From the Wabash River in Indiana to the Chesapeake Bay watershed that spans six states on the East coast, to the smaller lakes and ponds nestled on farms across the United States, water quality continues to make waves in agriculture. And in Minnesota, it’s a high priority as Governor Mark Dayton and his administration recently announced a 25 percent water quality boost by 2025.
This bold new goal is for all Minnesotans—private citizens, environmentalists, farmers, agribusiness, private industry and government—because no individual or group can address this issue alone. At Land O’Lakes, Inc., we have a unique opportunity to help make great progress against this goal.
With our farm-to-fork view, Land O’Lakes has the ability to influence sustainability across the value chain with our network touching 50 percent of the harvested acres and 25 percent of the producers in the United States. With our new business unit, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™, we’re bringing this view into focus around sustainability practices to our network of farmer-owners and key customers through projects, services, partnerships and products to help improve environmental sustainability.
And while the unit is just getting started, Becky Kenow, director of sustainability external engagement with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, has found herself leaning into the value of partnership to identify solutions. And she’s on the leading edge of one that’s taking shape between Land O’Lakes, Inc. and the state of Minnesota. Luckily, public-private partnerships are in a space she’s played before.
Started with the state, now she’s here
Becky’s career started in the public sector with Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency managing environmental programs for hazardous waste and water quality. From there, she went to the Minnesota Department of Health in their environmental health division, working on emerging issues related to hazardous waste and air and ground water contaminants. Water quality has always been a part of her role. In fact, one could say it’s been the foundation.
“Water quality has always been important to me,” Becky says. “Water, land use and soil health: they’re all so interrelated. That’s why what we’re doing is so important. We need to show what we’re doing to improve.”
Photo credit: Cooperative Network
As a leading agricultural state with more surface waters than any other of the 48 continuous states, water quality impact in Minnesota has been well documented. And while the problem cannot be fully attributed to agriculture, it is the kind of complex issue that commands knowledge from a variety of partners.
“When I was in government, I held firm the belief that the way to get things done was to work with businesses and environmental groups to come closer to the middle on the solutions. And it’s the philosophy I’ve brought with me to business, too,” says Becky.
Enter Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™
In an era of increased attention to environmental sustainability, it’s common for industries to focus their efforts on an area or two they can improve the most. For automotive, it’s emissions. For oil and gas, it’s safety. But for agriculture, it’s not just about employing practices that improve environmental impact, but explaining what farmers have been doing all along to preserve our most precious resources.
“From the health of their soil, use of their crop nutrients, quality of their water and more, farmers have a lot to consider when it comes to minimizing their environmental impact,” says Becky. “And while caring for the land is something they’ve done for generations; farmers haven’t always been great about documenting their sustainability practices. So when I joined Land O’Lakes in 2011, I helped to lay the foundation across the businesses. And today, we’re at a point to tell their story.”
And that’s exactly why Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™ makes sense. Formed in Aug. 2016, the new business unit is helping farmers through projects, tools, services and partnerships that enhance sustainability practices from farm to fork. The business is focused on three key areas—soil, air and water.
In Becky’s role with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™, she’s heavily focused on external engagement, building partnerships with food and retail companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), industry associations and state government. Right now, she’s most focused on water because of Land O’Lakes’ presence in the Midwest and the heightened regulatory focus.
“Minnesota is unique in that many are open to collaboration—state government, business, NGOs, environmentalists and farmers alike. Why does this work? It’s the culture that we’ve developed here. We know we have to scale our efforts and the only way to do that is to work cooperatively,” Becky says.
This type of collaboration was on full display in May 2016 when Land O’Lakes entered a first-of its-kind public-private partnership between the state, Land O’Lakes and our member-owners that aims to improve water quality stewardship standards on farm.
It connects the State of Minnesota’s Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) with Land O'Lakes’ cooperative network to improve water quality and stewardship at the farm level. Using our tools, technology and insights, we’re helping farmers enable prudent nutrient and soil management delivery through our WinField® United, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™ and SoilVantage® portfolios.
“By partnering with the state, we are at the table for discussion on water and sustainability issues related to agriculture,” Becky says. “With the groundwork we’ve laid, the collaborative relationships that we’ve built and Governor Dayton’s engagement, we’ve upped the ante on the issue.”
The collaborative approach is a model that can easily be replicated to address water challenges across the nation. It gives farmers a voice to share their ongoing sustainability efforts and offers them a seat at the table in determining best practices in advance of potential regulation. And, it shows everyone—farmers, legislators and environmentalists alike—that we can build trust through partnership and action.
The year of water
We’re six months in to Governor Dayton’s Year of Water in Action, a commitment made to protect Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and streams for future generations, and Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™ is continuing to show its leadership, using Minnesota as a model for what can be done when you engage. As a result, Becky’s 2017 is shaping up to be the year of water, too.
Just six weeks into the year, she’s participated in Governor Dayton’s Town Hall Water Summit and testified before Minnesota House Ag Committee about Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s sustainability commitments. In front of legislators, she showcased how Land O’Lakes’ SoilVantage® tool, combined with the precision agriculture tools and data collection capability of our WinField® United business, gives us a suite of tools that will help our farmers making more informed decisions using precision agriculture and precision conservation.
Our engagement in the year of water also earned us a seat on the Agricultural Water Quality Solutions Work Group, which was comprised of key players in Minnesota’s agricultural sector to develop a set of policy recommendations and industry commitments to reduce agriculture's impact on both groundwater and surface water quality. After recently presenting the group’s recommendation to Governor Dayton for possible inclusion in his 2017 legislative package, Becky feels hopeful for the year of water ahead.
“The reason we continue to have a seat at the table to help shape policy is because of these tools we have and the relationships we’ve built and our willingness to be collaborative with government, NGOs and other businesses,” says Becky. “Everybody contributes to the current state of water quality. And we all need to play a role in the solution.”