Prairie Farms Co-op, McDonald’s “test drive” online toolbox to reduce greenhouse gases


Editor’s note: This article incorporates information excerpted and

adapted from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy reports and videos. The Innovation Center was established in 2008 through Dairy Management Inc., a nonprofit organization that manages the national dairy checkoff program on behalf of America’s 45,000 dairy farmers. For more information about the Farm Smart program, visit: U.S. dairy cooperatives and their farmermembers — who produce more than 80 percent of the nation’s milk — are striving to help meet the voluntary industry goal of achieving a 25-percent reduction in the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020. Adopting sustainable farming and processing practices needed to reach that goal will not only benefit the environment, but can also help improve the bottom line for farms and co-ops. It also helps to make their products more attractive to food-industry customers. Farm Smart is an online program, developed by the Innovation Center, which provides farmers and processors with an online “toolbox” to measure progress toward on-farm sustainability goals.

Farm Smart was designed to help farmers:

• Learn about their farm’s environmental footprint and understand how it is interrelated with the farm’s financial performance and efficiency;

• Innovate by identifying areas for potential improvement;

• Track progress in a secure, confidential data platform.

By using feedback from farmers, cooperatives and retailers who participated in a pilot test of the tool’s capabilities in 2013 and 2014, new features were added to Farm Smart to allow better understanding of a milk supply’s environmental footprint and to better communicate farmers’ and cooperatives’ continuous improvement over time. Prairie Farms members step forward To field test these tools, Prairie Farms Dairy cooperative, Carlinville, Ill., and McDonald’s Corporation, Oak Brook, Ill., cooperated on a pilot program to assess how well Farm Smart tracks and measures environmental impacts, from feed, to farm, to processing plant, to retailer. “We’re all in this together: the farmer, processor and retailer,” says Tom Hemker, a Prairie Farms member who operates a dairy farm near Bartelso, Ill. He is one of 10 co-op farmers who participated in the pilot. “We put our heart and soul into our work every day to make sure we are producing good, wholesome food,” he adds. Dale Thole, a Prairie Farms dairyman from Aviston, Ill., says participating in the pilot has also been rewarding for his family. “The Farm Smart program…should help us put our products out there in a good light,” he says, adding that the productivity of this farm has improved as a result.

“The trend in our industry is that we really want to be

sustainable,” adds David Lattan, vice president for engineering at Prairie Farms. He sees the Farm Smart program as helping to “give us a great chance to reach the industry-wide goal of reducing our carbon footprint by 25 percent by the year 2020.” The pilot program was one of the first ever conducted in animal agriculture to measure environmental impacts across the entire supply chain. The findings contributed to broader Farm Smart pilot and testing efforts across the country that measured the environmental footprint from the production of 370 million gallons of milk — or 1.6 percent of total U.S. milk production. The effort marked the first time McDonald’s has participated in a U.S. dairy sustainability pilot program. “Dairy industry sustainability efforts are extremely important to McDonald’s,” says Susan Forsell, the company’s vice president for sustainability. “Our customers want to know where food comes from and to know that it is responsibly produced.”

Customers need data Prairie Farms was not only willing to help a key customer, like McDonald’s, by gathering data it needs to show that its suppliers are committed to sustainability, but also to “test the Farm Smart tools in a real world environment,” says Lattan. “The pilot fostered a deep sense of partnership,” says Chad Frahm, Dairy Management Inc.’s senior vice president for sustainability. “Farmers had a first-hand opportunity to learn about emerging sustainable supply expectations from McDonald’s. Staff at McDonald’s had the opportunity to visit a working dairy farm, meet with farmers and see how milk is produced. These interactions fostered a sense of shared commitment for providing a quality, sustainable product to customers.” The pilot, he continues, showed that a collaborative approach can achieve real progress toward meeting mutual sustainability goals, and to avoid “negative trade-offs for another part of the supply chain. All play a vital a role in reducing the industry’s environmental footprint.” The Innovation Center team is continuing to refine the tools and is incorporating expanded capabilities to meet the evolving needs of dairy buyers, dairy cooperatives and U.S. dairy farmers. In addition to Prairie Farms and McDonald’s, other Dairy Sustainability Alliance member organizations that have contributed to Farm Smart tool development include: Agri- Mark/Cabot Creamery Cooperative; Dairy Farmers of America Inc.; General Mills; Land O’Lakes Inc.; Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association Inc.; Michigan Milk Producers Association; Starbucks Coffee and United Dairymen of Arizona.