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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Assistant Director of Policy

Justin Knopf’s family has been farming land in central Kansas for five generations — starting with their original homestead in the 1860s. Now, Knopf farms 4,000 acres with his father and brother, growing HRW wheat, alfalfa, grain sorghum, soybeans and corn.

“I feel like I have been given a gift to be able to work with the land, and that comes with responsibility,” said Knopf. “What I do impacts consumers, so it is important to take time and energy to be transparent with them and share the bigger story of what is happening in our landscape.”

Knopf is the last farmer in USW’s six-part series on farmer sustainability. USW has featured farmers from each class of U.S. wheat and from all over the country to highlight how their production practices are dependent on local factors and how they each address the goal of sustainability on their farm.

To Knopf, sustainability involves stewardship of resources in three areas — environmental, economic and human. He uses tools, research and continuing farm education opportunities to implement agronomic practices to protect natural resources such as soil, water and air, while also optimizing his production per unit of resources. This is environmental sustainability. Knopf also works to make economically responsible decisions for the farm because if it cannot survive as a business, he will not have a long-term ability to positively affect the environment down the road, which is economic sustainability. And finally, Knopf feels there is a human element to the sustainability conversation. He spends time focusing on the health and happiness of his family, his town and his neighbors while also working to educate consumers, which is social sustainability. All three of these are necessary for agriculture to thrive.

“The land will go on for much longer than I will be here, and it’s a much bigger story outside of myself, so I feel a responsibility to share that bigger story of what is happening with other people as a part of our stewardship,” said Knopf.

Knopf works to share his story by being involved in consumer outreach programs and sustainability research. Two years ago, in a partnership with Kansas Farm Bureau, he hosted a family on his farm for the day to show them how wheat is produced. Last year, Knopf was featured in the book “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland” by Miriam Horn, which talked about his focus on improving soil health on his farm. A documentary film by the same title, narrated by award-winning journalist Tom Brokaw, and directed by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Susan Froemke and Emmy-winning filmmaker John Hoffman, will premiere on the Discovery Channel in late August 2016.

Knopf’s emphasis on soil quality and increasing organic matter is particularly impressive. He does this by using no-till methods, carefully calibrating his crop rotations to maximize organic matter and experimenting with cover crops. These practices have improved his soil health, increased soil moisture and improved fertility, allowing him to reduce inputs like fertilizer and fuel and ultimately increase yields. As part of this constant effort to improve, Knopf experiments with new ideas on his farm to make sure that he is being a responsible land owner and manager.

“We see our soils as a fundamentally essential natural resource that is irreplaceable — and it takes a long time to build that soil up again if you lose it,” said Knopf. “And one of the foundational ideas of our family and our farm business is to be a steward of those natural resources and do everything we can to leave them in a better shape for the next generation.”

Learn more about Knopf and his farm at www.uswheat.org/factsheets. U.S. farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters also share their values, sustainability experiences and conservation practices at the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

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By Emily McGarry, USW Policy Intern

Bob Johns farms in northeast Oregon, and he would tell you that he’s been farming since the day he was born. Johns’ 5,000-acre farm has been in the family since 1873, but he is ready to retire soon. Since there is no family to take over, he is handing the reins to his business partner, Chris Williams, a long-time family friend who began working summers for Johns when he was in high school.

“I have been around agricultural stuff my whole life,” said Williams. “I am fascinated with starting with a bare piece of ground, seeing what you can grow and watching it progress through the season.”

Together, Johns and Williams grow wheat, green peas and alfalfa. They make sustainability a priority on the farm through no-till practices, clean water programs and new farming technology.

“Farming is my life and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do — I never thought of doing anything else,” said Johns. “My father’s life was farming and he passed that on to me. I hope to pass it on to my business partner, Chris.”

Johns is the fifth of six U.S. wheat farmers featured in USW’s series on wheat sustainability. He manages regional agricultural nuances by adapting his practices to be sustainable for his region’s soil and environmental conditions. Part of that also includes planning for the future and a non-traditional transition so that his farm business is still successful for years to come.

“Chris loves the land,” said Johns. “He keeps me on the cutting edge and pushes me to look at the latest technology. We are a good team.”

Northeast Oregon is known for its extremely steep farmland, which often requires special equipment and makes soil erosion a challenge. Johns sees wide variation in his soil quality and the amount of rainfall on his farm, so individual fields often require different levels of attention and inputs. In the past, steep slopes on his farm caused erosion. However, in 2011, Johns switched to no-till practices, which has cut his erosion to nearly zero and greatly improved soil health.

In order to protect the region’s natural resources, Johns and Williams also had their farm certified as “salmon-safe,” which means they restrict the products they use on their land that is near water sources. They also grow plants in those areas that increase the biodiversity on their farm and promote beneficial insects and wildlife.

