February 2022 Issue
RD Farmers — Sustainability From Farm to Fork
By Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD, FAND
Vol. 24, No. 2, P. 26
Today’s Dietitian speaks with five RDs about the connection between agriculture and nutrition, including technological advances and plant and animal production practices geared to enhance the quality and quantity of food.
Dietitians translate food and nutrition science into practical solutions to help people consume a nutrient-rich diet to maintain and improve health. But many RDs never realized that clients, patients, and students would challenge them with questions about how their food is grown and the impact agriculture has on the environment, food safety, and sustainability.
Farming has changed dramatically from 100 years ago, when 40% of the US labor force was engaged in agriculture compared with less than 2% today.1,2 Farmers now must produce additional food for a population that has more than tripled while the amount of farmland and water has remained the same or decreased.3,4 Even with all of these changes, 97% of US farms are still family owned.5
Agricultural sustainability is a hot topic among scientists, farmers, and consumers. The USDA defines “sustainable agriculture’’ as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that, over the long term, will satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance environmental quality and natural resources, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable and on-farm resources, sustain the economic viability of farms, and improve the quality of life for farmers and society.6
In a 2018 President’s Page in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Donna Martin, EdS, RDN, LD, SNS, FAND, encouraged dietitians to embrace the research, technology, and tools that enable farmers to be successful. She concluded that combining nutrition and agriculture into a profession is a natural fit.7
Who better to link food production and nutrition than dietitians who also are farmers, the true translators of farm to fork. Today’s Dietitian speaks with five dietitian farmers who discuss the role of American farmers in producing an abundant, safe, and nutrient-rich supply of food for people in the United States and around the world, while promoting sustainability and food safety and reducing environmental impact and food waste.
Jennie Schmidt, MS, RD
Schmidt Farms, Inc, Sudlersville, Maryland
Jennie Schmidt is a full-time partner of a third-generation, diversified family farm growing corn, soybeans, fresh market green beans, canning tomatoes, wine grapes, and “all natural” hogs. It has been 18 years since she’s worked as a clinical and long term care dietitian.
Sustainability has been a priority for Schmidt Farms for more than 50 years. The farm has received Conservation Agricultural Stewardship certification and has been recognized in the Governor’s Agriculture Hall of Fame for its conservation practices. Schmidt’s father-in-law adopted no-till farming in the 1960s, a rare practice at that time. No-till is preferred because it reduces soil erosion, helps protect soil structure, and keeps carbon in the soil. He also began using cover crops, such as grass, small grains, and legumes, which are planted between two primary crop seasons to provide soil cover, maintain soil moisture, improve nutrient cycling, and suppress weeds. Both are now standard agricultural conservation practices.
“We also use precision technology to apply exactly the amount of fertilizer and pesticides needed at the right time in the right place, which reduces our use of them,” Schmidt says. “In addition, a nutrient management plan ensures our crops receive the nutrients they need for the growing season, retain those nutrients in our fields, and keep them out of our waterways. While many think a return to 1940s-style agriculture will solve our environmental problems, a modern farm using precision technology produces more food on less land with fewer resources than the farming style of our forefathers.”
Technology and other innovations dramatically have changed farming over the last 50 years. According to Schmidt, agricultural biotechnology enables farmers to produce a more resilient crop while conserving resources. “It improves the crop’s ability to use fertilizer or pesticide efficiently, tolerate drought, resist disease, and enhance nutrient or fatty acid profiles,” she explains. In addition, nozzles for fertilizer and pesticide sprayers that automatically shut off once they’ve reached an area that already has been covered prevent fields from receiving twice the concentration.
Schmidt Farms also is committed to reducing food waste. Despite consumer fears of chemicals such as insecticides, they greatly reduce food waste, a problem with significant negative environmental impact. Blemishes on fruit and vegetables caused by insects can introduce bacteria, which can lead to internal rot and disease in the crop. And herbicides (weed killers) prevent weeds from competing with crops for water and nutrients, which can lead to smaller and less attractive produce. “People think they will buy flawed produce, but when it comes down to their hard-earned money, they prefer fruits and vegetables without imperfections,” Schmidt says.
The farm also donates produce to the Maryland Farm to Food Bank program when there’s a surplus beyond what they can sell.
Schmidt believes her degrees in nutrition have made her a better farmer. She uses nutrition science every day, just for a different biological system than she was trained to do. “Being both an RD and a farmer allows me to translate food and farming information in both a practical and clinical way in addressing issues with consumers. It also makes my voice more trustworthy because I have experience with both nutrition and agriculture,” Schmidt says.
Lauren Twigge, MCN, RDN, LD
Farmer’s Daughter, Business Owner, and Social Media Health Educator, Dallas
Lauren Twigge was raised on a dairy farm founded by her dad in 1988 in California’s Central Valley as a way to continue the family tradition her great-grandfather started in 1922 when he emigrated from Holland. Her father and brothers also grow row crops, tree fruit, and nuts. Twigge’s farming background gives her a unique perspective as a dietitian about how food is produced.
