What is sustainable agriculture?

True!

I can’t decorate cookies as fancy as MaryJane. I can’t instantly whip up recipes like PJ. And I’m certainly not a professionally trained chef like Susan Reid. My days at work don’t focus on the hows and whys of recipes, which, I imagine, is why most people read this blog. So, why am I here visiting Baking Banter?

My days at work focus on what we call stewardship – how we, as a company, interact with the environment around us and the communities in which we live and work. Important to baking, some might ask? We think yes. As a business that’s been in existence for over 200 years, the word sustainability has deep meaning for us.

Presentation at Truitt Bros. food processors on sustainability.

Over the past two years, King Arthur Flour has taken a very close, methodical look at our areas of environmental impact. Whether it’s examining the catalogue paper on which we print, the lights in our warehouse, how our flour is transported to grocery shelves, or the commuting footprint of our employee-owners, we have been on a mission to measure and prioritize the areas where we have the greatest ability to make a positive, regenerative impact on our environment.

By looking closely at our operations and getting some expert help, we determined that the area where we can have the greatest impact is in helping to improve the agricultural practices used to grow our wheat. As you might imagine, the volume of wheat used to produce our flour is immense. And the predominant wheat farming methods often demand great quantities of water, a limited resource in many of the regions where our wheat is grown. For example, we know that the Ogallala aquifer is the primary source of water in the Plains states where some of our best wheat is grown. Given the rate of water use, many scientists and activists are concerned about aquifer depletion.

Frank Morten runs Wild Garden Seed, an organic seed breeding farm in Philomath, OR, that uses dryland farming techniques.

So what’s a company like ours to do? What’s our role in the flour industry in helping to spur innovation and develop new practices? Because we’re a company that’s always been quite picky about the qualities of our wheat, we’re actually quite well-positioned. Our farmers know that we want a high-protein wheat and we’ve worked with them closely to ensure that they know and understand our specs. So, with those relationships built, we have a solid starting ground for conversations around water usage and practices known as no-till or dryland farming.

To truly understand this agricultural issue, it didn’t make sense to just look at it in isolation. For me, understanding this issue and progress in this area requires a greater understanding of agriculture in this country and our world. I wanted a crash course in agricultural policy, agricultural economics, water use, land use, carbon footprints, and food certifications. I found one: the Oregon Sustainability Experience, a week-long, field-based training on these very topics.

The Food Innovation Center is a collaborative effort between the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture and Oregon State University.

I received a scholarship through our trusty friends at B Corporation, and off I went to Oregon to immerse myself in the world of sustainable agriculture. Surrounded by academics, fellow business leaders, policy makers, and non-profit leaders, I found myself on a bus for five days with a nearly 12-hour curriculum each day. We visited small, medium, and large organic and non-organic farms, food processors, restaurants, bee-keepers, seed breeders, food retailers, farmers’ markets, food pantries, and ranchers. And in between these visits, we had ride-along experts on the bus talking with us about their research or informational sessions on topics like GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or the differences between pasture-raised and grass-fed. The entire week focused on examining all aspects of food from seed to consumption.

450-acre Double J Jersey farm is home to 200 Jersey cows who are milked twice daily. The animals are grazed on rotating 3-acre paddocks of grass and clover.

For me, the highlight was a visit to a wheat farm, Stalford Seed Farms in Tangent, Oregon. Surrounded by fields of wheat, the farmers explained to us their farming practices, how their wheat is milled, and where it’s sold, and then held up a book that has guided much of their education around wheat and breads: Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes Cookbook by our  own Jeffrey Hamelman, director of our bakery here in Norwich, Vermont. An honor indeed to see Jeffrey’s book out in the middle of this wheat field.

Stalford Seed Farms

So, after a week of being immersed in sustainable agriculture, what does this mean for stewardship at King Arthur Flour? It means our horizons have been broadened; we’re reminded of the role and responsibility we have in our food system, and we’re encouraged to keep striving and improving.

And it leads me to ask you, our friends and customers: What does sustainable agriculture mean to you, and what can you do in your lives to support sustainable agriculture?

comments

  1. Linda Meier

    What a happy surprise to read my favorite blog and find that you’ve visited my backyard here in the beautiful Willamette Valley. As you might imagine sustainable agriculture is dear to my heart. Sustainable agriculture means growing crops and raising animals in a way that keeps nature in balance: rotating crops, renewing the soil with compost, attempting to farm “organically” as much as possible. I am not a farmer, though I live outside the city limits (cows and horses graze across the road). I do have a very small vegetable garden and, for the first time in my life, have 8 chickens in a coop in my back yard. The silly rooster is telling me that it’s 5:35am as I type this. My husband and I moved home to Oregon two years ago after 20+ years in the big city of Seattle. Though “agriculture” is now literally my backyard, even in Seattle we were cognizant of the need to live in balance. By that I mean we tried to buy food that was grown or raised as close as logistically possible to where we lived and to eat food as unprocessed as possible. That’s one of the reasons I love King Arthur Flour, your products and your recipies help me make really good food “from scratch” to use the old fashioned phrase. The less high fructose corns syrup and other ingredients with unpronounceable names in our food the better – at least for our family. I count myself very lucky that I live where I live, with access to wonderful farmers markets full of incredibly good food, beautiful flowers and the chance to actually meet the people who raise the food I eat. That’s sustainable to me.

