Resources for Farmers to Evaluate Their Environmental Footprint

By Joel Tallaksen, Renewable Energy Scientist

August 2018

Over the last 8 years, more consumers have begun to think about the resources used for producing the nation’s food supply and the environmental impacts associated with food production. Internationally, this has implications for food manufacturers as they export their production to other countries. The US market is also reacting to increased concerns about environmental issues. Some issues such as water use, chemical applications, and fertilizer runoff are very important in regions where the environmental impacts are a problem for local communities. Other environmental issues have national and international impacts; these include the heavy use of limited fossil energy resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Though it is difficult to put a value on both the environmental impacts and marketing consequences of a food’s environmental footprint, food manufacturers have begun to examine their footprint and make changes to their operations to reduce impacts and address consumer concerns. This requires a significant effort to inventory the resources they use, their production processes, and their shipping systems. This work has allowed them to identify areas where they could optimize their manufacturing and delivery systems. Although the food manufacturers could reduce their direct impacts significantly, one of their findings was that many of the environmental impacts come from the production of the grains, meat, and dairy commodities they used.

The farms that produce those commodities are a key to making large reductions in environmental footprints because the farms directly use most of the resources going into the food supply chain. Working on behalf of their farmer constituents, many commodity groups have begun analyzing the environmental impacts of the commodities that farmers bring to market. They hope to both lower farming costs by finding areas to reduce resource use and demonstrate to consumers that farmers are addressing environmental concerns. The commodity group efforts have mostly focused on an average farm and what areas might be of concern to the average producers.

More recently, software models have been developed that allow individual farmers to examine their farms to quantify their environmental footprints. Developed by universities, non-profits and commodities groups, these models are meant to be used by farmers who input information about their resources inputs, facilities, and management. Ideally, they can reduce their footprints and costs with this information.  These models vary in the amount of farm information they require and the level of detail in the results they provide. They also cover a range of farm types and commodities produced. For example, some models are designed for large cropping systems and others are designed for a single farm product such as dairy, pork, and honey.

Although these models are a good first step in identifying environmental footprints for individual farm, the results they provide can be confusing for farmers to interpret. Sometimes, they provide an easily useable set of information, such as energy or water use per bushel/animal/lb of product.  However, the main output is often the carbon footprint. This is the amount of greenhouse gases (in terms of carbon dioxide) that the farm emits, which is often linked to the farm’s energy use.  This information is not directly useful without having a good sense of how the farm’s carbon footprint compares to other farms or providing specific areas where farms can improve their footprint. As more farms begin examining their resource use and environmental footprints, more complete information is becoming available to identify what the footprint of a ‘typical’ farm might be.

In a project being done at the University of Minnesota (U of M), researchers working with U of M Extension and University of Nebraska Extension are evaluating regional swine farm footprints. The Pig Production Footprint Calculator was developed as part of a National Pork Board project. Using swine production data and farm information, the model identifies the land, water, and carbon footprints for individual farms. The research project collects data from many farms to determine what ranges of results are seen from farms in Minnesota and Nebraska. It also looks at the range of resources and management practices that swine producers are using in their operations. Project staff are working directly with producers to run the software model and interpret the results. As the research team gathers the range of regional production data, they are also collecting information on the farmer’s impressions of the models usability and the results provided. Using both the typical ranges of data and the impressions of the model, further work can be done to improve the model’s usability and allow more producers to analyze their operations footprints.

While modeling farm environmental footprints and resource use is still in its early stages, there are advantages to using these models to identify areas where farms can be improved both environmentally and economically. Preparing the information to run these models also helps producers get a better sense of what areas might be important to reduce environmental impacts. In the future, model refinements will likely improve their ability so that users can compare a wider range of facilities, equipment, and management options for analyzing and improving footprints.

Below is a set of online resources to provide more information about the topics addressed in this article.  Those wishing to learn more information on specific crops, livestock, or other products, may want to contact the commodity group for the product or their local universities’ Extension staff.

Resources

The links to online resources below are provided for those interested in further information.  Keep in mind that this field is relatively new and constantly changing, so information becomes outdated fairly quickly.

Swine Carbon Footprint Project

If you are a Minnesota or Nebraska pork producer and are interested in participating in the Pig Environmental Footprint Project, contact one of researchers listed below to initiate the process or sign-up online.

University of Minnesota

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

General Farm Footprint Calculators

These are calculators that can analyze the multiple parts of an operations, such as different crops or whole farms.

Specific Commodities Calculators

Commodity Group Sustainability Information

Examples of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs)

A number of manufacturers, mostly in Europe, have begun to report their environmental data using environmental product declarations (EPDs).  These documents bring together a number of environmental measures so that product buyers can compare different products that they are interested in buying.