University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
Rural Cooperatives, May/June 1997, pg. 16-23
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Cooperating with Nature

Co-ops Lead Agriculture into Era of Environmental Stewardship

Jennifer Boyle

Editor's Note: Boyle is a legislative assistant who works on environmental policy for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, a nationwide association of more than 110 major farmer-owned marketing, supply and credit cooperatives and state councils of cooperatives. These members in turn represent about 4,000 local cooperatives with a combined membership that includes most of the nearly two million U.S. farmers. 

Farmer cooperatives across the nation are finding that economics don't need to be sacrificed to provide environmental benefits as they work with their farmer-members to promote environmental stewardship. That's good news not only for farmers, but for all Americans.

    Environmental stewardship, according to GROWMARK Vice President Stan Nielsen, means striving to improve upon conservation practices farmers and cooperatives have known and practiced for years. Precision agriculture and best management practices are being used by farmers and their cooperatives to protect the nation's water quality and overall environment while maintaining a food supply that is the envy of the world, both in terms of quality and cost.

    This article provides only a sampling of the many innovative environmental stewardship programs being undertaken by cooperatives and their members. This is being accomplished through comprehensive stewardship, precision agriculture, incentives to farmers, wildlife habitat enhancement, integrated pest management and water quality enhancement.

Comprehensive Stewardship

    Comprehensive environmental stewardship programs, such as the one developed by Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., Middleboro, Mass., involve educating growers in a wide range of activities. The emphasis of Ocean Spray's program is on grower education to encourage voluntary participation. Ocean Spray and its growers help foster grower environmental stewardship through a range of initiatives, including:

  • Adopting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices and developing Best Management Practices (BMPs).
  • Introducing the first commercial use of parasitic nematodes.
  • Publishing and disseminating to all growers a guidebook on grower environmental obligations.
  • Developing the first on-site environmental audit program for farmers.
  • Researching a variety of new and innovative water protection technologies.
  • Establishing a wildlife habitat enhancement program for growers.
  • Developing a Geographic Information System (GIs) that, beyond tracking grower contract acreage, helps growers understand the environmental sensitivity of their farming operation in the watershed.
Water Quality

    CENEX/Land O'Lakes Agronomy, Minneapolis, Minn., a joint marketing venture involving two of the nation's leading agricultural cooperatives, helps sponsor the "River-Friendly Far-mers" program in Minnesota, which publicly recognizes farmers who practice exemplary environmental stewardship. It was launched in 1995 by the Minnesota Alliance for Crop Residue Management with the support of 10 public and private sponsors.

    The program's goals are to: 1) publicize and promote farming practices that benefit Minnesota river water quality while maintaining the profitability of farming; and 2) inform the non-farm public about farmers' positive contributions to the cleanup of Minnesota's rivers.

    The program's main emphasis is on cropping systems that affect water quality. The 10 criteria in the program cover erosion control and the proper management of fertilizer, manure and pesticides. Local resource managers are provided with a positive way to promote a full range of best management practices for farming.

    Another goal of the program is to recognize 1,000 farmers by 1998. To earn the recognition, a farmer must complete a questionnaire that is reviewed by environmental specialists from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Cooperative Extension or other agencies. To be a river-friendly farmer, growers must meet these standards: 1) practice conservation tillage, leaving 30 percent residue cover after planting; 2) protect highly erodible land so that soil loss is at or below the "tolerable" level; 3) use plant food based on soil and manure tests, realistic yield goals and nutrient credits; 4) observe state and regional best management practices for nitrogen use; 5) apply phosphorus in bands below the soil surface or incorporate it after surface application; 6) meet state standards for manure storage facilities; 7) inject or incorporate liquid manure within 48 hours of surface application; 8) apply manure in a way that minimizes water contamination within 300 feet of surface waters, drainage ditches, tile intakes and similar areas; 9) use cultural pest-control practices to the greatest extent possible while observing guidelines for water quality protection; and 10) maintain profitability and productivity comparable to surrounding farms.

    Fruit Growers Supply Cooperative, Van Nuys, Calif., a manufacturing and supply affiliate of Sunkist Growers, is leading an innovative par-tnership in Nor-thern California that succeeded in significantly reducing stream sedimentation from road sources during sustainable timbering operations. The cooperative, one of the largest private landowners in the watershed, joined with 12 other organizations to form the French Creek Watershed Advisory Group to address the issue of cumulative watershed effects. The goal was to control the primary sources of non-point pollution so that water quality and salmon habitat would improve both visually and quantitatively.

