S1:E4 Measuring Conservation Agronomy Efforts
Here’s a glance at this episode:
(01:38) How do you know if certain conservation practices will be worth the challenge and risk involved? Amanda Bahn-Ziegler discusses what Truterra brings to the table.
(03:57) Opportunities on the horizon in capturing data on sustainable practices to earn premiums.
(04:58) It’s about so much more than carbon. Hear more about environmental social governance (ESG) targets.
(07:58) These future measurements and processes won’t be figured out by just one entity. Hear more about the importance of partnerships and how Truterra is leveraging their seat at the table to ensure farmers’ best interests are at the center of proposed ideas.
(12:00) Sina Parks, Ceres conservation specialist, emphasizes the role partnerships play in stewardship planning and education not only for growers but for Ceres staff as well.
(13:05) Okay – but what should I prepare for first? Hear more about one of the next markets likely to emerge: nitrogen emission reduction.
(15:04) Why Truterra? Sina explains the benefits Ceres and growers receive from working with Truterra.
(15:50) Words to the wise: what to do BEFORE signing a contract or committing to a carbon or other sustainability program.
(17:47): Key takeaways from the Stewardship Series conversations.
(19:58) Our Energy Series is up next! Please subscribe and review our podcast so we can reach an even broader audience. Thanks for listening!
Sina Parks grew up on a small corn and soybean rotation farm in Montgomery County, Indiana, and was an active member of 4-H and FFA. She studied at Purdue University and in 2014, after several years of experience with farm credit, Sina transitioned to a role in conservation. She joined the Ceres Solutions team as conservation specialist in April 2021.
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler grew up in Central Wisconsin on a small dairy farm. She attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to gain a degree in Ag Studies with a Crop Science emphasis. After 7 years with WinField United and various roles focusing mostly on CROPLAN seed, she joined Truterra, LLC as an account manager in Ohio in January 2021. Within her role, she supports Truterra retailers and their farmers to advance on-farm stewardship and conservation. Amanda has always enjoyed the service and creative marketing aspects of her roles both at work and at home.
Morgan Seger (00:00):
Every day we rely on food, fuel, and fiber. But how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is Field Points, an original podcast production from Ceres Solutions. Welcome to our last episode in our four part series on stewardship. In our third episode, I was joined by my co-host Sina Parks and also our guest Amanda Bahn-Ziegler From Truterra. Our conversation ranged from carbon to sustainability tools. And last episode we focused primarily on carbon, carbon offsets and how growers can engage in the carbon market today. Now in this episode, we're gonna focus on the sustainability tool. When Truterra originally came to market, it wasn't for carbon markets, it was to help growers measure their conservation efforts. With my experience in agriculture, I feel like that is the one thing that was holding a lot of growers back.
There are input costs and there are challenges and risks with some of these conservation minded practice changes and not knowing if they were really benefiting your farm was one of the biggest holdups. So in today's episode, we're gonna dive deep into that conversation to see what Truterra has to offer with their sustainability tool in conjunction with the teamwork and the team approach that you get by working with Ceres Solutions. So this is actually the second part of the conversation I had with Amanda and Sina. So if you missed last episode, I really encourage you to check it out, but we're gonna dive right in with Amanda from Truterra.
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler (01:38):
Came to market with what was called at the time, the Truterra Insights Engine. Over the last few years, we've made a lot of changes and improvements to that tool. So we call it the Truterra Sustainability Tool now, and it's the place where farmers can work through their retailer like Ceres to record what they're doing on their farm. And the tool then will take that data set and use a bunch of public data sources and pieces of information we've been able to bring together and put into this tool to spit out a report card. And it tells you on a scale from zero to 100, here's where you are on a stewardship rating. To us, there's no bad rating. The rating is impacted by more than just what you're doing. Sometimes it's impacted by just characteristics of your field, where you farm. There are some things that are out of a farmer's control but then no matter where you are on the scale, it also highlights some categories below that. So how are you doing on soil management? How are you doing on water management? How are you contributing to air quality? Things like that. And it will give you ideas of where is your low hanging fruit for each field and for your farm farm overall. And also what improvements could you choose to make if you wanted to.
Morgan Seger (03:00):
Next Sina Parks, the conservation specialist with Ceres Solutions, walks us through how growers within the Ceres Solutions Network are leveraging this tool.
