Sustainable Farming with True Affordability in Mind

By Tim Richter
October 13, 2014
Corn Field - Blog Image

I’ve been a farmer for many years, farming 7,000 acres of land in northeast Iowa and west central Missouri. One of the staples on any farm is fertilizer. I like to grow corn, and you can’t grow corn without fertilizer, especially nitrogen fertilizer. But nitrogen is really a double-edged sword — when you use it properly, you achieve high yields. But in a leaky agriculture system, what you don’t use becomes a pollutant. With this in mind, I’ve tried to figure out how to use fertilizer in a more resourceful way.

I became interested in sustainability a few years ago, so I joined with six other farmers to form The Triple Bottom Line. That was extremely valuable to me because it is a true collaborative effort that understands, influences, and facilitates the sustainability measurement needs of food processors and retailers while adding value to growers. With the help of Vela Environmental, we also became a Tier-2 member of The Sustainability Consortium, a well-respected science and research-based organization that drives innovation to improve consumer product sustainability. It was a fascinating process to watch and learn. I knew then I wanted to bring those sustainability practices to my farm.

In 2011, we began working with a product called Adapt-N. It’s a simulated computer program that takes into account the climate, temperature, and water and tells you precisely the nitrogen level that’s in your soil. From there, you can get a clear indication of exactly how much fertilizer to put into the soil to achieve your yield. For so many years we used guidelines, but they weren’t precise. This gives us an actual number and it has changed the way our farm uses nitrogen. The benefits have not only been environmental: In 2013, it had a direct benefit on our farm of more than $150 per acre in savings.

As a grower who supplies foundational ingredients — like corn and wheat — to companies that make the groceries you find on Walmart shelves, I know how important it is for food to be sustainable because it can affect the affordability, which in our case is the “true cost” of food — the environmental impact. At the heart of this effort though is being efficient. And the bottom line for me – and farmers like me - is that if sustainability means becoming more efficient, I’m in!