Luckey Farm

How to eat more sustainably for Earth Day (and every day)

When you think about ways to celebrate Earth Day, things like opting for reusable bags, picking up trash or riding your bike to conserve fuel may come to mind. But celebrating Earth Day can start with what’s on your plate, and it’s an action you can take all the time. So, let’s talk about how to eat more sustainably for Earth Day – and every day.

Sustainable foods start with sustainable farming. You might be surprised by some of the ways Illinois farmers are more sustainably raising farm animals – whether dairy cows, beef cattle or pigs. A lot of their improvements have to do with technology and innovation advances, and continuously learning how to better take care of farm animals. Let’s take a look.

Pam holding piglet

Eating more sustainably with pork, thanks to the 3 Rs

Pig farmers like Pam Janssen employ the 3 Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – every day on the farm. Illinois is one of the best places in the world to raise crops and livestock such as pigs. Our state’s fertile soils are great for growing soybeans and corn, and in turn those crops are made into feed for pigs. Local crops turn into local feed, and local feed creates local pork.

That corn- and soy-based feed is customized even further for each pig to ensure nothing goes to waste. Pam works with a nutritionist to determine just what her pigs need based on stage of life. Vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and protein and amino acids all make up a pig’s diet.

By providing customized diets for her pigs, Pam helps them not only stay healthy, but grow more efficiently. Further reducing waste, the manure produced by pigs can be applied to fields after harvest as a natural fertilizer.

Farmers are raising pigs more sustainably with the 3 Rs, requiring 75.9% less land, 25.1% less water and 7% less energy than 50 years ago. In fact, raising pigs accounts for just .03% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Andy and Sarah Lenkaitis with their child

Eating more sustainably with dairy, thanks to technology

Innovative dairy farming practices have helped reduce the environmental impact of producing a gallon of milk today by:

  • 30% less water
  • 21% less land
  • 21% less manure
  • All resulting in the entire dairy community (from farm to table, even including waste) contributing just 2% of all U.S. GHG emissions

Those working in the dairy community are committed to making that number even smaller. Like Andy and Sarah Lenkaitis who run a dairy farm just outside Chicago. Andy and Sarah built a brand new barn just a few years ago, investing in the latest technology to be as sustainable as possible.

  • Energy efficient fans keep cows comfortable 365 days a year without wasting energy.
  • Photosensitive, time-controlled, energy efficient LED lighting reduces energy used by nearly 50%.
  • A storm water system collects rainwater and transfers it to designated waterways, minimizing soil erosion and preventing runoff in surrounding fields and ditches.
  • Insulated barn ceilings moderate extreme weather – like what we had this winter – and create more efficient air flow.
  • A pit under the barn collects manure that is used on fields as natural fertilizer.

Another aspect that makes dairy so sustainable – how local it is. Because it’s perishable, milk often is distributed in a tight radius to the dairy farm from which it came. For example, milk from the Lenkaitis dairy farm goes to a plant in Harvard where it’s bottled and made into sour cream and other products.

The Chandler family on their farm

Eating more sustainably with beef, thanks to “up-cycling”

Raising cattle for beef consumption is another farming activity with a surprisingly small footprint. Compared to nearly 50 years ago, today’s beef farmers produce the same amount of beef with 33% fewer cattle, and they have one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world, at 2% of U.S. GHG emissions.

One reason for the low carbon footprint is because cattle are the ultimate up-cyclers, meaning they can upgrade plants with little to no nutritional value for people to high-quality protein.

Take the Chandler Family for example. The Chandlers raise beef cattle in Illinois, just southeast of St. Louis. While their land is now filled with pasture mixes of orchard, fescue, red clover and alfalfa, it actually started out as wasteland. When they first bought the ground, it was rough – literally. It had been strip mined, leaving it barren and unproductive for growing much.

But, the Chandlers saw its potential. Especially because cattle are often able to graze in areas where it’s impossible to grow crops. So, what was an area deemed unusable for feeding people is now used to create high-quality, sustainable protein. Cattle are also unique in that their stomach structure allows them to eat and digest what people can’t – like the fescue, red clover and alfalfa – putting these grasses to good use.

On top of that, their 400 acres of pasture is also a refuge for ducks, geese and deer – wildlife species that live right alongside their responsibly raised cattle.

Eating more sustainably with a balanced diet

You can easily anchor the protein and dairy on your plate with Illinois-raised produce. Want to buy fresh, local Illinois produce? Explore this guide to find local food near you.

There are lots of ways to celebrate Earth Day. Eating more sustainably is just one of them, thanks to the sustainable farm practices of Illinois farmers. Tell us in the comments how you’re celebrating Earth Day!