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Counting the Cost of Climate Risks in U.S. Agriculture

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From repeated crop failures in Michigan's fruit belt, which produces 70% of U.S. tart cherries,1 to organic apple growers in Washington fighting fire blight and sunburn,2 extreme weather events made worse by climate change are already affecting U.S. agriculture. Some farmers have already been adapting their practices to become better stewards of the land, increase operational efficiency, and reduce exposure to climate risks.  

In a two-part podcast series, I recently spoke with three people representing organizations at the forefront of farmer-led solutions to addressing environmental challenges: 

  • Lauren Brey, Managing Director, Farmers for Sustainable Food 

  • Paul Cornette, Co-Owner of Cornette Dairy LLC, Board Member of Peninsula Pride Farms 

  • Jim Winn, Co-Owner of Cottonwood Dairy, President of Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance.  

Part 1:

Part 2:

Sustainability Leaders podcast is live on all major channels, including Apple and Spotify

With as much progress that organizations such as Farmers for Sustainable Food are making, other farmers and participants in the agricultural value chain have yet to form a plan to address the impact of climate change. What may help is understanding how physical climate risks today may translate to a financial impact in the future. Of course, that is challenging to show. 

Nevertheless, the BMO Climate Institute recently worked with students at the Haas School of Business at the University of California (UC), Berkeley to do just this. The Institute bridges science, policy, finance, and economics to help accelerate climate solutions, in support of BMO's Climate Ambition to be our clients' lead partner in the transition to a net-zero world.  

Agriculture is particularly sensitive to climate change because relatively small temperature variations can have large effects on yields. 

Agriculture is particularly sensitive to climate change because relatively small temperature variations, in addition to many other things, can have large effects on yields. Climate risks are growing as extreme weather events become more frequent and severe and weather patterns less predictable.  

Our work with UC Berkeley's budding sustainability experts modeled the financial consequences of the three biggest climate risks to U.S. agriculture—drought, wildfires, and extreme heat—between today and 2050. 

We found that if business continues as usual: 

  • Damage from both droughts and wildfires are projected to increase, with pronounced losses seen in California and Oklahoma as the two most affected states for these hazards, but severe losses across all states are expected; 

  • The effect of extreme heat will be primarily negative over time across geographies but is projected to drive gains in some areas with increased yields; 

  • The year 2050 may seem like a long time from now, but planning and mitigation efforts should start as soon as possible given the scale of the challenge.  

Cover crops used in a corn field

Two scenarios of our climate future

This study integrated two sets of data for future greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, each outlining a pathway or scenario outlined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and hazard data (drought, wildfire, heat) from Climate Engine.  

The business-as-usual scenario is actually the worst case consistent with the Representative Consistent Pathway (RCP) 8.5, an approximate outcome based on historical GHG emissions and current global climate policies.3 It assumes emissions continue to increase, adoption of conservation practices stagnates, fossil fuels remain the dominant energy source for decades, and human diets generally stay the same.  

The moderate-emission model follows RCP 4.5, which assumes some efforts are made to curb emissions, resulting in widespread conservation practices, increased investments in research and development, a tendency to favor organic agriculture and climate-friendly production, and dietary changes, including reduced meat and dairy consumption. 

Droughts and wildfires will have an increasingly negative impact 

Droughts and wildfires are poised to affect U.S. agriculture with increasing frequency and intensity. Both severe drought and large-scale wildfires can wipe out a business's entire production, while milder drought events can still reduce yields and push up prices. 

By 2050, based on a status quo scenario, U.S. agricultural losses resulting from wildfires are projected to reach around $796 million a year and drought is estimated to cause a staggering $11 billion a year in losses. 

By 2050, based on a status quo scenario, U.S. agricultural losses resulting from wildfires are projected to reach around $796 million a year and drought is estimated to cause a staggering $11 billion a year in losses. Four states may see the most intense effects: 

  • Texas is estimated to lose $890 million a year to drought, most of it from livestock farming. 

  • California may lose as much as $430 million a year to wildfires and more than $460 million a year to drought, with fruit-growing operations particularly at risk. 

  • North Dakota could lose $770 million a year to drought, mainly the result of a potentially hard-hit grain growing industry. 

  • Similarly, Illinois may lose $620 million a year to drought mostly stemming from its grain farming. 

Unsurprisingly, California is projected to continue to be the state most affected by wildfires, with some counties facing more than $70 million a year in losses by 2050, mostly in fruit and vegetable production, under the business-as-usual scenario. Drought is projected to hit hard, with a single Oklahoma county facing losses of around $110 million a year, nearly $100 million of that in livestock. 

Wildfires can devastate producers, often destroying physical assets, infrastructure, crops, and livestock. Their effects extend beyond the path of the flames. Smoke-tainted Napa grapes can result in wines worth only $5 per gallon;4 smoke cover reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches crops, which can affect yields.5 Smoke-filled air is harmful to workers' health, while smoke and wildfire evacuations are linked to illness, reduced milk yields, and reduced conception in livestock.6  

The impact of extreme heat will be negative overall, but is projected to bring gains in some places 

Extreme heat will have mixed effects on U.S. agriculture, with counterintuitive financial gains for some geographies and crops. Under the business-as-usual scenario, vegetable crops in Arizona's Gila River Valley region could see losses of around $10 million a year by 2050, with livestock losses of $40 to $50 million. In contrast, some fruit crops in California's Central Valley could see gains reaching toward $100 million a year. 

