Pat Janssen is among a large and growing group of U.S. farmers embracing sustainable farming practices as national food companies, such as Wal-Mart, answer the call of their customers who want to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and that it is produced in a way that isn’t damaging the environment.
GREENSBURG - A second-generation farmer on the Kansas plains, Pat Janssen is making it his business to be a steward of the land.
It’s not only good for the environment, but it makes economic sense, he said. And he is always trying to do a better job of it.
Yet here, on a Kiowa County farm where he grows corn, soybeans and wheat, he’ll admit that what he and other farmers are doing to improve the soil, the water and the air is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets.
“The public perception of production agriculture is more like a strip mine than brain surgery,” Janssen said. “What we are doing is closer to brain surgery.”
Janssen says this as he sits in the Kiowa County Media Center in Greensburg, a town where sustainability has been touted since a tornado destroyed most of it a decade ago. The town’s rebuilding has been part of a well-documented, green-centered movement. But now, the green revolution is taking place on the farm, where producers like Janssen are considering ideas on how to use fertilizer even more efficiently, as well as curb soil runoff and conserve and protect water supplies.
Moreover, these farmers are no longer keeping quiet about what they are doing.
Janssen is among a large and growing group of U.S. farmers embracing sustainable farming practices as national food companies, such as Wal-Mart, answer the call of their customers who want to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and that it is produced in a way that isn’t damaging the environment.
Leading the charge across rural America is member-owned cooperative Land O’Lakes, an agribusiness company that touches 50 percent of the nation’s harvested row-crop acres. Among its brands are Land O’Lakes, Purina and Winfield United, which provides seed, crop-protection products and agriculture insights to agribusinesses and food companies.
The SUSTAIN program is among the company’s newest brands, said Matt Carstens, senior vice president of Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN. The program helps farmers continue the tradition of being responsible stewards by providing cutting-edge tools and practices that include nutrient efficiency, water management and soil health - all the while being highly productive.
Some farmers have implemented no-till farming - leaving residue on the field that protects precious topsoil from blowing or washing away, along with keeping moisture on the field. Some plant cover crops, hone in on fertilizer use and build structures like ponds and wetlands.
Moreover, many of the tools not only protect the environment, but are cost-saving measures, as well.
“Agriculture doesn’t have anything to hide,” Carstens said. “The transparency of information is something consumers have the right to know.”
Answering the call
A decade or so ago, Wal-Mart started a quest to become a leader in sustainability.
The company recognized that despite significant efforts from companies, governments, nonprofits and others around the world, the planet’s temperatures were rising. Officials began looking at the company's environmental footprint.
With its large purchasing power, Wal-Mart's goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions soon reached its suppliers. The company announced Project Gigaton in April, a goal to remove 1 billion metric tons of emissions from its supply chain by 2030.
That’s the equivalent of taking more than 211 million passenger vehicles off of U.S. roads and highways for a year, according to Wal-Mart.
Already, at least 15 food companies representing 30 percent of the U.S. food and beverage market in Wal-Mart’s supply chain have committed to using fertilizer more efficiently, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
For instance, Smithfield Foods, a major U.S. supplier of pork, set an ambitious goal to engage 75 percent of its grain sourcing acres – about a half-million acres - by 2018.
Land O’Lakes is among the suppliers joining the effort. The cooperative has a goal to reach 10 million sustainable agriculture acres by 2020. By 2025, the company will assess all of its farmer member-milk supply for emissions, such as manure systems. Also, the agribusiness allocated 20 million acres for fertilizer optimization, soil health and water management.
With those commitments, the company’s target is to reduce 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
Carstens said he first reached out to Wal-Mart a handful of years ago through the Environmental Defense Fund, requesting a meeting to talk about their plan.
“What really opened my eyes to what consumers were wanting was some of the information Wal-Mart was putting out there about the greenhouse gas footprint,” he said. “They knew then the fact they really wanted to make an impact in the greenhouse emissions.”
Reducing fertilizer pollution
Nitrogen applied to crops in the Midwest is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, Carstens said.
