Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. Nicole Ayache serves as senior director for sustainability initiatives at the National Milk Producers Federation, where she leads environmental stewardship and workforce development initiatives for the FARM program. That’s Farmers Assuring Responsible Management.
She focuses on developing tools and resources to help U.S. dairy farms improve their environmental and labor outcomes, which lets the entire supply chain know that dairy is following best practices. Ayache’s career across multiple industries and disciplines gives her a broad perspective on sustainability. Her degrees are from Tufts University and Yale.
Thanks for joining us, Nicole.
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: Thanks, Alan.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Let’s talk about Earth Day. Earth Day always has a different theme every year, has been going on for more than 50 years now. This year’s theme is Restore Our Earth. Looking at that from the perspective of dairy, and your own role in the FARM program, how does that translate to what happens on farms?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: No one embodies this year’s Earth Day theme more than a dairy farmer. That’s because, caring for our natural resources is every day for a dairy farmer. When your livelihood depends on nature, and more than your livelihood, it’s often the place you call home. So there’s a lot of inherent dedication to taking care of the environment because it’s how you live your life and where you live your life.
What this looks like on the farm varies because our farms and our local environments have different situations and different needs. For some farms, that can mean putting buffer strips or grass waterways to protect water quality. On other farms, there may be cover crops or conservation tillage to promote soil health. Still, others may be looking at things like energy efficiency and better lighting, renewable energy like solar and wind. Then there’s a whole variety of manure treatment technologies, anything as far out as worm composting to cap and flair, to digesters. There’s really no end to the many ways that our dairies care for their farms and for our Earth.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Worm composting. What’s that all about?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: I am not admittedly the expert in this area, but the FARM program has had the chance to talk with Royal Dairy out in Washington who does use worm composting. I think if anyone is looking to learn a little bit more, I would say, “Go ahead and look up Royal Dairy, and then look up the last FARM program video on it. You can find out a bit more.”
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You’ve named a lot of things here, Nicole. What do they all have in common?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: One thing I would say that all of dairy has in common is that it is a cycle that by its nature is renewable. Cows eat crops and byproducts, many of which humans can’t digest. But cows on the other hand can digest that feed stuff. They grow and they thrive on it. They produce milk that does actually nourish people. Then their waste, the manure, provides nutrients for the crops that again, start the cycle once more. And renew that cycle for end on end.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: How do we measure and track the work that’s being done?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: Yeah. I would say critical for dairy and really all of agriculture to share our story, backed up by proof points and data. Because in the eyes of the general public, proof is in the pudding. Then from the farmers’ perspective, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So really, data and metrics are important. Both as we’re thinking about, how do we want to communicate to the general public, but also on the farm, how you want to drive continuous improvement. That’s where the FARM Environmental Stewardship Program comes in.
The program is implemented by dairy cooperatives and processors. They’re trained certified staff, conduct FARM Environmental Stewardship Assessments with dairy farmers. The evaluation itself asks about things like the farm’s nutrient management plan, which is important for protecting water quality. The evaluation also measures a farm’s carbon and energy footprint. By going through the assessment, we can know the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per gallon of milk that the farm produces. That data can be aggregated across farms by those dairy cooperatives and processors to communicate that story externally. We can also use it as an industry as a whole to understand our entire performance for the dairy industry.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: How is this all organized? Essentially, what is the governing body to make sure that this initiative is serving so many different interests?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: The FARM ES program, similar to the rest of the FARM program, benefits from a great governance structure that allows for a lot of farmer input. First, we have our farmer advisory council, made up of farmers from across the country that provide input into the FARM program as a whole. We then have the FARM ES task force, which is made up of dairy cooperative staff, as well as dairy farmers. They’re the ones that provide strategic input into the FARM ES tool and program. Going up the chain, NMPF environmental committee reviews any recommendations from the task force and in turn makes recommendations to the NMPF board of directors. Both that environmental committee and the NMPF board of directors has significant farmer input and representation.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You’re a dairy farmer and you’re part of FARM ES, and you’re going through an evaluation, what should you expect to go through?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: Yeah. I realize I sound a little overwhelming when you’re talking about all of this data collection and the inputs and the outputs. We do have a number of resources on our website, nationaldairyfarm.com, to help farms that go through an evaluation to make it just a easy, simple process. But I’ll give you a high-level overview of what it looks like.
I mentioned that those second-party evaluators that are staff of the dairy co-ops and processors, those evaluators would contact a farm to schedule the evaluation. The evaluation could be in-person, it could be remote over the phone, or the most common scenario, it’s a little bit of both. During the evaluation, the evaluators collect data on some key areas. Cow and milk production data, think things like herd size, the volume of milk produced per year. They collect ration data. Info about what the cows are fed. How much they’re fed. What it’s made up of.