Ultimately, extreme heat will present more significant challenges because of its potentially devastating impact on human health and well-being. Hotter temperatures can compromise workers’ health. In fact, agricultural workers are more than 30 times more likely than other workers to die of heat stress.7  

In addition, watermelon farmers in southern Florida and Georgia can already harvest earlier than historical norms. This change brings the harvest season into competition with Mexico's late winter crop, leading to labor shortages, as Mexican workers need to complete their home harvest before traveling north.8 

Furthermore, adapting to increased heat can be costly for both farmers and their suppliers. Agricultural machinery is generally specific to certain crops—or even a single crop. For example, combine harvesters are vital for most grains but irrelevant to fruit and vegetables. Farmers usually resell machinery within their local area. If all local farms are switching production due to climate change, reselling machinery becomes a much more complex and costly endeavor. 

Low-disturbance manure injection equipment to help bring nutrients to the root zone 

Planning can help the agriculture industry navigate the energy transition 

Conserving resources and reducing emissions can help reduce exposure to climate risks. The USDA recommends that farmers mitigate drought risks by using techniques such as mulching, cover cropping, resting pastures, micro-irrigation, and no-till or reduced-till farming.9 Based on recommendations from the USDA, farmers and ranchers can use controlled burns and targeted grazing to reduce wildfire risk, while strategies including shading, cover crops, efficient irrigation, and cultivar selection can improve resistance to extreme heat. 

Conserving resources and reducing emissions can help reduce exposure to climate risks. 

Yet it is also important for businesses to plan for the future, establishing what risks they face from drought, wildfires, and extreme heat and how they will fund the cost of adapting to new climate realities. Having an experienced financial partner on hand can help farmers manage both the mitigation and adaptation aspects of the energy transition. 

Considering the scale of mitigation efforts required, if the U.S. is to avoid the business-as-usual scenario, the year 2050 is not far off. The financial impact on our crops and livestock is avoidable, but steps should be taken now to reach an economically sustainable future. 

(Neida Aldana-Felix, Rheanna G. Mahboobani, Grace Yin, Yu Zhong and Junyao Zhu from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley contributed research to this article.) 

1. Matheny, K. (2023, February 27). Climate change is already hurting Michigan's cherry, apple crops — and it could get worse. Detroit Free Press.  

2. Severson, K. (2019, April 30). Climate Change Is Altering the Foods America Grows. The New York Times. 

3. Schwalm, C. R., Glendon, S., & Duffy, P. B. (2020, August 3). RCP8.5 tracks cumulative CO2 emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020, 117 (33) 19656-19657.  

4. Asimov, E. (2020, October 5). California Fires Take a Deep Toll on Wine Country. The New York Times. 

5. Jeschke, M. (2023, August 29). Is Smoke from Wildfires Affecting Crop Yields? Pioneer Seeds.  

6. O'Hara, K. C., Ranches, J., Roche, L. M., Schohr, T. K., Busch, R. C., & Maier, G. U. (2021). Impacts from Wildfires on Livestock Health and Production: Producer Perspectives. Animals 2021, 11(11), 3230. 

7. Gubernot D. M., Anderson G. B., & Hunting, K. L. (2015). Characterizing occupational heat-related mortality in the United States, 2000–2010: An analysis using the census of fatal occupational injuries database. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 58:203–211, 2015. 

8. Severson, K. (n 2).  

9. Climate Hubs, U.S. Department of Agriculture (n. d.). Drought Resistant Practices. USDA.

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Part 1

Paul Cornette:  We wanted to bring some scientists and some experts in to do some education and outreach on new, more sustainable farming practices in our area, and we wanted to tell that story to people. At the same time, we knew we had to measure our outcome in some way, measure the impact we were making, to not just tell the story, but to be able to tell a better story.

Michael Torranc...:       Welcome to Sustainability Leaders. I'm Michael Torrance, Chief Sustainability Officer at BMO. On this show, we will talk with leading sustainability practitioners from the corporate, investor, academic, and NGO communities to explore how this rapidly evolving field of sustainability is impacting global investment, business practices, and our world.

Speaker 7:        The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates, or subsidiaries.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Welcome back to another episode of Sustainability Leaders. I am Alma Cortés Selva, Senior Advisor at the BMO Climate Institute. In today's two-part episode, we will be talking about farmer-led solutions to help tackle today's environmental challenges in agriculture. We're joined today by Lauren Bray, the Managing Director of Farmers for Sustainable Food, Paul Cornette of Cornette Dairy LLC, a board member from Peninsula Pride Farms, and Jim Nguyen of Cottonwood Dairy, the President of Lafayette Acts to Worship. If you don't mind introducing yourself and then talking a little bit about your farms as well.

Lauren Bray:    Well, hello everybody. Lauren Bray. I'm with Farmers for Sustainable Food. I've been with our organization for almost 10 years, and our sister organizations, Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, and the Dairy Business Association, and Minnesota Milk as well. Farmers for Sustainable Food is our nonprofit. I'm based in Northeast Wisconsin, and my husband is also a dairy farmer, so I am engaged in the work that we're doing every day, both at home and in the office.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       How about you, Paul?

