To find a statement about sustainably-produced food, one must only look as far as the nearest cereal box or energy bar in your pantry.
    Within the agricultural community, we hear that people who eat and buy food are deeply concerned about how it is produced. In fact, a recent Cargill-led survey of 4,000 consumers from the United States, China, Mexico and Spain revealed that sustainability was the most important farmer attribute to 30% of respondents, ranking higher than efficient, traditional, small-scale or caring.
    In winter, I spend more time reading the pile of magazines on our counter. An issue of Farm Journal with a drainage tile on the cover caught my eye. The magazine focused entirely on the topic of America’s conservation ag movement. It laid out the challenges and opportunities of more sustainable farming, providing a snapshot of in-field practices such as drainage, conservation easement, no-till, reduced tillage, cover crops and CRP. Farmers who are benefiting from soil health management were featured. It delved into what the prosumer wants, how food companies are responding and how there is a need for more technology for livestock farmers to improve productivity, reduce labor needs and help identify potential illness and reduce water pollution.
    I had been thinking about this as I had an opportunity for a few afternoons in January to meet with a small group of farmers and interested faculty at Gustavus Adolphus College to discuss a book called, “Farming for Us All,” by Michael Mayerfield Bell. The topic of this book written in 2004 promoted sustainable farming ideologies that were developed by the Practical Farmers of Iowa, a group of farmers who exchanged practices and dialog on how to farm in economically and environmentally sound ways on small farms that support rural community life. The book centered on a series of interviews done with Iowa farmers about their actual farming methods and how they could profit into the future in a rapidly changing farming environment.
    Our book group discussion was very timely and raised more questions. So, what does sustainability on an Upper Midwest dairy farm like ours look like to consumers? People who are a lot wiser than me have defined it as the ability to farm profitably for many generations on the same ground. Some farmer/leaders say if a farm is a three- or four-generation farm, with another generation joining in the future, the farmers must have done and are doing something right.
    That is likely so, but is that a good enough answer for consumers? How do we effectively communicate the sustainability efforts we make as dairy farmers?
    We always tell groups who tour our farm about the crop, feed, milk and manure cycle. We explain how we grow alfalfa and corn to feed our cows. They produce highly nutritious food from the crops that people cannot digest. Then we carefully manage the use of manure as a resource to nurture the next crops to feed the cows, decreasing the need to purchase inorganic fertilizer. The alfalfa improves soil health in our crop rotation.
    The explanation seems obvious to dairy farmers, but I get the impression that many people have never thought about it before in that way.
    On our farm, we have grown cover crops on a few other fields in the past few years to reduce erosion and improve soil. Our veterinarian was so excited about the tillage radishes in one of the fields we planted, he stopped to pull some to taste on his way to herd check.
    Besides corn and soybean, grain farmers in our area grow alfalfa for larger neighboring dairies which helps their soil health. Some farmers are experimenting with new crops such as hemp, rye and Kernza.
    There is also deep concern about the greenhouse gases that are contributed by cattle, probably a topic for several more columns.
    What I am thinking about is the recent Starbucks CEO-driven effort to switch their customers away from dairy ingredients and towards plant-based add-ins to coffee drinks. This seems like a glaring example of how an un-addressed concern could affect consumption of milk and cream. It is annoying that dairy is made the scapegoat in this discussion. But it raises the question, “How does greenhouse gas contributed from dairy fit into the sustainability conversation?”
    If you are interested in a great explanation on this topic, listen to episode 22 of Midwest Dairy’s “Dairy on the Air” podcast where Dr. Frank Mitloehner, researcher at University of California-Davis, shares insights regarding the dairy industry’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Besides his detailed explanation of the biogenic carbon cycle, he explains the methane digesters popping up on California dairies that will harness renewable natural gas, replacing the fuels that are contributors to climate change.
    Change is inevitable for us all.
    Jean dairy farms with her husband, Rolf, and brother-in-law, Mike, and children Emily, Matthias and Leif. They farm near St. Peter, Minnesota, in Norseland, where she is still trying to fit in with the Norwegians and Swedes. They milk 200 cows and farm 650 acres. She can be reached at jeanannexstad@gmail.com.