ARKANSAS: Sustainability Job Number One in the Natural State
Christy Slay facilitates discussions between farmers, processors and retailers about sustainability.
Much of the tour of a dairy farm took place in the morning before it got really hot outside. Still, whenever sustainability researcher Christy Slay stepped off the air-conditioned bus to see more of the dairy farm, the sun was a factor.
Slay was glad to get in the shade — and a little envious of the cows that were in well-ventilated barns with fans and misters providing evaporative cooling.
The heat made an impression. But a story the dairy farmer told that day made an even bigger impact.
The farmer felt he was doing all he could to make his farm sustainable, using water and energy resources wisely. He had even installed solar panels to save on energy cost. His sustainability efforts caught the attention of a large international food company that was sourcing his milk. The company sent some representatives out to his farm, and the farmer spent six hours showing them around and answering questions. He took a survey.
But the farmer never heard back from the company. He spent all of that time giving away information and didn’t get anything out of it, which was frustrating.
Slay understood his frustration when the communications loop wasn’t closed because it illustrated the need for continued improvement with proper feedback. “Sustainability should be easier for the farmer and he should get feedback,” she said.
As research director at The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) at the University of Arkansas, Slay knows that a more sustainable supply chain — with good communication between farmers, processors and retailers — can boost the United States’ standing as a dairy-exporting nation.
The Sustainability Consortium’s mission is to partner with leading companies and nonprofits to define, develop, and deliver more sustainable products.
Reducing dairy’s carbon footprint
Arkansas is not a big dairy state and exports account for only $4 million in economic impact, much less, for example, than the $1.9 billion ripple effect of dairy exports in California.
Still, Arkansas makes an important contribution to dairy exports. From her office at the University of Arkansas, Slay and her colleagues influence the entire U.S. dairy industry, including exports, with global sustainability metrics and tools that retailers can use with suppliers.
The U.S. dairy industry has made great progress in reducing its “carbon footprint” (methane and carbon dioxide emissions) over the years because fewer and fewer cows are needed to produce the same amount of milk―thanks to genetic progress and more efficient production practices.
It has also been a guiding principle of the U.S. dairy industry to use natural resources in a responsible manner.
Continued improvement will be needed for the U.S. dairy industry to expand milk production — and exports — to feed a growing world population, estimated to reach 9.8 billion people by the year 2050.
Finding sustainability “hot spots”
Slay and her colleagues determine “hot spots” in the dairy supply chain that create the most risk, the largest environmental footprint and the most social concern. Then, using peer-reviewed science, TSC researchers develop metrics to measure water use (e.g., cubic meters of water used to produce one kilogram of milk), energy efficiency and cow comfort.
TSC also offers a public tool on its website called Sustainability Insights which are summaries of a product’s key sustainability issues. It can be accessed here.
With metrics serving as benchmarks, people up and down the supply chain can see if progress is being made.
The goal is to achieve continuous improvement in sustainability over time, Slay points out. There is never a line that a farm or supplier crosses where it is “totally sustainable.”
Communication is a key
Understanding the importance of communication up and down the supply chain, Slay and her colleagues develop questions that processors and retailers can use to survey their suppliers. These surveys usually consist of 10 to 15 questions.
“We provide guidance to the questions and we are aligned with tools such as Farm Smart from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy,” Slay says.
The process is intended to encourage discussion (and feedback) up and down the dairy supply chain.
It should be pointed out that some of the corporate entities that use TSC’s metrics include Walmart, Sam’s Club and Kroger.
Farmer in backyard of Walmart sees urgent need to boost dairy exports
Dairy farmer Ryan Anglin runs a 225- to 250-cow dairy six miles from Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. He received positive feedback when he hosted representatives from Walmart and his milk processor (Hiland Dairy), sharing details of his energy usage from TSC’s metrics.
Anglin is very much on board when it comes to sustainability and good communication up and down the supply chain.
Sustainable agriculture will be important, he says, in feeding 9 billion people around the world by the year 2050. Quite simply, sustainability boils down to producing food more efficiently so there is enough to go around — for instance, more bushels of corn per acre with less water, fewer chemicals and other inputs, he says.
“The U.S. uniquely positioned to supply that extra protein the world needs,” Anglin says. For one thing, the United States has an ample land base to expand milk production — unlike some of its competitors in the dairy export arena where farm land is relatively limited or expensive.
Yet, it will still be important to use water and energy resources wisely so agriculture can co-exist in many of the areas of the United States with rapidly growing urban communities.
Bottom line: If sustainability can give the U.S. dairy industry a competitive advantage, then it is well worth the effort. Exports are an absolute necessity, Anglin points out.
“We’ve got too much milk (being produced in the United States),” he says. “We’re going to drown in milk if we don’t export.”