RDs, consumers, and workers and managers in every aspect of food production have an interest in sustainability. Such concern also extends to farmers. RD Lounge (RDL) was fortunate to meet and speak with two farmers who also are dietitians.
RDL chatted about sustainability with Jennie Schmidt, MS, RD, a full-time farmer of corn, tomatoes, green beans, soybeans, and wine grapes in Maryland and a consultant to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, Monsanto, and other agricultural organizations; and Charlotte Rommereim, RDN, LN, LD, a pig farmer in South Dakota and a consultant to the National Pork Board. Listen in on these two dietitian-farmers’ viewpoints on what they believe to be sustainable farming practices in their own settings.
RDL: Please tell us what sustainable farming means to you, and what sustainable practices do you engage in?
Schmidt: All human activity, including growing food, has an impact on the environment. Sustainability on the family farm, in part, means using the most efficient practices that have the least impact on our soils, our waterways, and our communities. We use agronomic practices such as no-till farming, cover crops, and integrated pest management. This includes technology such as variable rate irrigation, auto-shut off nozzles, GreenSeeker technology (a system that uses optical sensors to recognize crop variability by applying the precise amount of fertilizer needed), GPS-guided steering and other precision technologies that allow us to reduce our inputs such as fertilizers, reduce our impact, and preserve our natural resources while maintaining an economically viable family farm that the next generation wants to inherit. A family farm is sustainable only if the next generation returns to take over the business.
Rommereim: Sustainability isn’t necessarily a word that farmers use, but farmers have been sustainable for generations on their family farms. Sustainability to me is my family farm business that has been in operation since my great-great-grandfather homesteaded the land in 1874. Each generation has embraced the available technology to preserve the land, the way of life, and the business to make it better than before and to pass it on to the next generation. Simply, sustainability is doing the best we can to care for the land and the animals so the family farm goes on to feed the world for many more generations.
My family has raised pigs and cattle for more than 100 years on our farm. The corn and soybeans we raise, in large part, are raised for feeding our animals and other animals in our local area. Our soil and climate are suited to grow the crops needed to feed animals. For our farm, this has been sustainable farming. It’s impossible to make general statements about sustainability that apply to all farms around the world.
RDL: Is that because the soil, weather, and growing conditions vary from region to region?
Rommereim: Yes, but there are many other reasons too. The cost to have the buildings and equipment for raising the animals or crops, the available markets to sell the products, availability of a labor force to do the work on the farm, and many other factors impact how someone farms sustainably.
RDL: What are your thoughts about a sustainable diet?
Rommereim: As a dietitian, I’ve wrestled with what is an appropriate “sustainable diet” to recommend. Because agriculture and environmental science experts can’t clearly define sustainability and identify sustainable practices for all farmers in the world, we should refrain from labeling one diet pattern as most sustainable. In a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, White and Hall reviewed the impact on diet if animal products were excluded. They concluded, “This assessment suggests that removing animals from US agriculture would reduce agricultural GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, but would also create a food supply incapable of supporting the US population’s nutritional requirements.”
RDL: Jennie, I heard you say that the goal of your farm is synergistic farming. What does this mean?
Schmidt: In agriculture, we look at the farm as a system. It’s an integrative approach. All aspects of the farm are integrated with one another instead of being pieced into the commonly held consumer concept that a farm is conventional, organic, or biotech. My farm defines the integration of these systems as being synergistic and not as an ideology that one system or cookie-cutter approach is the best path forward.
RDL: I think you’re saying that you individualize your approach based on specific circumstances.
Schmidt: Yes, we take the best management practices and tools available from all different farming systems and leverage them to work synergistically within our family farming operation. Utilizing the best management practices across all systems allows us to move farther down the sustainability continuum rather than being locked into a set of practices that adhere to a single system.
RDL: Charlotte, what do you and other pig farmers do to reduce the carbon footprint of your farm activities?
Rommereim: In 2009, the National Pork Board conducted an environmental study that revealed America’s pig farmers had reduced their carbon footprint by 35%, cut land use by 78%, and used 41% less water than they had 50 years earlier. On our farm in 2005, we moved our pigs indoors to provide a good environment for our animals. By using climate-controlled barns, we use less feed and water to raise our pigs. As you can imagine, they use less energy when they aren’t working to keep their bodies warm in a South Dakota winter. With the pigs indoors, their manure is collected in a pit under the barn. We apply the manure—a natural fertilizer and source of valuable nutrients—to our fields. Being able to collect the manure and to provide a comfortable environment for our pigs in all types of South Dakota weather were two of the reasons we decided to move our pigs indoors. Comfortable, healthy pigs grow faster and need fewer resources to grow, making our farm more sustainable. The manure collected is another factor in our environmental impact as it improves the health of the soil, which increases the crops grown on the land and reduces our need for synthetic fertilizers.
RDL: What is a myth that consumers hold about farming that you’d like to clear up? How would you like RDs to respond?
Schmidt: The myth that probably drives me the most crazy is that farmers douse their fields [with pesticides]. I’ve seen memes on social media implying that if a farmer wears personal protective equipment, the chemical is unsafe for agriculture. The meme says something along the lines of, “If it’s not safe to breathe, how can it be safe to eat?” That’s not a fair or accurate statement. I run three different types of sprayers on my farm. Expecting a farmer not to wear protective gear while using pesticides is akin to asking a surgeon not to gown up before surgery or asking an RD not to wear a protective mask entering an isolation room. When we took organic [chemistry] and biochem as part of our RD curriculum, did we not wear masks and goggles in the lab? As a mom and an RD, I want to protect myself, my kids who eat what we grow straight out of the field, and those who buy food produced on my farm.
Also, pesticides typically are applied in water. So when you see a sprayer in the field with a large tank like mine, which holds 700 gallons, you should know that of the 700 gallons, maybe 10 gallons is chemical and the rest is water. That 700 gallons is applied at 15 gallons per acre—imagine three 5-gallon buckets—applied evenly across a football field)—so that 700-gallon tank will cover 47 acres or about 0.04 oz per square foot. That is anything but dousing!
A first step for RDs to respond to a myth like dousing is to become informed about farming practices. As RDs, it’s important that we address concerns with facts. I hope RDs will ignore memes on social media and reach out to farmers like me who can explain the process in detail. They should speak with the farming community but not for the farming community.
Rommereim: A myth that bothers me is that there’s one right way to raise animals on a farm. Farmers make decisions based on how they can best provide good animal care with the available resources and markets in their area. Before the RD makes judgments about types of housing and animal care practices, I urge them to visit a farm and talk with the farmers about how they care for their animals. I think it would surprise some to find out how important good animal care is to the farmer and how passionate they are about it.
Charlotte Rommereim, RDN, LN, LD, is a consultant dietitian to health care facilities. She’s the Agriculture subgroup chair on the executive committee for the Food and Culinary Professionals Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. With her unique perspective as a dietitian who understands the agriculture industry, she encourages conversations about how food is raised and speaks from her perspective of living “farm to fork.”
— Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDCES, FAND, CHWC, is a freelance writer and a nutrition and diabetes consultant to the food industry, including Dow AgroSciences and Egg Nutrition Center. She has a private practice in Newport News, Virginia, and is the author of several books, including Diabetes Weight Loss — Week by Week.