    Logging was a primary cause of stream sedimentation, producing about 62 percent of the sediment. The group responded by adopting road management and monitoring plans. Road improvements included re-contouring and rocking (creating a rock surface) on 28 miles of unsurfaced roads, closing road segments during the wet season, planting 20,000 trees on cut-and-fill slopes, placing mulch on large roadcuts and rocking four miles of private driveways.

    An in-stream monitoring plan was created to measure the success of the erosion control projects. This effort involved comparisons to 1989 baseline data for fish numbers and sediment levels in pools and gravel beds within streams. The monitoring phase, an annual joint effort by all members of the advisory group, found that sediment levels stored in pools declined dramatically, from 32 percent in 1992 to 11 percent in 1995.
What is "Environmental Stewardship?"

To many, these words signify a commitment to protecting our natural resources for generations to come. It's not something you just decide to do. Stewardship has deep roots, and its rewards are not often immediate. Like planting a tree or working the soil, it takes dedication, nurturing, constant attention and care. As a system, are we willing to accept and embrace a new era of environmental stewardship? Are we ready to dedicate even more resources toward protecting air, land and water supplies? We are. We must." (From GROW Marks member newspaper, Spirit).

    Both private timber owners and the USDA Forest Service were threatened with additional regulations to prevent and correct the serious sedimentation problems found in the French Creek Watershed. The joint partnership of the advisory group brought landowners together to develop consensus on the problem, find agreeable solutions and implement improvements on a voluntar-y basis.

    As a result of this project, timber management continues as a compatible use in the watershed without additional regulations. The French Creek Advisory Group was a community award winner of CF Industries National Watershed Award in 1996.

Precision Agriculture

    Farmland Industries Inc., Kansas City, Mo., has initiated AG-21, a program designed to position selected local cooperatives to compete, survive and prosper with producers who will farm the land into the next century. AG-21 creates a process in which farmers, local cooperatives and Farmland Industries work together to be the best in producing crops. It involves optimization of quantity and quality of production, economic viability, sustainability of crop production, productivity of the land, conservation of resources, protection of the environment and protection of human health.

    AG-21 status is bestowed on a local cooperative and its producers only if the co-op meets and maintains partnership standards in agronomics, environmental protection and safety. Marketing and human resources standards must also be met. Program features include:

  •     An agronomic audit is conducted to evaluate a co-op's current practices, facilities and equipment for providing nutrients and crop protection products for producers' crops.
  •     An audit is conducted by Farmland's Environmental & Safety Services to determine a co-op's status in meeting OSHA, EPA and other regulatory requirements for facilities, equipment, safety practices and reporting procedures.
  •     A marketing and human resources audit is conducted to assess the co-op's mission, marketing and sales programs, objectives and strategies, competitive position, strengths and weaknesses, market share and potential and future direction. It also helps evaluate the employee base for experience and training in marketing and sales skills, communications and business and employee management.
    AG-21 enables the producer to take a pro-active stance in implementing farming practices that are both environmentally and economically sound. Producers have access to the best recommendations, products and services.

    One tool utilized in the AG-21 process is a precision-fanning software product called AgInfo, developed by Farmland Industries in partnership with the Agronomy Service Bureau. AgInfo integrates various new crop production testing, monitoring and application technologies, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Position Systems (GPS), remote sensing and yield monitoring. This software package enables farmers who use AgInfo to increase their profits per acre, protect their land and water and develop a detailed, historical record of their crop farm operations. In 1996, AgInfo received the Computerworld/ Smithsonian Award in the "Environment, Energy and Agriculture" category.

    A growing number of cooperatives, including CENEX/Land O'Lakes, Southern States, GROWMARK, Agway and Sunkist, are utilizing precision agriculture application technologies to reduce environmental impacts, increase production yields on the best lands and make more efficient use of fertilizer, seeds and crop protectants.

    Precision agriculture reduces environmental impacts by putting fertilizers and crop protection products where they are most needed, thus reducing the potential for runoff into ground and surface waters. It also decreases the need to farm environmentally sensitive lands by increasing yields on more productive lands.

Grower Incentives

    To help farmer-members achieve both economic and environmental benefits, American Crystal Sugar, Moorhead, Minn., utilizes an innovative crop-quality payment system. Under this program, payment is based on sugar content rather than gross beet tonnage. It also involves technical assistance to help promote precision nutrient management.

