The concept of sustainability has been around for some time, but how do you measure it? It’s a question that’s being raised more often these days as farmers and buyers work to tell their sustainability story. A new partnership may help raise the bar on that conversation.
Corbion is a biobased ingredient company that buys soybeans; Truterra LLC is the sustainability business of Land O’Lakes; and the two are entering into a partnership. The aim is to support adoption and success of sustainable agriculture practices among farmers within Corbion’s U.S. soybean supply shed.
In this collaboration, Corbion, Truterra and Truterra’s local partner, Central Valley Ag, will work with farmers in Corbion’s soy-sourcing area to collect crop production data, including information from Corbion-sponsored cover crop innovation trials.
“We’re looking not only at the cover crop side, but also the advanced, or enhanced, nutrient management practices like grid sampling, split applications, nitrogen stabilizer and usage,” says Aaron Sindelar, sustainability lead for Central Valley Ag. “It really just gives [farmers] an opportunity to see how these practices fit into their operation. What does it mean to their bottom line?”
Central Valley Ag has locations in western Iowa, eastern Nebraska and north-central Kansas.
In the program, the partnership will leverage Truterra’s digital sustainability data platform — the Truterra Insights Engine. With that platform, participants will use the data to establish a sustainability baseline for each field. With that information, they can identify opportunities for improvement and model the impact of various conservation practices.
Sindelar says farmers participating in the program will actually split a field and take a business-as-usual approach on one part, while taking on the enhanced conservation practices in the other part of the same field.
“Then on the back end, we’ll leverage the Truterra Insights Engine to compare the two and show what it’s doing economically, as well as environmentally, when we’re adopting those kinds of practices,” he says.
In the past year, the sustainability conversation has expanded, Sindelar says, with farmers reading more about the practices. “They’re becoming interested in really adopting conservation practices,” he notes. “So this is something where a lot of growers that we’re going to be working with on this pilot program are already halfway there.”
He notes that the challenge isn’t about farmers adopting new practices; they’re open to new ideas. “Instead, they’re not sure where to start,” Sindelar says.
With this program, farmers can be involved in a controlled environment approach using a small part of their operation to determine the practices that will best fit their operation. Then they can determine where they go from there.
Adds Mariah Murphy, senior manager for member-owner engagement at Truterra: “It allows those farmers to try new practices at a very low risk. Being able to have a company like Corbion that is willing to invest in some of these practice-change opportunities. Our farmers not only get to work with a best-in-class organization like Corbion, they also have the ability to try a new practice at a very low risk.”
Murphy says this is an opportunity because there is a company willing to invest in farmers and invest in their operations to see how this is going to work. “I applaud Corbion for actually doing this and taking the time and investing in the effort to work with farmers on a day-to-day basis to see how this can influence their overall sustainability mission as well,” she says.
Sindelar adds that the Truterra Insights Engine comes into play because it can do more than track greenhouse gas emissions. “That program allows us to track adjustments to overall soil health, as well as wind and water erosion, and nitrogen efficiency. Kind of the whole gamut,” he says. “Carbon is a part of it, but it’s also kind of the bigger picture with this, where this play not only improves their environmental stewardships, but also looking at the downstream side.”
Corbion working as a partner may be able to create a value-added product with its commodities, such as a sustainable grain concept. This is in the very early stages, and where this partnership progresses remains to be seen.
More than cover crops
The sustainability conversation often turns to the planting of cover crops. But this program will measure more. Sindelar explains that there are two different buckets of research: cover crops and enhanced nutrient management.
“What can we do to increase our nutrient-use efficiency, especially with nitrogen?” he asks. “We’re going to do that through doing some enhanced soil sampling and adoption of nitrogen stabilizers, variable-rate prescriptions, technologies where there’s that upfront cost to a grower.”
The aim is to demonstrate the return for those tactics by showing how the investment pays. The pilot program is lining up farmers now through Central Valley Ag.