Adam Shea is in a unique position to talk about agricultural sustainability because the company he represents touches almost every aspect of the rice supply chain from producers to processors to distributors to consumers.
Shea is director of sustainability for Riceland Foods, the producer-owned cooperative based in Stuttgart, Ark. Riceland processes and sells the rice and soybeans of 5,500 farmers and landowners, spanning from southeast Arkansas to the Missouri Bootheel.
“When you think about sustainability, it's really driven more by the supply chain, especially customers and consumers, and they just want to know where their food comes from, how it was grown and that it was produced in an environmentally friendly way,” said Shea, a speaker for the Rice Agricultural Sustainability Virtual Field Trip conducted by the University of Arkansas.
“What’s changed is they want proof, and I think why we are where we are today is that it's going to be critical to telling our story and providing that transparency and traceability from start to finish. As a farmer-owned food company, we're unique in that we check all the boxes and fit all the different sectors in that ag supply chain.”
In June of 2020, Riceland launched and branded Ingrain Good to be the platform for its sustainability program and to be the vessel it could use to tell its story from farm to table.
“It’s meant to be a robust sustainability program, something that we’re looking to continue to build out and to add value to everyone involved with Riceland from our farmers to our employees, customers and consumers,” he said. “As we continue to build our initiative, Ingrain Good will act as a cornerstone and give us guidance so we can better set goals and targets.
“As we’ve gathered more information from our members, we were looking to see what indicator we wanted to focus on that can make a difference to who we are as a cooperative and as rice farmers. Water was the clear winner.”
As all farmers know, water is critical to rice production. “But the reason it stood out was the diversity that water offers when it comes to sustainability,” Shea noted. “There are irrigation practices that focus on conserving water but also positively impact greenhouse gases, energy use, soil use. We felt this was something that would matter to our future.”
In its first goal, Riceland has said that through promotion and implementation of sustainable irrigation water management practices, Riceland’s members aim to reduce the amount of water they use in rice production by 250 billion gallons by 2025.
The goal relates to Riceland leadership’s belief that it has more of a promotional role to encourage practices that will be beneficial to its farmer members and eventually the consumers of its products.
“Everything we promote is voluntary, and we realize it's not a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “A practice that might work for you might not work for your neighbor across the road. “We’re not here to tell anyone how to farm, but we see our role as working with other organizations and finding ways to collaborate with people who can bring resources to the members and help them take those next steps.”
Sustainability is here to stay, he said. “I think that it's slowly becoming an expectation of doing business and a prerequisite for certain markets, especially higher-value markets. We’ve been doing these things all along – it’s a matter of adapting to telling a better story and providing that proof consumers are seeking.”