Monday, December 2, 2013

This post is about passion for your dreams, agriculture and doing what you love

Before my high school prom - that awkward high school girl!
Six working weeks and six assignments to go in the nearly 2 year journey which has been my Executive MBA. I've been reflecting a lot lately on what this whole experience has taught me. (The six remaining projects may actually be an indicator I'm reflecting too much, but I like to believe I'm 'savouring' what's left!)

If there is one thing I've learned (and I do hope there is more than one), it is the power of being yourself and following your passion. Before even starting the program, I decided to own what I knew best - agriculture, youth, and to some extent, marketing. It's a little like the Strength Finder 2.0 concept, which if you're unfamiliar, brings focus to what you're good at rather than trying develop what you're not. Ignoring the little voice that said I was too young and too unqualified for Ivey, I highlighted the agriculture perspective I could bring to the class, which I was almost certain would be unique. Additionally, I'm young and I'm a woman and I can't hide behind either of those realities so I called them out.

Not only did it work, but it was just the start. I embraced my role as the corporate farmgirl. It wasn't just agriculture though, and I realized quick I had a broader range of knowledge than I had thought. Yet, it was never about being the smartest in the class. It has been about figuring out where I can contribute best, how I can make a difference and enhance the performance of those around me, whether they're a learning team, my colleagues or friends.

There was a time when I worried I wasn't "cool" because I lived on a farm. I had to do chores at night instead of hanging out with my friends in town. Even in high school, I couldn't go to movies on weeknights because we were never done milking in time for the early show. 4-H events were a refuge because I could talk about all the things my town friends never 'got' (or I thought they didn't care about), and I began to discover a world of opportunity, which even as a farmgirl, I didn't really know existed. I wanted to own an agri-marketing agency, because that looked cool on Melrose Place (seriously) and I liked agriculture. Then I was hired by Deere, learned the agri-marketing thing was done by many people and discovered the opportunities in agriculture in Canada and globally are even bigger still. I know I will have to choose a path eventually, but for now it's been surprisingly easy to continue following my passion and be successful doing what I love. So much so, it's exciting to think what could be next.

Driving home from bootcamp tonight, I was thinking about what a great month it has been. From personal to professional opportunities, like meeting the Prime Minister, my thirties really are proving to be impressive. But, the weeks ahead are even more exciting! That awkward girl in high school had no idea what was to come when she decided she wanted the leather Aggie jacket. Funny enough, my friends all did. Sometimes you just have to believe in yourself a little more. Anything is really possible.

Jen Christie with Prime Minister Harper
Meeting Prime Minister Harper following his recent visit to Ivey.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A&W Announcement a Win-Win for Agriculture?

The A&W Canada announcement came almost on the heels of Chipotle Mexican Grill's "The Scarecrow", while the Twitterverse was still reeling from Panera Bread's E-Z Chicken campaign this summer. But frankly, I was a little surprised with the backlash. Aside from the disappointment over not sourcing Canadian beef, in my opinion the announcement was straightforward and non consequential. My general dislike of A&W's food wasn't going to change now that I could buy a "free from" burger, and while I suspect I am not their target market, I struggle whether this value proposition will draw new customers through the orange door.
Nonetheless, I've been unable to shake this nagging feeling since hearing Dr. Lowell Cattlet speak of the '2 sisters of farming' last month. We are witnessing agriculture in Canada and the U.S. diverge in two, very opposing directions. While small-scale, niche farmers can co-exist with commercial ag producers, there appears to be a growing gap between the two. The former is moving closer to the end customer and the latter group, responsible for the vast majority of agriculture output in our economy, has found itself increasingly at odds with the messages seemingly crafted by the 'other side' (whoever that might be).

Our initial reaction is defense, because we are so accustomed to playing this role; then shock. We are still farmers and so passionate about what we do, we can not imagine anyone discounting this. We have inadvertently lost touch with our customers, as much as they have lost their connection to the farm. This is why we need to let our guard down and take notice. We are witnessing a shift in agriculture worth celebrating. 

People want to pay more for food. They are demanding "all natural" chicken burritos and hormone-free burgers, and we need not be scared to supply this demand. In fact, we should promote these channels. Afterall, increasing demand still causes prices to rise when supply is limited. This should be good for farmers, because like it or not, we supply the inputs for fast food chains. We also must not fear adjusting to meet this evolving demand, because although competition reduces prices, this is an opportunity of higher value than the "cheap commodities" we're producing today. The fast food giants purchase the majority of the world's food commodities, and as they adopt sustainable sourcing, demand will only grow further for these higher value inputs. A fair return for the producer will become non-negotiable as these multinationals realize they can not sustain success long-term without healthy, profitable suppliers.