Paul Cornette:  My name's Paul Cornette, kind of in the same corner of the world as Lauren and her family. I'm in Northeast Wisconsin, just a little bit east of Green Bay. I farm with my brother Tom. We milk 360 cows and run about 1,000 acres of land. Like Lauren said, I'm a board member at Peninsula Pride Farms, and I'm also the Board President of Farmers for Sustainable Food.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Jim?

Jim Nguyen:     Hi, I'm Jim Nguyen. I'm in another corner of the state from Lauren and Paul. I'm down in the southwest corner, about 45 miles southwest of Madison. I farm in partnership with two other local dairy farmers. We built our dairy 25 years ago, milking 1800 cows. I'm a past board member of both DBA and Edge and President of LASA or Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Wow, very impressive backgrounds. Lauren, there's a lot of people in our audience that may not know about Farmers for Sustainable Food or FSF. Do you mind giving a little bit introduction, what it is, how it works, and then why farmer-led solutions are important?

Lauren Bray:    Yes, Farmers for Sustainable Food exists to support farmers like Jim and Paul who are leading the way in conservation. Our purpose is really to connect farmers with the agriculture and food value chain so that farmers can do better, do more on their farms, and have success. The projects we'll be talking about today are great examples of that, how we've brought together farmers, in some cases, dairy processors, and others in that supply chain to support them in what they're doing on their farms and better understanding it to improve environmental and financial outcomes. Really, it boils down to FSF as a collaborative effort to promote and support farmer-led solutions to the challenges we're facing, and our mission is to empower those farmers to develop and implement practical solutions to today's environmental challenges.

Alma Cortés Sel...:  Very impressive. Since you're the only collaborative nonprofit organization, do you mind sharing how did you guys started? When did it started? A little bit of the background.

Lauren Bray:    Yeah. We were founded in 2016 by some of our sister organizations I mentioned in the introduction, Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, Dairy Business Association, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy. I started working on our program officially in 2019, and we have grown tremendously in that short period of time. Again, our organizations really saw the need to support farmers and what they were doing and trying to help them get access to the resources so they can learn, and continuously improve, and connect with one another to do those things.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       You have a very impressive range of projects. Do you mind giving a bit overview of some of the projects and then how do you decide which projects to participate on and then fund? How's the process?

Lauren Bray:    I like to describe our work in two phases or two spaces. One is supporting farmer-led groups like the Paul and Jim are part of. Peninsula Pride Farms and Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance are two of the nine farmer-led groups that we now work with, and our organization provides these farmer-led volunteer nonprofits with administrative services so all that behind the scenes works so they can be successful and be organized, host events, receive grant funding and report on that grant funding, but the other space that we work in that these two farmer-led groups are also participating in is that sustainability project space. We really develop and manage sustainability projects that are farmer-focused, that have supply chain partners. We're so new in this space that we haven't necessarily had a lot of challenge in finding farmers to work with us because we work with nine of these groups already.

We already have access to farmers who are really excited about conservation practices. They're already doing a lot of things on their farms to innovate and try new things, so as we've gone about just launching our projects, because these two projects have really been some of our pilots, it's been a collaborative process.

Working with the farmer-led groups, we've already been in contact with and identified farmers who are leading the way and brought these opportunities forward to them to see if they want to test things out. Now that we've seen a lot of success that we'll talk about later today, we are starting to expand this model, so we brought all those partners together to make a project happen.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       I remember in previous conversations you mentioned that one important component was collecting the data from the different projects. Why is collecting data, especially in agriculture, important in this type of projects?

Lauren Bray:    I think the financial people would also agree that you can only manage what you can measure, and we know that farmers measure a lot of activities on their farms. They have balance sheets and their financials. They're monitoring their cows on the dairy side, milk production, all the health information about our animals.

We're very in tune with all of that, and the same is true on the cropping side, but there's also a wide variety of technologies that can be used to track what you're doing in the farms. I'm sure people have heard about self-driving tractors, and the GPS technology, and variable rate applicators that specifically feed the crops based on where they are in the field, but not all farms have that. We are also trying to understand the environmental impact as well as financial impacts of conservation, so not only do we need to know numbers for how our business is doing financially, but this is really trying to get those pictures about how is our farm doing and how are we impacting the environment?

What is our greenhouse gas score? What is our carbon score? How are we impacting soil health? Are we improving it? What does water quality look like because of our farming practices? That's why the data is becoming, I think, more important, because people want to know. People who are buying food products are interested in sustainability of food, but also it's going to help us better manage our farms, because we're already managing a lot of data in other spaces. This is just the next level of the impact on the environment.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       That's so true. Especially coming from any income background, data is everything. All of you were located in Wisconsin. Is FSF just located in Wisconsin?

Lauren Bray:    We've started in Wisconsin. Eight of the farmer-led groups we work with are in the state of Wisconsin. However, we now have a farmer-led group in Minnesota we're supporting, and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative has members across the Upper Midwest, so really there's more of an opportunity for that geographic reach, but I consider us still in our startup phase. We have a ways to go to be able to reach more farmers in more locations.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Paul and Jim, how did you heard about FSF and then why did you decide to join?

