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Footprint farming

Corn farmers like Steve Ebke of Daykin usually don’t define themselves in business terms such as raw-material suppliers or members of a supply chain.

But in a world where a growing population, rising food demand and the need for more agricultural production is intersecting with consumer demands, limited resources and agricultural sustainability, farmers may well be required to measure the environmental footprint and sustainability of their production practices.

Farm-to-fork evaluation

Ebke and 21 other farmers in Saline, Jefferson and Gage counties have taken a small first step in this footprint calculation. On 40,000 acres, they produce nearly 8 million bushels of corn that is shipped to the Bunge Mill in Crete, which in turn markets it to Kellogg’s for processing into cornflakes and other corn-based cereals.

In the Nebraska Corn Pilot Project, the 22 farmers filled out a survey last year on their 2009 corn production and input management practices. Most collected data from irrigated and dryland fields.

The project, the first of its kind in Nebraska, is being driven by large food companies and retailers reacting to consumers who want those corporations to provide consistent, high-quality food and who want to know how that food is produced. Bunge and Kellogg’s are in the forefront of this “farm-to-fork” evaluation in Nebraska. Other projects are in early stages in other states.

“Bunge and Kellogg’s have done their own carbon footprint assessments,” says Ebke, who is immediate past chairman of the National Corn Growers Association Production and Stewardship Action Team. “What’s missing is the footprint component of raw-material production.”

All 22 farmers supplying corn to Bunge participated in the survey data gathering from the 2009 crop. Nine of them attended a review session at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln East Campus this summer, along with other project partners, including officials from Bunge, Kellogg’s, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and UNL Extension. The Nebraska Corn Board and Nebraska Corn Growers also support the effort.

The environmental impact of corn production practices is only half of the project’s purpose. Ronnie Green, NU vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, told attendees that food production will need to double over the next 40 years, and that feat will have to be done with dwindling natural resources. “It is absolutely a huge challenge.”

The project is expected to continue for at least three more years. Eventually, an online tool, called the Fieldprint Calculator, will be refined and used by the farmers to provide more accurate measurements on their farms.

So far, the partners are cautious, saying one year’s data, particularly one that’s based on a survey, isn’t enough to provide an adequate measurement.

Participating farmers like Ebke could see their data from the survey results, but information on the other fields was listed by a number, not by name. “I can see it as a way to compare what you do with other farmers and perhaps improve your practices,” he says.

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FOOT IN THE DOOR: Steve Ebke of Daykin says the Nebraska Corn Pilot Project will be useful, but the calculations need refining.

This article published in the October, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.