Three industry stakeholders weigh in on their experience with the Canadian Field Print Calculator during a panel discussion at the 2017 CAAR Conference.
From left to right:
James Rhymer – Rhymer Agri-Farms
James Rhymer owns and operates Rhymer Agri-Farms in Rosenort, Man.
Lorne Boundy – Paterson Grain
Lorne Boundy is a merchandiser with Paterson Grain, based out of Winnipeg, Man. He is an alumnus of the University of Manitoba with a degree in agribusiness.
Jay Watson – General Mills
Jay Watson is the Sourcing Sustainable Engagement Manager with General Mills. Watson is based in Minneapolis and is an alumnus of Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota.
Moderator: Denis Trémorin – Director of Sustainability, Pulse Canada
Denis Trémorin: So, Jay, from the perspective of General Mills, what does sustainability mean and how does working with this program (the Canadian Field Print Calculator) work for you?
Jay Watson: Consumers want to know more about what happens upstream than ever before. But that’s not all consumers. Sometimes it’s easy to generalize by saying, ‘Everybody wants to know where their food comes from and how it’s cared for.’ Well, that’s not the truth. But there is a subset of the population that does passionately care about what happens, and if it’s something they’re putting into their body – they want to know about it. So, as a food company, it’s our responsibility to understand what those interests and desires are and then figure out how we deliver against that consumer interest or need.
As a result of that, we’ve conducted some footprint analysis just to understand our operations and that included not only our manufacturing facilities, but everything upstream as well. If we wanted to make an impact from a sustainability standpoint, we had to work upstream as far as greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, water usage – the lion’s share of that is on agriculture. We’ve made a decision to say, ‘If we want to make a commitment about doing something or doing our fair share in combating climate change, we need to work upstream with the partners and the supply chain.’
About three years ago, we came out with a sustainable sourcing commitment. We said that we would sustainably source 10 of our top priority ingredients that represent 50 per cent of our annual raw material purchases by 2020 (10 by 20). So, what that means is that in Canada we’re using the Canadian Field Print Initiative and the outcomes-based sustainability metrics as a way to measure on-farm practices and what that means as it relates to energy and climate. Our definition of sustainability in that space is we would like to see continuous improvement over time.
General Mills does not care about input data, we care about the outcomes. So rather than saying, ‘How much fertilizer do you put down? We want to know that information,’ it’s about, ‘How does that translate to a climate impact metric?’ And all those metrics per each individual producer are aggregated up, so we see an average. And that’s really how we want to report long-term – as an average across a set of farmers in a particular region, against those metrics to say, ‘Over time, by 2020, have we seen continuous improvement against these environmental indicators?’ So, that’s how we define sustainability and what our commitment means.
Lorne Boundy: Prior to General Mills coming to us about three years ago asking to help meet their 10 by 20 goals, sustainability was on our radar, but it wasn’t important on our radar. They needed on-farm data – data to prove what the growers are already doing today is sustainable. And when that was asked of us, I had no worries in my mind that what our growers are doing is sustainable. We just need to measure it in a concise, scientific way so when a consumer that doesn’t understand ag asks questions, we’re able to back our answers up with evidence.
Our approach has been fairly strategic in the past two years. We went to each of our elevators in Morris and Winnipeg, and we approached a number of our large, key, influential growers in our growing regions and asked if they would like to participate. We started gathering data, we actually started visiting them and I’ve learned since that the Field Print Initiative and sustainability work as a conduit for a bigger conversation, especially on oats. Oats aren’t a sexy crop to be growing for most people. Most of you here are in agronomy – canola’s sexy. Everybody wants to talk about canola, so we’ve been learning, fostering a conversation about oat agronomy, how to maximize profit on the farm, and sustainability on the farm is even more important. It has been able to connect the end user right to the farm user, and now we’ve also added in that consumer in the middle through our engagement work.
We’ve been very non-invasive in our approach, we’ve simply asked some of our key guys, ‘Can you participate?’ We are looking to broaden our impact this next growing season. We actually have it as a component of a production contract we have out, both in southwestern Manitoba and in Bottineau, North Dakota. So, it’s just something along the way that they have to fill out. The
Canadian Field Print Calculator is a very simple Excel sheet – it’s almost just like checking another box. The goal would be to some day have data seamlessly flowing in, and whenever the consumer comes to ask, we can simply say, ‘Ok, here is our data, the grower did this on fertility, this on tillage, this is his greenhouse impact and this is his production.’ And we can even go further from there if asked and trace it right from our elevators, right into the mills in Minneapolis.
The Canadian Field Print Calculator:
The Canadian Field Print Calculator is an Excel spreadsheet-based tool that allows producers to access and document their environmental performance against national and regional benchmarks. The Calculator is part of the Canadian Field Print Initiative, a project funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and industry members, which focuses on market-driven, science and outcomes-based metrics and tools measuring the environmental performance of Canadian crop protection.
DT: James, from your perspective as a producer, does it feel like a gun’s to your head? Or is that something that you thought you could do?
James Rhymer: I was approached in 2015 and I was very impressed that I could sit down with General Mills and Paterson Grain at the same table and talk about issues concerning agronomy. I know all our farms are practicing sustainable agriculture right now. Part of the problem, like Lorne was saying, is that we never had a way of recording our energy consumption and our yields. Maybe one of the questions you’ll get asked by your grower is, ‘Why should we do this? What’s in it for us?’
