The GreenBiz Interview

Cargill's Jill Kolling on the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative

Six of the biggest U.S. consumer packaged food and agriculture supply chain companies and three NGOs will work together to support sustainable farming practices in the vast corn, soybean and wheat fields of the Midwest.

PepsiCo, Kellogg, General Mills, Cargill, Monsanto and Walmart — whose clout could be measured in their collective $697 billion in annual sales to consumers and growers  — announced the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative last week. Joining them in the collaborative are the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Wildlife Fund.

The nine entities aim to support work underway by some farmers, farm groups and regional agencies to scale the use of sustainable ag practices that help to enhance soil health, conserve water and reduce fertilizer use and its related pollution effects.

As the work is already underway and these giants have committed little money so far — the announcement mentions $4 million over five years of pocket change for them — forming the collaborative seems to be about sending a message to farmers: "We’ve got your back if you employ sustainable practices, and we'll help you scale their use."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, certain sustainable farming practices have gained traction; for instance, farmers of 40 percent of the soybean, corn, wheat and cotton acreage in the U.S. practice reduced tillage.

[Want to learn more about the transformation of food systems? Attend VERGE 16 from Sept. 19 to 22 in Santa Clara, California.]

Jill Kolling, senior director of sustainability at Cargill, is co-chair of the new collaborative, along with Patrick Beary, senior advisor for corporate engagement at the Nature Conservancy. Kolling said a lot of what the group aims to do is create business cases on why, and in what situations, sustainable tillage, irrigation and nutrient reduction practices could help farmers, based on precision agriculture techniques they hope to encourage.

Cargill Senior Director of Sustainability Jill Kolling announces the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative at the Farm Progress Show last week. Behind her, from left, are Roger Zylstra, an Iowa farmer, Larry Clemens of the Nature Conservancy and Ryan Irsik of Walmart.

Secondly, Kolling said, the companies will help communicate farmers’ sustainability work to consumers. 

Particularly pressing problems stem from row crop agriculture in the upper Midwest.

Some 930 million pounds a year of nitrogen runs off into the Mississippi River from the corn, soy and wheat fields of the upper Midwest states of Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. That nitrogen then flows down river and contributes to a dead zone that occurs in the Gulf of Mexico annually — when oxygen levels get so low that they cannot support fish or marine life. According to NOAA,  the dead zone last year was larger than Connecticut.

Secondly, groundwater is depleting in the Ogallala Aquifer, which feeds acreage that produces about 20 percent of U.S. cattle, corn, cotton and wheat.

Thirdly, fertilizer use has been heavy in the region, and it accounts for about 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry.

GreenBiz spoke with Kolling to learn more about the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative.

Hannon Ayer

Soybean cultivation is among the priorities of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative.

Barbara Grady: What are the main goals of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative?

Jill Kolling: We will be working together, initially focused on the three states of Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, to optimize soil health practices and outcomes, reduce nutrient runoff into rivers and streams of the Mississippi River Basin, maximize water conservation to reduce pressure on the Ogallala Acquifer and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Then we also have specific goals that are really aligned with the Gulf Hypoxia Task Force which are ambitious, but with the companies we have involved, we will be able to scale things quickly.

We’ve committed to raising $4 million over five years to support the National Corn Growers Association's Soil Health Partnership. This is a conservation program set up by farmers where they enroll farmers to try different techniques and gather data on those techniques so they can better understand what conservation practices work and where, as well as what are the environmental and economic benefits of each practice.

We are helping to fund expansion of the number of demonstration farms in those three states to help farmers learn from other farmers and their crop advisors what conservation practices might make sense for them. Because at the end of the day, a farmer has got to understand the business case for these things, and not every practice makes sense everywhere. 

So, for example, planting cover crops is a great way to reduce runoff, but it may not make sense everywhere from an economic standpoint, though it might make a lot of sense some places and help increase yields. So part of this is to really build those business cases and make them available to farmers.

It’s also about sharing information because we know there are lots of farmers already doing a lot of good work with these practices.  

Grady: The collaborative includes a large number of significant companies and NGOs working on this together. What is the value of having so many big players in one effort?