Long committed to sustainability, dairy farmers now produce more milk with fewer cows due to better genetics, feed, and technological advances. According to Twigge, “on our farm, 70% of the ingredients in the cattle feed come from byproducts that would be thrown away like cottonseed, almond hulls, and dried distillers’ grains.”
Cows convert these foods humans cannot eat into nutritious products that we can, thus reducing food waste and energy needed to discard that waste.
Efficient water management also reduces the farm’s environmental impact. “My family recycles water four times before it heads to the fields to water crops that will eventually come back to feed the cattle,” Twigge explains. “Besides the fresh water given to the cows for drinking, recycled water is used to cool down the milk, in sprinkler systems to cool off the cows, clean the barns, and clear out the manure lanes, and finally it flows out to the crops.”
Methane digesters are other sustainability tools that help prevent the release of methane from cow manure into the air. The digester breaks down the manure, captures the methane produced, and turns it into natural energy that can be used to run dairy generators and vehicles, or it can be added into the power grid.
“Keeping up with the technology is almost a full-time job for farmers,” Twigge says. Advances in practices such as artificial insemination promote a more healthful herd with increased milk production, while radio frequency ID tags in each cow’s ear store information farmers use to monitor their health, milk production, and medication use. “A recently installed rotary milking parlor reduces the amount of time cows spend in the barn and provides space for more cows,” Twigge adds.
Twigge encourages RDs and health professionals to seek out individuals with agricultural experience, talk to farmers, and learn more about farming to ensure they provide accurate information. “I launched my Instagram page, @nutrition.at.its.roots, two years ago to dispel farming myths, promote the facts on how food is produced, and ultimately give consumers back their food confidence,” she says.
Through Instagram Live posts and Reels, static posts, podcasts, and a weekly online Q&A with followers, Twigge relates farming back to nutrition. “Misunderstanding leads to food fear, and the only way to combat misunderstanding is to provide accurate, factual information, and that is the goal of my page,” she says.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND
Founder and President of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Sacramento, California
Amy Myrdal Miller grew up on a large, diversified family farm in northeast North Dakota. As a third-generation farmer on the land originally settled by her great-grandfather in the 1880s, her father raised beef cattle, wheat, barley, corn, and native prairie grass to make hay for cattle feed. Today, her three brothers and two nephews farm the land, with wheat still the largest crop in addition to canola, corn, soybeans, pinto beans, black beans, sunflowers, pink beans, and flax.
After becoming a dietitian, Myrdal Miller quickly realized that clinical dietetics wasn’t the right fit for her, so she pursued a master’s degree in nutrition communications with an emphasis on food marketing. She worked for a public relations firm, a cardiovascular research institute, Dole Food Company, the California Walnut Board & Commission, and The Culinary Institute of America before starting her own business.
As the founder of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, she works with a variety of food and agriculture clients focusing on communications, marketing, influencer engagement, and culinary nutrition. She helps foodservice, culinary, and health care professionals understand the tools and technologies farmers use to sustainably produce food for the masses. “There’s no single practice that indicates whether a farm or ranch is sustainable,” Myrdal Miller explains. “It’s the entirety of what is done over many years that tells the story of sustainable agriculture, including financial success.”
Some of her brothers’ farm practices are especially technology driven, while others are those her dad used in the 1950s. For example, they grow genetically modified canola, corn, and soybeans, a valuable crop for both environmental and financial sustainability. They also grow soybeans and pinto, navy, and black beans as rotational crops to enhance soil nitrogen, which results in higher wheat yields. Using some no-till crop planting helps promote soil health and soil water retention, and reduce soil carbon emissions.
“When my brothers plant a GMO crop, they contribute to global food security,” Myrdal Miller says. “Living in a climate with a short growing season, growing crops that produce a yield that results in a profit helps them continue farming and contributing to our food system.” Crop protection products such as herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides also reduce food loss or food waste on the farm so there’s enough food for people to eat.
Myrdal Miller believes it’s important for RDs to appreciate the challenges farmers face and support tools and technologies that enable them to produce food for consumers. “Climate change, regulatory pressure, rising input costs, labor shortages, and global competition are factors that US farmers and ranchers face every day with fortitude and faith,” she explains. “We need to acknowledge their work to reduce environmental impact, ensure financial sustainability, and support agriculture’s ongoing integration of science, research, and technology.”
Charlotte Rommereim, RDN, LN, LD
Family Farmer and Founder of Farm to Fork Communications, Alcester, South Dakota
Charlotte Rommereim’s South Dakota farm has been in her family since 1874 when her great-great-grandfather homesteaded the original 80 acres. Over the years, they’ve raised pigs, beef cattle, corn, soybeans, and alfalfa hay. Currently, she and her husband raise pigs and their daughter and son-in-law grow crops. While Rommereim primarily has worked as a consultant dietitian for health care facilities, recently she also began partnering with agriculture organizations to communicate to consumers and health care professionals about her farming experience and its impact on food choices.
“Each generation of our family has made improvements to our farm to leave it better than when we started and keep it economically viable for the next generation,” says Rommereim, who views sustainability as a progressive journey that their farm has traveled since its inception. Specifically, they prevent soil erosion on their rolling land using terraces and minimizing tillage. And they use manure from farm animals to fertilize crops and promote soil health. “There will always be ways we can improve, and I am confident my daughter and son-in-law will do all they can to sustain this farm for generations to come,” Rommereim says.