    Thank you, Linda. Growing, raising, and making your own food is a wonderful way to be more sustainable on a personal level. Knowing where your food comes from and what’s in it can never be a bad thing, we think. :-) -Allison@KAF

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  2. Cindy G

    Thank you for sharing this – the work that is being done to promote sustainable agriculture is something that needs to be passed on at every conceivable opportunity. I have the opportunity to have a large garden and thru my choices of seeds/plants and growing methodology hope that I make my own contribution to local sustainability. Like many in my area, I also have a share in a local farm, purchase local meats, and try to make good decisions on the food products that must be purchased at the supermarket. The commitment that King Arthur has made to sustainable agriculture and continuous sharing of information to promote this reinforces my decision that buying KAF products is not only the tasty/nutritious thing to do, it is the right thing to do.

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  3. Wei-Wei

    This is a great informative post! There are so many factors of sustainability that can be improved in every business, home or commercial manufacturer… I do believe it’s quite the complicated science!

    Wei-Wei

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  4. April in CT

    This is SO inspiring to read about. We try to make informed decisions about the food we choose, always looking for local or humane options. It’s difficult because what is written on the package, I often wonder how accurate it is and how companies can word things to make you think you’re getting something sustainable and/or raised humanely when it may not be the case.

    I have high hopes that more companies will follow your practices. Yet another reason I will always 100% support King Arthur not only because your products are stellar, but because you CARE. I often feel I’m not able to do enough, but I can at least make choices with my dollars that will hopefully have some trickle down effect.

    Thanks April. It certainly can be difficult to understand various labeling and know whether it really means what you hope it does. But as you say, if every concerned consumer learns a little bit about these issues and makes more conscious purchasing decisions – voting with their dollars for products/companies they can really feel good about – it’ll add up to a significant positive impact, and a message to other companies that it’s time to think about more than only the bottom line! -Allison@KAF

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  5. Beth

    Whatever it takes to keep the smaller family-run farms in existence, that is one thing I hope King Arthur Flour keeps in mind. Also, I just read an article in the New York Times about genetically-modified varities of corn, and it worries me. Yes, it’s nice to be able to have sweeter-tasting corn, and corn that stays fresher from field to the table for a longer period of time, but in the back of my mind is that old saying, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” I realize we have to feed more and more people, I just hope that all this genetic engineering doesn’t backfire into a catastrophe one day.

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  6. Teresa

    Thank you for today’s topic. While many recognize the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ as to mean something good, the average consumer is a long way from understanding what it really means because the issues behind it are complex and there is still limited understanding of the process it takes to get food on the table. Readers of this blog may be more inclined to be informed on the subject, but even so many of us still do not fully grasp the complexity of agricultural policy and it’s social and economic connections through communities.

    I’m intrigued with supporting small scale farming, innovations to better use natural resources, and more education to increase understanding of these ideas. The week long farm based experience you discuss is very intriguing. A local urban farm cooperative is doing some great things through their youth education and apprenticeship programs. The great thing about a complex idea such as sustainable agriculture is that there are many ways for consumers and companies to make progress to better use resources, grow quality food, and sustain farmers and families. I look forward to reading the comments.

    You’re right Teresa – it’s an enormously complex issue, and as a company we’re really still just at the beginning of our own education on the matter. As we learn more about sustainable agriculture, its social and economic implications, and how we can best be involved as a company that cares deeply about being good stewards of the environment and our community, we’ll do our best to share that learning here. And we hope our readers will continue to share their ideas, as well. -Allison@KAF

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  7. Lise M

    Like all good ideas (socialism, nationalized medicine, capitalism), sustainable agriculture is wonderful…in theory. But how can it work in reality? Farmers are 2% of the population and more and more acres of farmland are being developed into housing and golf courses. They compete with each other for market share, hoping other farmers will fail so commodity prices will go up, and they feel lucky if they make enough profit to gamble again next planting season. How can they embrace a method of farming that costs more to produce less? Few Americans (or foreign markets) will pay more for food – they feel that cheap food is a RIGHT. On a small scale with a contracted direct market, i.e. customers willing to pay a premium for sustain-ably produced products, a committed farmer could thrive. But how many people will pay $5 for a loaf of bread produced by sustainable agricultural practices when the high-tech non-sustainable methods produce a $3 loaf? It usually comes down to cost. And as you state, many don’t even know what sustainable agricultural products are! I would love to see mainstream agriculture embrace sustainable practices, but it might take a wide-spread natural disaster, for example, another Dust Bowl, to provide some incentive.