Now, back to A&W for a moment. There are two potential outcomes. First, their customers love this differentiation, and A&W sales grow, requiring more beef. Today, they do not have sufficient supplies, in their mind, of Canadian beef, however I suspect with ongoing pressure they will be looking to work with producers to change this. To me, that is only an opportunity for Canadian beef producers to further differentiate their product. The other alternative is, A&W customers do not really care about the origins of their Mama Burger, so there is very little impact, which means it's a non-event. This is undoubtedly a step to get ahead of the competition, and I think a bit of a mis-step by not working closer with producers, but I am positive there will be others move the same direction. Fast food chains know their customers better than we might imagine and they are the epitome of an optimized production process. A decision that adds cost is not done lightly, and yet I think this is not the last announcement of this type. Fast food giants are going to shift the industry, either because their customers demand it or they see it as the right more for their business.

Either way, producers who are well positioned to take advantage of these opportunities quickly will benefit the most. Indeed, there are many incredibly innovative farmers profitably producing high quality, sustainable crops and livestock already who realize "more for less" is not the answer. Particularly in a future where more land, water, and energy simply do not exist. In some ways, supply management actually helps this in Canada, but this is not a strategy our policymakers will pursue broadly, so we must drive this change ourselves. There are certainly risks, and that is why we must learn from companies like A&W and Chipotle on how to navigate the obstacles. We can not learn if we are not listening though, and if listening is half of communication then isn't it also half of agvocating? Without repeating Real Ag Debra's entire post (a must read), perhaps people really don't want nor need to know that much about where their food comes from. Rather, we need to listen more about what they're trying to tell us. I think a message is being sent and hope we are not so busy agvoating we don't hear it. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

We're Starting a Movement - Feeding a Hungry Planet

On Monday evening, we learned how to start a movement courtesy of Derek Silvers' TED talk. It's really quite simple. You need one crazy nut with the courage to dance alone (idea) and someone brave enough to follow.

Who the nut is actually does not matter. You have the beginning of a movement when you have a follower. While it remains to be seen today what big idea will come out of this week's summit, it's clear after our breakout discussions, the ingredients for a movement are here and plenty.

The level of engagement, insight and stretch among these youth is nothing short of inspiring. There is evidence everywhere of learning and willingness to challenge the status quo and try something different. No individual, idea or norm is safe and that's ok. Complacency is our nemesis. So, stay tuned and be prepared to follow and join our movement.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Feeding a Hungry Planet - Youth Ag Summit Musings of Day 1

Stepping into the Bow Valley, there is no question what the group is here to do. The energy is palpable and the group is on the edge of their seats to tackle the hardest issues on the planet head on.

This is truly an event like no other I've been a part of.  118 smart, articulate, passionate young (& sexy) leaders from 22 countries in Calgary finding solutions to feed a hungry planet. (The sexy is a reference to Ashton Kutcher - check my Tweets from this am). 

For me, it's near impossible to share what this experience means. There is no single word, so  I captured many throughout the day.

-intelligent, articulate and willing to share
- compassion, professionalism, love, bravery, normalcy, blessed, 
- resilience, power of people, make change
- Inspire, encourage and motivate. 
- passion, enthusiasm, familiarity, differences, pride

My role as a mentor is all about facilitating conversations, so I've worked hard at keeping the lens on the delegates and enabling them to engage with each other, dignitaries and speakers. In doing so, I've been afforded many take-aways and insights.

Some day 1 highlights that made me stop & think:

  • Potatoes are very organic matter and N-intensive. In NB, farmers have started to rotate with corn, which causes a yield boost in year 1, thanks to the organic matter, but it's not sustainable. If potatoes require more specialization, N and pesticides, how are farmers balancing this to sustain their soil? 
  • We are a "now" society. Are we thinking about what's after now?
  • Canadians do not pay enough for their food (a bold statement, no doubt). If farmers were guaranteed a fair return, they could invest in better research and improving practices. Today, they are driven solely by profit. What if the price of food was raised? Then what if we re-introduced healthy food prep into the classroom?
  • Food deserts create a inadequate food system in developed countries. Do we know what it's like to live in a community where food is purchased at 7-11?
  • There are still people interested in traditional crop breeding techniques, it's not all biotech.
  • The gap between food and farming is not shrinking. We need to do a better job listening to concerned consumers and considering their perspective, not dismissing it because they didn't drive a tractor or feed a herd of livestock that morning.

Finally, we were left with some incredible stories of human care and giving from the recent floods in Calgary. Calgarians helping Calgarians they'd never met should resonate with all farmers and those in the agri-food industry. It was stated repeatedly, when asked about the people they were helping, "I've never been to this neighbourhood before, but these people are my neighbours and they needed help and here I am." 

How fitting. We may never see those who are hungry and in need of our help. But on our increasingly small planet, arn't they neighbours? They need our help and are you there?

