A change in career from art department chairman at Southern Methodist University to Newellton, La., agricultural producer wasn’t really that much of a stretch for Jay Hardwick, who farms part of Somerset Plantation.

For Hardwick, Somerset is a living canvas of biodiversity, rich soil textures and plant life. He has felt right at home within the swaths of cotton, corn and soybeans there ever since 1981, when a summer-long stint on his father-in-law’s farm somehow turned into a 30-year farming career.

These days, Hardwick has been looking closely at another important element of the farm canvas, its sustainability. Hardwick is participating in a project called Field to Market, the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. The project has gathered representatives from throughout the food and fiber chain, including grower organizations, agribusinesses, food companies, conservation organizations and land grant universities.

Hardwick, representatives of the cotton industry, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Keystone Center discussed the project during a tour of Hardwick’s farm this summer.

The Keystone Center, established in 1975, organized the Field to Market initiative three years ago, after representatives of agribusiness as well as conservation organizations expressed concern that commodity agriculture was not a part of the discussion on sustainability. The Keystone Center is a neutral, non-profit organization specializing in collaborative decision-making processes for environment, energy, and health policy issues.

Sarah Alexander, director of sustainability and leadership programs for Keystone, said, “We recognized that several different models would be needed. So we decided to sit down and figure out what the conversation should be about sustainable agriculture for commodity crops.”

The Field to Market tour introduced a new tool on Hardwick’s farm tour, a Web-based, field print calculator. The calculator can generate a footprint measuring the environmental impact of various crop inputs and practices. Data is generated for five areas: soil loss, irrigation water use efficiency, climate impact (greenhouse gas emissions), land use and energy use.

According to Andy Jordan, vice president of technical services for the National Cotton Council, the calculator “allows the grower to benchmark his own practices against national averages. It’s an educational awareness tool. We’re looking at ways to make the tool more useful for growers.”

Producers can create “what if” scenarios with the field print calculator, which is available online at http://www.fieldtomarket.org. For example, the user can calculate the impact of terraces, grass filter strips, etc., on the soil loss component.

Jordan said the footprint picture, like precision farming maps, “might bring out questions on how the images can be used. That’s a concept that is still being worked out.”

Healthier soils

Somerset Plantation is a family partnership operating since 1814. Early on, it was a large cotton-producing farm, with much of its output going to textile mills in England. Of the plantation’s 20,000 acres, 14,000 acres are in production. Hardwick farms 8,000 acres west of Hwy. 65, while his brother-in-law farms land east of the highway. Today, the farm produces cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and grain sorghum.

Hardwick has records of field operations going back to the early 1980s, which detail the farm “going from traditional agricultural practices to a farm dominated by heavy residue management and generous dose of conservation tillage.”

Hardwick says the footprint calculator has demonstrated to him the importance of “continuing to strive for reduced tillage, managing residue and having some type of cover crop. Healthier soils are going to be a driver for production along with water quality issues.”

A decade ago, Hardwick talked his father-in-law into taking land out of production on either side of a stream that flooded frequently during the season. With cost-share assistance from conservation programs, Hardwick has returned the stream — which he discovered is an old run of the Mississippi River — to a natural state. Trees and natural grasses on either side of the stream act as a buffer to keep soil and chemicals on fields and out of waterways. That’s a positive for the land use efficiency and soil loss factors on the footprint calculator.

The field print of a field on Somerset may vary from year to year based on crop selection and weather, according to Jordan. And there are definitely some conundrums to ponder. For example, the calculator indicated a climate impact larger than national averages on a 2005 no-till cotton field — mainly due to high fertilizer requirements.

Jordan noted that the cotton soils on Somerset “are highly productive and require a significant amount of fertilizer.” At the same time, water use efficiency was much lower on the field due to the excellent yields produced by the combination of good soil, ample fertility and irrigation.

Sometimes the footprint is simply the luck of the draw, noted Jordan. “For example, water use efficiency under irrigation may differ from year to year. During a dry year, if Jay applies water and ups his average yield, water use would have been extremely efficient. But if he irrigates during a wet year, and he would have made 45 bushels without irrigation, his efficiency drops.”

The calculator found that cutting out plant protection chemicals “is sort of like trimming your fingernails to lose weight,” Jordan said. “They are minimal compared to other inputs.”

In a field of no-till soybeans, climate impact was reduced significantly because fertilization of soybeans is considerably less than that of cotton and corn.

How sustainability may impact year-to-year farmer profitability is also a concern, Alexander said. “There are no easy answers, but certainly there are some things on the resource efficiency side that can result in some cost savings.”

There is not likely to be a price premium associated with sustainability efforts because of the nature of commodity markets, Alexander added. “There is a market driver for sustainability, but we just don’t know what that looks like yet. The supply chain is still learning about all these issues, just as farmers are.”

Alexander said the Keystone Alliance wants “to clearly define where the grower’s responsibility begins and ends with sustainability. For example, with water quality, the grower can be doing all he can do, but if he’s not part of a broader system that is working toward the same goals, then we may not accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

Keystone defines agricultural sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability to feed future generations by focusing on increasing agricultural productivity while decreasing environmental impact, improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food and improving social and economic well-being of rural communities.”

“There are only several ways we can address the projected population increases over the next 30 years,” Hardwick added. “We either have to have more land or be more inventive with the land we have.”

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com