Few aspects of farming have been unaffected by technology. Rommereim says, “It is remarkable that in my 85-year-old father’s lifetime, we have gone from planting and harvesting crops using horses and by hand to now producing four to five times more corn per acre using machinery,” she says.
Technology also plays a significant role in the caring of 5,000 pigs. While people still observe and care for the pigs, computers control the feed and water delivery and temperature to provide optimal care with less labor. “So in the hot, humid summers and the bitter cold South Dakota winters, our pigs always have a comfortable environment,” Rommereim explains. The biosecurity of their barns and the ability to maintain the best environment for the pigs also decreases the need for antibiotics.
By continuously improving sustainability and the ability to do more with less, the Rommereim farm reduces food waste and promotes food security. “According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, meat and dairy food waste is less than other food groups,” Rommereim says. “This is in part due to farmers taking optimal care of their animals.” Animals that are well cared for grow faster and more efficiently and, therefore, decrease food waste.
Rommereim believes her lifetime of farming experience imparts an authenticity that resonates with others. She can convey what that means to people’s food choices similarly to the way dietitians translate nutrition science to help consumers make healthful food choices.
Marie May Smith, MAA, RD, LD
May Family Farms Ltd and Smith Cattle and Hay Co, Pleasanton, Texas
Marie May Smith is a fifth-generation cattle rancher in South Texas. She’s a partner of May Family Farms Ltd with her father, and Smith Cattle and Hay Co with her husband. She previously worked for 15 years in clinical dietetics, foodservice management, and physician practice management.
According to Smith, beef producers have a deep love for their land and livestock because they support their families as well as feed a growing population. “Pasture is a critical resource for cattle ranchers, so we protect the land and conserve the resources and benefits it offers us,” she explains. Most cattle grazing land isn’t suitable for growing crops, but cattle can convert human-inedible plants they consume into a high-quality edible protein food. Managed grazing of range lands supports biodiversity, provides wildlife habitats, enhances carbon sequestration, manages wildfires, and contributes to nutrient cycling.
“During the winter and spring, we graze cattle on winter rye grass planted over harvested cotton crop land,” Smith says. “Using rye grass as a cover crop helps prevent nutrient leaching [and] runoff, builds soil health, and adds diversity to the cropping system.”
For the last four to six months of life, their cattle are moved to feed yards where they eat a high-energy grain-based diet mixed with human-inedible plants. They reach production weight more quickly, so they produce less methane and use fewer natural resources, and, therefore, have a lower carbon footprint.
With advances in technology, beef production uses fewer resources than ever before. “Compared to 1975, it now takes 36% fewer cattle to produce the same amount of beef,” Smith explains. “Improvements in beef cattle genetics, grazing land management, integrated crop-livestock systems, nutrition, biotechnologies, and husbandry practices (the science of breeding, feeding, and caring for farm animals) have enhanced animal well-being and lowered environmental impact.”
The lower fat content in beef—with more than 60% of the beef sold in supermarkets (ie, 40 different cuts) considered lean—is another major result of technology.
Smith works with an animal nutritionist to ensure the cattle receive the right balance of nutrients and a veterinarian to develop plans for preventive health and proper use of vaccines and antibiotics. “Antibiotics are very expensive, and we continuously evaluate their use because we don’t want to overuse them,” she says. No meat enters the food supply with antibiotic residues above the FDA tolerance level.
“Both nutrition and agriculture are part of my identity, not only in my professional actions but in my personal life as well,” Smith says. “As producers, we care about the same issues as consumers. We strive to bring from pasture to plate a wholesome, high-quality, nutritious product in a sustainable way that we would be proud to feed our family as well as yours.” n
— Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD, FAND, is a nutrition communications consultant in Dallas working with a variety of food, nutrition, and agricultural organizations to promote science-based nutrition information so people can “eat beyond the headlines” to enjoy eating, not fear food. She’s passionate about the connection between agriculture and nutrition. Growing up, she frequently visited her grandparents’ and uncle’s fourth-generation Central Texas farm and ranch, where her mother was born and raised. Her cousin, a member of the fifth generation, is still farming there.
1. Dimitri C, Effland A, Conklin N; US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. The 20th century transformation of U.S. agriculture and farm policy. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/44197/13566_eib3_1_.pdf?v=263.2. Published June 2005.
2. Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate). The World Bank website. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS. Published January 29, 2021.
3. Historical population change data (1910-2020). US Census Bureau website. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/dec/popchange-data-text.html. Published April 26, 2021.
4. Farming and farm income. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service website. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/farming-and-farm-income/. Updated December 1, 2021.
5. Hoppe R. U.S. farms, large and small. US Department of Agriculture website. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2015/01/13/us-farms-large-and-small. Published February 21, 2017.
6. Sustainable agriculture program. US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture website. https://nifa.usda.gov/program/sustainable-agriculture-program
7. Martin DS. Academy members and agriculture: a winning combination. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018;118(2):199.