Friday, August 16, 2013

John Deere Reveals 2014 8R Tractor Using Virtual Reality

Using a current 8R, wrapped in white cloth on a white backdrop, projection technology was used to showcase the new features, animate the tractor and the backdrop to illustrate the new engine, cab styling and more. Historically, we've not shared many details prior to the event being complete (new product info will go online August 23), but with social media, it has become pretty hard to contain. I commend the Waterloo tractor factory for embracing this fact and encouraging us to share this cool experience.

Truly, New Product Introduction may be one of the best events John Deere puts together for all of our dealers and employees. 2 1/2 action-packed days of new products, technology, catching up with old friends, networking internally and just cutting loose on the town.

For myself, the event is all about the people and 'the show'. Sure, I get excited about new products, and as I spend more time meeting customers and learning about their specific needs, I'll appreciate our product line more. This higher awareness certainly enhanced my learning this year. I am excited to see these new tractors come to market, and they will be hitting farm shows across the U.S. & Canada all fall. In Ontario, you will have the chance to see the new 7R, self-propelled sprayer and combine first hand at Canada's Outdoor Farm Show in September. In the meantime, and if you missed them on Twitter, here's a sneak-peak with a few more pictures.
All-new track system for S Series combines during reveal night.
John Deere 2014 8R Tractor
Snapshot of the 8R projection.
2014 John Deere 4 Series Sprayers
New 2014 4 Series Sprayers with 1 touch boom unfold.
2014 John Deere 7R Tractors
Row of new 7R tractors lined up waiting for us to jump in the cabs.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Feeding a Hungry Planet - One Action at a Time

In some ways, it might just be what we're best at. Whether seated round the coffee table or kitchen table, on a bar stool or milk stool, solving the world's problems, however small or mighty, might be one of our favourite past times. In fact, it seems as if leaving a group of farmers together in a room is all that's needed to spark a lively discussion. It typically focuses on what's wrong in the [insert context here] and how we would fix it. A cold beverage often seems to accompany such debates, although its not necessary. I can recall all the way back to my 4-H days where a heated discussion on farming and general lack of consumer awareness might go well into the early hours of morning.

So, imagine a week dedicated to creating these types of discussions but instead of leaving them to be forgotten when the last Coors has been polished off, they're further nurtured and allowed to ripen. All the eureka! moments would not only be captured, but they would be vetted (sans alcohol) and further crafted into actions, designed to make a difference. It would be truly solving the world's problems, but with action instead of just talk.  
Youth Ag-Summit

That week is next week. The Global Youth Ag Summit, being hosted in conjunction with 4-H Canada's 100th Anniversary with major support from Bayer CropScience will bring together 120 youth from around the world to tackle the greatest world problem; hunger. I don't need to cite the facts. They are plentiful and compelling. The Bullvine does a great job summarizing the event's purpose. What do I think is most cool about this event? It's hard to pinpoint; this summit will be like none other in Canadian agriculture.

  • Youth are taking global hunger into their own hands with agriculture-focused solutions
  • The Summit will produce actions, not just ideas or "feel good" memories, although I'm sure there will be many of these as well
  • Youth will localize their actions, so every country, region and community from which delegates reside will benefit
  • It's Global - most of us have never truly experienced hunger or poverty, and short from seeing it with our own eyes, learning about it from those who witness it daily is probably the next most powerful
The schedule provides ample time for delegates to reflect and I intend to share my mentoring experience through this blog. It will be undoubtedly powerful and quite possibly life-changing. Let the problem-solving begin!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Head to Head: EZChicken vs PC "Free From" -

US sandwich chain, Panera Bread recently sparked controversy among farmers with their EZ Chicken campaign. The goal was to promote Panera's quality ingredients, by using the popular, yet meaningless descriptor of "natural" and  "antibiotic-free". Not really too controversial; the former has become commonplace on grocery store shelves today. It was the accompanying campaign which set off sparks. Focusing on the 'other chicken', it used some creative imagery and cheeky captions, which some go so far as to say, were fear mongering.
Panera EZ Chicken
Image from Dairy Carrie.

I've been thinking about this campaign since I saw the #pluckEZchicken reaction and Panera's response. I admire Carrie for going after Panera head-on, sticking up for farmers and challenging Panera on a campaign which is misleading. Not surprisingly, her crusade has been confused by some as an endorsement to pump meat full of drugs. I suspect those same people glazed over the farmers' explanation of how they responsibly use antibiotics only if absolutely needed. Unfortunately, as farmers we have to remember most consumers will not grant us the time to learn about all the intricacies of raising livestock for meat. There is a valid concern, which Panera (and Chipotle Grill) has so blantantly put out in the open. Remember this Marketplace? I digress, as a rant was not the objective of this post, but it begs you to question if the practices we've honed to grow livestock in fewer days should be considered acceptable in society.

