30 Under 30

Building sustainable systems, one farm at a time

land o'lakes cows
Land O'Lakes

Tai Ullmann was a 2016 GreenBiz "30 Under 30" finalist.

Farmers are great stewards of the environment; you just haven’t heard about it. Call it country modesty or shyness, either way they don’t tend to be the type to shout their successes from a mountaintop. Nevertheless, the agriculture industry is full of great stories where farmers are taking innovative approaches to help protect the environment while improving their productivity and creating more sustainable businesses.

At Land O’ Lakes, Inc. I manage our Dairy On-Farm Sustainability Program. This includes visiting many of our dairy farmer members across the country to understand their successes and challenges around sustainability.

Take Tom Barcellos, a third generation dairy farmer in California. Tom knows well the special challenges of the Golden State: drought and air pollution. He therefore transitioned from conventional tillage to a combination of no-till and strip-till, which leaves previous crop residue on the field with the next crop planted directly into the residue.  

This tillage system prevents erosion by up to 90 percent, while increasing organic matter in the soil, preserving soil moisture and producing healthier crops that better fend off pests. Increasing soil organic matter allows them to preserve more soil moisture and reduce water use. For example, each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre.

His system also reduces the number of tractor passes needed with traditional tillage methods. This reduces dust and airborne particulate matter by up to 90 percent. Overall, in one of the worst air basins in the country, Tom’s tillage system helps improve air quality and reduces his greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of removing 180 cars off the road each year.

For Cliff and Andrea Sensenig, their 100-cow dairy farm in Pennsylvania seemed to limit what they could do to invest in new technology. So they got creative and joined forces with three neighbors to put in a community methane digester that produces enough gas to make renewable energy that powers 700 homes.

Anaerobic digestion is a biological process where bacteria helps break down organic matter (in this case manure and local food waste) and produces gas in the process. Instead of fossil fuel, the gas from the digester is used to generate renewable energy. Their digester not only improves the environmental sustainability of their operation but also the economic sustainability by delivering savings on bedding, heat, fertilizer and taxes, and the extra income created through carbon credits and bedding sales.

Then there is Oakland View Farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It partnered with a local water quality advocacy non-profit organization, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy (MRC), to implement the first woodchip bioreactor in the area. According to MRC, similar to a wetland, the woodchips naturally filter 100 percent of nitrate concentrations from potential runoff. This helps protect the water quality of this impaired watershed and supports the wildlife and community that rely on this natural resource.

This pioneering partnership brought the agriculture and environmental community together to find a replicable solution to better protecting water quality. Their success and leadership has inspired additional partnerships across the watershed, including the implementation of multiple woodchip bioreactors on other farms.  

These three dairy farmers exemplify a quiet movement that’s happening across the country. Vast and complex environmental challenges are tackled in innovative and practical ways, one farm at a time. While policies remain critical to the building of meaningful changes on a global scale, the important battle is waged in fields and barns. Farmers break down the complexities and make solutions work, for the environment and for their business.

As a cooperative, it’s our job to work with legislators, customers and consumers to not only accurately convey our environmental impact, but also to make sure the innovative efforts of our dairy farmer members are properly understood and recognized to help maintain economic viability.

Let there be no doubt: Farming is a business, and it’s a business we rely on for affordable, safe and reliable food. It is also a business that affects and is affected by nature and its resources. After visiting our dairy farmer members — big and small — I see how many are figuring out ways to improve their sustainability while also securing the future of their business for their children.

As we work to measure and support these practices, we are also looking to enable or scale what’s working so our member-owners can succeed as sustainable businesses for generations to come. But all the work starts at the ground level, one farm at a time.

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