Working together to Farm Smarter

Written by Emily Battmer

Organizations from across the industry are collaborating to ensure a more sustainable future.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy has teamed up with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and producers in New Mexico to identify ways to conserve natural resources and protect the fragile ecosystem that exists along the Rio Grande River.

The New Mexico project, funded by the Coca Cola Foundation, is investigating how a tool developed by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy could help WWF accomplish its goals along the Rio Grande.

“Our biggest goal is to conserve natural habitats for wildlife globally,” says Sandra Vijn, director of dairy for WWF. “When we look at water, the biggest impact on those habitats is agriculture’s global expansion, which leaves less room for other creatures.”

Vijn says that’s why WWF started a food program, working with farmers all over the world to identify ways to produce food more efficiently while minimizing use of valuable natural resources, like water and land. In the United States, WWF is particularly interested in protecting two major unique habitats: the northern Great Plains and the Rio Grande.

Last month, Vijn traveled with representatives from DFA, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and others to DFA member Dale Jones’ farm to learn more about farming practices in New Mexico.

“It’s really important that we understand what farmers are currently doing and what the opportunities are for us to work together with them to help improve those practices,” Vijn says. “We know we need to feed a growing population. So how can we make sure we produce food in sustainable ways in order to feed everyone?”

Vijn says meeting with Jones was the first step in that learning process. She says there was a lot to learn from Dale, specifically about the volatility and business risks associated with dairying and the need to stabilize food production.

In return, Vijn says Jones had the opportunity to learn more about the conservation efforts along the Rio Grande, and he was able to test the Farm Smart tool, which assesses farmers’ environmental footprints and makes suggestions for areas of improvement.

Roberta Osborne, Farm Smart manager at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, says the tool was developed in response to increasing pressure on brands and retailers to guarantee that the food they market is produced in an environmentally friendly way. In recent years, retailers such as Walmart have developed sustainability standards that food companies have to meet in order to sell their products.

“We wanted to design a tool that would give us the ability to communicate the farm’s positive stewardship story in a way that is based on science and is objective and easy for the farmers to use,” she says.

The online assessment tool asks farmers essential questions about on-farm practices. Cooperatives can use the tool to survey members and, without disclosing individual farm information, can demonstrate to retailers their story of sustainability and demonstrate continuous improvement over the years.

The tool can help farmers identify options to make their operations more environmentally friendly, which benefits surrounding habitats, such as the Rio Grande. In return, Osborne says `the tool benefits the industry by building consumer confidence in dairy.