Now, there was something else about this campaign that seemed all to familiar. Then I saw a President's Choice Free From pork commercial. Ah yes! The foundation of these promotional powerhouses' branded meat campaign are virtually the same. Of course, there are also key differences; specifically, Loblaws put the farmer front and centre, while Panera made colourful cartoons to degrade and even insinuate risk about the "other guys".

PC Free From pork video with farmers

Both are big corporations completely committed to talking to consumers every day, all day, about their food and where it comes from. Surely, both are aware farmers are among the most trusted information source on this very topic? Farm and Food Care Ontario's recent Ipsos study found 61% of respondents ranked farmers as a favourable source for farming and food information, equal to family and friends. This rating was 15% higher than grocery and food retailers. I'm confident this is no surprise to Loblaws.

Afterall, to be fair, as farmers we might question what additional value these products really offer as there is an element of advertising smoke and mirrors here. We have strict Canadian advertising law to thank for the Loblaws disclaimer on their advertising and on-screen commercials. "In Canada, all pork is raised without the use of hormones." Hmm.. isn't that half the campaign?

PC Free From

As mentioned, we should ask why this is even marketing fodder. There is a segment willing to pay more for these products, and I can't knock Loblaws for recognizing this. More importantly, I think this campaign is solid because it's still positive.

Panera has broken the golden rule of sales, in my opinion. Never bash the competition. Smear campaigns have no place in advertising, unless of course it's politics, and even then the public is getting tired. Before you wonder, I am all for asking questions of our meat industries and encouraging reduced antibiotic use, but I have to agree with Dairy Carrie; leveraging fear tactics for profit is not cool. From a messaging perspective, I think the EZ Chicken is an epic fail. I'll be watching to see what the public decides; will any PR good PR for the EZ Chicken and Panera Bread?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Caption & win some JD swag!

Snapped this one morning while looking after my niece on the farm. Give it your best caption and you could win (See below).

Unable to come up with a clever caption, I'm doing my first giveaway, in return for your best, most entertaining, witty or cute caption. Perfect for this heatwave, up for grabs is my favourite John Deere swag; temperature-sensitive, colour-changing cups, along with a cooler bag to haul your beverage of choice, and a straw hat.

How to enter: Leave a caption in the comments to receive an entry. Tweet your caption on Twitter for a second entry. Maximum 1 caption and 1 tweet per person, for maximum two entries per person. Contest entry period ends Monday, July 22 at midnight, EST. Keep it clean - it's up to me to remove nasty, inappropriate or offensive comments.

One winner will be selected from the entries on Tuesday, July 22. The winner will be notified by email. I also reserve the right to substitute prizing if stated prize is not available. Approximate retail value of the prize is $75. Contest open to residents of Canada only who have reached the age of majority in their province. Please note this contest is sponsored entirely by Savvyfarmgirl and is not affiliated with John Deere.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Looking at the World A Little Differently

After my sustainability boot camp - it seems best described in that manner - I've had a week to digest what I learned, complete a second paper (that's another post), an exam and reflect on all of this.

I also had some great feedback on what sustainability means  and how it fits in agriculture. It is truly remarkable how one word elicits so many different ideas. At least it's being talked about. I agree with @cropper01; the worst thing we, as farmers, can do is put our head in the sand.

There is much to be discussed, and sometimes, just this in itself can be difficult. There is no doubt it is a sensitive topic. In fact, most subjects are when it comes to sustainability. Stakeholders don't just have investment on the line, but they have their reputation and livelihood at stake also. When you stack agriculture  up with  the more publicized issues - climate change, global economics, and poverty- you can easily feel like agriculture is least concerning. Consider the interconnection though with all these issues and it's overwhelming how critical agriculture's cog in the system truly is.

Truly, every farmer impacts the solution in one way or another. The challenge is how to promote acceptance of responsibility when the issues are enormous and sensitivity is extreme. This is where I believe I've learned some things the past few weeks and have started looking at the world a little differently.

1) Always consider the source. Google alerts don't even warrant a look if the source is certain right-leaning websites. It used to cause me a lot of anxiety, but now I don't even bother to read what they have to say. It's just not worth the time. Likewise, I've become wildly aware of motivation behind the story, and this includes all parties, even those I once trusted blindly.

Organic soybean field near Wyoming, ON. Taken July 12/13 by author.
2) Question your norms. It will be uncomfortable and it may require you to read some studies and consider viewpoints you'd once dismissed (including some of those I mentioned above that I now ignore), but how does that saying go? Keep friends close and enemies closer? I found I wasn't so far apart, while others justified my opinion by giving me more confidence I understood the angles.

