New England and upstate New York, which make up the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative—and own the coveted Cabot Creamery and McCadam cheese brands, are piloting a sustainability toolkit created with Manomet.

Feeding a growing population while safeguarding natural resources for the future doesn't have to come down to regulation, or large-scale versus small. At Cabot, sometimes it has a lot to do with karma.

It's interesting how much karma and sustainable development have in common in their definitions. Karma is defined as: the sum of a person's actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. Sustainable development is defined as: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Both terms view our actions now as dictating the future.

While Cabot farms have been operating under this understanding for generations, it took a special meeting in 2007 to take the company to the next level. Cabot was use to fielding the question of whether the cooperative was "sustainable," but when the Vice President of Sales relayed a customer question: "What is your sustainability plan?" the team took pause and exchanged a couple of glances. This was an entirely different question and they knew that they did not, yet, have language for an answer.

Within the year, sustainability became an important focus. Cabot began work in 2007, with Manomet and others, to develop a more specific sustainability program. In 2008, Agri-Mark created the new position of Director of Sustainability and filled it with Cabot veteran Jed Davis. Davis led the company to new partners, including Manomet, to develop Agri-Mark's sustainability plan.

Agri-Mark was attracted to Manomet's breadth of work—especially with foresters and forest companies on sustainability. As Davis says, "In the Northern Forest, find a forester and more often than not, you've found a dairy farmer too."

By 2009, Agri-Mark, Manomet and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy had created a comprehensive, national-level tool—the Vital Capital Index (VCI) and Toolkit for Dairy Agriculture that measures the economic, social and environmental sustainability of farms—the so-called triple bottom line. Agri-Mark had an initial goal of 75% of the 1,200 member farms completing VCI Level 1—Awareness, which gauges the level of understanding and willingness to engage on sustainability topics. Well, they far exceeded that goal, with 96% (or 1,158 farms) participating today.

There are a total of four Levels in the VCI, with the remaining three being: Practices—making changes to be more sustainable; Performance—measuring the impact and efficiency of those changes; and Sustainability—ensuring these changes can be successful in the long-term and meet the triple bottom line test.

Being successful in meeting the triple bottom line means that the farm is an economically thriving, viable business; the social wellbeing of farm workers and the community is high, with healthy work conditions, livable wages and the community enjoying the farm's presence; and the environment around the farm is stable, with clean water, air and healthy soils.

WHY START WITH AWARENESS? SHOULDN'T THEY BE MEASURING GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS?

Before the end vision can be realized, there must be a strong start. As Davis put it, "You can't have the starting point be outcome measures, with farms being expected to dive right into performance; you have to start with awareness and engagement because you get further in the long-term by building understanding and commitment upfront." Davis went on to explain that "this is where Manomet really shined, by showing us they understood how to meet farmers where they are and creating a sustainability tool tailored for us, as their partner."

Mark Duffy

Mark Duffy at Great Brook Farm State Park

It's been five years since the launch of the pilot, and the project is about to enter Level 2—Practices. However, VCI is in its third overall version, 3.0. With the implementation of 2.0, the project added on-line participation. Agri-Mark outfitted each of its 20 field staff with iPads to take on field visits to the 75-100 individual farms each serves. "A little bit of technical assistance goes a long way," informed Andy Whitman of Manomet.

In version 3.0, farms can now participate incrementally, giving them the ability to adapt the VCI toolkit for where they are in their sustainability journey. "This is a long-term process, and this is a tool that can spark continuous improvement," remarked Davis. The VCI covers 12 topics that are globally relevant. As the project moves into Level 2—Practices, the participating farms will begin implementing such changes as creating a succession plan for passing the farm down to the next generation, soil health, water and air quality, pest management, waste management, and ethical animal care—to name just a few.

On Great Brook Farm State Park (GBF), in Carlisle, Massachusetts, Mark Duffy (a first generation farmer) has been farming with his family for 27 years. This farm is unique in many ways, one of which is that it's a Department of Conservation and Recreation property that the Duffys lease. Leasing farmland is becoming more mainstream, especially with the cost of farmland in a state like Massachusetts.

Duffy and his farm also represent what is possible with VCI. With 170 dairy animals, Duffy runs a very efficient farm with many cutting edge components. As Duffy puts it, "Dairy farms are grounded in science and that is something we want to educate people on."

GBF milks its cows one at a time with a robot made by a Swedish Company, DeLaval. Labor and time saved from hands-on milking goes right back to the cows. The DeLaval system tracks the cows through collars, which also act as pedometers, keeping track of the cows walking. The cows sleep on special beds made in Germany, which not only keeps them comfortable, but cuts down on the need for straw and sawdust.

His cows eat a special diet, too. In fact, a nutritionist creates a very exact combination of grasses, corn and other grains. "Cows are athletes," Duffy says, "and they need a balanced diet to achieve top performance." GBF addresses the "outcome" of a good diet as well—separating solid and liquid manure with a second automated system.

The "alley scraper," similar to a track with little shovels, moves the waste out of the barn and into a system that works with gravity and empties into a unique tank. The tank is glass fused to steel. The manure self-seals over a bit of time, mitigating odor. The farm sells the solids for use as natural fertilizer and uses the liquid manure for fertilizer for its feed crops.

Duffy is a member of Agri-Mark's Board of Directors, representing farmers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. "The VCI Awareness Level is crucial, because we need to be able to speak to the big picture and share how farm families are part of their communities," Duffy shared. Big picture issues include climate change. Duffy knows that dairy cows like it on the cool side and describes the challenge as follows: "Cows are athletes wearing fur coats that don't sweat." His state-of-the-art barn has collapsible, air-filled plastic walls that are adjustable by three layers and go up and down. Solar is what he's interested in next.

While Duffy is out in front with his efficiency measures, he touts the Awareness Level of the VCI with informing the next generation of farmers and views Manomet as an objective third-party verifier in Agri-Mark's sustainability work. Both Duffy's daughter and two sons are intent on farming, and Duffy and his wife couldn't be happier about that.

HOW IS THIS PROJECT RELEVANT TO FEEDING THE WORLD'S 9 BILLION IN 2050?

Cabot

As the world scales up food production, which it must, agriculture will have to proactively seek ways to become more sustainable. More sustainable farm businesses run more efficiently by using fewer resources and bringing a high financial return to its operators. Existing farms that are run more efficiently will serve to conscientiously develop and maintain our working landscapes. We can increase the nutrient density of existing crops and take advantage of season extending methods.

The world is pushing forward into a new era of agricultural production, especially in developing countries, and it is more important than ever that farmers grow food sustainably and implement sustainability measures as early as possible. Agriculture is not something that is forced or is imposed. People need to eat, and aptly put by Wendell Berry, "Eating is an agricultural act." Agriculture is a partnership between the land and people.

Agri-Mark dairy farmers are taking the lead in trying to create a measurably more sustainable world. These farmers and their lands—with help from Manomet—are providing leadership for a future of healthy diets and stewardship of natural resources for generations to come.

What we do now writes the story of our future…and then we let karma do its job…


1 United States Departement of Agriculture 2012 Census of Agriculture, Table 7, a jump of nearly 20%. http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_US/st99_1_006_007.pdf

2 "The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a land conservation program administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). In exchange fora yearly rental payment, farmers enrolled in the program agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality." http://www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/webapp?area=home&subject=copr&topic=crp


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