Key Conservation Takeaways From CTIC’s 30th Anniversary Bash

Dr. Fred Luckey, chairman of Field To Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Key­stone, CO, perhaps said it best when summing up the many challenges confronting agriculture in the race to feed nine billion people by 2050. “We have to find another way. Like Dr. Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, ‘Life just … finds another way.’ We, as an industry, have to find another way.” 

It’s doubtful that actor Jeff Goldblum ever envisioned one of his most famous lines being applied to the world of production agriculture, but it fits.

Finding another way to advance conservation efforts in agriculture was precisely the purpose of a recent star-studded panel discussion during the Conservation Technology Information Center’s (CTIC) 30th Anniversary Celebration on the Monsanto campus in Creve Coeur, MO.

Here are some takeaways from that discussion:

“The Biological Revolution” — Soil Health

Assembled panel members reached a hearty consensus that soil health — evaluating what’s underneath the ground as opposed to above it — is going to continue to be an area of increased innovation in the coming years. “I think that understanding soil biology and how to make that work for us rather than against us will be the thing that can most help us move forward in terms of productivity,” said Dan DeSutter, owner, DeSutter Farms, Attica, IN.

“We’re still in a degradation trend with soil; we need to manage our soils better,” said Dr. Jerry Hatfield, director USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Ames, IA. “Over the next few years, we as an industry need to focus on building the soil’s greatest resource: organic matter.”

Added Jim Moseley, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture (2001-05): “North American growers are some of the best, most informed and productive growers in the world. We talk about air and water quality all the time, but we rarely talk about soil quality, which leads to improved air and water quality. We need to set a national goal on soil quality and stick to it.”

DeSutter, who comes from an education and early career in finance, has been an early adopter of the use of cover crops (as well as other related practices) to rebuild the soil’s active biology. “On my farm, we started looking at microbes as the ‘livestock’ of the soil,” explained DeSutter after several panel members asked him to discuss his operation. “Which in turn forced us to ensure that we’re providing a good atmosphere for those microbes. Like any living thing, they need oxygen — active biological systems need to breathe, so we want to have something growing all the time. The sun is a free resource (for building soil quality) and we (as an industry) waste it nine months out of the year when nothing is growing in that ground.”

Elephants In The Room

Dr. Hatfield had an interesting concept that he believed could prove useful in making growers think more critically about soil health. “When you look at that upper foot of soil on your farm, just think of it as the equivalent of having two African elephants on your farm,” he advised. “If you all of a sudden had two monstrous elephants to take care of, I guarantee you’d wake up every single morning thinking ‘How am I going to feed these things?’. That’s the way you’ve got to approach your soil. You’ve got to manage it just like you would any other biological system — every single day.”

Moseley added that he would like to see the industry shift to looking at soil “not from physics or chemistry standpoint, as we have traditionally done, but from a biological standpoint. There are a lot of undiscovered secrets in our soil that we need to figure out so the biology can do the work for us.”

Added DeSutter: “Advancing soil health is just a function of educating growers. For example, why is Iowa farmland worth so much more than Indiana farmland right now? It’s the organic matter. Maybe what we need to do is come up with a way to reward organic matter compliance, rather than soil management compliance.”

According to Moseley, one possible method for increasing awareness of soil health is to tie the actual value of the land to its soil health, a practice which is already gaining ground in Iowa. “There’s land in Iowa with low organic material averaging 100 bushel per acre going for $5,000 per acre, and there’s land with high organic content averaging 230 bushels per acre, and that’s going for around $16,000 per acre,” he said.

“As a farmer, which one would you want?”

Incentivize Conservation

Like the concept of increased soil health awareness, it was pretty much unanimous that panel members felt a need exists for rewarding the growers who implement serious conservation policies within their operations.

“A lot of the time, for the smaller grower it really comes down to motivation,” said Moseley when asked why he felt a need to incentivize conservation. “And how do you go about changing behavior? You offer a reward, or incentive.”

Under the plan offered by the panel, that reward would be crop insurance eligibility tied directly to conservation compliance.

“Crop insurance drives a lot of economic decisions on the farms,” explained Moseley.

With political pressure mounting against government subsidized crop insurance and a new Farm Bill pending adoption by the House of Representatives come the next legislative session, there’s a very real possibility this notion is implemented sooner rather than later.

Sustainable Intensifica­tion

By now you’d have to have been living underneath a rather large rock to have avoided the whole “feeding nine billion people by 2050” message as it pertains to agriculture. As pretty much everyone involved already knows, there’s going to have to be a significant uptick in production, whilst maintaining and further enhancing conservation efforts, if a worldwide food crisis is to be averted. 

Bruce Knight, a former NRCS chief (2002-06), third-generation farmer and nationally recognized expert on agricultural conservation policy, sees the continued movement away from what he dubbed “idle lands conservation” to working lands conservation as key to ensuring U.S. farm production continues its tradition of production dominance.

