Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sustainability's Life Blood: Transparent Data

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

Data can be a funny thing. With it, we can begin to get an objective picture of a problem or a solution. But how clear that picture is depends on the quality of the data and the full transparency of its assumptions and error range. Without data to show the true progress, complexities and trade-offs surrounding a given choice, people put forward their own beliefs about which practices are superior. It is not just nature that abhors a vacuum, people do to! These beliefs have a funny way of growing stronger and becoming part of the identity of those who espouse them; dangerously inviting people to promote and believe their own biases rather than being open to where the facts may lead. Because these beliefs become interwoven with a person's identity, trying to challenge these beliefs with fact is often interpreted as a personal attack. The result is a an atmosphere that dampens or even prevents the objective search for truth in favor of protecting people's feelings.

Enter a group of farmers who are developing data sets on nutrient management, crop protection and yield enhancement practices that are specific to their own farms and fully transparent (in the aggregate). Called the On-Farm Network, this effort is helping farmers to more efficiently use fertilizer (among other inputs) which helps prevent non-point source runoff that contributes to water quality problems and also saves the farmer money since fertilizer is expensive and using it more precisely means less likelihood of over-application. Farmer participants are applying scientific inquiry on their own lands so they are not only developing farm-specific data which will enable them to make better decisions for their triple bottom line (profit, people, planet), they are also presenting a very helpful model for navigating the often emotionally fraught process of assessing sustainability. While this is not their goal, it can be an outcome nonetheless.

I spent yesterday in central Iowa at the 2011 On-Farm Network conference which featured presentations from soil scientists and the network's environmentalist partner who have conducted trials on farmer participants lands looking at a range of practices that together help comprise something called adaptive management. (Check out some of the webinars from the 2010 conference by clicking here.)

The On-Farm Network approach is based on an understanding that research into things like nutrient management and pest control is only as good as the inputs assumed and that because of the high variability involved in soils, farm practices and weather; state-prescribed averages rarely hit the mark on individual farms.

The process usually involves farmers signing up to be part of a trial on a given practice, like applying a certain amount of hog manure at a certain time of the year, say Spring to see if results are better than the general prescribed state average they usually follow. Farmers will conduct this test practice on a 3 strips within one of their fields. At the end of harvest, soil and plant tests are done, aerial images evaluated and yield differences measured to detect change from the farmers usual practice (done on the rest of the field). To get a better understanding of this process, take a look below at a list of steps they go through as part of testing nutrient management for corn:
  1. Evaluate the current practice (example: corn stalk test for existing nitrogen levels)
  2. Evaluate uniformity of application of existing practice
  3. Evaluate rate of current nitrogen or manure application
  4. Evaluate the alternative or test practice
  5. Evaluate the rate of the alternative practice (strip trials in the field)
  6. Evaluate the potential for spatial variation
  7. Evaluate the overall difference between current and alternative practice
The On-Farm Network started as a project of the Iowa Soybean Association to test out different farming practices and their effects on farm profitability and the environment. Key to the effort's success has been the network's partnerships. The network benefits from the participation of numerous soil scientists and nutrient management experts from a multiple universities that conduct the research. Importantly, the network also has a partner from the environmental community -- gaining technical expertise, environmental credibility and funding from its partner Environmental Defense Fund.

This impressive network of farmers has spread from Iowa to now include the states of Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia.

What's really interesting about the On-Farm Network example is that it demonstrates so clearly that the economic bottom line and environmental protection are often directly linked in farming. Since this is a natural resource business, protection of the environment becomes part of protecting the underlying business assets: the land, water, air -- all of which need to be in long-term good condition to support continuous sustainable growth.

Too often, proponents of sustainability want to make the case that profit leads to environmental degradation. While that may be true in some sectors, it is not as true in farming. For example, if a farmer cares only about this year or next year's harvest and doesn't take proper care of the land, he/she will pay dearly for that in lost yield over time as the land is less able to perform. The most successful farmers have long realized that their profitability is directly tied to the quality of the resources they manage and therefore have both emotional (family-owned land) and economic incentives to care for it well.

The public, is often unaware of this dynamic. When farmers are called "corporate" and "industrial" by some environmental activists, the intended implication is that large, efficient farms can't be a good thing precisely because they are big. I used to angrily feel that these aspersions were made by people who knew better but had an agenda to push. With more experience and thought, I've come to understand that people who hold this point of view, usually do so because they have NO experience with farming beyond the local farmers market which they adore. They are merely applying what they think they know about corporate corruption to all businesses of any size without understanding the intense difference that exists when your businesses is the land.

As the On-Farm website notes:
"Being a part of this proactive approach to environmentalism gives growers solid scientific data they can use to demonstrate that they are managing their resources properly and in a way that minimizes negative environmental impact."
Efforts like this are critical for farmers to save money, for improving one of the most challenging water quality challenges the U.S. faces and for setting the right tone on sustainability assessment. The data this process is uncovering is showing just how difficult it is to find the right balance of which fertilizer or manure type to use and when to apply it because of the complexities and multiple weather-related variables involved in how nitrogen breaks down in the environment.

For those who want to apply simplistic prescriptions or certifications of sustainability on complex issues like this, the On-Farm data shows just how detrimental to the environment that approach can be. Only by doing careful, direct research have farmers found better ways to target their nutrient use. These practices are leading to overall reductions in the use of too much nitrogen that ends up running off into waterbodies. Because of the massive variability in conditions (soil, weather) from one farm to the next, true sustainability requires a targeted, site-specific approach that often doesn't translate well into broad sustainability score which must make simple assumptions about complex issues.

The desire for greater sustainability by the public is a good thing, but the attempt to slap a "sustainable" or "unsustainable" label on highly variable systems like growing food can actually undermine the stated goals.

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