Sustainable Grains for Sustainable Pork

October 15, 2019

Smithfield Foods doesn’t own the farms that produce their animal feed, but they found that approximately 15 to 20 percent of their carbon footprint originated from the feed they purchased.

They set out to leverage their expertise and resources to assist farmers with sustainable grain farming solutions in collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Starting in 2013, they aimed to purchase 75% of grain from roughly 450,000 acres engaging in efficient fertilizer and soil health practices.

By the end of 2018, 80% of grain purchased by Smithfield came from approximately 560,000 acres where sustainable practices were implemented, marking a 76% growth in just four years.

This was a monumental step toward the company’s goal to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25 percent by 2025 — the first protein company to make such a commitment.

The accomplishment was due to a number of programs Smithfield implemented that prioritize sustainable practices like fertilizer optimization, cover crops, early harvest, and more. Not only are these practices good for the environment, but they’re also better for farmers’ bottom lines. Smithfield also sees savings in grain purchasing costs — to the tune of $8 million in 2018 alone.

Agronomics to Optimize Fertilizer

Smithfield teamed up with EDF to help farmers find ways to optimize fertilizer use and improve soil health through their Smithfield Agronomics program, known as SmithfieldGro.

The program provides free agronomy advice and tools to help farmers in the U.S. supply chain produce the same amount of grain using less fertilizer. By choosing the right crops, utilizing more efficient fertilizer application, and adopting best practices—such as cover crops—farmers can boost soil health, improve water quality, and reduce GHG emissions, all while increasing profits.

Smithfield hired agronomists who work directly with and provide custom insight to farmers in nutrient management, cover crops, reduced-cost seed, and precision agriculture. They help grain farmers to implement cover crops, nitrogen sensors, and other conservation practices throughout the Southeast and, more recently, the Midwest. 

In 2018, the Southeast agronomist worked with farmers to improve practices on 25,000 acres of corn, 43,000 acres of wheat and 25,000 acres of non-GMO soy.

In all, the benefit to Smithfield is two-fold: reduced GHG emissions in their supply chain and higher volumes of locally produced grain.

Giving Alternative Crops a Chance

Smithfield encourages grain suppliers to plant alternative crops, especially in the winter as cover crops, to reap big benefits. These crops generate a viable, sturdy harvest during the “off-season” that can be sold to Smithfield, creating extra income while also enhancing soil quality.

Smithfield buys premium winter wheat seed and sells it to farmers on consignment for less than half of what they would pay on their own. In 2018, Smithfield sold 161,400 wheat seed bags in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia — over 2.5 times the number sold at the program’s inception in 2016.

The company also encourages farmers in the Carolinas and Virginia to grow grain sorghum as an alternative to more traditional feed. Sorghum, an excellent source of nutrition for pigs, can cost less to grow and produce better yields than corn, particularly in drought-prone regions.

Smithfield agronomists also created a reduced-cost seed program to grow non-GMO soybeans between major-crop seasons. In 2018, the program resulted in 25,000 new acres of non-GMO soybeans at a $45-per-acre profit due to the lower seed cost and premium pay over conventional soybeans.

This program helps sustain farmers’ livelihoods and strengthens Smithfield’s relationship with the grain suppliers that are critical to their business.



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