Kolling: What is really unique about this collaborative is how we represent different places in the supply chain. So I think we are able to bring a perspective that a lot of other initiatives may not have —  the whole agricultural supply chain end-to-end — along with influence and expertise.

Companies of this size are able to amplify and really scale work that is going on with financial resources and expertise. So, for instance, with the marketing expertise from the consumer packaged goods companies and Walmart, a retailer, involved, the collaborative can help better tell the story of farmers and the things they are already doing for consumers. More consumers want to know where their food comes from and what on-farm practices are used in growing that food, be it row crop agriculture or animal agriculture.  

We see the collaborative connecting consumers and farmers to help consumers understand that work. We also see it as a way to support farmers with the resources they need.

Grady: Six major food companies represents a lot of purchasing power. What kind of influence could the collaborative have because of its hefty role in the food market?

Kolling: Farmers are definitely aware of what is going on in the marketplace and they are aware of the trend of consumers wanting to buy products they feel good about. So, having the companies involved can really help — we are all part of making the connection between farmers and consumers.

Also, there are a lot of companies that are originating and using products grown in the Midwest that are not part of this collaborative but the idea is that the research, the data gathering and the tools we may be putting together, we are going to make available to everyone. 

We are also working closely with Field to Market, an organization that has about 100 members today of all types of companies and grower groups, to share this knowledge with their audience so that everyone has a chance to learn from this. So it is not really specifically tied to our supply chains although, between the six companies, we have a lot of assets and a lot of business happening in the states we're focusing on. But we are really looking to share this with the industry.

Grady: Cargill, as an agriculture supplier and supply chain company, is closer to the farmer than the consumer packaged food companies or the retailer in the collaborative. What do you see as Cargill’s role in the collaborative?

Kolling: We feel Cargill has a unique position in the supply chain. Every day we're out there buying things from farmers and originating crops. And we are also selling things to farmers — animal feed and other things they use.

So we have that close connection with farmers. They are our lifeblood. We feel like we can play an important role here in having that connection to the farmer of making sure the collaborative is going forth with things that do make sense for farmers and are practical for farmers. Farmers are running businesses, but they need help and support.

Grady: Why did you personally get so involved in this Collaborative? Do you have a farming background?

Kolling:  I don’t have a farming background but I have a lot of passion for agriculture and where our food comes from. It is such an important thing in all of our lives — every day we need food. Also the advancements in sustainable agriculture are just exciting.

I’ve worked in the technology industry in the past so I’m really interested and passionate about technology and making it available to farmers to help them farm better and more productively. It is a really cool field to work in.

Grady: What are the specific practices that you hope to promote among farmers?

Kolling: So there are a number of different practices. Things such as using cover crops (which help the soil restore naturally in the offseason through the cover crop nutrients). It  could be such things such as conservation tillage (or reduced tilling so the soil retains its diversity). Could be using sensors to test soil moisture to make sure they are irrigating in the right place in the right amount and not over-irrigating. 

It could be the use of precision agriculture techniques that also use soil health sensors and can help a farmer apply nutrients the right amount where needed for the maximum yield. Some of this could be helping to create incentives for famers to invest in these technologies and take advantage of them. 

The data we hope to generate is first, data on a number of inputs and the yield that resulted from those inputs — so general kind of farm performance data — as well as some of the advanced data from sensor measurements of soil needs.

Grady: What will be achieved if most farmers in the Mississippi Basin area adopt a whole set of sustainable farming practices?

Kolling: They will certainly reduce nutrient loading in the Mississippi and can help with the Gulf Hypoxia issue. But if you think about the whole big picture of the collaborative, it is really about focusing initially on three states, but gathering information and data and developing solutions that can be used everywhere. So our hope is to scale this through the U.S., throughout Canada and potentially throughout the world.

Grady: Will this effort help us feed 9 billion people by 2050?

Kolling: Ultimately with the projections of what it is going to take to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we are working to ensure that farmers and the land that is in use today can become more productive using less — and producing less emissions and runoff.

I think it is important to note that farmers are already doing good things and part of this is to recognize that, and to help consumers recognize that as well. It is really about helping farmers so they can accelerate the practices they are already doing. This is about giant companies, conservation groups and farmers partnering together for additional success.