3) Define nobility. I always feel that slight tingle when someone comments on the nobility of farming. In all the constant change and innovation, the profession remains as necessary as it ever was, but we can not take this for granted, so I also believe in humility. Individually, I am replaceable and if I expect the consumer's nickel, then I must deserve it. That means being able to say with 100% confidence my decisions are in the best interest of my customer, my neighbour and my family.

4) Manage what you can control & pretend the rest is in your backyard. Every manager I've ever had has said focus on what you can control. Probably, because we're so easily distracted by what we can not. How often do farmers talk about the weather? Prime example. Why then, is it so easy to ignore the big issues? "That's not my problem" has no place in agriculture. We make a lot of decisions and despite all we can not control, what we decide to plant, spray, run across our fields and how we manage our herd is entirely up to us. So, if the next crisis was in my farm yard, am I prepared to accept responsibility and face scrutiny for the decisions I made? There are a lot of influencers in agriculture, but when the poop hits the fan, it always comes down to a decision maker.

Last and most importantly,

5) GET RID OF THE EMOTION. Passion and emotion are not synonymous. Know the difference and how to separate them. Passionate discussions about agriculture are valuable.. emotional ones are not, unless it's about a fond memory. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sustainability Saturday - The Paper is Complete

FINALLY! After a lot of cutting (2000 words is not a lot), the paper is complete! Here are a few excepts.
Evaluation of Ag Sustainability
Global food production must double by 2050 to feed a population of 9 billion. Billions of research dollars are pouring into determining how to accomplish this incredible feat, but speculation exists whether it can be done sustainably. Amplifying the current production model is not realistic, because inputs like additional land are not available and synthetic fertilizer no longer yields equivalent return. (Exhibit 1). The UK Foresight Global Food and Farming Project, which studied the challenges for sustainable global agriculture, called for a “radical redesign of the global food system” and concluded cooperation across segments was going to be critical. The vulnerabilities associated with the current profit-guided, production system are staggering.
·         Overabundance of cheap, nutrient-void, high caloric foods
·         Wasted food accounts for 50% of U.S. production (Stuart, 2012)
·         2 billion hungry or “hidden hungry” people partially due to imbalanced trade and in ability to compete (Muir, 2011)
·         Industrial agriculture is the largest greenhouse gas emitter (N. Pelletier, 2008)
·         “Superbugs” resistant to commercial pesticides threaten crops
·         Increased topsoil[1] erosion, sedimentation and leaching[2] (Figure 1)
·         High nitrate levels (a known carcinogen) in processed meat, produce and groundwater (Sait, Nitrates and Your Health)
Issue analysis
How did we get here? The “Green Revolution”[3] brought about exponential agriculture production growth. As production increased in the 70’s, along with the temptation to skirt commonly accepted land conservation practices, the U.S. government dismantled farm land policies designed to promote responsible agriculture practices.  This marked the start of consistently low prices. In response, producers focused on increasing efficiency, mono-cropping[4] became common, and the land was slowly exhausted of nutrients, while the government incented overproduction, a practice the U.S. continues today despite strong farm returns.[5] Worldwide, producers pump as much as they can into their crop to compete, and after forty years, soil degradation has become a serious problem.[6] (Exhibit 2) The system cannot be sustained.
Figure 1: Algae bloom in the Lake Erie Western basin resulting from high levels of phosphorus leaching from agricultural land and urban sewer overflows. (Freeland, 2011) - See Textless Thursday below.
It’s easy to understand why agriculture is facing scrutiny. NGO rhetoric has commonly targeted animal welfare and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with emotional pleas to sway consumer opinion, and though largely discredited, they have definitely awakened consumers to consider food sources. More than ever, consumers are concerned with food safety and health, while animal welfare, GMO’s and the environment are also important. (Ipsos, 2012) The industry has been focused primarily on compliance or at best, managing the issues. But a growing group of producers are treating issues these as opportunities to improve their farm’s biological foundation. Regulations may never come to pass, but one only needs to look to animal welfare to see expectations have shifted. Consumers care about how their food was produced, in addition cost (out of scope but not to be ignored), safety and nutrition.
Critical to the ‘how’ is soil health. Generally, overuse of synthetic fertilizers has resulted in excess nitrates in the environment, while pesticides have stripped agricultural land of both bad and good organisms, which support plant-life. The result is poor or “dead” soil, unable to transfer many necessary nutrients, thus requiring constant fertilization, like an addiction. These conditions also lead to faster erosion and leaching, threatening sustainable producer and freshwater sources.
Producer awareness of soil degradation is increasing, and experts are challenging the sustainability of accepted practices. Some producers are strategically managing these issues, proving agriculture can still create true, triple bottom line[7] value. Indeed, if the food system is to be radically redesigned though, more farmers will need to consider their long-term impact and invest in improving soil health for healthier food in the future.
Opportunity analysis
Farmers are no strangers to sustainable agriculture. They have long prided themselves on being stewards of the land. In Ontario, 70% of farmers have completed an Environmental Farm Plan and with challenging climate conditions and fragile topsoil, prairie farmers are conservation tillage leaders. Producers appreciate the complexity of growing a crop and the importance of preserving resources. No soil, means no crop and no crop means not only no profit, but no food.
Producers have recognized the importance of bridging the food and farming gap, seeking opportunities to dialogue with and educate consumers, even coining the term “agvocate”. Inevitably, hard questions arise and producers should pay close attention to these questions.  Consumers, primarily concerned with food safety and health (Ipsos, 2012), have some underlying questions about conventional agriculture and its impact on these factors. The connection has been made between modern agriculture, food nitrate levels, and cancer. Some will claim its inconclusive, but organic market growth clearly signals consumers’ uncertainty. The industry has a predictable surprise (Exhibit 4) on its hands of dire proportions.
 In the early days we fed the soil, and now with the advent of fertilizer we have started feeding the plants directly.” Cornell University soil scientist, Harold Van Es clearly suggests returning focus to the soil. If soil is biologically healthy, it is able to transport nutrients, prevent disease and encourage root growth. Though organic production is one mean to improve soil health, there are many practices conventional producers can implement, which will significantly improve organic matter, balance soil nutrients, reduce erosion, thereby reducing negative human and environmental effects.
Organic agriculture does have the fastest, most dramatic impact on improving soils while maintaining yield potential with fewer resources. In fact, with proper intensification, organic agriculture could produce enough food to sustain the global population, without excess land or organic fertilizer as critics often suggest. (C Badgley, 2006) In the initial years, the largest producer cost is reduced yields as the fields are converted to organic production. For a producer managing soil health already, the cost will be less and over time, organic yields are nearly equivalent to conventional agriculture – as high as 90%. (N. Pelletier, 2008) In fact, some producers who are utilizing “biologically-sound” practices are able to avoid certification’s regulatory headache, because their yields are high enough to forego the organic premium. (Dybiec, 2013)
Nonetheless, producers do not need to make the leap to organic to begin improving triple bottom line. Soil management practices like reduced and no-tillage, incorporating ‘green manure[9]’ and legumes into crop rotations, and adding livestock manure can also have immediate, positive improvement. The financial payback on these practices is also easily quantified. For example, every acre rotated with a red clover cover crop nets a synthetic fertilizer savings of approximately $15-20. (Exhibit 5)
Though the genetics offered by seed companies are out of producers’ control, producers do exact some influence over varieties by what they purchase. For example, increased demand for cover crop varieties may encourage further evaluation of short growing season varieties, a gap which currently exists in the marketplace and should be considered by crop-chem. (Christie, 2013)  This will be critical for successful cover crop integration into more Canadian field rotations. For seed companies, there are also clear benefits to improving soil health; the variability of field trials required to bring new seeds to market makes for a long and costly process. Healthier soil conditions may in fact minimize variability and cost, creating more reliable data for new genetics.

