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Practical Magic

Why agtech is critical for regenerative agriculture

As the focus on promoting soil wellness and natural climate sequestration scales, data will be central. Microsoft realizes that.

Woman in a field with tablet computer

Early this month, McDonald’s made headlines when it teamed with Cargill, Target and The Nature Conservancy to put $8.5 million toward helping Nebraska farmers cultivate regenerative agriculture practices over the next five years.

The initiative, like others emerging in the past several years from Cargill, General Mills, Danone and other big companies in the food system, is aimed at promoting natural carbon sequestration practices — and it is piloting ways farmers can be rewarded for embracing them.

As much as I’m encouraged by these efforts, I’ve often wondered: What metrics are being used to evaluate them? What does success look like? What will it take to scale these pilots? And how on earth is this all being measured?

A new relationship between Microsoft and Land O’Lakes points to part of the answer. The multiyear alliance centers on the farmer cooperative’s agtech software portfolio, including its Winfield United forecasting tools and Truterra, a platform developed to manage sustainability programs such as no-till cultivation, precision nutrient management and cover crop planting.

The deal calls for the Land O’Lakes apps to become part of Microsoft’s burgeoning cloud service focused on agriculture, Azure FarmBeats; the two companies are developing a resource specifically for serving dairy farmers and are collaborating to deploy broadband in rural communities to help make the connections. It turns out that grain silos and elevators are pretty good hosts for wireless antennae.

We’re moving away from intuition-based decisions. Your cost might stay the same, but your output will go up. … And food companies can trace it back to certain practices.

What is particularly intriguing to me is the future of an app called Data Silo, which captures historical data. Microsoft and Land O’Lakes plan to create a cloud service that combines that data with artificial intelligence and other data streams, such as weather forecasts, to suggest better management practices. Considering more than 150 million acres of cropland are in the Land O’Lakes network — nearly half of the 349 million acres under crop production in the United States — that’s pretty valuable information.

"We’re moving away from intuition-based decisions," Teddy Bekele, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Land O’Lakes, told me when we spoke about the deal this summer. "Your cost might stay the same, but your output will go up. … And food companies can trace it back to certain practices."

One organization that’s already gathering this sort of insight is the U.S. division of Tate & Lyle, the 160-year-old U.K. food and beverage ingredients company. Two years ago, Tate & Lyle began enrolling corn suppliers in a sustainability program focused on emissions reductions, soil wellness and water conservation. The initiative covers 1.5 million acres of sustainably grown corn, which represents the yield Tate & Lyle buys globally on an annual basis, according to information it has published about the results. Corn was chosen because this crop represents the majority of the company’s emissions in the U.S.

Using Truterra, the company has gathered some compelling insights from 148,000 acres it has been tracking since 2018, noted Anna Pierce, director of sustainability for Tate & Lyle. Among the 100 data points it is measuring are fertilizer applications, pest management practice, nitrogen levels, the use of cover crops and other practices advocated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Here are four specific results for those fields:

  • 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
  • 38 percent increase in nitrogen efficiency (applications are more targeted)
  • 6 percent reduction in sheet and topsoil erosion
  • 4 percent improvement in the "soil conditioning" index, which is an indicator of how well soil can absorb carbon dioxide

Pierce took pains to note that Tate & Lyle doesn’t dictate what farmers should be doing on their land. "They match the right practice to the field," she told me.

But Tate & Lyle has signaled it intends to refine its procurement policies around certain priority ingredients as part of its science-based Scope 3 commitment to reduce absolute CO2 emissions in its supply chain by 15 percent by 2030. And it is sharing this information with its own customers, which could become a point of differentiation. "We provide environmental impact data to those customers who opt into the program equating to acres used to produce the ingredients they procure from Tate & Lyle," she noted.

Among the ingredients that will receive particular attention are corn and stevia. Tate & Lyle is not paying farmers for participation; rather, the focus is on illustrating the linkage between certain soil wellness practices and their crop yields. "They've never connected some of this data before," Pierce said.

As the focus on regenerative ag scales, data will be central. Multiple projects for farm management software suggest a big increase in adoption by 2025, with Grand View Research projecting $4.2 billion in sales that year — in large part because of concerns over sustainability of the farm system.

What makes the Microsoft-Truterra combination so compelling is that the data is being considered from the farmer’s point of view, not someone trying to sell seeds, fertilizer or farm equipment.

You should also keep your eye on upstarts such as OpenTEAM, an open-source resource that Stonyfield Farm is championing, and Farmers Business Network, which raised $250 million in venture funding in August. It represents 12,000 members who farm 40 million acres in the U.S. and Canada. Tell me more about the other organizations I should track by emailing [email protected].

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