Paul Cornette:  As a member of Peninsula Pride Farms, Lauren talked about the two spaces. We were very much aware the Edge and the DBA staff were instrumental in Peninsula Pride, which also formed back in 2016, getting off the ground, just providing resources, professional services, contacts, messaging, being able to be an administrator for the group so that we can innovate and we can farm and try to make some change, so that was familiar. I got involved in FSF through Peninsula Pride. That happened in 2019. That entire second space that Lauren talked about, the data collection and the connections to the rest of the supply chain, that was a whole new world to me at that point, but it was very much in line with what Peninsula Pride and what our members were doing.

We knew when we formed that we wanted to bring some scientists and some experts in to do some education and outreach on new more sustainable farming practices in our area, and we wanted to tell that story to people. At the same time, we knew we had to measure our outcome in some way, measure the impact we were making to not just tell the story, but to be able to tell a better story, and that's where FSF was such a good fit for us. It's been quite an adventure over the last four years. You're doing something new and innovative all the time. Like Lauren said, we're still in a startup phase, and it's been a lot of fun. It's been very exciting.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Same for you, Jim? Similar process?

Jim Nguyen:     Pretty much the same process. Like I said, I was privy to being on the DBA board and Edge board that I knew this was coming down the road. Actually, our executive director at the time was the one that said, he said, "I think it'd be a good idea for you to start a group down in your area." That's how we got our group started in our area, which I believe was 2016 when we started putting things together. We didn't get everything finalized till 2017, but it's been nothing but great things. FSF, I guess that was right around that 2018, 2019. Lauren, am I correct, that, I believe, that Dairy Strong introduced it to us?

Met Nature Conservancy that day and they were getting heavily involved, and it started like that. We had a very active group at the time and we've grown since, but we always felt we were doing a really good job farming our ground. But with this platform and where we are today, I'm probably jumping ahead a little bit, but it really puts the facts and figures to where we're at. It is huge. It's been huge for our group, huge for our farmers, I should say too.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Very interesting. You guys are very enthusiastic about it so that speaks volumes. Now, we're going to move into the two projects itself out of the diverse projects that you guys have. Let's start with the Peninsula Pride Farms, if it's okay. Do you mind, Lauren, giving us a brief overview of what the project is about and then what kind of sustainable measures you've implemented?

Lauren Bray:    Yes. 11 farmers in southern door in Keweenaw counties that are members of Peninsula Pride. We're in Northeast Wisconsin here, have participated in the project, and PPF is a farmer-led conservation organization as Paul's been talking about. It was really started to bring farmers together to collectively address local conservation challenges and be that farmer-to-farmer peer network, and same thing in Jim's case. We have three years of data analyzed on over 5,000 acres, and we are looking at nationally-accepted sustainability metrics using Field to Market's Fieldprint Platform to better understand the impact of conservation practices on the cropland.

We also have been using a tool to measure the impact on local water resources. Water quality is a major concern in both this project and the other one we'll be talking about. Each farmer that participates in this project gets an individual farm report to evaluate how their fields are performing. They also see a aggregated farm score, and then we have aggregated reports that show how the group of farmers is performing as a whole. Scores are around biodiversity, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, land use efficiency, soil carbon, soil conservation, and water quality, and the report really provides that foundation for individual farms to meet their individual goals.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       That's an impressive list. Are all the farmers doing all of the measures like soil erosion, soil carbon productivity, water quality? They're all doing all of them?

Lauren Bray:    Every farmer gets scores on all of those metrics based on the practices and the fields that they've put in to better understand the practices' impact on those various scores.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       How many farms and how many acres are we talking about for this project?

Lauren Bray:    Yep. 11 farms in this project, 11, and then over 5,000 acres have been analyzed on a field level basis. Farms can choose to do 10% of their managed acres per crop, so we're looking at corn silage, alfalfa, and in some cases, corn for grain, or some farms have chosen to do their whole farm. It just really depends on the farmer and what they want to do, but the goal is to get a summary view. What's exciting too is that they're also able to see how their fields compare and their farms compare to both state and national benchmarks, where enough data exists, as well as project benchmarks. Really, a part of this is stoking that competitive spirit among the farmers. We are working together, but we're still... There's a friendly competition about seeing where you rank against your peers in your neighborhood.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       That sounds very interesting. Paul, can you tell us then a little bit about your experience with the project, and then why did you decide to participate, and then how difficult was it to join and then provide the data?

Paul Cornette:  Well, as far as why I joined, I think I've spoken to that a little bit already. It was always important, as we were getting going, to improve our practices, and we knew we needed to have a better story to tell. We needed to measure the outcomes as we changed our practices and be able to relay that to folks, and this was right in line with those goals. As far as how difficult was it, a lot of the technical expertise was provided to simplify the process by some FSF staffers or by other experts that we were put in touch with. We've been working with Houston Engineering, which is a firm out of the Twin Cities. They really helped manage the technical end of that and make it fairly simple, but it was still very time-consuming, especially the first time you go through the process, measuring and just getting a handle on every pass across a field and each different field and each different system you're using to grow different crops. It's pretty time- consuming and it's a lot of work.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Has it become easier now?