[1] Topsoil is the top layer of the earth’s surface, approximately 6” deep, and required to sustain most plant life. Wind and precipitation naturally erode soil, but it is recreated at an equivalent rate. Agriculture, forestry and urban development increase the rate of erosion beyond the earth’s natural replenishment rate.
[2] Leaching (agriculture): the loss of water-soluble plant nutrients from the soil (Wikipedia, 2013)
[3] The Green Revolution occurred from 1940 to the late 1970’s when research and development poured into increasing worldwide agriculture production with new, high-yielding crop varieties, hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Norman Borlaug is considered the “Father of the Green Revolution”, and he is credited with saving millions from starvation, earning himself the first Nobel Peace Prize in agriculture.
[4] Monocropping is the practice of growing the same crop on a field year after year without rotating. It is a common farming practice with corn, wheat and soybeans.
[5] During the Nixon administration, spurred by the belief small, inefficient farmers caused U.S. grain to be expensive on the world market, farmers were encouraged to ‘get big or get out”. After the Great Russian Grain Robbery in 1971, when Russia secretly negotiated the purchase of 2/3 of U.S. grain stocks, domestic shortages caused food prices to spike, leading to a new era of farming as much as possible with all the resources possible.
[6] 12 million tonnes of topsoil erode annually, the equivalent which could produce 20 million tonnes of grain. (UN)
[7] Triple bottom line is the measurement of business success on profit, ecological and social factors, not only profit.
[8] Due to the volatility of commodity prices and the large, up-front investment required in production agriculture, producers will often use a variety of tools to manage their risk, including forward contracts, crop insurance and government support programs.
[9] Green manure is a crop planted between field rotations, often as a cover crop, then uprooted and left on the soil to break down, increasing organic matter, often fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere into a usable format in the soil.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Slippery Slope

This sustainability subject is a slippery slope (how's that for some alliteration?) The further I delve into what a triple bottom line means for Ontario agriculture, the further I find myself down the organic rabbit hole.

