It is not a traditional company-farmer relationship. For the most part, companies simply sell seed that puts more bushels in the farmer’s bin. Then, there is the company that asks Aaron Lee for help to develop seed that works on his Indiana farm.
“We’re very relationship driven,” Lee explains of his approach to farming. “There’s opportunities to take advantage of different programs every day. But when we can find somebody that we feel comfortable working with and sharing our data, as well as just sharing the things that we are already working on here at the farm, we try to take advantage of those. And we really felt like Benson Hill was a good partner.”
Benson Hill describes itself as a "food tech company," says Matt Crisp, the company’s co-founder and CEO. It develops technology that uses data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning to help improve crop varieties with better accuracy, nutritional value and sustainability.
The company began in 2012 as an ag tech startup in the St. Louis region, but now it is a publicly traded company. Its focus remains on bringing farmers into the product development process.
“We should be able to create value together,” Crisp explains. “And because we’re bringing back that incremental value to the grower and share that in a partner manner, it’s in everybody’s best interest that we create a very collaborative approach.”
So, this year Benson Hill launched its Food System Innovators program, an initiative that partners with farmers in several states who will test the company's technologies in their commercial agriculture operations.
“There's a synergy that's created when we can share data with one another to inform practices and decisions around not just how to grow a crop, but specifically what varieties to grow where,” Crisp adds. “The farmers have to be engaged in order for us to have those datasets and ultimately help them translate it into information, into actions.”
Changing the farm game plan
One of those Food System Innovators is Lee, who raises corn, soybeans and a small amount of wheat in southern Indiana. He started farming full time in 1992 with his father, but in 2015, he and his wife struck out on their own and created Cornerstone Family Farms in Salem, Ind.
“We’ve got to stay on top of technology and, really, the food system in general,” Lee explains. “It is changing so rapidly, and we’re trying to be in position so we can be a part of that.”
The farm embraces technology. Lee works with Advanced Analytics and an agronomist to set up growing experiments. He says it is the “in-field, real-time” experiments that excite him.
The family started raising ultra-high-protein soybeans for Benson Hill three years ago. At that time, it was more of a specialty crop, and Lee focused on yield and premium. Then he shifted to ultra-high-protein soybeans for the food sector.
To see how these ventures pay off, Lee developed an on-farm trial in partnership with Benson Hill. Southern Indiana offers a lot of variability in soils and geography with rolling ground in most places, so he planted Benson Hill ultra-high-protein, food-grade soybeans on the more fertile, flat ground on the farm, as well as on acres of rolling ground with thinner soil.
He wanted to see which ground had not simply the greatest yield potential, but more importantly the highest protein levels. His rationale? Perhaps less fertile land that may yield fewer bushels could produce higher protein.
Lee shares his crop management decisions on fungicide, planting dates, populations and soil types with Benson Hill. They, in turn, will evaluate to see how those decisions affected the amount of protein the plant produced. Those protein levels are collected right on the farm at harvest.
Lee’s combine can check the protein of the seed as it passes through the machine. “So, we’ll be able to take that data and actually map the protein production per field and down to the per-acre basis,” he explains. “Hopefully, we'll develop different and better management techniques that just move this whole process along so much quicker and in a more efficient manner than what we might have done otherwise.”
Finding the perfect match
Crisp leans on farmers like Lee. “Neither the farmers nor Benson Hill have all the answers,” Crisp notes. “But we can work more productively if we’re sharing openly information, insights, approaches and talking about plans that may or may not come to bear. We want to hear their thoughts and opinions.” For him, it is about creating a team approach to solving the world’s future food demands.
At Lee’s farm, there has already been a mindset shift to looking beyond simply planting a crop, to what the crop will be used for at the end of the food stream.
“I think that we, for so long, have looked at just producing more and more and more from a genetic standpoint,” Lee says. “ But if we can produce actually a little less, and have it produce a crop that's going to give us more revenue, and be really beneficial from a protein standpoint — that's exciting to me.”
But Lee warns farmers to vet companies that tout profit-sharing before planting.
“We've also found in premium crops if things are not structured properly, and you're not putting yourself in a position where you have a good relationship with someone that really has your best interest as well as their own at heart, then you can put yourself in a place where you can grow a specialty premium crop and actually lose money at the end of the day,” he says. Value should go both ways.
As a farmer, Lee provides production information to Benson Hill that affects trait advancement. In turn, Benson Hill shares the value with growers. The Food System Innovators focus on quality over yield. The company’s integrated model connects its growers with processors and others along the supply chain to unlock premium opportunities in the plant-based proteins market.
Over the years, Benson Hill expanded its grower network, and in 2021, contracted with farmers to grow 70,000 acres of its seed. The relationship model of farming, Lee says, is built on trust with a common vision.
“I think that data, if it's not shared, is really not nearly as beneficial as it would be if it were shared with a company that's working in the same direction that you are,” Lee says. “We share with Benson Hill because they listen. They're using our information to develop products that will produce better on our farms, taking it from my field to a plant-based protein food product. I can see how what I do on our farm affects someone that's eating a burger that’s made from my soybeans, so that's exciting to me.”