Bridging gap between conservation and productivity discussed
Cheyenne – During their annual meeting, held Sept. 10-13, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) hosted a panel discussion with five experts representing different segments of the industry on what they are doing to bridge the gap between conservation and productivity to build a more sustainable future for agriculture.
“I am really excited about who we have here with us today and what they represent in terms of the supply chain,” stated Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Secretary Mike Naig. “I love NASDA in the sense we are all from different places with very different agriculture experiences, which brings in a lot of perspective.”
“And, despite our differences, there is a lot of commonalities in U.S. agriculture, which unites us and allows us to speak together with one voice,” he continued.
Building a sustainable future for farmers and ranchers
To begin, the panel introduced themselves and explained what they are doing in each of their respective sectors to build a sustainable future in ag.
Shaun Sims, a Wyoming producer who owns and operates Sims Sheep Company, went first. Sims explained he runs both sheep and cattle on his historic operation, headquartered in Evanston.
There, Sims has implemented numerous conservation projects on his ranch including pipeline water development and sagebrush manipulation.
“When I look at these projects, I want to make sure they are going to be economical and increase production. I would say a lot of them have been really good in this sense,” Sims said.
Amanda De Jong of Pivot Bio represented the farming and fertilizer sectors during the discussion.
“It doesn’t matter what state one is from, nitrogen is the most critical crop input, but also the most unpredictable in how it lives in our ecosystem,” she stated. “It is a highly volatile molecule – it moves and it leaches – and in all of our different roles, we are looking at how to slow this down.”
De Jong explained Pivot Bio has been on the commercial market since 2018, with a mission to produce better nitrogen that is always available and will stay with the plant. Today, Pivot Bio has operations from coast to coast – California to Massachusetts and everywhere in between.
“Essentially, what we manufacture is microbes, and those microbes adhere to the plant root to feed the crop nitrogen,” she said. “This is important when thinking about conservation and sustainability because the fact of the matter is, unlike crop protection or genetics, we haven’t seen a lot of evolution in this space in the last 80 years.”
This is why Pivot Bio has made it their mission to provide a more sustainable source of nitrogen to further crop productivity, De Jong noted.
Bridging the gap across all sectors
Leah Ford of NatureWorks explained the textile manufacturing segment of the industry has also taken steps to bridge the gap between conservation and productivity.
“NatureWorks is the first commercial-scale and the largest marketer of poly lactic acid, which we call Ingeo,” she noted. “Poly lactic acid is made when dextrose from field corn is used to make lactic acid, which we are able to use to create a polymer similar to polyester fiber.”
Ford noted NatureWorks started in 1989 as a research project through Carghill, which looked at alternative uses for dextrose.
“They figured out how to manufacture it economically so it could compete with all types of plastic on the market,” she said. “What has resulted is a bio-based material made from annually renewable resources with a very low carbon footprint compared to other plastics. It is recyclable, compostable and very safe, and we have seen a lot of interest in it.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary Robert Bonnie noted government agencies, particularly those housed under USDA, are also working toward a more sustainable future.
“Wyoming is central to one of the most important conservation efforts we are working on – the Greater sage grouse initiative, which is a voluntary, incentive-based approach to getting people like Shaun to continue managing their lands in a way which will benefit sage grouse and other species of wildlife,” he said.
Regardless of what kind of working lands conservation project they are implementing – from climate change, wildlife, water quality and/or water quantity – Bonnie shared it is critical these programs are voluntary and producers are rewarded for utilizing them.
“So, everything we are doing at USDA is focused on this approach,” he stated. “We are also bolstering efforts in Wyoming to protect big game migration corridors and recognizing, in order to do this, we need to keep ranchers ranching, farmers farming and folks who use forest lands managing the forests.”
He noted USDA, in partnership with Climate Smart Commodities, has made nearly 100 agreements with producers to combat the climate crisis and committed almost $3.1 billion projects around the country.
“We are looking at how to get more producers involved and to reward them for their efforts, while creating new markets,” he explained. “Also, at the end of this month, we will commit about $850 million in additional research to conservation programs, so we will need to build partnerships with states. We have a lot going on at USDA.”
Keeping up with a growing market, measuring success
Although operations across all sectors of the U.S. ag industry have implemented innovative strategies in their pursuit of sustainability, Ford noted one challenge NatureWorks is facing is their ability to keep up with the ever-growing market.
“The marketplace is growing rapidly,” she stated. “For example, we have capacity to manufacture about 330 million pounds of poly lactic acid per year, but compared to the greater plastic industry, bio-based materials barely make up two percentage of the market share.”
“Downstream markets are looking for sustainability – consumers want to be able to make the most sustainable choice – so there is a lot of work to put in to reach 300 million metric tons from a share of two percent,” she continued.
“This is a very small percent, but it means the opportunities are large,” Ford concluded.
Despite these challenges, De Jong explained it is important to be proud of the progress the industry has made so far, even if this means measuring success a little differently than most are used to.
“Yield is so important because productivity is how our operations remain in business. But for the past 80 years, we have only ever measured success by our yields,” she said.
“We all know there is more to the onion than the calories we are eating. We care so much about the air we breathe and the water we drink. As producers we want to leave the land in better shape than when we inherited it, so maybe sustainability can be another measure of our success,” she added.
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.