According to the EDF, while fertilizer is essential for producing food across the globe, crops take up on average only 40 percent of the nutrients applied to them each growing season. The remainder affects the water and air.
But there are alternate ways to optimize fertilizer use other than reductions, said Carstens. This can be accomplished through nitrogen stabilizers. Some farmers split-apply fertilizer instead of putting it all on at one time. The purpose of split applications is to adjust the nitrogen supply according to the needs of the growing crop.
This reduces the risk of unused nitrogen leaching into groundwater or volatilization into the air, Carstens said.
Janssen has split-applied nitrogen for a few decades. He has also zeroed in on his nitrogen use.
“We have already cut back our total applied nitrogen down over the past 10 years - from 270 pounds an acre to 240,” said Janssen.
But he realizes there could be more he could do.
“We think we have gotten to the point we are dialed in, then this deal comes and blows me out of the water and we’ve got to rethink it again,” he said.
Providing the tools
Willie Schmidt, agronomy manager for Alliance Ag and Grain, based in Greensburg, helped bring the SUSTAIN program to south-central Kansas last year. By the end of the year, the cooperative will be among more than 50 U.S. ag retailers with a few hundred locations that are part of program.
Already, the cooperative has more than 240,000 acres enrolled in SUSTAIN, including Janssen's.
Lance Nelson, the cooperative's southern region operations agronomy manager who is heading up the SUSTAIN program, said Alliance Ag also is partnering with five producers on replicated nitrogen rate trials. Information from the trials gives farmers information relative to the Kansas environment. They also help educate consumers on farmers' precision practices.
Precision tools include thermal imagery taken as the crop grows, moisture probes to measure and direct water irrigation and variable rate applications of inputs like fertilizer and seed.
“We’ll compile the data and use it to help our customer base see the benefits of using the SUSTAIN platform,” said Nelson, adding that the more people who buy in, “the more best-management practices that occur in our whole trade territory. The more people we get on board, it is going to be better for everybody.”
Janssen said he breaks up his fields into three to five separate production zones, managing each individually to help make decisions on input rates based on yield and profit potential.
“We are trying to match the inputs to the production potential of that specific piece of ground rather than just take a shotgun approach to it,” he said.
That’s where farming becomes akin to brain surgery - especially in a struggling farm economy.
“You get to talking yields with farmers, and the last liar in the room is the one who wins,” joked Janssen, adding that isn’t what his operation is based on.
“Our deal is built around maximum economic yield,” he said. “We are in an area with short wells, very sandy soils, so trying to get the best return on our investment is a greater priority than being able to brag about 270-bushel corn.”
For instance, Janssen said, on a gnarly sand knob with a 125-bushel potential, he gears his seed and fertility to the yield potential rather than to fertilizing the entire field for 225-bushel corn.
“It also has allowed us to do a more efficient job of utilizing our irrigation water,” he said.
Telling their story
Farmers are good at getting their boots on the ground and doing best-management practices to better their land, said Nelson. But they haven’t been as good in the past with the political speeches and telling their story.
“There has never really been an advocate for the farmers and, in a large scale, to tell our story, to tell what good things we are doing on the farm,” he said. “The real story is these guys are doing great things. They are wanting to learn best-management practices and do better at what they are doing.”
Janssen tells his own story of the farm. His parents moved to Kiowa County in 1972. An accountant, Pat's father started farming a few years later. Janssen moved back to the farm in 1994. Today, he grows wheat, corn and soybeans, along with irrigated grass, and has a cow/calf operation.
He’s been adopting best-management practices since his return, including strip-till and no-till farming. Those practices have helped increase water filtration rates, he said.
He told his story to a vegan on an airplane a few years ago.
“She started telling me about all the things that happen raising cattle and I started telling her about raising cattle. She had some definite perceptions of how things are done out here, and not any of them were close to true.
“I don’t think it is a story you can beat down someone’s throat,” he said. “But I think you have to be open and honest with them and if they have questions, do the best job of communicating that you can.”
Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel's agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (800) 766-3311 Ext. 320.