Katy Dynarski, PhD - - Food-farming

How Corporate Sustainability Efforts Can Benefit Growers

According to a 2016 study, 94 percent of American consumers believe it is important for companies to be transparent about the source of their foods. Consumers—younger generations, especially—are also increasingly making environmental sustainability a priority in their purchasing decisions. A 2015 Nielsen survey found that nearly three out of four millennials are willing to pay more for green products, particularly when it comes to food.

Now, food and beverage corporations are becoming more transparent about where their products are sourced from, and companies across all sectors are looking to earn consumer trust through sustainability initiatives throughout the supply chain. For many companies, this means partnering directly with growers.

These partnerships can bring diverse benefits to growers, like financial and educational resources to adopt new conservation practices, entry points to larger markets to grow their farm’s business, and access to new agricultural technologies. For growers looking to expand their existing conservation practices (or start up new ones), partnerships with sustainability-minded corporations can offer a win-win-win solution: support for the farms, the socially responsible companies, and the consumers who want to connect with their food.

Companies are looking to earn consumer trust through sustainability initiatives. For many, this means partnering directly with growers.

Coalitions Bringing Financial & Educational Resources

Collaborating with growers is key for food and beverage companies to increase sustainability within their supply chains. Consumer goods company Unilever, for example, set a goal of halving its environmental impact and recognized that in order to do so, it needed to invest in sustainable agriculture throughout its supply chain. Unilever teamed up with the Iowa Sustainable Soy Fieldprint Project and began a project to support growers who produce the soybeans that wind up in Unilever products by supporting soil health and protecting water quality.

Through these efforts, growers like Kenny Sutter, a third-generation soybean farmer in Iowa, gain access to education and funds necessary to adopt new soil conservation practices such as reduced tillage and cover-cropping, as well as make changes to reduce his farm’s energy usage. Kenny ultimately improved the health of his soil, reduced his greenhouse gas emissions, and increased his soybean yields—advancing both his and Unilever’s environmental stewardship goals.

Other partnerships for improved sustainability extend beyond the supply chain. In the midwestern U.S., a diverse coalition of corporate and nonprofit actors—including Bayer Crop Sciences, Walmart, and the World Wildlife Fund—formed the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC) to offer growers financial and educational resources to enhance their on-farm sustainability. Growers partnering with the MRCC receive technical support from Bayer agronomists to implement new conservation practices, financial support and insurance for any initial yield loss, and are invited to workshops and field days to learn from other MRCC farmers. So far, more than a hundred small farms have gotten involved with the coalition.

Connecting Small Farms to Markets and Consumers

Sweetgreen, a nationwide fast-casual restaurant chain serving fresh, seasonal food, recently announced a partnership with seed company Row 7 and family farms across the country. In an effort they’ve named “Seed-to-Sweetgreen,” Row 7 develops creative new vegetable seeds, which are grown on small farms and then served in Sweetgreen restaurants nationwide. Participating growers are guaranteed a buyer for new crops that may otherwise be potentially risky, and are also featured on the Sweetgreen website so that consumers can connect directly with the origin of their lunch—all the way down to the seed level.

Other companies and coalitions, including Unilever and the MRCC, are similarly committed to connecting their growers with retailers and consumers who seek food-system transparency. "By connecting consumers with where their food comes from, Unilever is helping tell the farmer’s story and showcase the results of their stewardship," explained Paul Scheetz, a partner in the Iowa Sustainable Soy Fieldprint Project. And meanwhile, these partnerships can help connect smaller-scale growers with larger markets, expanding business.

Expanding Access to Precision Agriculture Tools

Agribusinesses and tech firms alike are demonstrating their commitment to responsible, efficient farm systems by making the tools to access this data more affordable.

"Data-driven on-farm conservation protects our most valuable natural resources and puts money back in farmers' pockets,” said Sara Kroopf of the Environmental Defense Fund, “so they can continue growing food season-after-season.”

Land O’Lakes, a member-owned dairy cooperative and one of the largest producers of butter and cheese in the U.S., recently built a new precision agriculture tool called Truterra. The Truterra platform, which is available for all growers even if they are not members of the cooperative, ties precision agriculture monitoring with sustainability and return-on-investment metrics, so that growers can enhance their farm’s efficiency while understanding how their practices will influence their farm’s sustainability and bottom line.

Other large corporations like Kraft-Heinz, Microsoft, and Pepsico have also announced efforts to expand access to precision agriculture tools. While tech giant Microsoft is putting its artificial intelligence and cloud-computing capabilities to work on agricultural questions, agri-business companies like Kraft-Heinz and Pepsico can also get involved via collaborations such as Cool Farm Alliance, a broad coalition of industry actors who fund the development of new tools to assess farm efficiency, make these tools free to farmers, and foster partnerships between growers and corporations. The tools available through Cool Farm Alliance are helping California tomato growers, the source of Heinz’s famed ketchup, assess the effectiveness of conservation farming practices to build healthy soils, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance their tomato yield. The collaboration helps growers gain access to much-needed data, and, as one grower puts it, “tell the story of the California tomato industry.”

Partnerships that Put Growers First

Sustainable agriculture is a rapidly growing field, with companies across all sectors looking to support farmers in their conservation goals. These efforts can connect growers with critical resources, markets, and technologies to enhance farm sustainability and profitability. Increasingly, state and nonprofit experts are joining these collaborations, helping to ensure that growers are getting the best information possible and that partnerships put farmer needs first.

"We’re there to truly forge a partnership with farmers, and maybe we can add value along the way, by helping them consider a practice or technology that they haven’t thought about using before," explained Stefani Millie Grant, senior manager of External Affairs & Sustainability at Unilever, which works with the Iowa Soybean Association and the United Soy Board to provide accurate and relevant support to their growers.

“Food companies depend upon ingredients from agriculture, and therefore the foundations of their business require sustainable agricultural systems,” noted Hal Hamilton, co-founder of the Sustainable Food Laboratory, which helps farmers and corporations develop mutually beneficial stewardship solutions.