“We value the environment and we value what we’re doing on the ground,” said Johns. “It’s important to us; we don’t just go out without thinking about those things.”

For Johns, this means finding ways to improve practices through new technology and innovation. Last year, Johns and Williams started experimenting with a drone on their farm to see if aerial photos of their fields could give them insight on crop health and stress levels, soil fertility and input requirements.

Johns and Williams are constantly finding new ways to improve the sustainability of their farm, whether through certification opportunities, government programs, or new technology and practices. But the piece that is most important is the plan for transition. Because Johns partnered with Williams, he knows that his farm will be in good hands when he retires — with someone who loves the land as much as he does.

Learn more about John’s and Williams’ farming partnership at www.uswheat.org/factsheets. U.S. farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters also share their values, sustainability experiences and conservation practices at the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Policy Specialist

John Hoffman farms some of the same land that four generations of his family have managed since the late 1800s. Today, the farm covers roughly 3,200 acres where he grows corn, soybeans and soft red winter (SRW) wheat. For Hoffman, sustainability is key to preserving his family’s farming tradition for the next generation.

“I think we’re sustainable when every year we are able to plant a crop, harvest a crop, and do it again the next year,” said Hoffman. “If we are not sustainable, that would not happen — we would not stay in business every year.”

Hoffman believes being sustainable means being an early adapter of emerging practices on his farm. He tries to embrace the latest farming technologies to help improve his business, such as no-till and minimum till practices to improve soil health, GPS technology to increase accuracy and use inputs efficiently, and government conservation programs to give back to the environment.

Hoffman is the fourth of six U.S. wheat farmers featured in a USW series on wheat sustainability. These profiles show the differences in wheat production practices across the country and how those farming practices enhance the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

“Family farming is a way of life, but it is also a large business,” said Hoffman. “Anything we can do to improve on what we do as business people, farmers and human beings to make things better, we are going to attempt to do it.”

A good example is how Hoffman uses a combination of no-till and minimum-till practices depending on crop need. No-till farming does not disturb the soil, which increases the amount of water that penetrates the soil surface and improves organic matter. Minimum-till helps warm the soil or reduce excess moisture. Both techniques reduce erosion compared to traditional tillage. He produces all his wheat and 80 percent of his soybeans with no-till technology, and he uses minimum tillage in corn production.

Access to better seed over the years has allowed Hoffman to improve his farming practices and use innovative techniques so that his farm is constantly improving. This story is true for many farmers, as plant breeding comes up with new varieties that respond to specific agronomic and economic challenges. That innovation is just another facet of the sustainability story.

“With the new genetics available in seed today, we can be more cost-effective and utilize less chemicals. That also made the no-till option a lot more practical,” said Hoffman. “Plus, the soil savings — the conservation aspect of it — we thought it was better for our land. It really helped reduce soil erosion.”

Another issue in Hoffman’s area is how farming affects water quality. By reducing soil erosion, he and other farmers reduce the amount of water that runs off their fields. Hoffman has also tried to reduce his inputs over the years to help with water quality and makes sure to use them intelligently — by not applying fertilizer on frozen ground or before a large rain, he makes sure that those inputs stay in the field instead of being washed away. On some of his land, he has been able to use government conservation programs and plant grass around the natural water runoff areas.

Hoffman’s farm has thrived because he has been able to innovate and adopt new technologies and practices over the years. At its core, that is what sustainability is about — constant improvement. Each of the farmers featured in USW’s Sustainability Profiles embody this idea. They do it in different ways, but with that one idea in common.

Learn more about Hoffman and his farm at www.uswheat.org/factsheets. U.S. farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters also share their values, sustainability experiences and conservation practices at the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Policy Specialist

David Clough’s career as a farmer has been a journey of constantly evolving technology and improving practices. Clough started farming in North Dakota in 1969. The first few years were difficult because as a first-generation farmer he didn’t have a farm legacy to get him started; he was on his own. Now, he has been farming for almost 50 years, and his farm is thriving. Over the years, Clough has grown HRS wheat, edible beans, sunflowers, soybeans and barley. He says sustainability is a smart business decision and helps ensure his farm’s survival in the future.

Clough is one of six U.S. wheat farmers featured in a USW series on wheat sustainability. These profiles show the differences in wheat production practices across the country and how those farming practices enhance the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

“As farmers, we have always been conservationists,” said Clough. “The land is our livelihood. We need it, so we try to preserve it in many ways.”

Clough has made a lot of changes on his farm over the years. Now, he uses advanced GPS technology to increase efficiency and conserve resources on his farm. These features mean there are no overlaps when he applies fertilizer or crop protection products, which is good for the environment, but also good for business.

