Q&A with Jason Weller, Vice President of Truterra

Precision conservation is the way of the future

Regenerative ag, soil health, and sustainability aren’t just buzzwords to Land O’Lakes – they’re tools. Jason Weller, vice president of Truterra, LLC, says farmers are uniquely positioned to use those tools to help mitigate the pressure of a hungry world on the food supply chain and environment.

The results from year two of a project between Campbell Soup Company and Truterra prove it.

Farmers in the project voluntarily adopt conservation practices and the results are tracked. Participating farms during the 2018-2019 crop year demonstrated near-zero net on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, improved nitrogen use efficiency, and lowered soil erosion.

What started as a 10,000-acre pilot project in the Chesapeake Bay area has grown to cover 70,000 acres, and now includes farmland in the Great Lakes Watershed. Weller attributes the success of this project to true partnership between ag retailers, farmers, and technology.

SF: Why is Land O’Lakes focused on sustainability?

JW: We’re a farmer-owned cooperative that believes agriculture is foundational for our future. That means securing quality of life and access to affordable, nutritious food. I think the global crisis in 2020 has revealed for many the critical importance of a secure food system. This experience led people to question first where does our food come from, but also highlighted that we assumed what would always be there was actually something that was potentially fragile: our food supply.

Agriculture is also the keystone for rural America. It's about rural economic vitality and about national security. Agriculture doesn’t get the credit it deserves as one of the solutions for the future. We really want to highlight the great stewardship of the American farmer and give them the assistance they need to keep the farm, to keep growing food, and to protect our waters and natural resources.

Look at where our waters come from, where the majority of our wildlife habitat still resides, where our clean air is generated and protected. All the natural resources, whether you live in urban, suburban, or rural America, originate on rural lands. Over 70% of the United States is actually in rural areas. And that's all privately owned, and the long-term fate of our environment and the quality of our natural resources depends upon the decisions private landowners make every day. Those are the farming and ranching families. So, it's really about protecting the vitality of their natural resources that they own and manage, which impacts all of us.

There is a lot of policy concern around climate change. This includes extreme weather variability, or year-over-year increasing heat, increasing rain, drought, and the high unpredictability of weather events, particularly in the breadbasket of the United States. We passionately believe agriculture is one of the main solutions and now is the time to work with producers voluntarily to help them install the management to help their bottom-line profitability. We believe through really good management, you can increase profitability and economic sustainability, which also helps prepare their crop fields, pastures, and the range areas to be more resilient to variable weather.

This management can also help offset the emissions of other sectors as part of a drawdown strategy around CO2 emissions. We could store more carbon in the soil and be in the position to potentially create a new class of commodity - carbon credits or greenhouse gas credits – that farmers can benefit from.

SF: How did the Campbell Truterra project become successful?

JW: Our theory is that you need to work together with the retailer and the farmer to create a plan that boosts profit. We see producers take the step because the plan fits their farms and fields. It isn’t a top-down approach. Instead, we do a one-on-one consultation, give the farmer the tools and the information, and then let them decide what's best for their farm.

SF: Why is the data and the results of this project so important?

JW: For many, me included, data sounds like a boring topic, but data is actually foundational. You can’t address what you don't measure and you can't improve what you don't track or understand. I'm really passionate that precision ag is the future of precision conservation. Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region and farmers in the Lake Erie Basin have been under the spotlight and have addressed many of the natural resource concerns there through tremendous conservation. But there are still opportunities to do more. Data and precision ag help the farmer identify where and what that next step is, especially when some of it may be invisible to the human eye.

SF: How can precision conservation be applied on the farm?

JW: Precision conservation for sustainability is the biggest opportunity economically, environmentally, and it doesn't matter where you are in the country.

For example, if you manage a field uniformly with seeding rate and fertilizer application, where there are variabilities in slope, terrain, and soil type, you can have huge differences in leaching or runoff rates. We want to help the farmer understand those risks and come up with a plan to optimize their management.

With a really good prescription, farmers may be able to boost yield and profit on a per-acre basis. By doubling down where the soils in the fields perform well and pumping the brakes where the soils won’t be as economically successful, we get a net result of an optimized production system by field. That ultimately means more of your inputs are leaving the field in grain and less of your inputs are leaving the field as runoff or leaching.

SF: What can we expect from Truterra in the future?

JW: Our strategic approach has been to answer the questions with the farmer and then all that downstream benefit accrues. The good news is farmers are adopting new practices, but it isn’t all rainbows.

When we don’t see an expected outcome, we take a step back and ask what happened – whether it was the weather or economic pressure. This allows us to be more strategic and thoughtful in creating a game plan for the future. Farmers deal with hundreds of variables on a daily basis. And you can't predict what these variables will do from week to week, let alone month to month or year to year. So, we become a partner to help manage variability and risk into the future. This is an authentic and honest approach, but it puts the farmers in control. We’re not here to tell them what to do. We're here to give them options, insights, to help them find partners, and in some cases additional financial assistance. And then, frankly, be there as needed, but let them take the lead.

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