As a younger generation farmer, I really think that we can make a difference working with Serecon, Paterson Grain and General Mills. I think we can improve the oat industry, and we can probably apply this (project) to other crops as well.
JW: I think we’ve talked a lot about the roles that we play, but maybe the audience is saying, ‘Well, what can we do?’ I think sustainability is another way for the producer to look at their operation. As we think about capturing information about practices and translating those into sustainability indicators, we ask, ‘What’s my ‘score’ on soil erosion risk or climate impact or energy use or land-use efficiency?’
We host workshops where the information is aggregated and then the producers get individual reports and say, ‘Here’s my information based on my practices, how does that compare to the average?’ What happens is we naturally have some benchmarking occur, and depending on the group of producers, there’s some conversation that starts up. It all depends on how much they want to share and how much they want to collaborate. But what’s so key to our engagement and our pilot workshops is having a trusted advisor in the room that can be there for the producer.
From what I understand, they go to some of their trusted advisors to start working through some of those scenarios. We really view the sustainability work as not only a way to tell a story, and to do that via transparency, but we also hope to see that continuous improvement long-term. We know that we’re already in a good spot because environmental sustainability – which is the focus of our program – correlates really well with economic sustainability.
For agri-retailers to be that source of expertise, and to then leverage that trust to be able to advise your producers and customers – that really gives them a license to operate how they’d like to. It really gives General Mills a license to operate how we’d like to because we’re influencing that trust with the consumer. Many may think this is just a ploy or brainwashing so we could put a stamp on our boxes and sell more Cheerios. I think most of the folks at our organization believe that this is something we need to do to just continue to have a sustainable future for General Mills. Our performance hasn’t been that great over the last five years, and I think the core of that is because some of the trust has eroded. It doesn’t really take more partnership and collaboration than just the folks that are represented here on the panel.
We don’t know everything; we’re still learning day by day, week by week with respect to how to continue adding to that producer value proposition and what other partners in the supply chain contribute as far as expertise to just make it that much more impactful. But we have some reason to believe that it’s a model that works, that resonates with the different participants at the table, and we’re hoping to scale and increase the impact that we have so that we can legitimately claim some sort of sustainable sourcing by 2020.
LB: My long view of where we’ll be in a few years is an integrated sustainability program that’s part of an agronomy package that flows into our grain network – specifically on oats today. If there’s demand from other companies or consumers, whether that’s on wheat, canola or soybeans – whatever that commodity is – to be able to have an integrated approach to flow that data back with the Field Print Calculator being the core today.
JR: I know one of the questions is, ‘Is the Field Print Calculator going to be a lot of paperwork for farmers?’ because I know they’re extremely busy. Most farmers will know how much fertilizer they're putting on a certain field, chemicals, the yields – it’s not like we’re doing our taxes here. The Field Print Calculator is a very simple program.
LB: For most growers, they took 20 to 30 minutes to fill out three fields. For someone in further depth, it might’ve taken a little longer if they lost their notebook or something like that. But it’s a very easy system to use.
JW: I just want to reiterate that the focus is on environmental sustainability. Our work in the Canadian Field Print Initiative is really laser-focused on the environmental piece.
DT: What do you think we need to do as an industry from a harmonization perspective – how do we scale this up? We know there are different companies coming into the marketplace with different asks. The major line elevators out there that are going at this from different perspectives. Do you have any perspective on that?
JW: One of the things that I know Denis and I and others have focused a lot on is just bringing more end users to the table. We share a similar perspective around sustainability, how to measure it, why it’s important, building trust, transparency – I think the more participants you have there, it gets more people upstream involved. We focus a lot of efforts there, but that’s not to diminish the importance of all the other players in the supply chain. I think it’s just getting more people aligned with the outcomes-based biometric approach.
Again, we focus on oats but the Canadian Field Print Initiative has support for 11 crops, so there really is that foundation of supporting something that is used more broadly, and now it’s just the opportunity for us to bring more interested stakeholders into this discussion. It carries way beyond what we’re doing at General Mills. It’s easier said than done, because as it was mentioned earlier today, there are a lot of different definitions for sustainability, schemes and processes.
The thing I might add is that Canadian agriculture is unique in that so much of the crop is exported. The U.S. might have very different interests with respect to sustainability versus India. So, this diversity with export opportunities in Canadian agriculture puts us in a tough spot because there are so many different opinions and perspectives.
LB: A large struggle I see today is it’s kind of a chicken or the egg scenario. Growers don’t want to participate because they don’t see the end user and end users don’t want to participate because they don’t see enough grower data. It’s this struggle to gain momentum on both sides at the same time, as well as coming to the realization even for us in oats – there are only a few of us in oats doing something.
We need everyone in oats to band together and join us. As Jay mentioned, everyone has a different definition of sustainability, but when you start going through this platform, that platform, this definition, that definition, there are a bunch of core points that everyone can agree upon. If we take that core, maybe we need to add one thing to get another food company at the table that’s very supportive. It’s just to keep fostering that conversation. Every ag meeting or farm show I go to, sustainability is this sexy word that everyone’s throwing around, but no one actually has data to back it up with anything today, and that’s going to be the struggle.
There’s been a desire to go for a nice overarching blanket, a very nice embrace over everyone, but I don’t think that approach is going to work or be sustainable. You need to actually drill down to what that farmer is doing on his field, what practices he’s doing, and then aggregate it up into an average for his region.
Editor’s Note: This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
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