U.S. Farmers Delivering Sustainably Grown Grains

February 27, 2023

The term ‘sustainability’ quickly became a discouraging word among farmers when leaders began touting its need in agriculture.

“It put a burr under my saddle and caused a lot of us to get defensive,” says South Dakota farmer Mike McCranie, a longtime leader who sits on various soybean boards. “When you’ve farmed for 40 years, on some land my great-grandfather homesteaded 142 years ago, and made vast productivity improvements, you get defensive when someone says you need to be more sustainable,” he says.

South Dakota Farmer Mike McCranie

But given greater perspective and acknowledgment that global grain buyers import more than half of U.S. soy grown, McCranie believes this continued conservation focus benefits his sons and all farmers on the journey of continuous improvements.

History of continued improvement

Taking a step back, McCranie pays tribute to the early conservation pioneers, those farmers who helped push Congress to establish the Soil Conservation Service (now known as National Resources Conservation Service - NRCS) in 1935. The Great Plains ‘Dust Bowl’ pushed conservation forward to address soil erosion problems. Then the USDA established Soil Conservation Districts in each state to lead local efforts.

In South Dakota, McCranie cites his wife Monica’s grandfather, Claremont farmer Frank Feser. He helped push for state and national conservation needs in the 1940s and 50s as an organization member and then President of the South Dakota Association of Soil Conservation District Supervisors.

“In the 1930s, it got so dry, and so much land blew into what looked like sand dunes and a desert, even in South Dakota,” McCranie says. “So Feser began land changes like planting trees, shifting from fall to spring plowing, keeping cover on the land and listing corn—all to get a big jump on wind erosion. Today, you’d never know it was the same field we continue improving. That is progress and sustainability. He also pushed for similar efforts to control river and stream flooding within watersheds to reduce water erosion.”

Global sustainable demands

McCranie, who just returned from a U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) board meeting, emphasized the importance of sustainability among global grain and meal buyers.

“Currently, 60% of our exported U.S. soybeans are sold and accompanied by our U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol (SSAP) certificates,” McCranie says. “Our recent meeting hosted Central and South American buyers who are very concerned about sustainability issues, which is why they are choosing U.S. soybeans.”

The 10th anniversary of the checkoff-funded SSAP program proves our global buyers want US soybeans with proven sustainability. “Our first year (2014), we shipped 7,000 metric tons with SSAP certificates, and in 2022 we exceeded 40 million metric tons,” says Abby Rinne, USSEC Sustainability Director.

“Interest has really grown among our customers who want soybeans grown in a sustainable manner,” Rinne says. “The program was built initially to satisfy questions from European countries. But sustainability is top of mind for all international markets now. And this program really showcases that U.S. farmers are producing a sustainable product that continues to improve.”

Achieving sustainability certification

USSEC determines the amount of soybeans that are sustainable using an aggregate approach. First, they look at the number of farmers in the U.S. Farm Program (making them subject to audit). Second, the organization calculates compliance with USDA audits (20,000/year across 2,200 offices = average is 97% compliance). Third, calculate total soybean production in a year.

“This allows us to determine how much of the crop can be verified as sustainable with the SSAP program,” Rinne says. “Then we have an online database where exporters can issue certificates for their exports. And in 2022, we began allowing transferable certificates.”

To benefit the buyer’s supply chain, an SSAP certificate can be transferred four times. So, for example, a European feed mill buyer could crush them, sell to a hog farm which then sells meat to a processor/retailer—all of who can report that the feed contained sustainable U.S. soy.

“U.S. farmers take great care for their land and natural resources just by adopting conservation practices and showing continual improvement,” Rinne says. “So, a combination of these practices and compliance with laws and regulations really help set the U.S. soybean production industry apart from our competitors.”

Judging sustainability progress

McCranie, who farms near Claremont with his wife Monica and two sons Matthew and Mitchell, says Mother Nature was their driver to become more sustainable. “It was enlightening to know that we are SSAP sustainable by adopting no-till and conservation tillage that adds residue to keep soil protected from weather extremes while conserving moisture to reduce drought,” he says.

McCranie Family

Continued improvement through equipment and genetics technology helps McCranie move toward his goal of passing on improved land to the next generation. “I’m excited to see my technology-loving sons continue to advance the farm and ensure we grow our sustainability,” he adds.

To learn program details, read the latest U.S. Soy Sustainability Assurance Protocol—Version 3.2. Directive 4 highlights continuous improvement practices and environmental protection control measures and regulations. “It highlights all of the valuable programs from NRCS that support development and innovation for sustainable soybean production,”
Rinne says.

So, the next time you hear the term sustainability, McCranie and Rinne hope farmers think in terms of the fact that the customer is interested, and sustainability grows the U.S. share of export markets. “By continuing along a sustainability journey—as we have since the Dust Bowl days—farmers can ensure they’re in operation from one generation to the next,” Rinne adds.

By Kurt Lawton for South Dakota Soybean

Published in the Spring 2023 South Dakota Soybean Leader magazine.