TELLING THE STORY
While managing environmental resources is the foundational element of sustainability, social elements make up a critical part of sustainability efforts. Dairy farmers who connect with their community and consumers excel in this area.
In 1997 John Maxwell was named Outstanding Young Farmer by the national Jaycee’s organization. That got the attention of John Deere, which has harvest and seeding equipment manufacturing facilities within a half hour drive from Cinnamon Ridge Dairy.
“At that time John Deere asked if we would be willing to do tours of our farm,” Maxwell says. “That changed my world.” This year more than 7,000 visitors will tour the 230-cow Jersey dairy, many from foreign countries and mostly in mid to late August when the Farm Progress show is going on. Cinnamon Ridge is a short drive from I-80, which is a major conduit for farmers going to and from the show each year, especially ones that stop in to see the John Deere facilities.
“A lot of the farmers from foreign countries just want to get better at agriculture,” Maxwell says. “Our goal is to help educate them about some of our farming practices.” For the non-ag consumers that stop by, the goal is to help them understand where their food comes from, he says.
Even though thousands of people visit the dairy each year, Maxwell takes a “one person at a time” approach to outreach.
“It’s important for us for people to understand that if they enjoy food, a farmer grew it for you,” Maxwell says. “We tell that story one person at a time, and that it makes an impact on people so they tell that story to others. Pretty soon your story has spread pretty far.”
In addition to opening the dairy to tours, Maxwell communicates in other ways as well. Several events are held throughout the year at the dairy, many in the modern meeting facilities located in an observation area where visitors can look over the freestall housing. Maxwell also writes a regular column where he can talk about farming to a larger consumer public.
When Maxwell communicates with people, he leans on an education not many dairy farmers have. In his college years Maxwell had plans on following a path set by his brother, who went to medical school to become an anesthesiologist. But during his junior year at the University of Iowa, Maxwell decided medical school wasn’t for him and made the decision to come back to the farm upon graduation. His psychology degree has served him well as he relates to other people.
“I always say I don’t use my degree, but I use my education every day,” Maxwell says.
Protecting the environment and telling a compelling story about your operation are important aspects of sustainability, but all of the work is for nothing if it doesn’t make business sense.
A large part of sustainable profitability centers on creating efficiencies. After all, getting more productivity from the same level of resources is at the core of sustainability.
“The main thing is to keep on improving in terms of efficiency (milk per feed, milk per energy, milk per greenhouse gas emissions),” says Matthew Ruark, assistant professor and extension soil scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Producers should continue to work toward all of the multiple variables that go into improving herd or feed efficiency.”
Energy efficiency is another key aspect.
“If you have more efficient lighting and you’re reducing the amount of energy you need, you’re going to be reducing that dollar sign on that energy bill,” says Ayache. At the same time, she says, as you become more energy efficient you’re also improving your greenhouse gas and energy footprint.
While reducing energy costs is a tangible way to make the business case for implementing certain management areas, things that are related to biology, like reducing enteric emissions from cows or emissions from manure decomposition, is harder to gauge. There are many more variables that go into accessing those impacts, some of which are out of our control, like the weather.
“I think everyone can see if there’s better productivity, better feed efficiency, better animal health, you are going to have better environmental outcomes,” Ayache says. “So there are definitely a lot of connections between the environment and that financial bottom line.”
From a financial standpoint, while there is one side of the equation that looks at cost savings that could improve margins, another aspect to examine is the opportunity to gain financing to make changes that would lead to greater sustainability.
Given the difficult economic situation over the past several years, acquiring financing for environmental projects is critical but has been difficult, yet not impossible, to find, Ayache says. The key is connecting producers to where funding might be available, she says. That could include helping producers with the paperwork that goes into securing cost share opportunities or government funding. For producers that are uncomfortable with that sort of funding arrangement, Ayache says that’s where the nonprofit organizations can step in to provide support.
Another funding avenue is an emerging market for ecosystems services.
“Water quality trading has been put in place in different areas,” Ayache says. If a dairy implements improvements to practices that improve water quality, she says, that has benefits not only to the dairy but to society as a whole. The key is to develop mechanisms for society to contribute to that effort since, in the absence of that contribution, it might be hard to advance the implementation of those practices.
“We’re working hard to try to figure that out to make sure producers get access to ecosystem markets,” Ayache says. “Because it’s a lot cheaper for society to pay a landowner than it is to try to clean up a problem later down the road if we don’t do enough about it.”