    This payment system has changed criteria for nitrogen use. High nitrogen applications increase beet tonnage, but sugar content is reduced, resulting in less sugar recovered per ton processed. The cooperative also works with CENEX/Land O'Lakes Agronomy to assist farmers in implementing intensive soil testing, variable rate fertilizer application and other best management practices. Intensive soil testing increases grower awareness of residual nitrogen levels in both the surface soil and subsoil. As a result, nitrogen applications have been reduced substantially, minimizing the likelihood of surface or ground water contamination.

    Economic and environmental benefits of this program include: 1) nitrogen usage has been reduced approximately 50 pounds per acre, or 36 million pounds annually, for annual savings of $5.8 million; 2) recoverable sugar has increased about 50 pounds per ton, with annual payments to farmers about $70 million higher; and 3) improved nitrogen efficiency enhances surface and ground water quality.

    AgriBank, FCB offers financial incentives to its lenders through reduced rate loans and the development of a test project that will offer interest rate incentives. The test project will involve state and/or federal support through low interest rate funding and on-site technical assistance provided by farmer cooperatives. It also entails a certification program, coordinated by state and local soil and water conservation agencies, which establishes specifications on best management practices (BMPs) and verifies compliance. If successful, this program could then be replicated in other watersheds.

    Farm Credit Services (FCS) associations funded by AgriBank also participate in a state-sponsored program which helps reduce non-point source pollution in Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio. Loan rates are reduced for producer-borrowers within qualifying watersheds under these programs. Eligible loan purposes include agricultural waste management projects and activities; conservation practices; upgrades and improvements to individual sewage treatment systems; and sealing unused or abandoned private wells.

Wildlife Habitat Improvement

    Tri Valley Growers, San Francisco, Calif., a fruit and vegetable processing and marketing cooperative, has established an award-winning wildlife management project that sets an example of business and the environment working together at its tomato paste processing plant at Volta, Calif. The plant is located on 840 acres in a buffer zone adjacent to the Volta State Wildlife Area, one of the few remaining areas in the Central Valley where waterfowl migrating from Canada and Alaska can winter.

    The cooperative is playing a role in guaranteeing the continued natural integrity of the region by setting aside 312 acres of its 840-acre plant site as a wetland wildlife habitat. The remaining acreage has been developed as an upland nesting area for ducks.

    A number of government and water agencies were involved in developing a design concept for the area. A study concluded that the plant's wastewater contained enough organic material to provide a natural amendment that would improve the highly alkali clay soil found in the area. Irrigating the upland areas with the wastewater helped set the stage for an all organic process of evaporation and composting. This created the right soil and moisture conditions for a waterfowl breeding ground. Grasses known to benefit nesting waterfowl have been established.

    The nesting success rate in this area has been greater than 85 percent in the best vegetation. That is nearly six times higher than the success rate found in most breeding areas of the northern United States and Canada.

    The natural growth and water consumption of the grasses provides the cooperative with a highly efficient method of evaporating wastewater from its food processing operations. This wastewater cannot be discharged into the area's waterways. Meanwhile, the 312-acre wetland site is providing excellent habitat for wintering and breeding waterfowl and a host of other wetland wildlife. The cooperative is transferring experience gained from this project to other operations.

Integrated Pest Management

    Pro-Fac Cooperative Inc., a Rochester, N.Y., agricultural marketing cooperative, has embarked on an innovative partnership with Wegmans, a chain of food markets in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. This effort is aimed at capturing additional value through food products grown and marketed under a certified Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. Wegmans has introduced a line of foods called "Food You Feel Good About," which are great-tasting, low- fat foods with no artificial ingredients. Wegmans also promotes foods produced with environmentally friendly production practices.

    Due to the high cost of organically grown fresh produce, Wegmans began to offer IPM-grown fresh sweet corn. Consumers liked the idea of putting corn on their tables that was produced with environmentally friendly practices that minimized the use of pesticides and cost less than organic corn (grown without use of any agri-chemicals). Wegmans then approached a local food processor (Comstock Michigan Fruit) and Cornell University to initiate a program to offer its customers six processed vegetables produced under a certified IPM program.