Paul Cornette:  Yeah. Years two and three were much simpler and much faster. At the same time, and we're going to get into this a little bit, I'm sure, as we grow our project into the Climate-Smart Commodities Program, it's opening an entirely new door and it requires a whole new set of data as well. Our focus at Peninsula Pride, initially, was very much related to water and soil, conserving surface water and soil. We're in a narrow strip here between Green Bay and Lake Michigan and it's a fairly sensitive area, so we weren't even looking a lot at carbon, and greenhouse gases, and things like that until we started to see the results come back from the three-year study. At that point, it was just an interesting side note to see where you were without really putting a lot of focus on it. Now, the focus is going to shift in that direction, and it'll be more collection.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       It was a project that you have a report at the end of the three years and now you're having a part two of the same project? Is that how it's structured a little bit?

Paul Cornette:  Yeah, yeah. I think that's a fair description. It's going to be at least a two-year extension of the initial three-year project. Really, with the Climate-Smart aspect, we're really going to be branching out into beyond just field operations, but energy use in the barns, and livestock housing, and manure management, all kinds of different factors that are going to be involved, so it's a big expansion.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       For the non-farmers out there, what kind of measures have you specifically implemented? For all of us that may not do farming, what kind of things are you putting in your farm?

Paul Cornette:  I think most people can probably, even without an ag background, relate to the conventional system of you plow your field in the fall, you scratch it up a little bit in the spring, and then you run your planter across a dusty field. That's what we're trying to evolve out of, and there's a lot of different ways to do that. One primary system in our area, given that we've got a lot of cows and a lot of dairy farming in our area, is to use a low disturbance, not very intensive tillage in the fall, to incorporate a little bit of that manure after your fall crop comes off, and then we establish a cover crop. It's a secondary crop that's just meant to stay green over winter, take up some of those nutrients from the soil, from that manure application, and hold ground in place as we get fall rains and snow melt in the spring and things like that.

We come back with specialized planting tools and we do what's called no-till planting. There's no working of the ground in the spring. You do something to probably terminate that cover crop, and then you just run the planter right across the field. It's a wonder for keeping soil in place, but there's a lot of other factors as well. We're using nitrogen fertilizers, stabilizers. We're using strip tillage techniques, where, again, you come in with a specialized tool that doesn't till the entire field but maybe eight or 10-inch strips for corn that's planted in 30-inch rows, and then you plant into those tilled strips. There's really a number of practices that we're using. That's the good thing about these farmer-led groups as well, is we're introducing a lot of ideas to our members and we're allowing them the flexibility to use the practices that work best on their farm, and then we're able to come back after the fact and measure how well that worked, not just from a crop yield standpoint, which we've always known, of course, but financially now and conservation impact as well.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Because you mentioned that the data part is time-consuming, was it hard to switch from traditional practices to sustainability practices for you?

Paul Cornette:  Yeah, it's a huge learning curve. Everybody struggles with change. That's a universal human characteristic, I guess, so we definitely did need to work together. That farmer-to-farmer aspect was huge. A lot of people might not realize how competitive farming can be, so it was a unique opportunity to collaborate with other farmers, to work together, and to learn from each other's mistakes and successes in implementing these practices. It took a process that might've taken eight or 10 years to learn or maybe you'd have just given up along the way. Instead, it sped up into two or three years where you figure out how to use no-till planting in our type of environment without going bankrupt in the process so that was very helpful. There is startup costs to it. I mean, I've mentioned specialized equipment already a couple of times. Everything is expensive nowadays, and that includes the specialized equipment, so coming up with startup costs to implement these practices was important too. A lot of times, we collaborated, worked together, shared equipment, rented equipment from each other within the group to accomplish some of those goals.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       You've touched upon something very important, which is profitability and cost. Can you talk about some of the effects like farm profitability... Have you seen effects on yield for the positive, for the negative, increasing cost from the implementation of these practices?

Paul Cornette:  Yeah, definitely. Other than the startup costs, generally speaking, the conservation practices do have less annual expense. You're saving a lot of passes across those fields where a lot of fuel or power-intensive passes across. As far as financial impact, it's very yield-dependent, and three or four years into these practices, I've had some tremendously successful crops where the conservation system has been the more profitable system. I've had some years where it's been sort of a wash because maybe the yield wasn't as good as I hoped, and we had a real droughty type early season this year where a lot of those conservation fields did struggle. This year, the plow fields that I still have, they did yield better and they were more profitable. This year, we're still figuring it out, but it can work. We've seen that it can work, and I think every year that we work toward these goals, I think our odds improve of being profitable as well.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       That's really positive and great to hear, because one of the key questions for farmers, is it profitable? Now, I have one final question about the project. Were you guys surprised, Lauren, Paul, by the results that you got from the different farms or anything jumped at you that you didn't expect?

Lauren Bray:    I'll start and then let Paul share some of his farm results or expectations as a participant, but I think, in general, we were just excited to see overall that conservation practices are having a positive impact on local resources, specifically water quality. Again, that's one of those topics that was what we were trying to learn more about, our conservation practices helping water quality one of our main resource concerns. This project is proving that conservation practices are helping improve water quality among other environmental outcomes. Just one statistic really quick, 91% of fields in the project have improved water quality by mitigating excess loss of subsurface nitrogen. By limiting the amount of soil and excess nutrient runoff, most case, that's because we're using cover crops to keep the soil in place. Like Paul talked about, nearly all those fields are having a positive impact on local water quality.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       That's very important. Paul, anything that striked you from the results on your farm specifically?

