Sustainability: a whole food system approach

I’m in the food business. Like you and everyone in the food supply chain, from farmers to ingredient processors to brands and retailers, I want a sustainable food supply. That means food companies work with farmers to set specific sustainability standards and source ingredients based on those standards.

Dirk and grandson

Low score wins

The Fieldprint® Calculator app helps farmers measure and track environmental impact. I grow corn, soybeans and wheat on my farm in central Illinois. After harvest each year, I input data into the calculator and it gives me a score based my estimated carbon footprint. The scoring system is similar to golf – the lower the score the better.

The score is based on a variety of factors including:

  • Trips across the field (fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions)
  • Fertilizer used (when and how much)
  • Pesticides used (when and how much)
  • Biodiversity
  • Soil conservation
  • Water quality

Fieldprint Calculator

Calculating change

Next, I review a “web graph” that represents my sustainability performance compared to state and national averages. I use the results to think critically about what I could improve on my farm next year. Personally, what I value most is being able to see how my farm compares to my neighbors because they have to deal with the same weather, pests and soil that I do.

Soybeans growing in corn and cover crop residue

Data drives decisions

Before this calculator, I used soil conservation practices including cover crops and minimal tillage, both of which help prevent erosion and increase organic matter in the soil. When I first began using the calculator, I was happy to see that my score was already low and I was doing excellent work in many categories. There was, however, one category that I didn’t score as well in: fertilizer use.

I applied the same amount of fertilizer to all areas of my fields at the time, but looked into other options once I knew there was room for improvement. Now, I apply fertilizer at a variable rate, meaning my field is split into sections and I only apply as much fertilizer as each individual section needs based on soil test results. It’s like each acre of my field has it’s own prescription. Giving the soil only as much fertilizer as it needs reduces waste and has improved my score in the Fieldprint® Calculator app.

We all need to be profitable

To me, sustainability is about conservation practices, but it’s also about profitability. I believe the two go hand-in-hand. After all, a farmer can’t keep using sustainability measures without succeeding in their business. The calculator app is a great way for farmers to benchmark change and justify conservation methods that can improve their land and their bottom line.

Dirk Rice, Illinois Farmer