If you are not immediately familiar with the concept of triple bottom line (I admit I was not before last month), it's the idea that businesses should strive for and be measured not only on profit, but their societal and environmental contributions as well. In short, it's corporate social responsibility.

As business owners, we worry a lot about the profit on the bottom line, but how much do we consider the business' impact on the people and planet around us.

In many ways, farmers are already familiar with this concept. We pride ourselves on being stewards of the land. Participation in conservation programs like the Environmental Farm Plan is as high as 70% in Ontario and adoption of new technologies appears solid. Canadian farmers are proud to produce some of the safest food in the world. Yet, as I peel back the onion of issues, particularly around our field crop practices, my stoic confidence is wavering. There are so many layers, and I quickly regret not taking more science in undergrad. The science behind soil health and plant development should be so basic, no farmer should question what the right thing to do is on their operation.

Yet, in reality it is far more complex than this and maybe more so than necessary? Increasingly, I'm coming to believe social structure is as responsible for the current state of affairs in agriculture, as it is in any other aspect of our culture. If a paper ever evolves from the overwhelming amount of information I've absorbed in the past two weeks, it will still be ripe with questions. In what appears to be simple science, remains a host of speculation, uncertainty, fear and probably even a little distrust. In some ways, I feel compelled to dismiss those conventions I've come to accept, yet I struggle to abandon the steadfast belief there is a balance between technology (of all forms) and raw science. Without any technology we would revert back to pre-Green Revolution, which is also not practical because only 2% of the populations farms to put food on the table.

So, I will continue down the rabbit hole, unsure of what I will find next but certain there is going to be a paper in here somewhere.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Agriculture's Predictable Surprise(s)

I suppose a good way to narrow down a topic for this paper is to consider those issues which one might consider to be predictable surprises.

Predictable surprise: a situation or circumstance in which avoidable crises are marginalized in order to satisfy economic and social policies. (Wikipedia, 2013)

Max H Bazerman & Michael D Watkins reveal 6 characteristics which define a predictable surprise in their book Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them.

1) You knew a problem existed and it wouldn't solve itself
2) The problem is getting worse over time
3) Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits would actually be delayed
4) Addressing the problem requires incurring a certain cost, and the reward is avoiding an uncertain cost, though one which is expected to be much larger
5) Failure by stakeholders to prepare for the predictable surprise because tendency is towards status quo
6) Small, vocal minority benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert the actions of leaders for their own personal gain

 In the context of the book and the discussions in my sustainability class, we examined events such as the sub-prime mortgage crash and resulting financial meltdown and the BP oil spill in the Gulf. When this lens is applied to current agri-food system, what comes to mind?

  • animal welfare - specifically sow and poultry housing, tie stall barns, feedlots
  • pesticide and fertilizer use
  • biotechnology - helpful or harmful (I know where I stand, but the camps are so polarized on this one)
  • food safety
  • human health, obesity, hunger
  • ag policy or lack thereof - help or hindrance, depending on industry & geography. Ie. US farm bill, supply management, ethanol policies, global trade agreements, etc. etc. 
Unfortunately, the list only gets longer as you consider all the areas in which agriculture impacts our society. If I were to chart the above issues on Simon Zadek's civil learning tool ("The Path to Corporate Responsibility", Harvard Business Review, December 2004), which measures the degree of organizational learning associated with an issue and its maturity stage, I find most of the issues are clustered where the green "opportunity zone" starts to merge with the "risky red zone".

In this quick, subjective assessment of each issue, I have assigned relative size of the issue also (represented by bubble size). Based on a recent Ipsos study with Farm & Food Care Ontario, we know food safety and health are top of mind for consumers, so they have the largest bubble. The extent to which our industry has indoctrinated the issue (industry learning on y axis) hovers around compliance to managerial in most cases. Whereas most of the issues were probably latent in the past, we have seen a definite shift right towards emerging, consolidation and even institutionalized concerns at a societal level as of late.

So, in all these issues, on what have I chosen to focus for this paper?

None other than the game of diminishing returns - the big N. Nitrogen, specifically in the form of fertilizer, and reducing production agriculture's dependence on it. Here is my game plan as of now. I'd welcome your feedback on it and please get in touch with me (Twitter @savvyfarmgirl) if you'd like to add your input.