Paul Cornette:  Yeah. I'm going to double up on what Lauren said, is that 91% and just some of the other similar metrics in terms of involvement, and just how many practices, and the breadth of acres that we're seeing some of these conservation practices. The other one that surprised me a little bit, not really knowing what to expect, was that even though our focus had been primarily on water quality, that we were seeing a 20 or 25% improvement in greenhouse gas scores and things like that.

That came in from out of left field for us, but given that we hadn't really focused on it, it was a nice thing to see, and it's a good starting point as we build into that next step of our project.

Alma Cortés Sel...:       Thank you so much for joining us for part one of this episode, and make sure to stay tuned in for part two where we discuss the progress of farmer-led solutions from the perspective of farmers that are helping tackle today's environmental challenges.

Michael Torranc...:       Thanks for listening to Sustainability Leaders. This podcast is presented by BMO. You can find our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Press the follow button if you want to get notified when new episodes are published. We value your input, so please leave a rating, review, and any feedback that you might have, or visit us at

Our show and resources are produced with support from BMO's marketing team and Puddle Creative. Until next time, thanks for listening and have a great week.

Speaker 8:        For BMO disclosures, please visit

Part 2

Jim Winn:        come to these farms and see what we're doing and see the outcomes that we're experiencing. I think you're going to get a lot more activity in our groups.

Michael Torranc...:       Welcome to Sustainability Leaders. I'm Michael Torrance, chief sustainability officer at BMO. On this show, we will talk with leading sustainability practitioners from the corporate, investor, academic, and NGO communities, to explore how this rapidly-evolving field of sustainability is impacting global investment, business practices and our world.

Speaker 3:        The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates or subsidiaries.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Welcome back to another episode of Sustainability Leaders. I am Alma Cortes Selva, senior advisor at the BMO Climate Institute.

In part two of our chat with Farmers for Sustainable Food, we will be covering the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance Sustainability Project.

We're joined by Lauren Brey, the manager, director of Farmers for Sustainable Food, Paul Cornette of Cornette Dairy, LLC, board member Peninsula Pride Farms, and Jim Winn of Cottonwood Dairy, the president of Lafayette Ag Stewardship.

On part one of this episode, we covered the Peninsula Pride Farms project, and how it has benefited farmers and the impact it has had on the reduction of soil erosion, improvement in water quality and yields, just to name a few of the benefits of the project.

Now, in part two, we cover the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance Project, another flagship project from Farmers for Sustainable Food.

Lauren, do you mind starting us off again, and then, giving us an overview of the project?

Lauren Brey:    Yes. So, the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance or LASA is a farmer-led group as well focusing on conservation farmer-to-farmer learning in southwest part of Wisconsin, also, facing challenges around water quality similar to Peninsula Pride. LASA has 35 members, and 15 of those members have been participating in the sustainability project.

They have collected four years of data that's been analyzed, and they will also be transitioning into a climate smart project. One unique part of this project is that there's also a dairy processor that's been involved in supporting it, Grande Cheese Company, where Jim's farm ships their milk, has been a supporter of the project from the beginning, to try to make that supply chain connection.

Now, it's not just dairy farms participating in this project, which I think is also unique. It's really a community approach, but we have some of that supply chain connected in, because they're interested in supporting farmers in this work.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Jim, now, why did you decide to join this specific project, and then, has it helped your farm? Have you seen changes? Do you mind talking a little bit about your experience?

Jim Winn:        Sure. Like Lauren mentioned, Grande is my milk processor. So, anytime your milk processor comes to you and wants to participate in a sustainability project, I'm all ears. We are in our fifth year, correct, Lauren? And they wanted to take something back to their customers.

The Nestle's company, for instance, is a vendor of theirs, and they want to be able to say that a candy bar was produced from this group of farmers in Lafayette County using great environmental standards. That was important to them, and it was important to us, and that's kind of how it started.

I will say one thing, that our group would not exist without... Like I said, I mentioned I was on the BB and Edge board, so I was privy to that information. But when FSF came on board, they kind of took it to a new level. They're very instrumental in our group. We would not exist without FSF helping us.

One of Lauren's counterparts is that, at every board meeting, every month, they got a lot of support that they give to our group, and we can't thank them enough for that.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       For this project, Jim, what kind of practices did you implemented? Were they similar to the ones that Paul implemented on his farm, or a little bit different? Were there more water conservation practices, and especially for non-farmers out there, if you don't mind, simplifying the process for all of us.

Jim Winn:        No, they're basically the same. Everything Paul talked about is the stuff that we've done. When we first started, we really centered on cover crops, so that's one of the things we kind of hung our hat on. In our area, we've been dairy farmers for all our lives, but a larger dairy farm, so all our corn is chopped in the fall, and we could see having bare ground in the winter was not the way to go.

So, we started the cover crop program in 2017, and it just seems like, in our area, since our group started and we started pushing these cover crops, everything around here in the wintertime was brown, and it always bothered me. And I was telling my partner, I said, "We got to start pushing so we get more green in here in the wintertime and spring". And ever since we've done that, the cover crops in Lafayette County just exploded.

Nobody planted cover crops around here prior to our startup. Now, everybody's doing cover crops. So, that was really one that kind of took us to a new level.