    You make some interesting points, Lise. At KAF, we hope that by doing what we can to encourage and support sustainable agriculture – and to educate our customers about it – we’ll contribute to a greater understanding of and demand for sustainably produced products. We recognize it will be a difficult row to hoe, so to speak, but we believe it’s worth the effort! -Allison@KAF

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  8. Katherine Isham

    May I make an ever so humble suggestion? Have you considered certifying your catalogs via the FSC instead of your current SFI? The FSC is much more credible and more highly thought of in the environmental community. Indeed, when I saw that your catalogs were backed by the SFI, at first I thought you might be a bit of a green-washing company. I later found that that does not seem to be the case and you seem sincere in your commitment, but to someone in the green movement, the SFI definitely gives you less credibility.

    Some relevant links:

    http://www.yale.edu/forestcertification/pdfs/auditprograms.pdf

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/03/fsc-vs-fsi.php

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/03/rumble-in-the-lumberyard.php

    http://heartofgreen.typepad.com/heart_of_green/2008/05/fsc-vs-sfi.html

    wiki articles:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_Stewardship_Council

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_Forestry_Initiative

    I hope you’ll check it out and give some sincere thought into switching to FSC, since I have a lot of respect for you guys and your interest in sustainable practices.

    Thanks, Katherine. I will bring that to our Stewardship and Catalogue teams for consideration. -Allison@KAF

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  9. Doug Gentry

    I’m no agriculture or food processing expert, but I found myself thinking of KAF after reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibbin. I’m taking a bread class at the Education Center next week and when I got there I was going to ask around about some of the issues McKibbin raised. And here you go and answer many of them ahead of time!

    I’m not sure supporting small farms, per se, is the appropriate goal. Instead local farms are an important focus. Of course, many local farms are small, but KAF shouldn’t be trying to redistribute income or guarantee the livelihood of one business over another. What I appreciate from your experience at the Oregon conference is the focus on water use. The other topic which may have been addressed is the idea of reducing shipping costs and the carbon footprint they leave. That’s where the local goal should be.

    The challenge for KAF is to find a wider network of quality grain suppliers, and a more disbursed distribution network. And I’m told another challenge is providing sufficient economies of scale in terms of milling and other post-field processing. None of these are easy tasks. I’m so glad you’re thinking about them, though.

    Thanks, Doug. Enjoy your class next week! -Allison@KAF

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  10. Robin

    I’ve enjoyed your products for many years and visited your store in Vermont 12 years ago. I’ve always been an organic gardener, who shops local farms and markets, raising heirlooms, against GMO’s and chemically stripping the land, but I do not like the way certain “fad” phrases are being used for political power. Agriculture, stewardship and sustainability are not partisan issues, but one of every citizen on Gods earth. People should decide for themselves what products to buy, as companies do their best to provide accurate information.

    We very much agree, Robin. That’s why not only are we trying to make positive changes to our business around sustainability, we’re also trying to educate our customers so they can make informed decisions. Thanks for your comment! -Allison@KAF

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  11. Nancie

    I like very much that you are focusing on this. (It makes the order of KAF flour UPS just delivered a little while ago all the more appreciated!) I hope you will follow-up in a future blog with what changes you are able to make following your trip and how it is working out.

    Thanks Nancie! We’ll certainly post updates here as we make changes in the months and years to come. It’s wonderful to have customers who are so interested! -Allison@KAF

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  12. Birgit

    KAF — Thank you for caring and investigating the issues with an eye for action! I hope you’ll be able to work with your farmers and make positive changes! Please, also include a public education campaign — people need to understand that these issues are critically important, and most people don’t even know there are issues.

    While I agree that change can be hard, and many people may not like paying more for a loaf of bread, what happens if we don’t do anything? What happens when widespread irrigation has to be curtailed because the aquifer can no longer support the withdrawal rates (312 cubic km for agriculture alone in 2005 — think for a minute about how much water that is)? Worst case scenarios say the aquifer could be in serious danger of running dry in as little as 25 years.

    How much will a loaf of bread cost when the wheat harvest is a fraction of what it is now because there is little water (or topsoil) left? We, as a society, need to look ahead a bit more and accept that we do not live on a planet with limitless resources. There is not unlimited ground water for irrigation, top-soil for growing crops, or even oil for running our tractors. The sooner we realize this, and make adjustments, the better off we’ll all be.

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  13. Daria

    Thank you for this informative article. King Arthur is the best flour for many reasons, and sustainability is just another reason to buy your quality product. My mom and grandmother passed your flour tradition down to me, and they’ll both be glad to know how right they’ve been all along!

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  14. vel

    how I wish it was true, that anyone could have a real food producing garden. But it’s not. I get only as close as having some rather sorry looking herbs in my shady land around my house. And being in the city, I’m stuck with what I have, no land to clear to make a sunny patch. So, rather than drive and truck water to some “community garden”, I’d rather drive and go to the farmer’s market or the local supermarket that is trying to do local produce.

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