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WCROC Features from the Farm: Resources for farmers to evaluate their environmental footprint

Over the last eight 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, such as water use, chemical applications, and fertilizer runoff. 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 hard to put a value on both the environmental impacts and marketing consequences of a food's environmental footprint, 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 in order to identify areas where they could optimize their manufacturing and delivery systems. Although 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 used.

The farms that produce those commodities are 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.

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 commodity groups, these models are meant to be used by farmers who input information about their resource inputs, facilities, and management. Ideally, they can reduce their footprints and costs with this information.

Although these models are a good first step in identifying environmental footprints for an individual farm, the results they provide can be confusing 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) emited, 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 joint project with 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 model's 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 farm's 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.

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