Information on manure management. Information on electricity and fuel usage. All of that data goes into a model to generate the greenhouse gas and energy footprint. The model has been peer-reviewed and published, which really fits with how we approach things for the FARM program as a whole. Everything that we do is science-based, and it’s just really valuable to have a model like this one. Because we can’t do anything like put a bubble around a farm to measure greenhouse gas emissions, so we do need models that generate a reliable estimate instead.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: This just seems like the sort of thing that people could really geek out on. I imagine just very passionate, scientific conferences, where people are all arguing over the implications of tweak A versus B in the model.
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: I actually think there are lifecycle assessment, entire conferences devoted to it. So you are absolutely right.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: This just isn’t about certain things going on certain farms, this becomes then part of the industry-wide evolution that in the past decade, I know the FARM program, I think dates to 2009, has seen some pretty significant risks.
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: Yeah. I often get questions from folks who ask me, “Do you have a diagram of everything going on when it comes to dairy sustainability?” While I don’t have a diagram, I can give a little bit of information on where FARM ES fits in. The industry-wide goals are the 2050 environmental goals, and the Net-Zero initiative is essentially, how do we get to those goals on dairy farms?
You could think of FARM ES as a key part of that overarching Net-Zero strategy. FARM ES is the platform and the tool for measuring environmental progress on the farm and supporting continuous improvement. That first piece on measurement, it’s the way we know where farms stand today and can help them identify trends over time.
That second piece, improvement. Farms can use our resources, like the FARM ES reference manual, to find ideas or practice, or management changes to improve the environmental footprint. We continue to look for ways to grow the program to offer additional insights to farmers. So having that FARM ES program is a critical piece of the overarching Net-Zero initiative, because it’s a key piece of how we track progress toward the goals and support farmers in getting to the goals.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: I actually think there is a diagram, Nicole. That’s why you were secretly so disappointed this is only a podcast instead of the video presentation, because you would have been able to show it to us. But thank you for that clear explanation. What’s the future for FARM ES? Where do you go from here?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: It’s a good question, and a time we want because we’ve been doing strategic planning for FARM ES over, I would say the course of 2020 into 2021. Our hope is to be able to release a roadmap externally sometime this year. But I can give you a summary of what we’ve been up to. We’ve had conversations with farmers, with dairy co-ops, dairy processors, retailers, brands, subject matter experts, and others to really develop a strategy for where we should go with FARM ES. And it boils down to this. We know that FARM ES has strengths in measurement and reporting capabilities. Where we think we need to go is to grow in both breadth and depth.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: What do you mean by that?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: In terms of breadth, FARM ES has focused so far on greenhouse gases and energy, with just a little dabble into water quality. But the industry’s 2050 goals hit on optimizing water use and improving water quality, and there will be a forthcoming goal on biodiversity. So we know at least that FARM ES needs to expand into those areas.
We also know we need to help farms go deeper. That depth piece, digging into what factors are driving their results and giving them specific tailored advice on how to improve. That might not be in the scope exactly of the FARM ES platform and tool, but it is something we can do through partnerships with other organizations. So FARM ES becomes the hub, and then connects back to subject matter experts or other organizations who have materials and resources, or highlighting cost share or technical assistance programs that are available.
In fact, that idea of partnerships and collaboration isn’t unique to FARM ES. That’s how U.S. dairy as a whole approaches our industry environmental efforts. So the Net-Zero initiative success will be in the collective work of our dairy supply chain, along with those partners. From academia to nonprofits, to government, to retailers and brands, and more. So I’d say dairy has big ambitions, and FARM ES, along with all of our great industry-wide efforts, will help get us there and help us meet our goals.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You talk a lot about partnerships, Nicole, and you talk about a lot of ways of improving farmer practices and creating assurances throughout the supply chain. But that puts a lot of pressure on the farmer. How does FARM ES balance that need between improving, having best practices, having science-based assurances throughout the supply chain, and letting farmers farm?
Nicole Ayache, NMPF: It’s a very fair question. Two ways, I would say, we tackle that. The first is, we’re very mindful on how we put together the program. I mentioned how we benefit a lot from having a model, the model is really aimed to be simplified. It’s meant to be that, this isn’t going to be onerous as far as a process for collecting data. It’s going to be data the farm already has, can put together within a couple hours to complete the assessment. If not less, if they already have some of that data on hand.
The other piece of it is, we continue to look for those opportunities where environmental continuous improvement aligns with business goals. We’re talking about, where do those things line up? For example, if it is productivity or animal health, that’s good for the business and good for the environment. So we’re really looking to make it so it’s a win-win for the farm.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: We have been speaking with Nicole Ayache. She serves as senior director for sustainability initiatives with the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Dairy Farm Program. Thank you for your time, Nicole. That’s it for today’s podcast. For more on the FARM program, you can visit its website, nationaldairyfarm.com, which is both a great guide to FARM program initiatives and a portal into the world of dairy sustainability. As far as Dairy Defined, if you’d like to hear more, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thanks for joining us.