Commentary: Farms and the Environment

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While we can easily see how the local food movement has helped small farms market their crops to environmentally responsive consumers, the business logic of environmental management is less obvious for larger, wholesale operations. Yet there are growing sustainable business opportunities in commercial agriculture.

Ask the owners of Wilcox Family Farms, one of the biggest 
producers of fresh eggs in the Northwest. It restored native vegetation along the Nisqually River, creating buffers for fish and wildlife. It reduced the use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers and captures most of the waste produced by its chickens. And it has earned organic certifications that helped boost its marketing.  

Or take a look at NORPAC Foods, a major food processing firm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This certified sustainable cooperative is owned by 240 farmer members who adopted “integrated pest management” to reduce pesticide use in growing snap beans. Why? It was asked to by a major client, Sysco, which had been pressured by customers, many of them university food service providers. Sustainability was a path to profits.

Hops have long been an important crop in the Yakima River Basin. But because they required heavy irrigation, agricultural sediment polluted the river. Encouraged by a 1998 recovery plan, hop farmers began switching from surface-water “rill” irrigation to efficient sprinkler and drip systems that reduced runoff. The new systems were expensive, but they lowered labor and energy costs, improved yields and quality, and allowed a more strategic application of chemicals and fertilizer. By 2003, total sediment was reduced by 50 to 70 percent. 

Larry Cochran’s wheat farm near Colfax, Washington, has been in his family for three generations. From the start, the family used conservation practices to improve the soil and keep it from washing off the slopes of their hilly Palouse farm and polluting local streams. It contour tilled the ground. It planted cover crops. It ran a few cattle to improve the soil. It protected and restored the vulnerable hilltops. After many decades, Cochran’s land now produces considerably more wheat than neighboring farmlands. His family is reaping financial rewards from generations of environmental stewardship. 

The low-lying Skagit Valley is a critical stopover for migrating birds. But extensive, dike-protected agriculture covers much of the delta, greatly reducing shorebird habitat. Some farmers, working with The Nature Conservancy, are now rotating their cropland, leaving it fallow for one year, allowing it to flood for bird habitat in a second year and returning it to agriculture in the third. The birds find the flooded farmland hugely attractive. And when the land returns to farming in year three, the farmers find it extraordinarily fertile and far more productive. 

Farmers also benefit from public incentives to pursue environmental stewardship in profitable ways. The Gordon Dairy near Elma, Washington, offers critical habitat for migrating trumpeter swans, which are the largest waterfowl in North America but are in decline. Under an easement purchased by the National Parks Foundation, the dairy protected a critical 55-acre site as swan habitat. Cattle still graze there, getting along just fine with the swans, which love the high-nutrient dairy grasses. 

Dairy farmers in eastern Snohomish County faced growing costs to manage their livestock waste, which was a risk to local salmon. The farmers joined a salmon recovery group and the local Tulalip Tribe in creating Qualco Energy. Qualco’s anaerobic digester now converts dairy waste into benign compost, bedding and, most important, green electricity sold back into the power grid. The farmers save money on waste disposal. Because Qualco’s energy is “renewable,” it earns a significant premium. And because the methane that drives Qualco’s generators is a greenhouse gas, its removal from the atmosphere earns Qualco “carbon credits” in the current voluntary offset market.  

Agriculture is a tough business. These examples of “green” profitability can’t eliminate all of the environmental problems in agriculture, but more and more farmers across America are making environmentally sustainable profits every single day. 

Don Stuart is the former Northwest regional director for the American Farmland Trust and the author of  Barnyards and Birkenstocks: Why Farmers and Environmentalists Need Each Other. Reach him at dondstuart@gmail.com.

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