Farmers are on the front line of climate change, but they’re getting help from many companies, organizations, universities and government agencies.
They are members of Field to Market, an alliance that coordinates dialogue and projects geared toward sustainability on the farm.
It was born of growing consumer interest in where food comes from and how it’s grown, which took off in the late 2000s, and the issue of sustainability became top of mind for those in the food supply chain.
The industry recognized it had to be proactive and united to answer consumers’ questions on what it means to farm sustainably, said Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market.
Agriculture is more diffused than many other industries, with millions of independent farmers around the country making their own decisions — and in turn making it hard to get field-level data, he said.
The first thing needed was a way to measure the environmental footprint of farming that was outcome-based, science-based and technology-neutral, he said.
“Coming up with a set of metrics was critical,” he said.
Stakeholders wanted to measure the effects of different management practices.
“We knew that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work if we wanted to be relevant to diverse farmers and supply chains across the country,” he said.
The alliance does not prescribe one management system over another but sticks to outcome-based approaches farmers can adopt based on their local conditions and realities.
“Aligning on those principles was critical,” he said.
Stakeholders wanted to agree on the environmental outcomes they wanted to achieve.
Another key step was evaluating trends on a national scale using USDA data. FTM put out its first National Indicators Report in 2009. The sustainability indicators include energy and land use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon, soil conservation, irrigated water use and water quality.
“It began to tell a story of where agriculture has been and where it’s going on a path to improvement,” he said.
It showed agriculture was producing more with less than 30 to 40 years earlier and was baseline data for where agriculture has been. Farmers could start to think about those metrics on their operations, he said.
The next step was to develop an online calculator based on those indicators so farmers could measure their sustainability performance at field level.
“We wanted to make the national metrics relevant at a local scale,” he said.
To that end, FTM developed the Fieldprint Calculator that measures a farm’s sustainability indicators and compares them to national and state averages. The goal was to gain valuable information for the brand and the farmer, who could do things differently to improve sustainability scores, he said.
“It became the most widely used sustainability assessment tool,” he said.
The calculator covers the same 12 crops in the National Indicators Report, which is updated every five years.
It’s used by farmers in 36 states, representing 2 million to 3 million acres. The goal is to grow its use to 7.5 million acres in the next few years.
“We are constantly reviewing the science to make sure we are using the best available science in our metrics,” he said.
Those metrics are used by member companies to measure the work they are doing on the ground, engaging farmers in projects to collect data on management practices. There are currently more than 65 projects taking place through FTM’s Continuous Improvement Accelerator Program — all aimed at reducing farmers’ environmental footprints.
FTM’s role is bringing people to the table over what is needed to further sustainable efforts. It has more than 140 members and wants to get more companies involved. Its annual budget of $2.5 million is only a fraction of what companies are investing in helping farmers with their sustainable goals.
The motivation is much deeper and broader than addressing increased interest from consumers. Companies have also committed to reducing the environmental footprints of their facilities and their supply chain, he said.