“We’ve buried the old soil bank program and we’re in the process of revamping the Conservation Reserves Program (CRP), so there’s a recognition that we need to have working lands conservation,” said Knight. “This really is a seismic change in the climate of the industry. Going forward, we’re going to be talking more and more about sustainable intensification.

“This is going to revolutionize agriculture,” he continued. “We’re going to need to increase production on the very best soils, figure out how to maybe eke out a little bit more on some of the marginal grounds and how to preserve the most fragile, and do that in a way that maximizes efficiency when you’re talking nutrients, fertilizers and herbicides placement.”

Potential Trouble

One possible problem Knight and others foresee is the likelihood of increased government intervention in the near future.

“My primary goal is for politics not to get in the way with this,” said Knight. “Take the sustainability efforts right now. We’ve got conversations going on between retailers and growers about how to figure this out, and quite frankly all they (government) can do is get in the way. There are exciting, robust times ahead for us if we are allowed to manage conservation within the industry.”

Information Synergy

Jerry Hat­field, director of the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Ames, IA, feels that figuring out how to harness, process and deploy the multitudes of data that advances in precision ag technology have brought with them will be key over the next few years.

“When you look at where we’ve come in terms of technology in the last five years, you talk about GPS — we can now control machinery to the centimeter level,” said Hatfield. “We can map fields at a half-centimeter in terms of height.

“We have all of these different pieces of technology,” he continued. “But I’m not sure we’ve made a very good, whole system out of it yet. In the next five years, we’ve got to take all that data and figure out how to combine it into a system that stresses continuous improvement. How do we really put it together so that what we learn from this season helps us for next season?”

Culture Change

Moseley, in his former capacity as deputy secretary of USDA, was the primary lead on post-9/11 security issues in the food and agriculture sector and worked on development issues with a focus on global agriculture.

It was during a trip to Australia that Moseley discovered the concept of Landcare Australia and began realizing that it was going to take more than a few stewardship public relations campaigns for the American public to realize the importance of conservation.

“With their grassroots Landcare Australia concept, the Aussies have placed environmental conservation at the center of society,” said Moseley. “It’s not just about farming or industry — 85% of the population is engaged in Landcare in one way or another on a daily basis. We’ve got to find a similar way to elevate the conversation on conservation here in the U.S.”

Sophisticated Sensor Techno­logy

Another area that will continue to grow is the sensor technology segment of the industry, according to the panel.

“I see the sensor technology that is coming as revolutionizing another phase of what we do in agriculture, and I don’t think we’ve come close to the full potential, in terms of at the nano level, of what we can do with sensors,” said Moseley. “As we consider the macro issues, like watershed monitoring, and the ability of the technology to actually do sensing for us, in terms of what’s happening downstream in the Gulf of Mexico or the Chesapeake Bay, for example, and then move all the way back up the watershed to the micro level, ultimately we’re not going to know where the real problems are coming from in our watersheds until we implement this technology.”

Moseley also foresaw innovative new sensors as a possible future segment of revenue growth for ag retailers. “With automated sensors, you’re not sending out employees to pull samples and run tests in a very cost prohibited way, so you can focus your manpower in other areas,” he said.

Field to Market’s Luckey agrees. “I, like Jim, do very much embrace the coming advancements in remote sensing technologies,” he said. “This (sustainability) is a multi-national, global issue that’s not just confined to North America, and we’re going to have to be able to gather data in areas that are not traditionally accessible in order to solve it.”

