This edition of the Sustainability Spotlight features Nebraska sugarbeet grower, Mario Pitts, who is a grower-owner of the Western Sugar Cooperative. Pitts and his wife, Kristy, farm in Lyman, Neb. He has been on the board of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association since 2014.

Pitts was asked to describe what sustainability means to him. He said, “Sustainability in my words is taking the steps necessary to ensure that future generations can enjoy this great planet as much as our generation and past generations have. For many generations, farmers and ranchers have been great stewards of the land and we must continue that for the future generations of our families. Sustainability is kind of a three-legged stool. It takes all three in my opinion to work. The three ‘legs’ being air, water and soil. To be a good steward, all three legs have to be accounted for, taken care of, and used correctly to ensure that we leave this earth in better shape than what it was when it was handed to us. Through the years technology has been the key to helping us become better stewards, but over the last 10-15 years we’ve improved technologically by leaps and bounds. Major things have helped us do this such as GMO crops, which have saved us labor and allowed us to make fewer passes on the field. Soil health on my farm has improved because of my ability to strip-till which reduces emissions and enables greater carbon sequestration on my land. In addition, GMO seeds have allowed us to make savings on fuel use. On sugarbeets alone, we now use five to six gallons an acre less than we did on conventional beets. GMO seeds have allowed us to use less pesticides on sugarbeets and other crops than we did with conventional varieties. We can now spray fewer times with less active ingredient than before which has reduced the environmental impact by 92% using glyphosate instead of conventional herbicides.”

“Beyond biotechnology, the development of GPS and continued advancements in the technology have allowed us to cut down on overlapping passes for seed, fertilizer and chemical applications decreasing fuel and time usage. Prior to GPS, on a sprayer we used to have 5 to 10% over application but now with auto boom shut-off, over-application is reduced to less than 2%. Everything is just more precise and accurate. Tier four-engine standards, which are required by the Environmental Protection Agency for non-road agricultural heavy equipment that uses diesel fuel, sets up engine and fuel controls that dramatically reduce emissions. The standards require expensive equipment upgrades and fuel additives but I doubt that most folks not directly involved in agriculture know that we are emitting up to 90% less nitrogen oxide, much less CO2, and much less particulate matter than before. Center pivot irrigation has also helped us greatly by allowing us to reduce our tillage. It also reduces water run-off and reduces how much actual water is applied to the crop. Cooperative-wide use of pivots in a normal year has reduced water demand by 30%. All our pivots run off electricity so no diesel engines are used to pump the water that is delivered to us through a series of canals.”

Pitts was also asked what Western Sugar Cooperative does to help growers meet their personal or sustainability goals or Western’s cooperative-level goals. He said, “I believe Western Sugar has been a leader on the sustainability issue for many years. We’ve tracked many growers throughout the years to prove what has been done and where we are headed in the future. Thank God for Rebecca Larson who is definitely out in front of this issue. She has done so much research for our company and can go toe-to-toe with almost anyone to prove that what we are doing is very sustainable. Western Sugar has made an effort to allow data to drive research investments. We have the appropriate information to know where opportunities for improvement lay (in terms of improving farm economics and environmental outcomes). We have developed and follow a strategic plan to invest in research to address those areas. We also invest in research that doesn’t necessarily drive changes on-farm, but rather helps us communicate with data about how farmers are making the appropriate decisions. Our research helps protect our freedom to operate and help the everyday person understand farming better. In addition, Western research has helped us get certification to sell our sugar to many buyers looking to support their sustainability supply chain goals.”

“Western Sugar also supports sustainability through its hybrid approval system. The sugarbeet seed market is a closed system. The cooperative determines what can or cannot be sold to growers. Western Sugar has long required native tolerance to seven different pests and diseases. This improves the predictability of production for the farmer and farm economics. Our system provides the plants with the tools to defend themselves.”

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Pitts then went on to describe what he has done on his own farm. “As far as our operation we do very little tillage anymore. We strip-till everything. This reduces fuel usage greatly. It also helps retain moisture because only 25% of the soil gets disturbed. It allows us to place our fertilizer in a small band, reducing leaching and runoff. We also apply fertilizer at two other times throughout the growing season to reduce leaching and runoff and to spoon-feed the crops as they need the fertilizer. Strip-tilling has also helped add carbon to our fields by not burying the residue and letting it break down slowly on top of the soil surface. Over the last 13 years of strip-tilling our organic matter has doubled in the soil. The soil microbiome has improved as well. This has made it a more porous soil that helps hold more water, reduces leaching and reduces water runoff during rain events. In my opinion, earthworms are a big part of soil health and we now have thriving populations of worms in our soil. A handful of soil now looks so drastically different than it did 15 years ago.”

“Strip-tilling has also helped with compaction issues along with the use of GPS. We have used the same rows in our fields since 2008 when we started using GPS. This has reduced compaction greatly. On the compaction issue, we also use carts while harvesting. We never let trucks in the fields because this causes compaction. Many people suggest to just rip the soil after and get rid of compaction. This would work but then more fuel is burned and the soil structure and earthworm’s ecology are completely destroyed so we use carts no matter how wet or dry the soil is. We also use crop rotations to help improve our soil. Alfalfa is an important part of our crop rotation because its deep roots help to break up the soil. It also leaves good nitrogen in the ground for future crops. Center pivot irrigation has allowed us to reduce tillage and use strip-tillage. With flood irrigation, the soil has to be pretty clean of debris for the water to go through the field but not with center pivots. Having the extra debris on top of the soil has helped us reduce runoff, reduce water and wind erosion and reduce water evaporation.”

“I could ramble on for hours about sustainability and all the improvements we have made and may be able to make in the future. It seems to me like it’s a big jigsaw puzzle but it’s evolved into this for many years. Thinking about it, my dad has been trying different things since I was a kid. Some of them to improve sustainability and some of them to improve the bottom line. They both go kind of hand in hand. Usually being more sustainable leads to improving your bottom line even if some of the steps are expensive in the beginning. It also leads to improving the most important thing, our future. I’m sure agriculture will continue to improve at a rapid pace. Some things I look to in the short future are new GMO technology, variable rate fertilizing, variable rate water application and improving diesel emissions even further than where we are today. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the future and how it will evolve. It makes me wonder if my great grandparents thought ‘how could we improve anymore’ when they were plowing with a team of horses,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t want to go back there for sure.”

In closing, Pitts said, “The thing I’m most proud of is that I’m a fourth-generation farmer and second-generation sugar producer and I have to ensure that I can pass this great way of life onto the next generations to come. The only way I can do this is to evolve over time to continue to be a great steward of the land just as my family has done in the past. An important part of maintaining agriculture is to educate the public about all of the technology we use and the environmental benefits we deliver, in addition to providing food. The public doesn’t understand what agriculture does for the ecosystem. We need to do a better job communicating. Yes, we burn some fuel, use some fertilizer and use precise doses of pesticides but do many people understand how much CO2 is converted to oxygen and carbon in the process?”