How Big Ag Is Becoming More Sustainable

How Big Ag Is Becoming More Sustainable

Cargill and General Mills are among the big local companies changing to meet new demands to reduce environmental harm from food production.

In the first Star Wars movie, Princess Leia and Han Solo are trapped in a trash compactor that’s about to squeeze the life out of them. In the 2015 sci-fi film Maze Runner, protagonist Thomas dashes into a concrete maze, barely squeezing through as massive, wall-like doors slide rapidly together.

Minnesota’s farmers and agricultural products producers can probably relate to these scenes. They’re under pressure from changing consumer demands, government regulations and the third year of tanking corn and soybean prices.

Consumers today care not only about what goes in their stomachs, but also about what goes into the soil and water. Public and government concerns about water quality have plagued farmers for decades and promise to continue to do so, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson tells Twin Cities Business.

Millennials lead the charge on the consumer end. Their food preferences, as described in a recent Forbes opinion piece, read like a petition of persnicketiness. “Flavor adventures, uniqueness, authenticity, innovation, convenience, portion size, nutrition, packaging, transparency, price, conscious capitalism practices that translate into purpose, and supply chain management are among the many factors millennials may consider in the new value equation for food,” writes Jeff Fromm, president of FutureCast, a millennial marketing agency.

These consumer issues are triggering conversations and changes at some of Minnesota’s largest companies in the food and agriculture sector, including Cargill, General Mills and CHS.

Recent college graduates are influencing their parents’ food choices as well, according to author Eve Turow, in a recent interview in The Atlantic. These moms and dads recall the DDT backlash of the 1960s and 1970s and the macrobiotic movement, she told interviewer Joe Pinsker.

Consumers driving changes

“So these are not issues our parents have been unaware of,” says Turow, author of A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs, and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food. “Maybe they were vegans for a little bit in high school and then it wore off. But you look around today and you’re seeing amazing things happening with Chipotle, with Kraft mac and cheese saying they’re going to take the yellow dye out. There is huge progress being made, and it’s largely because the industry is seeing that millennials are not going to be spending their money on processed foods.”

Chipotle announced in April that it would chop genetically modified food off most of its menu. The ban does not extend to meat or to soda sweetened with corn syrup. In late August, General Mills said it would:

  • Ask suppliers to adopt more sustainable farming practices that build climate-resilient, healthy soils, including sourcing from an additional 250,000 organic acres globally by 2025.
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of products, switch to environmentally friendly packaging and add 250 organic products in the next decade.
  • Spend $100 million on energy efficiency and clean energy.

The Golden Valley-based food giant said in June that it would remove artificial flavors and colors from its cereal.

Ag colossus Cargill signaled in 2012 that it also had received the millennial message.

“We have to produce the world’s food in a way that’s acceptable to the people that buy it,” Cargill’s then-CEO Greg Page said at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif., that year. “And, importantly, also acceptable to other people in their supply chains. So our most important customers are the brands that people know and trust, and they expect our behavior to reflect their values …

“We have said that in a world where nothing can be hidden you’d better have nothing to hide,” Page added. “So I think what’s really changed and is truly global is the whole issue of transparency.”

In April, Cargill President and CEO Dave MacLennan echoed his predecessor’s words. Calling sustainability “the new normal,” MacLennan called on the commodities industries to “embrace transparency and help define what sustainable supply chains could and should look like” as the Earth’s population grows to more than 9 billion.

Two supply chains

These demands have created two supply chains, according to North Dakota State University ag economist Frayne Olson.

In the traditional supply chain, farmers sell their soybeans to companies that mix them with other farmers’ soybeans. Processors add even more farmers’ soybeans to the mix. By the time those beans emerge as tofu or animal feed, it’s anybody’s guess how and where they were grown.

In the parallel supply chain, farmers who grow their soybeans organically track those beans all the way through the process to prevent commingling with traditionally grown beans. These farmers grow commodities in smaller amounts and cannot take advantage of the efficiencies of large-scale production, Olson says. They also have to work harder to follow regulations and pay for organic certification.

“When you have that parallel system, the costs go up quite a bit,” Olson says.

A large enough group of consumers will pay that price, but the challenge for the rest of agriculture is how to communicate consumer preferences for sustainably grown food efficiently back through the rest of the traditional food system, he says. Meat and dairy products pass through fewer hands to reach consumers, making it easier for their producers to track them, Olson adds.

The nitrogen in fertilizer used on farms and lawns dissolves in water and has shown up in high concentrations in rivers, lakes and private wells. A recent Pioneer Press series on water quality highlighted the continuing prevalence of unsafe levels of nitrogen in Dakota County homeowners’ wells.

In June, the Minnesota agriculture department released its 2014 water quality monitoring report.

“I think we need to be ahead of this discussion on water quality and water management,” Frederickson said. “For us being the first state on the Mississippi, we have an obligation to do our very, very best in making sure that what goes into the Mississippi River is clean.”

