Don’t let your sustainability program become a bait and switch.
I know that ag retailers start building their sustainability program with their customers (farmers) in mind. But make sure you know what problem your customer is trying to solve before offering a solution. Sometimes what starts with good intentions doesn’t always turn out as planned. As a trusted advisor, make sure you do your research before investing in a sustainability program. Don’t put yourself in a corner by unknowingly articulating recommendations to solve Situation A, only to find out your solutions were more effective for Situation B. Otherwise, you will find yourself at the center of a bait and switch.
Farmers who are confused about environmental issues are turning more often to their ag retailers. These farmers need help and I can understand why. Environmental issues are complicated. For instance, nitrogen is lost through multiple pathways. To understand, let’s look at nitrogen loss from leaching and denitrification:
- Nitrogen lost through leaching primarily results in water pollution. Nitrates are leached into ground water and eventually find their way to surface water.
- Denitrification, which follows a completely different pathway for nitrogen loss, can produce nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas concern. While microbial denitrification is a natural process in soil, denitrification is appreciably higher when soil has been fertilized.
Loss of nitrogen from leaching and denitrification can be slowed by using stabilizers and applying nitrogen closer to the time of plant uptake. But to effectively inhibit nitrogen loss, farmers need to apply completely different best management practices, depending on their objectives.
Personally, if I had to prioritize water quality or climate change, I would say they are equally critical to the environment. But if you put a farmer and the president of a food company in the same room and ask them to identify their priorities, I think you might hear differing opinions and differing reasons. Why is this?
Farmers are feeling pressure to improve water quality, whether they are part of the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie Watershed, the Mississippi River (hypoxia in the gulf), or even the drainage area supplying water to the Des Moines Waterworks; just pick your state and name your watershed. On the other hand, numerous environmental organizations and food companies place a higher priority on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And it makes them very happy when ag retailers recommend the most effective Best Management Practices to reduce denitrification (causing greenhouse gas emissions). But who is recommending the practices that reduce nitrogen leaching, the thing that farmers want?
Farmers are relying on their trusted ag retailer to help meet their conservation objectives. Most farmers are interested in improving water quality and they need to understand that certain BMPs are far more effective than others for improving water quality.
The 4R campaign, for example, sends the message that if farmers follow the prescription of “the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, with the right placement” we will finally be able to settle the water quality problem. Based on expert opinion, if the 4R strategy is implemented by 100% of the farmers, it can only achieve about 10% of total nitrogen reduction goals. (As a reminder, agriculture has a goal of a 41% reduction in Iowa.) However, the 4R program is enormously effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Say it’s blasphemy, but if you as an ag retailer really want to help farmers meet their water quality goals, don’t lead them to believe that the 4Rs will solve this problem. You absolutely must focus on practices like cover crops, wetlands, two stage ditches, and bio-reactors because these BMPs are much more effective at reducing leaching and improving water quality. Remember, farmers trust your advice.
Don’t unintentionally bamboozle your customers with the old bait and switch. If you are going to promote your sustainability program as a means to improve water quality, make sure that is what you deliver. If you give them what they need now, in five years you won’t have to explain that you really didn’t give them any significant help with their water quality problems. But hey, if you want to help them reduce those greenhouse gas emissions, the 4Rs are right on target!