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The future of high-quality grain

Consumer preferences drive demand for quality grain and, in some cases, the way the grain is grown.

From field to fork is a phrase garnering new meaning when it comes to grain production. That’s because the role of grain buyers for some markets is beginning to shift. They may now request detailed records on specific grain parameters that go well beyond traditional premium-based guidelines. 

Producers also may be asked to log production data that indicate growing conditions or sustainability metrics. The benefit: Buyers are interested in paying for grain grown under these parameters.

“Consumer preferences are determining what quality means,” says Mike Tweedy, director of agronomy, Indigo Ag. “Depending on what the customer, or buyer, wants, preferences can not only mean traditional measurements, such as protein content in wheat, but also specific parameters on how the grain was grown, such as water, fertilizer, or pesticide use.

“The metrics for grain production are expanding,” he adds. “We have always had measurements such as high protein content for milling specs. We are now seeing buyers layer additional measurements.” 

For example, a miller may want a high-protein grain that has been grown in a more sustainable manner, such as lower pesticide use. “We are moving from a commodity product to one that’s grown specific to individual buyers,” Tweedy says.

Some of these metrics are already being collected, while others are expected to be added as technology advances. 

“There’s going to be a lot more transparency in agriculture, and that includes detailed information on every crop,” says Mitchell Hora, owner of Continuum Ag. “There will also be a lot more continuity connecting farm to fork. It’s already happening and will continue to grow – expanding beyond the current quantifiable quality measurements.”

Tools that can read things like nutrient density and key components such as protein and fats are available today. “These sensors will become more commonplace as buyers begin to request additional crop information,” he says. “It will take added management and record keeping from the producer. We are working with them to capture a premium for that added management.”

Because Sam Prislovsky is using less water and nitrogen, it means an added premium for his rice. While the Indigo Ag program does require more record keeping, and the mill is farther away, he says the effort is worth it. 

“Detailed records help us understand how our farm is benefiting from reducing water and nitrogen,” says Prislovsky, who operates GP & S Farms near Stuttgart, Arkansas, with his father, Gene.

High quality ingredients

Bill Jones, rice agronomy manager for Anheuser-Busch, says throughout the company’s history, a key component of the brewing process is ensuring the inputs are of the highest, and most consistent, quality. “In order to brew the highest-quality beers, we need the highest-quality ingredients,” he says. “If you put good products into the system, you are going to get a quality product in the end.”

The brewer is pairing with producers to develop specific protocols to ensure quality grain is grown, with the added need to grow the crop in a more sustainable way. For the company, it meets goals that pay a premium for rice grown with less water, less nitrogen, and less pesticide in addition to specific grain-quality parameters. 

Indigo links producers with Anheuser-Busch to develop the platform that collects the data, and it works with producers to ensure they are growing a crop to the brewer’s specifications. Agronomists also assist producers in growing the crop economically and sustainably.

Platforms like the one developed by Indigo connect producers with buyers searching for specific grain attributes. “We begin by identifying buyers’ needs,” Tweedy says. “Our conversations help develop the quality measurements they want.”

On the grower side, it begins with a deep-dive consultation. “Our agronomists meet with the producer because we want to learn everything we can about every field,” Tweedy says. “It’s a consultative process, and we develop a plan based on the grower’s goals.”

The company then helps producers meet the quality goals both from an economic and an environmental standpoint. “Today it may be something like higher protein content. Moving forward, we expect to see other preferences, such as being carbon-neutral or grown to specific sustainability measurements,” he says.

While the premium paid can vary based on the crop as well as the quality and production practices, Indigo says the partnership with Anheuser-Busch demonstrates that producers who meet quality and production parameters can increase profitability. In the case of the brewer, a premium can be as high as $27 per acre.

Capturing premiums

Doug Keesling, who farms wheat, corn, soybeans, sorghum, and livestock in central Kansas, has been working with a number of Indigo’s production and marketing platforms for several years. Combined, these tools have helped him develop a deep understanding of exactly how to consistently raise high-quality grains while allowing him to capture premiums he otherwise may have missed.

He’s tracking a variety of metrics that include protein content but also the carbon footprint. “I sold a bin of wheat to an East Coast microbrewery because it wanted a specific protein content and a grain I could prove the carbon footprint on,” Keesling says. “I have been able to sell to markets I never thought possible.” 

This is driven by collecting information that provides a better understanding of how to grow a crop with customer-driven parameters. “The first step is to have the data available to be able to show how we can improve the quality of the crop,” Hora says. “We can then show the buyer the enhanced crop properties, and they will pay a premium for that crop.”

Kyle Schnell has been moving toward systems that include more cover crops and regenerative ag practices. While it is more management-intensive, he is gaining premiums on high-quality food-grade soybeans and organic corn. 

“It’s not enough to just raise a good crop,” says the Newton, Iowa, farmer. “You have to maintain precise production records. There are markets that will pay a premium when you deliver a high-quality grain and also show how it was raised.”

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