As an agronomy manager for Alliance Ag and Grain in Greensburg, Kansas, Willie Schmidt has spent 30 years observing growers in his region take responsible measures to effectively use water, protect soil and manage their land to leave a legacy. But when an industry is as notoriously humble as agriculture is, farmers’ sustainability stories often don’t make the front page.
For Alliance Ag and Grain, that’s starting to come into focus, partly in thanks to Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, our new business unit that’s driving continuous improvement in on-farm sustainability through our cooperative network.
Alliance Ag and Grain is one of more than 800 Land O’Lakes, Inc. co-op members and supports 1,600 customers across the Kansan countryside. The co-op utilized WinField® crop protection products and technology, and United Suppliers® fertilizers for years, but it was in late 2016 when Willie was first introduced to Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN. And, he admits, he was skeptical.
“As we learned about Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, I thought ‘my goodness, we do all that, that’s what we do. That’s who we are,” says Willie. “Kansas has been on the forefront of managing water because it’s such a limited resource for us.” But after hearing more about it, the concept clicked.
Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN is the first to deliver precision conservation tools and services to farmers across the U.S. while meeting the demands of retail and consumer packaged goods companies and satisfying increasingly curious consumers. As a farmer-owned cooperative with a farm-to-fork view of the industry, we know sustainability needs to work, first and foremost, for the farmer.
Conservation Agronomy: 101
Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN partners with Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s ag retailer member-owners through its Conservation Agronomy platform, which helps them design local sustainable agriculture programs. They deliver practices, products, and technology to their growers to help enhance soil health, improve nutrient use efficiency and minimize environmental impact to Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN’s focus areas: air, soil and water.
"As farmers' most trusted advisors, ag retailers hold vast potential for bringing sustainable agriculture practices to scale because one retail location can reach thousands of acres. But it's not just air and water quality that will benefit–farmers' demand for conservation services is at an all-time high, and retailers who help meet that demand will gain a business advantage,” says Sara Kroopf, manager, supply chain at Environmental Defense Fund, nonprofit that works closely with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN. “Farmers meanwhile can improve soil health and on-farm efficiency while reducing fertilizer losses."
Ag retailers work with their Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN account manager to evolve their current sustainability business offerings into a business plan. Together they review the technologies, practices and products the retailer is employing today and develop a set of best management practices that are designed to help their bottom line potential and local natural resources. These are customized by the retailer and can vary depending on weather, agronomic practices and technology utilization and more of different regions.
“We need to be open to new best management practices to help ensure the longevity of our operations for our children and future generations,” says Willie. “That’s why we’re working with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN and WinField United to tap into their resources to continuously improve our practices and tell the story we’re not able to tell ourselves.”
In collaboration with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, Alliance Ag developed metrics to drive meaningful, quantifiable on-farm conservation of air, soil and water. The metrics assign points to the technologies, practices and products that are applied to that acre–think nitrogen management tools like WinField United’s R7 Tool, conservation tillage, soil and tissue sampling, bioreactors, stabilizers–the list goes on. These acres are then enrolled as sustainable acres and with these measurements, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN can help food companies and major retailers such as Wal-Mart understand the sustainability of their supply chains. And consumers learn about where their food comes from and see how it was responsibly produced. To date, more than 240,000 acres of Alliance Ag and Grain’s footprint are enrolled.
“Through our platform, Alliance Ag advocates for their farmers and differentiates themselves by delivering technologies, products and services to their customers. Ultimately, this leads to healthier profits for farmers, as well as producing a healthier planet for everyone,” says Jenny Penny, account manager for Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN. “I am so passionate to work alongside retailers and farmers to tell agriculture’s great story.”
Conservation Agronomy in practice
In Kansas, water use efficiency is a key priority for growers because water is a limited resource in the Olagalla aquifer. That’s why nearly all irrigation across Alliance Ag and Grain’s membership is center-pivot, which is more efficient than flood irrigation.
“This generation has been blessed to irrigate for 40 years but that’s not guaranteed to last forever. If there’s a loss of water, we still need to farm that ground and we need help to be successful. That’s why we’re looking at new ways to best utilize the water we have,” says Willie.
In addition to engaging in practices for water use efficiency, the co-op recommends best management practices for nitrogen use efficiency, including nitrogen stabilizers. These reduce the risk of losing nitrogen to the air, soil or water and ensure better crop productivity–think of it like spoon-feeding the crop and applying the exact amount of nitrogen the plant needs at the exact time it can be utilized by the plant. Since engaging with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, the co-op has seen 150 percent growth in nitrogen stabilizer use within a four-month timeframe.
Growers also split-apply nitrogen, which can reduce nitrogen runoff. Combined with soil moisture probes and bi-weekly satellite imagery, growers can strategically schedule their irrigation cycle according to their needs versus intuition or historical patterns, which helps them save water.
Pat Janssen is a member of Alliance Ag and Grain and engages with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN Conservation Agronomy, utilizing split applications as a best management practice among others. He’s been on the farm since 1993, managing a row crop, cow-calf operation with his parents, wife and daughter. He’s watched the continuous evolution of on-farm sustainability and was excited when he first learned about the platform.
“Willie invited me to a meeting to see what they were doing. In my mind, it was exciting from a data standpoint. Being able to quantify the things we thought we were doing right and to see what more we could do as far as reducing nitrogen use to keep the water and fertilizer in the field,” says Pat.
Lance Nelson is Alliance Ag and Grain’s Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN Champion, a point-of-contact on all things sustainability for growers and staff. To help validate the nutrient management practices with data, Lance is leading local replicated nitrogen rate trials with five growers in partnership the Environmental Defense Fund to promote the need for refining nutrient use in-season and to test nitrogen models.
“Nitrogen is about applying the right amount at the right time so the plant can utilize it instead of it going into the soil or air. We hope to show that when, how much and where you put fertilizer matters, and combined with the use of stabilizers, we can potentially help growers use less nitrogen while getting the same or more yield,” says Lance.
Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN is managing 15 trials with growers across Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. This fall following harvest, they will measure the differences in productivity based on the yield for each trial. Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN will use the data to help growers understand the potential benefits of incorporating these sustainable practices to both their pocketbook and the environment.
The fields in the rate trials are visibly marked with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN flags, but that’s not the only attention growers have received–both from neighbors and the local media. It’s giving them a platform and a reason to tell their story.
“The fact that we’re getting our story out there is helping us engage with partners and different organizations who want to work together to address some of the water issues here in Kansas. We’re excited about the program and what it brings to the table,” says Pat.
As Alliance Ag and Grain moves into planning for the fall, they’re hosting more meetings on the platform, more field days and considering setting up more trials. And it’s encouraging other farmers not yet engaging with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN to reach out to Willie to see what the buzz is all about.
“Farmers who are 150 miles away are calling and asking us about Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN and they want to be a part of it. We have the momentum to be on the forefront of agriculture’s story.”