Sustainable Farming: What’s In It For You?
Many farmers have been practicing conservation ag for decades, focusing on everything from soil health to the legacy they’re creating for their children.
Now, as more consumers are looking for sustainably sourced foods, ADM is working with farmers to provide incentives and rewards for conservation practices, and bringing the supply chain together around practices that will keep farms healthy and prosperous. That’s the topic of our next In the Driver’s Seat podcast, recorded at the Farm Progress Show with Michelle French, ADM’s Corporate Sustainability Manager.
Here are a few highlights from the broader conversation that is fully available on the podcast:
What does sustainability mean for you and your job?
Everybody has their own definition of sustainability. I try to boil it down to the basics. I want to make sure that we are still in business 5, 10, 50 years from now. What is it going to take to make sure we’re viable both from an economic standpoint and environmental standpoint, but also the human aspect? We need to make sure we have the supply chain for the goods, a pipeline of talent to fill the different jobs available, and make sure agriculture stays economically viable.
What are the differences between sustainability and regenerative agriculture?
Sustainability means you can keep on going. Regenerative means you keep going but make it better; restore it to what it was. So when we talk about soil health, sustainable is great. But when we look at the soil 100 years ago, the carbon carrying capacity, how much microbial activity was present, that’s what we want to get back to — the natural health of the soil, which then in turn can help protect the crops. It’s a healthier system overall.
Can you give examples of what ADM is doing to make this a priority?
We do a lot with Field to Market. It’s the gold standard for sustainable agriculture in the U.S. One of our projects, with Coca-Cola, is here in Decatur, managed out of our Tuscola elevator. We’re in the benchmarking phase of gathering data.
We have 350,000 acres involved, about 40-50 large farms. We want to see as this group of farmers progresses through, what kind of farming practices are they following? Once we get a good baseline — what are their carbon emissions in a year, what are their tillage passes? Then we start molding the program into “What kind of practice would you like on your farm?”
We have a project in the Great Plains that’s 250,000 acres, and in the Ogallala Aquifer, they’re running out of water. They’re getting data and seeing what they can do to reduce the water from the aquifer. It’s not ADM coming and saying, “You have to do this.” It’s them coming and saying that we figured out 10 years ago that if we do this, it not only helps the environment, it improves our bottom line. That’s really the idea.
How can ADM help transfer the value of sustainability to farmers?
This is a question we’ve struggled with for a number of years because we were relying on consumers to pay a premium for sustainably sourced goods. And the theory was a consumer will pay more, so we can pay farmers more — a pure premium all the way down the line.
What we’ve found is that in most consumers’ minds, there’s no clear definition and understanding of sustainability. So if you were to put something in a grocery store that said, “this is a sustainably sourced loaf of bread,” versus “this is a loaf of bread” and this one is $6 versus $3, there’s no understanding as to why they’re paying that $3. So that consumer’s willingness to pay for sustainably sourced goods is not what we’re seeing. That’s not to say there isn’t some kind of premium or profit available.
When we look at companies — consumer-facing companies specifically — they get financial benefits from their retailers in terms of shelf space and advertising, in terms of share price from investors, their stockholders, there’s a risk-mitigation aspect. So that is enough of a profit for those companies, so they can work with ADM and say, ok, we’re willing to buy this at a slight increase, premium, or we’re willing to put some money toward farmer incentives to work on this.
But farmers don’t sell based on reputation, and they don’t have investors. So how do we get these different revenue sources for these consumer-facing companies or the ADMs of the world to translate into value for the farmer?
One is paying a premium for participation in these programs. I’d like to circle back and talk about STAR. If we have a ranking system, is there a way we can say this farm is more sustainable, therefore the risk is lower and we can work with banks to lower the premium, lower the interest rates — something that turns what is kind of an intangible revenue source for the ADM and consumer-facing companies into a direct, tangible financial incentive for our growers?
Are farmers interested in sustainability?
Absolutely. It’s amazing. But instead of just growers involved, we’re starting to see the whole supply chain involved. The processors and aggregators, and consumer-facing companies. One of my favorite parts of my job is talking to producers and seeing the passion they have because it’s not just about making sure we get a harvest this year. That’s important, but they want the farm to be productive, viable, and hand that down to their children and their children’s children. So sustainable agriculture is not something that’s coming from the consumer side saying “you better do this.” It’s something growers get passionate about because it can not only bring vitality for the future, but for shorter-term as well.
You can learn more about ADM’s work to encourage sustainable farming at www.ADM.com/sustainability.
There are opportunities for early adopters of sustainable farming, and ADM is available to help you out with any questions you may have or if you’re wondering how to get started. Please reach out to your local ADM representative for any assistance.
Watch this video to learn how Kansas farmer Lee Scheufler has been adapting practices on his farm to create a more sustainable and efficient operation. He explains how the Southern Plains Wheat Program has been a pivotal part of that change and a positive force for the growth of his business.
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