A Farmer’s Sustainability Equation: Ancient Wisdom Plus Modern Insights

Global commodity markets, inflationary pressures, and environmental concerns continue to pressure crops, soil, and farmers. Faced with unpredictable weather patterns and compromised soil health, today’s farmers are reaching back to ancient wisdom to protect their soil and sustain future crops — and luckily, this approach also helps address a new topic that farmers are getting familiar with: the impact of carbon considerations in running a farm.

Cover crops reduce fertilizer expenses and carbon impacts. In addition, they promote crop and soil health, plus plant and wildlife diversity.

Planting cover crops, like clover, is an ancient practice that rejuvenates fields. In the push for efficiency and maximum output, farmers turned to chemical fertilizers, particularly during the middle of the previous century. Over time, those chemicals compromised soil health and contributed to the degradation of the environment farmers rely on for healthy crops.

Cover crops are now being used as a sustainable solution to reduce the expenses around fertilizers while also allowing farmers to reduce carbon impact, ultimately protecting crop and soil health. Cover crops also promote plant and wildlife diversity and grazing.


A sustainable solution and protection against environmental degradation

Soil health improvements have long-term sustainable effects, including a reduced need for chemical fertilizers due to the higher levels of organic materials that the practice introduces into the soil. The impact of cover crops on soil health also extends to water absorption due to the higher earthworm populations that come along with the cover crops.

Note that the sustainability impact is not limited to cover crop planting as an alternative to introducing more chemicals into the environment. This is where we return to the concept of ancient wisdom, wrapped in the understanding that the earth has the power to sustain itself. There is a wisdom in nature we can harness to improve production and quality and protect against the hazards of climate change.

In this context, cover crops enable better yields during drier periods. The improved water absorption and the natural introduction of more microbes into the soil contribute to a more nutrient-rich, moist growing environment for crops. All this happens without the introduction of chemicals that degrade soil health over time and can have a negative impact on crop health and, ultimately, consumer health.


The carbon impact of cover crops

Importantly, in addition to improving soil health on the ground, the practice of planting cover crops improves the carbon impact of farming. The process is simple. Photosynthesis drives carbon extraction from the atmosphere, effectively cleaning our air naturally. The greener, chlorophyll-rich cover the earth has, the more carbon is sequestered.

Cover crops create that green on the ground. In contrast, farmers who do not plant cover crops leave fields fallow and dormant. This misses the critical opportunity to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere and nourish carbon-rich soil.

In all sustainability conversations, it helps to think of the environment holistically. Consider how land and air can work together to conserve resources, enrich the soil naturally, and reduce carbon footprints. In the case of cover crops, both minimum tillage and no-till farming ensure carbon stored by the cover crop returns to the soil. Here, the carbon enriches soil structure and improves soil nutrient quality. Ancient wisdom emerges as a practical solution to our modern problems.


The USDA Climate-Smart Commodities and the power of data

Discovering and implementing innovative solutions that promote sustainability, including those innovations that come to us through the wisdom of the ancient world, is the focus of the USDA’s Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities.

This sustainability project, led by the USDA, demonstrates a commitment to sustainable farming and provides a path to shift how we think about sustainability across ag businesses. The practices and guidance the Climate-Smart Commodities Partnership cultivates will help set the standard for farming practices of the future — and it will move the needle on sustainability to protect farmers and their fields while developing strategies and practices that aim to stave off further climate change.

This guidance comes in several ways, starting with project funding for agricultural sustainability projects. Climate-smart practices require producers to think in new ways and to utilize data and technology to drive decisions and implementation. The partnership provides technical assistance to that end.

Climate-smart practices require producers to think in new ways, and to utilize data and technology to drive decisions and implementation. The partnership provides technical assistance to that end.

The USDA partnership also supports producers who “pilot innovative and cost-effective methods for quantification, monitoring, reporting, and verification of greenhouse gas benefits.” The scope of the partnership does not limit itself to how producers utilize their land. It looks deeper into how to create new markets and drive climate-smart commodities.

These ambitious objectives are supported by a robust team of government and private partners, including the Farmers for Soil Health Climate Smart Collaboration, of which DTN is a proud participant. Farmers for Soil Health also comprises The National Corn Growers Association, United Soybean Board, American Soybean Association, and National Pork Board. Other partners in the project include lead applicant the National Fish & Wildlife Federation, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, the National Association of Conservation Districts, the Soil Health Institute, the University of Missouri, the Sustainability Consortium, and the Walton Family Foundation.


Technology for sustainability

To develop climate-smart agricultural practices that promote viable sustainability and economic outcomes, support your efforts with the power of data and technology. Here is where ancient wisdom meets the power of technology for a sustainable future. As a partner on the USDA Sustainability Project and as a practice overall, DTN teams bring data and technology expertise to aid in sustainability efforts for producers.

The power of data and technology serves producer needs and supports the conversion to more sustainable practices; it also allows them to be more competitive.

The power of data and technology serves producer needs and supports the conversion to more sustainable practices. It also empowers farmers to be more competitive in the sustainable-commodities-supply-chain. In fact, DTN technologies and engineers bridge the gap between farmers and buyers. This underscores sustainable agriculture’s second layer of opportunity — namely, market opportunity. To relegate sustainability initiatives to general environmental goals, or even the specific environmental goal of reducing the impact of climate change, is limited.

Fueled by technology, sustainability becomes a new and more efficient way of doing business. New business approaches and new market opportunities align with the core values of sustainability: environment, economy, and society.


ESG and opportunity

Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) is an essential component of business strategies across industries. Not only does it guide the way ag businesses and the sectors they serve do business, but it is also key in determining investments that support sustainable growth. Reducing emissions in farming by applying solutions like cover crops, and by building a path to sustainability that includes utilizing data to drive sustainable decision-making practices and reporting on climate impact, positions farmers and producers to be well prepared for upcoming standards and mandates.

We have seen this path in nutrition, packaging, and food-waste directives. Sustainability will be one more component to consider when deciding which farmer to purchase from or how to spend investment monies to improve the supply chain.


Plan with mandates in mind

Sustainability is the path forward for a healthy, economically viable agricultural future. As such, the sustainable guidelines of today are poised to become the mandates of tomorrow. Reliable measurement and management tools powered by data technology prepare farmers to plan for any sustainability mandates that may be coming down the pike. That includes tracking carbon footprints, managing offsets, and sustaining smart-commodities production practices.

Legislation and mandates are increasingly likely as the United States and the world aim to combat the negative effects of climate change as quickly as possible. This is likely to include required reporting — on an annual or quarterly basis — on how climate impacts are being improved.


The road to low emissions and net zero goals

Across industries, planning includes charting a course toward low emission and net zero goals. Every leading food, pet food, fiber, and energy company is seeking low-carbon-emitting commodities; this includes the foodstuffs and biofuels they source from farms and producers. In fact, ag businesses of all types are critical to achieving emissions goals — not only for their own businesses but also for the sectors they serve.


Many roads to sustainability

An important lesson in this context is that ancient wisdom and contemporary data technology are not at odds with each other, or with sustainability. In fact, adopting a data-driven approach to decision-making augments sustainability practices.

It promotes resource efficiencies, reduces on-site travel, and improves tracking. Technology enables farmers to measure sustainability efforts and build upon their improvements for the future — and that future is ripe for improvement.

Learn more by visiting our Agriculture page.