Paul mentioned Houston Engineering. They were very, very helpful with our group. Another one, we have a technical college in our area that provided a lot of help for us and they did a lot of... Like Paul mentioned, it's a lot of work, putting a lot all this information in, especially when you're doing the financial end, which we're one of the farms that does the financial end.

So, there is a lot of information that we got to put into this program. So, between Houston Engineer and Southwest Tech, they really helped us develop them programs and put all them numbers in for us, and we were pleasantly-surprised when we started putting all our numbers together, how our conservation practices are helping our area.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Jim, you just mentioned something very important. It seems that there's a peer effect from farmers to farmers learning?

Jim Winn:        Well, farmers are creatures of habit. Like Paul mentioned, nobody likes to change. I think you got to go into these groups with an open mind. You got to think outside the box. And that's what a lot of our farmers did. And we got a lot of small farms in our area, a lot of large farms, too.

But our first field days was at one of our member farms, and a radio station was there that day that came up to me and they said, "Jim, this is your first field day. What are you expecting for a crowd?" And I said, "If I got 15 to 20 people today, I'd be ecstatic". We ended up having, I think we had like a hundred or 125. I could not believe it.

And that's what we centered on that day. We did do some load disturbance, manure injection, toxin stuff that day, but we centered around cover crops. And like I said, people... cover crops, what do you want to put cover crops in for? And once we started growing them, and seeing, we had a great first two years of cover crops. I'm sure Paul can attest to this, too, cover crops don't work every year. It depends on mother nature.

That year, it worked phenomenal. Everything was green and people started taking notice. And like I said, every year since then, the cover crops have exploded in Lafayette County. People that we thought would never be cover crop people, but one of our member farms is a good friend of mine. He has a large grain operation. I mean, he is in tuned to cover crops. I didn't never think he would plant a cover crop. But he's my biggest believer in getting new members involved. So, he's been a huge advantage for our group.

But I think people... Like I said, you've got to come in with an open mind, come to these meetings. It's harder to get farmers to meetings every year. It's harder and harder every year. But if you can get them out to the farm for a little bit, come to these farms and see what we're doing, and see the outcomes that we're experiencing, I think you're going to get a lot more activity in our groups.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Going back to one important aspect that you mentioned, which is water conservation, why was implementing this type of practices, and then, implementing conservation water practices in southwestern Wisconsin so important, and have you seen changes in the water retention of the soil since you've started the practices?

Jim Winn:        Yeah. I believe in our second year... Our group, actually, we funded our own county's participation in the three county-wide water study. There was a lot of wells coming up in the area that were not good. We participated in the SWIG study, and I think people took notice of that. The community members really took notice, "Hey, we got a watershed group that's going to pay the county's way to participate in this program".

I think that really impressed a lot of people about our watershed group. But anyway, once we got into that study and started showing the outcomes of that... Everybody blames agriculture. Well, agriculture wants to be the solution. We want to help be the solution. But after we started this water study, the final results were saying that there's more bad sewers in water wells in the county than there is actually livestock.

There is some livestock infecting the wells, but majority of it's bad sewers and poor wells. So, as far as water quality, that kind of started another situation for us to look at in our county. And I think we really, really helped instill in the people that it's not all farmers doing that. It's personal stuff as far as like sewer problems and water wells. So, that kind of took it to another level.

Alma Cortes Sel...:  What have you seen on farm profitability? Have you seen increases in yield, or increases in cost since you've implemented these practices? What has been the experience at your farm?

Jim Winn:        Well, like I said, it's astonishing. We always thought we're doing a good job. This field platform puts it in black and white for you. I encourage you to go on our website, we got all the figures on tons of soil saved and all the... I think Lauren can attest to that, correct? We got that all on the website.

I can't think of everything as far as number-wise what it's saved, but we're above the average for everything that they're measuring right now. And that's really... I think we've got at least two more members that are going to be part of the financial, part of the program this year. So, I mean, people are catching onto that and it's really helping our group.

Lauren Brey:    Yeah., I'll just chime in to say that, from the study with this group, implementing environmentally-friendly practices into cropping systems shows that there's an advantage in many areas that farms are typically monitoring, including yield advantage, a profitable net return per acre, and positive on farm sustainability metrics.

And all the farms in this study showed improvement without increasing their input costs. And many of the practices we looked at actually reduced input costs. And for the financial people listening, farms in this project show stronger current ratios and term debt coverage ratios than the average farm in Wisconsin, and all farms are above industry benchmarks.

So, I think, again, just really great positive story for conservation on the financial side with this study.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Was that the result that actually puzzled you more, and then, shocked you more, the financial aspect? Lauren and Jim, when you saw the results, was that the aspect that strike you the most about the project?

Jim Winn:        Well, for me, there's no doubt. It was huge.

Lauren Brey:    Yeah. Every year, we have a farmer to farmer meeting, so not only do the farmers get individual meetings with the experts to understand their individual farm reports and scores, so it's not just you participate and you get a printout of your information, you don't understand how to use it.

We give opportunities for you to learn more about the scores and the metrics. But we have a farmer to farmer meeting each year open to all participants, where we bring in the people who ran the numbers and they talk about the outcomes.

