Although there’s no con­­sistent definition of what makes agriculture sustainable, there’s no question that consumers are interested in food grown using sustainable practices. Surveys also show that many consumers are willing to pay more for those foods.

It’s imperative for farmers and others in agriculture to take the initiative and est­ablish a clear and universally accepted def­­inition of sustain­ability in agriculture, ac­­cording to Randy Brown, manager of agronomy services for WinField, a division of Land O’Lakes. 

“The definition of sustainability should really be set by farmers and those in agriculture, not by government agencies, environmental activists or food companies,” he said during a session at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

Just as important as establishing the definition of sustainability is developing a system that pays farmers premiums for adopting practices considered sustainable, Brown said. “Right now, all of the profit from sustainability is on the retail product side. We need to drive some of that back to the grower,” he said.

Profitability is essential

That profit and return on investment, Brown emphasized, is a key element of agricultural sustainability. “It means supporting the profitability and the resilience for farmers, just as much as protecting the environment,” he said.

A growing number of farmers in Iowa and around the country are adopting practices, such as planting cover crops and using precision fertilizer applications, which have shown to improve soil health and reduce nutrient losses while improving efficiency. That trend is being supported by federal and state programs, such as the Iowa Nutrient Re­duction Strategy, as well as agribusiness and farm organizations, including the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Documenting progress

As farmers adopt those conservation practices, it’s critical to document them, Brown said. By capturing the data, he said, farmers will have proof of their sustainability practices, which is likely the initial step in developing ways to get paid for them.

Land O’Lakes, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Minnesota, recently created a subsidiary called Truterra to help farmers find ways to adopt and document sustainability practices. 

The Truterra program, Brown said, is centered around helping the grower and meeting a farm’s objectives. 

“We want to meet growers where they are today and take them forward,” he said. 

A centerpiece of the Truterra program is called the Insights Engine, which uses farmers’ own information and other data sources to help farmers make cropping decisions and continuous improvements, Brown said. In addition, the program creates a sustainability score on each field, so farmers can see where they stand and which part of their operations need more attention, he said.

Brown emphasized that farmers remain in control of their own data in the Truterra program.

Flipping the narrative

Making changes, documenting them and telling that story are more critical all the time as a wide range of food companies and others begin to define sustainability on their own terms.

“Right now, agriculture is seen as part of the problem by many people,” Brown said. “But we need to flip that and show that we can be a large part of the solution. We need to raise our voices and help drive that change.”