“We weren’t as sustainable when I first started farming almost 50 years ago, but we have changed and adapted and we will keep changing and adapting,” said Clough. “We’re doing it to survive here and to keep our land in good shape for future generations.”

In the years that Clough has been farming, he has had to adapt to new technology, unpredictable markets and lean years. But diversifying his business on the farm helped him weather those changes. Today he has many more crops to plant in rotation, which also helps improve soil health and control weeds. He also sells seed and previously sold farm equipment as a side business. Clough credits his success in farming to his ability to embrace new technology and new sustainable farming practices.

“You’re writing stories as you go through life. How many good stories are you going to write? I have had about 47 chances to tell my farming story. I only get one chance a year to get it right, and some years, you don’t get it completely right,” said Clough. “Each year is a different story, and the way we react cannot be the same either. That is what makes farming challenging and rewarding every year.”

Learn more about Clough and his farm at www.uswheat.org/factsheets. U.S. farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters also share their values, sustainability experiences and conservation practices at the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Policy Specialist

Mark Linnebur’s family and their community are always at the core of every decision made on their farm. The president of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee farms 25,000 acres of land in Colorado alongside five of his brothers and their families. He typically grows HRW or hard white (HW) wheat and corn in a wheat-corn-fallow rotation.

“Being a good steward of the land is what every farmer is trying to achieve,” said Linnebur. “We are not trying to mine the land for what we can get out of it in the near term, because we want to pass it on to our children.”

Linnebur is one of six U.S. wheat farmers featured in a USW series on wheat sustainability. There are six U.S. wheat classes, grown in distinct regions and local micro-climates. Aggregate measures of sustainability are important, but they fail to capture the nuances of a crop that is grown across many different climates, soil types and farm environments. These profiles show the differences in farming practices across the country and how those farming practices enhance the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

The Linneburs switched to no-till farming twenty years ago to help protect their soil and better retain moisture, which is a scarce commodity in his region. In dry years, they now see 20 to 50 percent better yields than before the switch to no-till because they are conserving an average 25 to 30 percent of water resources every year.

“Sustainability is more than just environmental. The fact that we are raising our family on this farm is what keeps our love for the land in place. If we don’t love the land, we are not going to take care of it,” said Linnebur. “First and foremost, sustainability is economical and generational – which leads to environmental sustainability.”

That intergenerational focus has resulted in efforts to innovate and better protect the resources on his land. For example, Linnebur uses “bio-solids” from the nearby metropolitan area to fertilize about half of his land every year and sees better soil quality as a result, which helps increase protein levels of his wheat crops.

“It can be challenging trying to convince the wider population that we are taking care of the ground, because for us, it’s about passing it on to the next generation,” said Linnebur. “We’re building the soil, that’s our real goal.”

U.S. wheat farmers deal with unique challenges and growing conditions. For Linnebur, that challenge is conserving water resources for his dryland crops. The Linnebur family farm has thrived in part because they use no-till and innovative practices like fertilizing with bio-solids to maximize soil health and production together. This formula is one that all farmers strive to balance, and each go about it in ways that make the most sense in their region. Sustainability is not “one size fits all.”

Learn more about Linnebur and his farm at www.uswheat.org/factsheets. U.S. farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters also share their values, sustainability experiences and conservation practices at the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Policy Specialist

Roy Motter farms 2,500 acres in the Imperial Valley of California, and while that may be small compared to other U.S. wheat farms, his operation supports three families. Motter has been farming with his two brothers-in-law since the 1970s, and he oversees their wheat production. They grow Desert Durum® wheat, as well as lettuce, cabbage, onions, sugar beets, sugar cane, alfalfa seed and hay, Sudan grass, melons and tomatoes.

“I chose to start farming more than 40 years ago because I like being outdoors, and I like the dynamics of working for yourself and making those decisions,” said Motter. “Farming is multi-dimensional; every crop is different and has different demands.”

Motter is one of six U.S. wheat farmers featured in a USW series on wheat sustainability representing the six U.S. wheat classes, grown in distinct regions and local micro-climates. The series suggests that while aggregate measures of sustainability are important, but they fail to capture the nuances of a crop that is grown across many different climates, soil types and farm environments. These profiles show the differences in farming practices across the country and how those practices enhance the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.

For Motter, wheat is a pivotal part of their approach to sustainable farming.

“We can’t grow our money crops — lettuce, onions and sugar beets — year after year,” said Motter. “You have to have a rotation, and wheat is a good rotational crop for us. It lets us control weeds and disease that affect the other crops and gives the ground a chance to rest.”

Farmers in the Southwest increase economic water productivity (the dollar value of crop production per acre-foot of water consumed) by 9 to 21 times by rotating wheat production with vegetable production. And in an arid climate like the Imperial Valley, maximizing water productivity is vital.