Topics: ,

Leave a Reply

Stewardship Stories
StewardshipA Multi-Layered Approach To Water Quality
October 6, 2014
Illinois event highlights research and technology designed to better monitor and improve water quality — and the benefits of cooperative, coordinated effort. Read More
StewardshipMichigan Agriculture Leaders On Toledo Water Ban: We Want To Be Part Of The Conversation
August 8, 2014
Leaders of Michigan agricultural organizations said Thursday that the government should not have a “knee-jerk reaction” based on last weekend’s water ban in Toledo due to fertilizer run-off in Lake Erie. Read More
StewardshipBayer Lands Honor For Bee Care Center, Other Initiatives
June 3, 2014
Bayer Corp. has been named a 2014 Responsible Care Company of the Year by the American Chemistry Council, thanks in large part to its Drive Toward Zero initiative and North American Bayer Bee Care Center. Read More
StewardshipStrip-Tillage: A Sustainable Effort
March 3, 2014
As sustainable agriculture grows in popularity, interest in custom strip-tillage is growing. Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Wheat Growers, North Central Farmers Elevator Pursue Merger
CropLife 100Wheat Growers, North Central Farmers Elevator Pursue Merger
March 3, 2015
Two CropLife 100 retailers — South Dakota Wheat Growers (ranked No. 11) and North Central Farmers Elevator (No. 19) — have entered into a Letter of Intent to unify the two companies into a newly named cooperative. Read More
Growmark Group
CropLife 100GROWMARK In 2015: Back, To The Future
March 2, 2015
The nation’s third largest ag retail organization is simultaneously moving forward while remembering its past. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Expands Sanders Brand In The South
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle has acquired Hopkins Seed and Chemical in Qulin, MO, which expands the company's Sanders brand to nine Southern states. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Launches New Providence Agriculture Location In Indiana
February 27, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings — ranked No. 6 on the CropLife 100 — has established a new retail location in New Castle, IN, which will operate as part of Pinnacle's Providence Agriculture brand. Read More
Carl Casale of CHS
CropLife 100Cooperative CHS Returns $518 Million To Owners
February 23, 2015
The 2015 cash return to owners is based on CHS net income of $1.1 billion, the company's second highest on record. Read More
Latest News
FungicidesSyngenta Suing Willowood Over Azoxystrobin Fungicide
March 27, 2015
Syngenta announced today that it has sued agrochemical maker Willowood, LLC., for patent and copyright infringement, as well as unfair Read More
ManagementRetail Week: The Future Of Mycogen Seeds; The 4Rs At Na…
March 27, 2015
Editors Eric Sfiligoj and Matt Hopkins discuss recent trips, including a look at the future of Mycogen Seeds at Dow Read More
Eric SfiligojMonsanto Hears The WHO
March 27, 2015
Another challenge to the safety of glyphosate, and the responses from supporters and opponents, calls to mind a classic Dr. Seuss story. Read More
Industry NewsMonty’s Plant Food Expands Sales Team
March 27, 2015
Monty’s Plant Food Company, a leader in natural soil enhancement and  plant fertility products, has hired Andrew Bullock as a Read More
Crop InputsSyngenta Louisiana Plant Poised For 2015 Production
March 26, 2015
As the 2015 planting season gets underway, growers across the country will need crop protection products to combat pests and Read More
Lake Erie Nutrient Stewardship
LegislationOhio Lawmakers Finalize Phosphorus Restrictions
March 25, 2015
State lawmakers on Wednesday finalized new rules designed to curb toxic algal blooms on Lake Erie, calling the regulations a major step forward in addressing the problem. Read More
Spreaders17 Fertilizer Spreaders For 2015
March 25, 2015
Manufacturers shoot for versatility and accuracy in this year's crop of fertilizer spreaders. Read More
Industry NewsMonty’s Hires Mid-South Product Consultant
March 25, 2015
Monty's Plant Food Co. has hired Matt Woodring as a Product Consultant for portions of Central Kentucky and Tennessee.    Read More
StewardshipMapShots Integrates With DriftWatch
March 23, 2015
Growers and agricultural providers using AgStudio FARM and AgStudio PRO can now view vital information about specialty crops and apiaries through a recent integration with the DriftWatch Specialty Crop Site Registry from FieldWatch, Inc. Read More
Crop InputsWorld Health Organization Report Contradicts Scientific…
March 23, 2015
A new report from the World Health Organization has classified glyphosate with a “2A” rating as a probable carcinogen, a Read More
Eric SfiligojSeed Treatment Stays Necessary
March 20, 2015
Grower-customers looking to scale back spending in 2015 won’t consider seed treatment, say experts. Read More
HerbicidesMARCH MADNESS: Industry Rallies Around Glyphosate Safet…
March 20, 2015
A newly published report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the herbicide glyphosate as a "2A-rated possible carcinogen" and the ag industry responds by circling the wagons. Read More
ManagementRetail Week: Precision survey, a technology acquisition…
March 20, 2015
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sflilgoj discuss recent travel, the upcoming precision adoption survey, and an unusual sighting at a Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Commemorates National Ag Day
March 20, 2015
The Illinois agriculture community gathered at BRANDT global headquarters on March 18 to celebrate National Ag Day behind this year's theme Sustaining Future Generations. Read More
Crop InputsBioSafe Launching TerraGrow Soil Inoculant
March 20, 2015
TerraGrow is a blend of beneficial bacterial and fungal spores and nutrients carefully designed to promote healthier soil and crops. Read More
Winter Wheat
AdjuvantsMax Systems Debuts New Adjuvant NanoRevolution 2.0
March 18, 2015
Added to a tank mix of glyphosate at the conservative rate of two to four ounces per acre, NanoRevolution 2.0 has proven effective in killing resistant weed species that had already had up to two applications of the leading glyphosate product. Read More
Photo credit: United Soybean Board/the Soybean Checkoff
Seed/BiotechAgnition Launches Microbial Catalyst Seed Treatment
March 18, 2015
Agnition it has launched Commence for Soybeans, a microbial catalyst seed treatment for soybeans that stimulates microbial activity for healthier soil and a superior growth environment. Read More
4R Certified, Nutrient Stewardship Council,
StewardshipTyler Grain & Fertilizer Now 4R Certified
March 18, 2015
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program has announced Tyler Grain & Fertilizer Co. in Smithville, OH, has been added to Read More