Concern for water quality led Gov. Mark Dayton in this past legislative session to propose a 50-foot buffer between farm fields and adjacent rivers, streams and ditches. Alarmed at the costs of planting perennial vegetation and of losing arable land, farmers rebelled.

“If you get a 5-inch rain, the problem becomes that you have to move that water off the field within a 24-hour period or you lose the crop,” explained Frederickson, a longtime farmer and a former state senator. “By getting it off quickly, you put more pressure on the watershed to move that water into the larger streams and rivers quickly.”

Farmers reached a compromise with Dayton, maintaining the existing 16.5-foot buffer rule along ditches and up to a 50-foot buffer along public lakes, rivers and streams. Federal, state and local governments offer financial assistance to farmers for planting and maintaining the buffer zones.

Water politics

Shouldering the blame for all of the nitrogen that flows into public waters makes farmers angry, according to Olson.

“We can measure the content in the river, but we don’t know exactly where that came from,” he says. “Then we start making these general rules, passing this broader legislation and apply rules to everybody, and that’s where the frustration begins.

“I would argue the large majority of farmers are very concerned about this,” Olson continues. “They’re trying to do the right practices, not only to make a living, but to protect the soil and the environment that they work in.”

That’s what R.D. Offutt Co., the world’s largest potato producer, says it ran into when it applied for multiple high-capacity groundwater well permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources earlier this year.

Offutt bought about 8,900 acres of northern Minnesota pine forest over several months to convert to agricultural use, with options to buy an unspecified amount of additional acreage, according to the company. (DNR estimated the total purchase at 12,000 acres.) Offutt had applied for 56 water permits for the purchased and optioned land in the Park Rapids area. Alarmed state officials ordered an environmental review that would temporarily stop the conversion of forests to farmland.

Fargo, N.D.-based Offutt appealed the state’s decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, but later backed off, withdrawing all but 18 of the permit applications. The DNR, in turn, said it would no longer require the company to file additional environmental reports. The company wanted the land so it could rotate its crops every four years rather than on the current three-year cycle, according to company spokesperson Anne Struthers.

Changes in DNR requirements for “even preliminary inexpensive wells” led Offutt to be “a little bit overenthusiastic with the number of permit requests,” Struthers says. “In reality, we’ll probably never reach four-year rotation on all of our fields, due to land suitability.”

Precision agriculture

Of the Upper Midwest’s biggest ag companies, Offutt and CHS Inc., a farmer-owned cooperative, say they employ “precision agriculture” to lessen the impact of tilling, fertilizer and pesticide use on the environment.

Tilling the soil prepares it for planting but can lead to soil erosion. Offutt’s website says it uses “GPS and machine-controlled precision application techniques to reduce field tillage passes by more than 50 percent, while also reducing overlap and unnecessary movement of soil.”

The irrigation equipment that Offutt uses in Minnesota has drop-down, low-pressure nozzles to use less water and lose less water to evaporation. Potatoes require irrigation because they grow best in sandy soil and have a shallow root system, according to an article in Source, published by the University of Minnesota Extension.

This sort of precision agriculture also uses high-tech systems to identify nutrient needs, so farmers can target rather than broadly apply pesticides and herbicides. It has been around for about 25 years, but made a technological leap in 2008, according to Gary Halvorson, vice president of farm supply for CHS, a Fortune 100 company with affiliates in 48 states and retail operations in16 states and two Canadian provinces.

That’s when the Inver Grove Heights-based co-op began using photos from government satellites to determine soil quality. CHS combines also contain monitors to build maps that show crop yields per field. Farmers can buy high-tech planters that adjust fertilizer applications to make sure they’re not overfertilizing, Halvorson says. Those planters cost up to $350,000.

“The goal would be not to over-apply” because it would be wasteful, and excessive applications should be avoided both for environmental and financial reasons, Halvorson says. “The farmers see value in it and it’s something they’re willing to invest in.”

Precision agriculture helps them to farm sustainably and maintain economic viability, adds company spokesperson Lani Jordan.

“We take that responsibility very seriously,” Halvorson says. “We play a pretty important part in the overall supply chain for food.”

So does Offutt, according to Struthers.

“We are making sure that we only spray what we spray when we need to spray it, based on the science of farming,” she says. “It’s not your grandfather’s farming technique.”

Offutt plants peas on some of the 25,000 acres it farms in Minnesota fields after the potato harvest to add nitrogen naturally to the soil. Following the pea harvest, Offutt plants cover crops that deliver soil and water conservation benefits, improve soil structure and increase soil biodiversity, according to Struthers.

“Our livelihood is dependent on making sure that we can farm sustainably for generations, and ours is a multigenerational family that has been working this business, and they really, seriously care,” she says. “In order for that to be sustainable, we have to take care of the land.”

Nancy Crotti is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and editor.