“We get a lot of criticism for using irrigation water from the Colorado River. But if you want to sustain a growing world population with food and fiber, you must modify the environment to satisfy those needs,” said Motter. “If we want to talk about sustainability issues in relation to wheat crops, the primary issue is to use our water as efficiently as we can, and we work to improve that every year.”

Motter’s reliance on irrigation does not mean his farm is less sustainable. The Imperial Valley grows 85 percent of the nation’s lettuce in the winter months of the year, and with or without its wheat production, the region will continue to grow its vegetable crops. By rotating wheat with that lettuce production, Motter reduces the amount of water his farm uses. In fact, over the past 30 years, farmers in the desert Southwest have reduced their water usage for barley and wheat by approximately 30 percent and consistently invest money in water and energy conservation efforts.

U.S. wheat farmers deal with unique challenges and growing conditions. For Motter, those challenges are managing water use in an arid climate and controlling crop diseases without the benefit of a cold winter in between growing seasons. Motter and his family’s farm have thrived because they use rotation and best practices to maximize soil health and production while minimizing required inputs. This formula is one that all farmers strive to balance, and each go about it in ways that make the most sense in their region. Sustainability is not “one size fits all.”

Learn more about Motter and his farm at www.uswheat.org/factsheets. There is also more information about U.S. farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters share their values, sustainability experiences and conservation practices at the U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Policy Specialist

In 2016, Field to Market published its third National Indicators Report that assessed sustainability metrics in U.S. agriculture and looked at production of each crop on a national scale. Based on its environmental indicators, the report showed that wheat production has continued to improve, with particular progress in reducing soil erosion, over the past 25 years. The assessment results reflect yield improvements in wheat and demonstrate how farmers have adopted conservation practices. Reports like this help quantify sustainability and production improvement over time.

Assessing wheat sustainability on a national scale is difficult, however, because of the highly regional nature of its production. There are six U.S. wheat classes, grown in distinct regions and local micro-climates. Aggregate measures of sustainability are important, but they fail to capture the nuances of a crop that is grown across many different climates, soil types and farm environments.

To capture some of those nuances, USW has developed a series of farmer profiles that highlight regional sustainability in U.S. wheat production. Featuring farmers that grow a specific U.S. wheat class, the profiles highlight their practices, dedication to sustainability and unique growing conditions. They illustrate that while no two farmers are the same, they share a dedication to protecting their land for the next generation and a commitment to responsible stewardship.

The profiles include:

We encourage our customers and stakeholders to read the profiles at www.uswheat.org/factsheets. There is also more information about how U.S. farmers, ranchers, fishermen and foresters share their values, sustainability experiences and conservation practices online at The U.S. Sustainability Alliance.

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By Elizabeth Westendorf, USW Policy Specialist

When it comes to analyzing the sustainability of agricultural crops there is a tendency to apply generalized metrics or standards to a wide swath of scenarios. While there is value in using generalized metrics, broad stroke approaches can miss the small details that often make a big difference in regional situations. Seeing the whole forest is important, but sometimes you learn more by focusing a little more on individual trees.

Let us discuss wheat, for example. This is a crop with many specific advantages often not considered in a sustainability analysis. Farmers tend to grow wheat on marginal land areas that do not receive enough water for other agricultural production or in areas too cold or too dry for other crops. In some regions and systems, it plays a vital role in rotations with other row crops by providing residue in a soybean rotation and a water-saving role in irrigated corn or sorghum. In assessing wheat’s sustainability, generalized base metrics of water usage do not take in the whole picture. Wheat’s true sustainability should also include what it adds to the entire agricultural system, and how it complements other crops while providing an essential food grain for literally billions of people.

One area of wheat production that has been criticized for its sustainability in the past is Desert Durum® in the desert southwest United States. Unlike most other wheat production, Desert Durum receives almost all of its water from irrigation. However, it uses less irrigation water than many of the other crops grown in that region, and farmers are constantly working to increase irrigation efficiency.

A recent study by Dr. George Frisvold of the University of Arizona analyzed sustainability metrics for water use in Arizona small grain production and found that most generalized metrics of sustainability do not adequately reflect the true nature of this system. Wheat, and specifically Desert Durum, plays an important role in sustainable agriculture in the Southwest. Using wheat in a rotation with vegetables in this area increases farmer profit significantly and maximizes economic productivity of water use. In addition, the study showed that the amount of water necessary to produce one bushel of Desert Durum in Arizona has declined by 18 percent over the last 30 years.

In the case in desert wheat and durum production, as in other U.S. wheat producing regions, different systems and environments face different challenges and producers adapt with different sustainable solutions. A general measure can never fully capture all of those nuanced solutions comprehensively.

For more information, visit https://bit.ly/1LROd1O, or https://www.thesustainabilityalliance.us/.