Sina Parks (03:10):
So what we've been working on is putting together a more customized report for every grower. So that'll have their report card that Amanda was talking about, but it'll also have access to their individual field report cards. And then we're able to sit down and talk with growers about maybe where their problem areas are in a field and help them sort through some of the changes or the opportunities that they have to add conservation or other stewardship practices to their farm and be able to help them run scenarios so that they can see how does that not only impact them from a stewardship score, but also how can that impact their profitability.
Morgan Seger (03:48):
Decarbonization, stewardship and conservation on the farm are almost a developing industry on their own. Amanda talks about what's next for this field.
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler (03:57):
I think there's a lot of opportunities coming. I think there is a building interest in identifiable grains, I'll call it for now, because it doesn't really have a name. So you could potentially someday have a bin of sustainably raised grains segregated from the rest of the grain, and we're not totally sure what that will mean yet, but it will certainly have some data attached to it that says the grain in this bin was raised and managed this way, and that's different from the average population. So I believe that that could result in a premium. Now far, far down the road, if sustainable grain practices become commonplace and it's kind of unique that you're not doing these practices, maybe that means you are, There's a potential discount someday for not implementing what's going to be considered sustainable farming practices or regenerative farming practices, whatever we land on <laugh>.
<affirmative> another opportunity that I think is building There's a lot of interest from food companies and other types of companies around how can they preserve water quality and have positive impacts on the communities that they operate in. So a lot of companies are developing ESG targets, so environmental social governance targets or goals, and that's much broader than just climate change. There's like 17 categories and only one of them is around carbon emissions specifically. It's about things like I mentioned, water quality, air quality, impacting livelihoods, positive working conditions. So I think we're also gonna have companies that are interested in knowing about the people and the methods that go along with farming and how do you do this and how do you take care of the community and what impacts are you making and how can they partner with you to make more of those. So I know that sounds like a lot of gray space and that's what it is today is a lot of gray space where we're trying to define what is meaningful, what is measurable, and how can we partner the food company or other company that's interested in these changes with the farmers in the local communities where they're sourcing from.
Do you think that some of the gray space is coming from, or maybe still there because we started with carbon from the standpoint of that we thought it would be easier to quantify or to measure versus some of these other things are a little harder to figure out what's even in that? What in water quality can we measure? Or what in air quality can we measure that makes it a little harder to start a market, so to speak, in that area?
Yeah, there's a ton of science that has to go into being able to measure something. And as you probably are familiar with science experiments, you can measure it in a lot of different ways. You can measure what's the color of the output versus what's the volume of the output versus all these other metrics. So you have to get some sort of standardization across what are we going to measure and hold people accountable for if they start making commitments.
And I think that's part of what ESG does is it breaks it out into these categories. Here are some ideas within the categories of what you could measure and track and report on. So we are making progress. I think there's a lot still to iron out in each of these categories as far as the mechanism to measure progress. I think there's a lot of options and that's also why you see a lot of funding for research coming into the stewardship space and the land management space. There's a lot of people that have a lot of ideas about how we can get this done and what's the best method, and we're trying to figure out what's going to be most successful and efficient and there's gonna be a lot of research being done.
Morgan Seger (07:58):
This isn't something any one entity is gonna figure out on their own. So we spend some time talking more about that research and how these partnerships form with a grower in mind.
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler (08:09):
One thing that's different with that most people aren't aware of is usually when they think that the government's putting this research funding out that it's going through a government organization. And I think actually the unique part about this is that private sector got to apply. That's one of the things Truterra's worked hard at in the five or six years we've been working on this is private public partnership. When you look at the survey results, when you ask a farmer, who do you trust, who do you want to get advice from? It's generally not a conservation organization, it's not a government entity, and it's not somebody showing up at their doorstep saying, I have a program, would you like to sign up? They do like to talk to other farmers, their input providers, their agronomists, their consultant. So that's something that we're trying to bridge the gap on.
