Thursday night, area producers gathered at the Great Bend Events Center for an invitation-only event to learn more about a new accountability program the Great Bend Co-op has opted into with partner Land O’Lakes that will strive to reframe the national narrative on agricultural practices. It may also mean increased profits for producers who agree to share what they are doing on their farms to increase environmental sustainability.
Great Bend Co-op Agronomy Manager Marvin Rose opened the presentation by sharing about the growing interest he’s seen and experienced over the past five years concerning the SUSTAIN program offered through Land O’Lakes. About a year ago, he said, he attended a conference in Florida. He learned that less than 5 percent of consumers have any direct relation to farming in America today, and as a result they are vulnerable to misinformation about the agricultural industry in a way that can be detrimental to farmers. The speaker there asked invited a handful of grocery consumers on stage to answer a few questions about food production, and the answers were eye-opening, Rose said.
“It makes you think, we all think we do a pretty good job of farming, but sometimes we don’t do the best job of telling our story about how we produce this food,” he said. “I realized from their answers, they may not be buying the food that you guys raise. It woke me up. Maybe as an industry we can do a better job of explaining to the people who buy our food of how we raise it. We all do a really amazing job. Let’s just tell that story to the whole world.”
Duane Anderson, the Great Bend Coop’s new Chief Executive Officer as of Oct. 1, was also introduced.
Anderson, his wife Chris, and children come from Minnesota. He spent 10 years as a custom harvester, worked as a co-op auditor, and with a number of co-ops in a management capacity.
“Innovation is why we are here tonight,” he said. “SUSTAIN is a way for us to tell our story, that we are good stewards of the land, water and air, that farmers really are conservationists, that you guys do care about the land. All the farmers in this room tonight understand that if they don’t take care of the land, water and environment, their livelihood will be threatened.”
Sustain will be a way for producers to give consumers in the grocery store assurance that food they are buying has been raised according to good environmental practices, Anderson said.
The SUSTAIN pilot program started in the upper mid-west, and recently, some changes have made it more applicable to producers in Kansas, prompting Great Bend Co-op to make the choice to adopt the program here.
Matt Carstens, the Senior Vice President of Land O’Lakes Sustain, shared some statistics. By 2050, producers will need to produce an additional 60 percent of caloric intake that they do today, he said.
“If you think this topic of sustainability is how we can hamper your growth, you’re wrong,” he said. “We will not feed the world, and we will not do it in a manner that is good for society, if you don’t keep doing the things that you are doing on most of the bases.”
Twenty-eight percent of the global population is directly or indirectly involved in agriculture, he said, but among the U.S. population, that drops to only two percent. That’s a big drop from 80 years ago when more than half either lived on the farm or was closely related to someone who did. That distance from the farm, as well as the prevalence of social media today has resulted in a consumer public with little knowledge and much misinformation about agricultural practices.
“A blogger that’s never been on a farm, that can’t even spell agriculture, can tell society more about what you do than you can,” Carstens said. “That’s not right.”
To attempt to combat this, the company developed the Tru-Terra Insights Engine. Farmers opt in and provide information about what they are doing on the farm. The Tru-Terra program offers recommendations to improve sustainability. Suggestions like adding nitrogen stabilizers with nitrogen applications to help avoid leaching into the watershed and volatizing into the atmosphere, or putting problem acres into CRP and increasing productivity on remaining acres, and in doing so increase the profitability overall.
After recommendations are implemented, Tru-Terra tracks results, provides feedback to the producer, and can in turn show progress towards sustainability to the consumer. The story is told in terms the consumer can understand, in the form of “dump trucks” of soil erosion avoided, and “number of passenger cars” of greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere.
Data will be provided to the consumer on product packaging, like that found on some Pepperidge Farm cookies and crackers rolling out now, and via the Coca Cola website and other internet sites now and in the near future.
“Collecting data is important, as well as connecting with the consumer to tell the story,” Carstens said. “This tool is going to be beneficial to you, but this tool has strong benefit to consumer packaged goods companies, grocery stores, and consumers. It is that connection point between you and the consumer.”
Carstens stressed that the program strives to meet producers where they are, and as long as there is continuously some form of improvement, all is good.
“We’re not judging,” he said. “We’re looking for continuous improvement that is good for the farmer.”
Other speakers Thursday evening included State Executive Director of Farm Service Agency, Kansas, David Schemm, who spoke about ongoing action in Congress concerning the proposed 2018 Farm Bill, and Candy Thomas, Regional Soil Health Specialist for Kansas an Nebraska at USDA-NRCS, who gave an in-depth presentation on the role micro-organisms play in increasing soil sustainability.