My game plan:

1) Examine all stakeholders - producer, consumer, government, suppliers, and processors
  • Quantify nitrogen use & costs today - macro & micro (research papers, producer interviews, records)
  • Quantify potential savings through technology - theoretical and anecdotal evidence through producer interviews, what is macro impact
2) Examine alternatives management practices and their benefits / disadvantages - cover crops, organic, etc
3) Examine barriers to adoption - producer interviews, manufacturers
4) Identify potential means to overcome & gain wider acceptance

Studies to review:
- Foresight Report (UK 2010)
- Organic vs Convention Carbon Footprint study - Ontario
- Carbon footprint calculation - HBS/Ivey report
- Commercial Fertilizer Study, The Fertilizer Institute

Interviews needed:
- VRT users & non
- Research specialists, Agriculture Solutions, producers using alternative means of N management
- Fertilizer manufacturer

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Evolution of an agriculture sustainability paper

For two weeks, I've been pondering and literally lying awake at night trying to find some direction for my MBA sustainability paper. Now, with the pressure mounting - the paper is due in exactly 2 weeks and 26 hours - I finally feel like I'm getting closer to a topic.

You'll see, the problem was not that I didn't know what to write about, rather there was too much. I spent 30 hours immersed in discussion on the role of corporations to create sustainable value, and while only briefly touching the subject, I drew parrallels to the agri-food industry throughout the entire discussion. Our food system is So. Incredibly. Broken.

Where does one start when you want to examine the total value equation on food production? There are so many issues. In a Jerry Macguire-like moment I scribed a state of the union; only to find it made the task of enacting change seem even more insurmountable. If interested, I'll post this document. In truth, it reads more like a summary of "The End of Food" by Paul Roberts.

Since then, I've been on a rollar coaster of agri-food emotion. Too haunted by the Smithfield processing plant horror stories of Food Inc., I numbly stared at the "Only $5" sign hanging above the poultry section at the grocery store. I physically could not pick the chicken off the shelf. Nor could I venture to purchase the sausage or ground beef. My mind flickered back and forth between a conversation with a CFIA meat inspector (ironically re: our class discussion on Maple Leaf Foods), news stories of "pink slime" and my beef and pork farmer friends, working their hardest to make a good living raising quality meat for Canadians. At the same time, I was hard-pressed to have an open and candid conversation with my roommate over why she chooses organic without getting my back up and feeling a need to defend.

How can I be growingly wary of one aspect of the food system and yet embrace seed technology and believe whole-heartedly GMOs are part of the sustainable ag solution? This confusion is only a fraction of that which the general public must feel. I am beginning to understand why the issues become so emotionally charged. When you can't possibly know all the facts, you fill in the void with speculation and belief.

In two weeks, I've come across two young people, speaking out against GMO's.

Their quest is noble, but my resolve is made only stronger when I see the myths on which their arguments are built. The anti-GMO movement has latched onto them to propel their anti-corporate rhetoric, and I wonder, at the tender age of 11 & 13, are they already too far gone to be educated?

When I ventured to comment on an article "The Only Real Way to End GMO's" I was berated by readers who clearly weren't interested in a different perspective. It was deflating, and in retrospect, I should've paid closer attention because I wasn't going to win over any readers in this forum anyway.

So, that was a lesson the GMO vs organic debate is so hot, it probably can not be tackled in one 3000 word paper. So that leaves me to continue to try to narrow the many issues down to something manageable. At present, I'm looking at food waste reduction or the role of technlogy. Looking for reader feedback; if you have a moment to shoot me a comment!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Back With a John Deere Tour

I'm back! It's been 1 whole year (+ a month or so), but I'm back and I'm blogging again. Hopefully, fairly regularly. There is just too much happening in agriculture right now and I have too many opinions and ideas to not voice them somewhere. The challenge, as always, will be to find the time. I tend to be a perfectionist, needing all posts to be perfect. So, I am going to strive to post more and edit less (I hear all you editor-types gasping).

To get back into it, I thought I'd share some pictures from the past week. I had the privilege to tour some of our John Deere factories with a group of fantastic customers from Southwestern Ontario and one of my dealers. 80 farmers, 14 hours on a bus, 2 factories, a few steak dinners and some barley-beverages later and  everyone was thoroughly exhausted, yet more knowledgeable about the goings-on behind the green & yellow.

While I can't share all the inside details, here are a few interesting tidbits:

  • Approximately 1 gallon of paint is needed for a large tractor but a combine uses 12
  • Both the combine and tractor factories build everything to order, so you can actually see your unit on the line being built
  • 3 shifts work 24 hours to keep equipment coming off the line
  • The Harvester Works combine factory is 91 acres under one roof
  • The combine factory has its own power plant, which has supplied power to area communities when weather has caused major, delayed outages 

Walking 'the bridge' at Deere & Co World Headquarters from the display floor to the main building.
The show floor at Deere & Co. makes this combine & 8R look like kid's toys.
John Deere Harvester Works

Building combines to help harvest food for the world

John Deere Harvester Works built airplane wings and engine mounts during WWII
Visiting the Chicago Board of Trade