There's a ton of funding available. A lot of it comes through the government and they only award it to NGOs to apply for a lot of the government funding that's available, which is billions of dollars potentially. You have to be an NGO to be awarded that. And if we don't start partnering with some of these NGOs that are outside of our normal circle that we usually work with, we will not have access to that funding. So it's a unique position to be in. It's a great position to be in to help influence the protocols and the methods and the ways that that funding will get dispersed and the things that it's going to promote and incentivize. We're all here with the same mission to be good stewards of the land, that's what we've been called and told to be. So working together is gonna be a lot more successful because that's what farmers wanna see.
They don't want to be approached by this person then that person, then that person. They would like to be approached by someone they're familiar with that is local to them, that understands their operation. And I think most farmers are willing to listen and work with a program that would wanna incentivize positive change for their land. Our partnerships develop a lot of different ways. Sometimes we have a common interest, so through one of our retailers, we may learn that there's a segment of the countryside, an area or a region where practice adoption is low or water quality concerns are high, something like that. And this retailer's been approached by a local organization that wants to help impact that. Sometimes our partnerships develop that way just very organically. We seem to have a common interest in a common area and we cross paths. Other times people reach out to Truterra saying like the Campbell soups of the world, Hey, we know that you guys work with row crops and you work with farmers and you have a tool that can do the things that I would like to be able to measure and show for my business.
And so they approach us directly and then we help that company find the right partners in the right areas and in a way reach the farm gate, not directly, but through our retailer network. So I would say when we're looking at partners, we're looking at people that are more interested in the big picture, they're interested in creative solutions. They're not looking for the one size fits all approach where we're just gonna tell 'em what they have to do. And that'll be that. That's not the kind of partnership that Truterra generally pursues.
I think another thing when we talk about partnerships that Truterra is involved in, it's also important to note they can also be partnerships with a retailer an NGO combined. So for example, the one that I'm in involves Pheasants forever, Truterra and Ceres. And we've all come together for me to be a resource for Ceres employees, for series customers to be able to provide another set of tools for them to help facilitate their customers as they make changes or walk through different processes to increase the profitability and their stewardship on their farm.
So for example, we've done some internal trainings or we've provided some farmer training, so we've, some of those involve cover crops, and so we'll be able to talk more internally and externally about just those benefits. And it's not such a cliche thing that they'll have a better understanding of the full how those impacts, the goals that the customers have, and a better way to have those conversations with those customers. I also think that having a resource and these partnerships has been able to help Ceres have a stronger stewardship and conservation stance and be able to have stronger conversations with their customers.
Morgan Seger (12:43):
I have a question, so that's kind of the future of where we might go as far as marketability for growers listening though. Are there any step changes that they can be making? I know we've talked about no-till and cover crops, <affirmative>, What other things, if someone's listening and wondering, what's that next step gonna be as far as an agronomic practice, do you think they should be considering?
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler (13:05):
I think one of the next nearest markets that would be available would be around nitrogen emissions reductions. So if you're a farmer that applies urea or 28 or 32 or any other source of nitrogen to your fields, thinking about how are you managing that and tracking the how, not just the what. So not just how many pounds did I apply, but did I stabilize that, yes or no? Being able to track the amount, the type and how you manage that nitrogen incorporated versus broadcasted same for manure management, I think that's kind of the next nearest opportunity for a farmer to capitalize in a broad market sense. That's outside of if you have a local watershed effort or something like that going on in your area. But in terms of a broad market, I think nitrogen management is the next thing to pay special attention to and make sure you're tracking really well.
And I think that goes back to the data piece that we talked about previously and just having a spot where you can track all of your data so that as these opportunities emerge, you're not having to go back and so to speak all the notebooks that you've got from every year that have your daily chicken scratches in them so that you have that in a more concrete form, I guess more of a universal form that people can use to help you unlock those market opportunities.
Morgan Seger (14:33):
There are a lot of players in this conservation and stewardship market today, and as we've worked our way through this stewardship series, it has been very evident to me that Ceres Solutions places a high value on the teamwork and the team approach that goes into helping their customers through this progression. So Sina sheds a little light as to how they decided to partner and work alongside Truterra as a part of that team that they can bring to their customers.
Sina Parks (15:04):
I think for us working with Truterra, it's far more friendly, it's flexible. They're not a one size fits all. They know that that doesn't work. And so they do have options that are available for different kinds of customers. And I think also the fact that they realize that there's no good or bad stewardship score, they're not saying that if you're in this category that's bad and slap your hand, everybody is where they're at and how you manage your farm and your operation is what works best for you. And so they're just using it as a resource for you to help make your operation more profitable.