    Under this program, Cornell University provides the guidelines for the IPM practices to grow beans, corn, beets, carrots, cabbage and peas. Comstock Michigan Fruit, a division of Curtice Burns Foods, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pro-Fac Cooperative, will work with 10 of the cooperative's members to grow, harvest, deliver and process the crops. The products will be packaged with the Wegmans "Food You Feel Good About" label and bear a licensed IPM logo.

    The "Food You Feel Good About" initiative documents the special efforts of dedicated growers to minimize their use of chemicals and helps make consumers aware of the food industry's efforts to maintain a safe food supply and protect the environment.

    Sun-Maid Growers, Kingsburg, Calif., which operates the largest raisin processing plant in the world, has formed a partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts to expand its ongoing IPM program in an effort to help growers improve their farming practices and yields through education and outreach. Through a $535,000 grant to Fresno Pacific University, the Pew Charitable Trust is helping to document raisin production techniques that decrease pesticide risks and to explore the role cooperatives can play in effecting fundamental changes in agricultural production.

    The grant is spread over three years and roughly matches Sun-Maid's financial suppor-t of IPM over the past few years. In addition to educational efforts, the grant will fund "lighthouse farms." These are the farms of Sun-Maid members who demonstrate best management practices on 10-to-20-acre plots. Practices that the cooperative advocates include use of cover crops in vineyards, pest scouting, replacing stronger chemicals with milder alternatives and lowering spraying rates. The coop is also publishing a raisin-production manual and supporting continued research.

Environmental Policy/Education Issues

    An increased appreciation about the cooperative environmental stewardship success stories such as those reported on the preceding pages not only sets the standard for future successes, but can also be used to help reassure the American public and policymakers that agriculture is playing a major role in environmental stewardship through voluntar-y efforts. It can also strengthen the opportunity for advocating future environmental policies that emphasize involving American agriculture through voluntary, incentive-based partnerships.

Public Education

    According to a national poll commissioned in 1996 by NCFC and conducted by the firm of Penn & Schoen, Americans still place a high level of trust in American farmers as good environmental stewards. However, a number of recent events suggest that this trust is not based on an understanding of what agriculture is actually doing. Remember the headlines involving issues such as alar on apples, cryptosporidium in Milwaukee's drinking water, breached hog manure lagoons in North Carolina and the effects of nutrients in the Florida Everglades? Simply stated, agriculture remains one headline away from the next crisis in consumer confidence. Trust is a fragile commodity that must be earned every day by cooperatives and farmers from their non-farm neighbors.

    Non-farm neighbors are closer than most people realize. According to the American Farmland Trust, over 60 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural production occurs on farms that are located either in urban or urban fringe counties. What happens on the farm is increasingly noticed by neighbors across the fence.

    Farmer cooperatives and their members are doing a better job in terms of environmental stewardship. However, both environmental standards and the ability to detect contaminants represent moving targets. It is important to appreciate that downstream communities striving to achieve drinking water and other environmental requirements are particularly affected. The increasing cost of conforming to stricter reg-ulations translates into local tax increases, bond referendums and higher utility fees. It's not surprising that communities are increasingly looking upstream at the sources of pollution, including agriculture.

    Therefore, finding better ways to communicate to the non-agricultural public and working to understand and appreciate the perspective and concerns of off farm neighbors are dual challenges that NCFC and its member cooperatives are actively embracing in today's era of environmental stewardship.

    For the most part, national policy makers and the non-agricultural public are unaware of the many voluntary actions that cooperatives and their farmer-members are undertaking to address environmental challenges. Too often, agriculture is misperceived as only being "part of the problem."

    NCFC and its members have responded by publicizing cooperative environmental stewardship success stories such as those profiled in this article through "Cooperative Agriculture For the Environment (CAFE)." CA-FE is an education and outreach effort that seeks to reinforce consumer tr-ust by building bridges of dialogue and understanding to the non-agricultural world, including the public, policy makers and other interest groups.

    CAFE's roots trace back to the National Forum on Non-point Source Pollution, which in 1993-1994 successfully brought together national leaders from business, government and public interest groups to seek consensus recommendations and to promote demonstration projects that would show innovative, non-regulatory approaches to reduce non-point source runoff. The farmer cooperative community was represented by Robert C. Liuzzi, president of CF Industries, Russell Hanlin, president of Sunkist Growers, and Glenn Webb, board chairman of GROWMARK Inc., and the only farmer represented on the forum.

