What would it take to make agriculture in the United States more sustainable? German life science company Bayer has tasked itself with this formidable challenge. The company has been making strides with its ForwardFarming initiative, a network of independent farms that engage in collaborations and dialogue around sustainable agriculture. Until recently, ForwardFarming didn’t have a US presence, but that changed when Bayer welcomed Harborview Farms to its network in April 2018.
A family-owned venture going back four generations, Harborview Farms is located outside Washington, DC, on the Chesapeake Bay, and it grows corn, soy, and wheat. By joining ForwardFarming, it has affirmed its commitment to the environmentally conscious practices and goals that all ForwardFarms share.
While each ForwardFarm is unique, the following three central components guide each member’s participation in the program—and its progress toward sustainability.
Customized Agronomic Solutions
Bayer offers customized support for farmers, starting quite literally from the ground up. The company’s services begin with assistance in selecting seeds as well as providing guidance on treatments and coatings to protect seeds from pests and diseases.
The ForwardFarming program also includes decision support tools, which help farmers monitor growing conditions and determine the best course of action. One tool, for example, tracks how wet the leaves on wheat plants are and alerts farmers when fungicide is needed. Bayer helps farmers protect their crops with chemical and biological protection products and precision technology, which optimizes farmers’ use of fertilizers and other products to ensure that crops thrive, resources are used wisely, and local environments are protected.
Bayer’s work with farms adapts over time, allowing insights from data to aid in evaluating and refining their practices. Harborview Farms boasts customized solutions such as no-till farming—which helps sequester carbon, reduce the production of greenhouse gases, and maintain soil fertility. A precision system uses GPS technology to conserve fuel, while the pivot irrigation and grain systems run on solar power.
A hallmark of sustainable agriculture is sensitivity to the ecosystems that surround farms. Sustainable farms carefully consider how their practices affect local habitats and communities and strive to safeguard the environment’s natural balance.
ForwardFarming emphasizes a proactive approach to these issues, attempting to prevent the health and environmental problems traditional farming methods can cause. For example, farmers might set up nesting boxes for birds or plant flowering strips and mixed hedges to provide food and shelter for insect pollinators.
ForwardFarming’s safety protocols ensure that chemical products don’t harm humans or wildlife. To protect nearby bodies of water, for instance, ForwardFarms has implemented a system for cleaning waste water. Hof Ten Bosch, a participating farm in Belgium, harnesses microorganisms to draw out chemical residue, allowing the resulting clean water to safely evaporate.
For its part, Harborview Farms has designated certain environmental buffer zones as well as conservation areas to protect local ecosystems. Pollinator strips on the farm allow native insects to thrive, and cover crops prevent soil erosion and cut down on pollution while also boosting wildlife habitats.
Through partnerships in both the public and private sectors, farms in Bayer’s initiative share knowledge about sustainable practices, further research on agricultural solutions, and foster a dialogue on new approaches to farming. Harborview Farms currently partners with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland, among other organizations. According to Bayer, these partnerships foster “mutually beneficial collaborations that include all players in the value chain and help to leverage the potential for collaboration in modern agriculture.”
With ForwardFarming, Bayer aims to encourage sustainable methods of farming that can be scaled up and applied throughout the agricultural sector. If the initiative succeeds in the United States, this program has the potential to encourage other American farmers to learn from its experience and use that knowledge to create sustainable solutions for their own farms.