The only constant is change. So as long as you're changing in the right direction,
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler (15:48):
That's the goal.
Sina Parks (15:49):
Yeah, that's the goal.
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler (15:50):
I think one of the other important things that's good to add for our listeners is before you sign a contract or before you commit to a carbon program or any type of a sustainability partner it's really important to ask the questions. And if you're not sure what questions to ask, there's a article on Truterra's website at the bottom of the page. We can link out to that on our notes for the podcast. But I think that those questions are really good to look at and to ask so that exactly what you're selling, what you're agreeing to, what you still own, what is somebody else buying from you, Just making sure that you fully understand what you're committing to before you commit to a program.
Morgan Seger (16:33):
Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Amanda. It was nice to catch up, and I always feel like I learned something about sustainability and stewardship when we're together. Well,
Amanda Bahn-Ziegler (16:43):
Thanks for the invite. I am happy to be here, and it is always fun to get together.
Morgan Seger (16:48):
All right, so Sina, thank you so much for joining me on this first series of field points. What are your thoughts? How did it go?
Sina Parks (16:57):
I think it went really good. I know that there's some surprise in my voice on that, but I didn't really know what to expect. It's my first time doing one of these, and so I thought it went really well. It was great conversation, great interaction with Betsy and Dan and Amanda. I think we gave customers and other listeners a lot to think about when they're listening to the podcast series.
Morgan Seger (17:20):
Yeah, I really enjoyed it, and one thing that kind of sticks out to me was the consistency throughout the interviews. A lot of them had, some of the main points were very similar, and I think that that's great because it helps us kind of summarize down what we really need to be walking away with from these episodes. So from your point of view, are there any key takeaways do you wanna make sure our listeners are kind of walking away with?
Sina Parks (17:47):
I think some of the key takeaways and things that we talked about a lot was knowing your goals. So if you wanna think about making a change on the farm, what is your goal? What do you wanna accomplish? I think data is a big piece. We talked about that and just being able to track those changes and when those changes happen. I also think one of the other big things that we talked about was having your team and the team available of who do you want in your back pocket to help you with these changes, and who do you feel comfortable talking to about these changes and reflecting back on how things are going. I think another thing that we really kind of hit home on or talked a lot about was not everything is a success, but what defines success for you? What some may see as a failure may just be a learning experience for somebody else. And so just knowing being open-minded to learn from the experiences.
Morgan Seger (18:46):
Yeah, I like that. And how everyone's experiences almost intentionally different as they're going down this journey. I think that's really cool.
Sina Parks (18:55):
Yeah, absolutely. And not everybody farms the same, so I don't know why we would expect everybody's experience to be the same, but I think we do. It's just human nature that we expect the experience to be the same for everybody, but it's not. So I don't, Yeah, we need to be open-minded about that.
Morgan Seger (19:11):
Yeah. Awesome. Well, I saw that there was some news coming out about the Tru piece right after we recorded our interview.
Sina Parks (19:19):
Yeah. Truterra was selected by USDA as an award winner for the USDA Climate Smart Awards. And their goal with that was to develop a self sustaining market based network to help scale production of climate, smart corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and milk. So more details will be coming on that, but that just happened, and so yeah, we're really excited for,
Morgan Seger (19:43):
Yeah, that was a big deal. So awesome. We can't wait to learn more about that. Thank you again so much for taking all of this time to be a co-host. I really appreciate you kind of sitting next to me and helping us through these conversations.
Sina Parks (19:55):
Well, thank you, Morgan. It was a lot of fun. I really appreciated it.
Morgan Seger (19:58):
Well, that wraps up our first series focused on stewardship. Stay tuned. Our next series is going to be released in one week, and we will be focusing on energy. My co-host will be Eric Adair, one of the VPs of Energy for Ceres Solutions, and we will be covering all of the volatility we have been seeing lately and what we can be doing to manage our risk. The show notes for this episode will be available at ceres.coop. If you enjoyed this deeper dive, be sure to subscribe and leave us a review. Your review and feedback will help other listeners like you find our podcast, and we are so thankful for that.