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How a digital tool helps a five-generation family farm sow a sustainable future

By Alicia Brooks Waltman May 19, 2016

When corn grower Paul Harless looks over his farm near Borup, Minnesota, he knows exactly how his farming practices are affecting our natural resources, thanks to an innovative digital tool, Fieldprint® Calculator, he started using last year.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” notes the fifth-generation farmer, who grows close to 3,000 acres of corn.

In 2014, Cargill asked Harless to enroll his acres in the Fieldprint program, part of the company’s ongoing effort to become more sustainable across its supply chain. Sustainability is the practice of protecting and replacing natural resources, such as soil, air and water, for future generations.

The digital tool asks growers to enter data about their farming practices to analyze how their management choices impact overall sustainability performance and operational efficiency, including soil conservation and land use; greenhouse gas emissions and energy use; water quality and water use; and soil carbon. Based on these measures, growers receive sustainability scores.

“The Fieldprint Calculator helps growers evaluate their farming decisions and compare their sustainability performance in a number of areas,” said Bill Costello, a sustainability project manager at Cargill. “Farmers can compare their scores against their own scores from year to year, and compare themselves to the best practices of other farmers locally, statewide and nationally.”

Making informed decisions

The calculator was developed by Field to Market®, a national, multi-stakeholder alliance of 99 partners that have an interest in promoting sustainable agriculture. They include agribusinesses; food, beverage, restaurant and retail companies; conservation groups; universities; and public sector partners.

“Cargill is proud to be a founding member of Field to Market and to help drive initiatives that will improve crop sustainability across the United States,” said Marty Muenzmaier, Cargill sustainability director. “The more we understand our corn supply chain, the better we can help ensure a sustainable future for our farmer suppliers as well as our customers and their consumers.”

As of 2015, Cargill growers had enrolled 100,000 acres in the program. Nationally, growers on 1.5 million acres are using the Fieldprint Calculator.

When Paul Harless started using the calculator, he found that his performance “already beat the state and national averages” for sustainability in most categories, but that there was room for improvement.

Take the fuel costs for transporting 80,000 pounds of corn to market, a 140-mile round trip he sometimes makes daily. By inputting the amount of diesel fuel his farm was using, Harless began exploring ways to reduce that energy use and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions.

“We started asking ourselves, ‘How can we haul more and be more efficient with each trip?’” Harless said.

In considering the problem, Harless realized that weight restrictions in his state are relaxed during winter months to 90,000 lbs. per truck. He licensed his trucks for an increased load, and in doing so eliminated one round trip per week during those months. He credits the data he collected by using the calculator for spurring him to think outside the box.

“The Fieldprint Calculator made us start challenging our status quo,” Harless said. “You can see where you rank and say ‘OK, let’s try to improve in all these areas.’”

Improved practices

Harless also saw room for change in the way he applied nitrogen fertilizer to his corn. Noticing that he was “a little high” in the fertilizer section of the calculator, he and his workers began to think about ways to cut back on its use.

Instead of applying all of the fertilizer at once in the fall, they decided to split it into fall and spring applications. They provided half of the nitrogen fertilizer while the corn was growing — and perhaps using it more efficiently — and reduced the amount that might blow away or leach into the soil and water table below it.

Harless is now considering increasing the use of rye and other ground-cover crops on his fields during the winter. Such crops, which remain in the field and lie dormant during the cold season, can keep the ground warmer and moister, decrease soil erosion, and increase organic matter — potentially reducing the need for fertilizer. By keeping the ground warmer through the winter, especially in northern Minnesota, this practice can also reduce the amount of plowing (and fuel) required to turn the soil for planting during the spring thaw.

A more sustainable future

Harless may be part of a future wave of farmers rolling toward sustainability. By 2020, Field to Market hopes to enroll 50 million U.S. farm acres in its Supply Chain Sustainability program. In the meantime, Paul Harless and his family will improve upon their time-honored practices, with the aid of emerging digital tools.

“We thought we were sustainable before, but it turns out we’re getting even more sustainable,” Harless said. “We’ve been doing this for five generations, so maybe we are the definition of ‘sustainable.’”

Alicia Brooks Waltman is a writer, editor and consultant who has written about business, politics and education. Her work has appeared in many national publications.

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.