Cargill, General Mills, Wal-Mart and several other giant food, agricultural and environmental groups will announce a partnership on Wednesday to accelerate programs and research to improve soil health and water quality on farms.

The idea evolved from a meeting of CEOs that Wal-Mart held two years ago at its Arkansas headquarters. The topic: how the companies could help support agriculture in the Midwest.

Among other things, it was clear that companies were increasingly making commitments to customers that their products would come from fields or barns where farming is done sustainably with minimal damage to the environment.

“More and more consumers want to know where their food came from and what on-farm practices took place in row-crop ag and animal ag,” said Jill Kolling, senior director of sustainability at Cargill and co-chair of the collaborative. “That’s definitely a trend.”

The announcement Wednesday will call for accelerating field-scale research in three states to reduce fertilizer runoff and groundwater pumping for irrigation. The participants also will create case studies so that farmers, crop consultants and ag retailers can learn what conservation measures make economic as well as ecological sense in particular geographic areas.

The effort, called the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, will follow several strategies.

One will raise $4 million over the next five years to assist an initiative already underway in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. The National Corn Growers Association has enrolled 65 farms already to quantify the economic benefits to soil health from practices such as growing cover crops, tilling fields differently or not at all to minimize soil loss, and using innovative fertilizer management techniques so that fewer nutrients are wasted. The extra financial clout from the collaborative will expand that to 100 farms.

The idea is to take knowledge that’s learned on the ground in the three states and use it to “move the needle faster” and expand conservation practices throughout the Midwest, Kolling said.

“Scale is what we’re looking for,” she said. “We feel that with very large corporations involved, and with a lot of us having supply chain draw areas in the region and a lot of assets in this area, and conservation groups having a lot of on-the-ground and state level support, that we will be able to scale this uniquely compared to other programs that are out there.”

The collaborative also will create a Sustainable Agriculture Resource Center, to be launched in about a year, where farmers can look at case studies of successful conservation measures near them, including economic information about how healthy soil benefits both their bottom line and natural resources.

“We’re going to be pushing out information to farmers,” Kolling said. “At the end of the day, some of these conservation practices can help yields.”

The center would also be a resource for consumers to learn more about sustainable farming.

Many-pronged approach

Leaders say the collaborative will initially focus on improving soil health, reducing nitrogen and phosphorus into rivers and streams in the Mississippi River basin, maximizing water conservation to reduce demand on the Ogallala aquifer beneath Nebraska and other states and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Kolling said the collaborative will not set its own goals for environmental improvements, but endorses the science-based goals already established by groups such as the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force. That national group of experts has recommended that the three states reduce nitrogen loading to the Mississippi by 20 percent by 2025, along with similar goals for phosphorus reductions and for other farm states in the basin. Since the 1970s, excessive nutrients have created a dead zone each year where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This year, the dead area is expected to be about the size of Connecticut.

Mark Tercek, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, said in a statement that the collaboration “should lead to significantly ramped-up water conservation in the Midwest,” and that it can potentially “accelerate solutions that match the scale of the challenges we face in the region, such as improving water quality across the Midwest and addressing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The conservancy is another founding member of the collaborative. So are Monsanto, PepsiCo, Kellogg Co., the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund.

Different groups, including some at the state level, have set goals of having 50 percent of all Nebraska irrigation units maximizing water conservation by 2025, and having 75 percent of row crop acreage in the three states change tillage and other practices to improve soil health.

Many of the goals, Kolling said, can be achieved as more farmers adopt precision agriculture, which involves using sensors and other technology to apply just the right amount of fertilizer at the right time to different parts of fields, for example, or to gauge soil moisture levels more precisely so that irrigators apply adequate but not excessive water.

While the collaborative is new, Kolling said, there’s no reason it can’t grow to include additional corporate members, and to involve states such as Minnesota more directly.

“The idea is that learnings and activities will be applicable elsewhere and we could conceivably formally expand to additional states once we get going,” she said.