And during the financial presentation, that's when everybody's ears really perk up and they get excited to learn more, because at the end of the day, that's how you run a business, is on the financials.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       This is a question for the three of you. What would you say is the best way, or the most successful way of promoting sustainable practices among farmers? And then, what's the hardest obstacle to convince farmers to join in into the different projects?

Lauren Brey:    As both of them have mentioned, I really think it's the farmer to farmer interaction and those conversations, and these farmer-led groups, these sustainability projects are giving us a reason to get together as farmers to network with one another, talk specifically about conservation and these topics.

I think the biggest challenge, again, change is hard. There's a traditional way of thinking, oftentimes, in agriculture. Yet, I'm really inspired as a young person in the agriculture community with my husband and our family farming, I think there's so much opportunity and you just have to be willing to try something new and change. And I see a lot of that in the next generations coming on the farms.

And the generations that have come before us. Many of them did new things and implemented new technologies, so we just have to keep pushing the envelope like any other business.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Did you share the same views, Paul, Jim, about the challenges?

Paul Cornette:  Yeah, that was very well said. Not surprising. I will say that Lauren and the rest of the crew at FSF are outstanding to work with. They do really good work and they're fun to work with, too. That's part of the picture, too.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       With that, then, I'm going to have to follow up Lauren. How can farmers that are listening in join in, or sign up for the programs? And if maybe they may not be located in the areas where you're targeting, are there sister organizations around the country that they can join?

Lauren Brey:    Great question. We mentioned a little bit about our Climate Smart Project through USDA's Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities grant program. So, that is really under the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative umbrella, as well as, Farmers for Sustainable Food. You'll be able to learn more on our website, So, just, you can Google it and look at our website for more information.

But if a farmer is interested, if you're in the upper Midwest, please, reach out to us. But there are other organizations, commodity organizations in your community, if you're part of any of those, reach out to farmer-focused supporting groups. Again, commodity orgs, promotion organizations, your checkoffs. I would start there. But if you don't find the resources you need, we welcome anybody reaching out to us, because we're always willing to look and help farmers to make the connections with people who can support them.

But at the end of the day, it really usually helps have people in your own backyard and your local community. I'd also recommend universities or extension programs as good places to start for more support.

Jim Winn:        I'd like to make a comment quick about getting farmers together and changing their attitudes, and I'm sure Paul sees this with his group.

Our best ideas are after our board meetings are over with, just the farmers sitting down and talking about different things and how they're approaching different practices. That's when the best conversations happen in our board meetings, is after the board meetings are over with. You're talking farmer to farmer with the same type of language, and that's when new ideas come to full fruition.

So, it's really a neat... I'm sure glad we started our group. I'm sure Paul can say the same. But, yeah, in fact, we've helped a couple other groups down in the southern part of the state to help start their groups, too. It is very rewarding, and like I said, it's fun to sit back and watch these guys talk and what they're trying, and what's the next new thing they're going to try next year. It's pretty cool to watch.

Paul Cornette:  Yep. The farmer to farmer aspect is huge. A few years ago in Peninsula Pride, we started an evening event that we call Conservation Conversations. We don't really have a speaker. We just get together, maybe a dozen people out in a field or in a farm shop somewhere, with a topic in mind, and we started a conversation and we talk for a half hour or 45 minutes, maybe, an hour.

Sometimes, a case of beer has even been known to get involved. But those networking opportunities like that, it's exactly like Jim said, that's where the best ideas, I think, come from.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Lauren, given the amazing work that FSF has done, are there ways that people can support FSF?

Lauren Brey:    Yeah. We are 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so we are in that startup phase and have a lean team. We're always looking for new members. We accept donations of any amount. We value support from anyone who believes in the work we are doing. And anybody and individual up to a business, foundations can contribute. It's easy to do.

On our website,, there's a donate button right on the website. So, we welcome anyone to reach out to learn more, or make a contribution if you believe in this type of work.

Alma Cortes Sel...:   And finally, is there anything else that we forgot to touch upon, or anything else that you'd like to add? Lauren, Paul, Jim, please, jump in if there's anything that we may have missed that you think is important for our audience to know.

Lauren Brey:    Yeah. I'd just like to add that Jim and Paul are two of the many farmers that are leading the way in this work, and we are really excited with the results we've seen, and looking forward to those future opportunities to work with farms to support them in their conservation journeys.

You can read the full results from these projects we talked about today. If you want to get into the weeds with the data and learn more about our efforts on our website,

Jim Winn:        If I could just say something to a farmer that's thinking about going to a, starting or getting in a group, just give it a try. Like I said, go in with an open mind. We got a great group of guys. I know Paul, I know a lot of guys in Paul's group, they're all great guys. It's just a great learning experience for everybody.

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Any final words from you, Paul?

Paul Cornette:  Not a whole lot, other than to say that Peninsula Pride Farms, we've got our own social media and website, too, where our results are posted, and our activities.

You can check us out at

Alma Cortes Sel...:       Thank you so much for joining us for this two-part episode, where we learn from farmers themselves about some of the sustainable projects and farmer practices that are helping their communities and environment thrive.

Michael Torranc...:  Thanks for listening to Sustainability Leaders. This podcast is presented by BMO. You can find our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player.

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Speaker 7:        For BMO disclosures, please, visit


Alma Cortés Selva Senior Advisor, Climate Modelling, BMO Climate Institute


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