    Commenting on the forum, Liuzzi said that "As farmer-owned cooperatives, we are uniquely positioned to assist farmers in building on the progress already being made. The cooperative agriculture community is committed to the development of better information and incentives that help our farmer-members work both harder and smarter."

    That collaborative effort profiled and built upon a number of ongoing cooperative initiatives through demonstration projects endorsed by the forum. Based on this positive experience, cooperatives have taken the lead on several other national initiatives, such as the CF Industries National Watershed Award and Farmland Industries' participation in the National Conservation Buffer Partnership. These two initiatives emphasize public-private partnerships based on education, communication and voluntary participation and demonstrates on a national level cooperative agriculture's commitment to environmental stewardship.

    The CF Industries National Watershed Award, announced in 1996, is cosponsored by CF Industries and The Conservation Fund. It is designed to recognize the work of people who invent and implement voluntary, non-regulatory programs to control non-point source water pollution. The award is presented each year to three communities and one corporation which have launched initiatives that best demonstrate the most effective ways to protect watersheds.

    The initiative is an outgrowth of the National Forum on Non-point Source Pollution. CF Industries established the award to demonstrate its commitment to support the for-um's finding that a national watershed award should be established. "We've got to help people go beyond government mandates and incorporate water quality thinking in their planning, work and leisure activities," Liuzzi says. "The private sector must take up the challenge."

    The National Conservation Buffer Partnership is a major public-private partnership dedicated to working with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. The partnership is designed to achieve USDA's National Conservation Buffer Initiative goal of helping American farmers install two million miles of buffer strips across the agricultural landscape by 2002. Farmland Industries is a founding member of the National Conservation Buffer Partnership Committee, which also includes five other companies. The six companies have pledged their leadership and nearly $1 million over the next three years to team with USDA in one of the most ambitious conservation campaigns ever undertaken.

    The partnership committee will help educate, encourage and enable farmers to install buffer strips, principally through the continuous sign-up provision of the Conservation Reserve Program. This coordinated national effort will foster and complement the tremendous progress already underway through on-field innovations such as crop residue management, precision farming, and other exciting advances in best management practices.

    Farmland Industries intends to provide information on conservation buffers through its dealer network, adding "edge of field" assistance to the crop production services provided through its AG-21 program. Properly maintained conservation buffers can reduce runoff of pathogens, nutrients, pesticides and sediments by 70 percent or more and would help farmers buffer against unwanted regulations.

    NCFC has supported the national watershed award and is a charter member of the National Conservation Buffer Partnership Committee. "We are strongly committed to assisting Farmland and other cooperatives as they help farmer-members seize the opportunity for major improvements in water quality through this voluntary, incentive-driven approach," commented NCFC President David Graves.

Environmental Policy

    Too often in the past, agriculture has found itself in the position of opposing poorly founded environmental policy options, without offering a constructive alternative to policy makers. The long-term prognosis for this strategy yielding a successful outcome is not encouraging when less than 2 million farmers are matched against an increasingly urban society of 260 million Americans who want safe drinking water and a quality environment-especially if farmers' actions are characterized as placing cost burdens on their "downstream" neighbors.

    A strong case can be made that the best alternative to ill-advised "command-and-control" regulatory approaches-which could hurt the financial bottom line of farmers and their cooperatives-is to involve American agriculture in voluntary, incentive-based partnerships that promote on-the-ground stewardship successes. Based on this premise, NCFC advocates policies that will ultimately enable environmental, human health and food and agricultural policy objectives to move forward in close harmony for the benefit of farmers, their cooperatives and consumers.

    This policy approach is heavily reliant upon reaching beyond the farm gate through targeted dialogue with representatives of "downstream" neighbors and various associations involved in water quality policy, including the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, the National League of Cities and the National Governors Association. Dialogue promotes increasing understanding on both sides, which in turn creates opportunities for consensus-based action as a productive alternative to confrontation. Others must be educated about the positive stewardship efforts of agricultural cooperatives, Farm Act conser-vation programs and other programs available to help farmers. Cooperatives must also learn from others about their environmental problems and find ways to work together, where appropriate.
    Are farmer cooperatives prepared to combine on-the-ground environmental stewardship successes and working in targeted partnerships with non-farm interests to solve America's water quality and other environmental challenges?

    We are. We must!

For more information on farmer cooperative environmental stewardship success stories, please contact Jennifer Boyle at 50 F. St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20001; Phone: (202) 626-8700; FAX: (202)626-8899; or E-mail:

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