Farm Food Facts

Ellie Moss, Galen Lee, Sequenced Avocado Genome

November 19, 2019 Episode 51
Farm Food Facts
Ellie Moss, Galen Lee, Sequenced Avocado Genome
Chapters
Farm Food Facts
Ellie Moss, Galen Lee, Sequenced Avocado Genome
Nov 19, 2019 Episode 51
USFRA
Show Notes Transcript

Our Thought Leader is Ellie Moss, Lead for the new USFRA report, Navigating the Food Metrics Maze.

•Productivity of Farms in the Heartland has Increased over time—except for the smallest Farms.
• Scientists have now Sequenced the Avocado Genome...so what is the benefit?
• An innovative Retailer has Quadrupled their Online Farmer Engagement.

Today's farmer is Galen Lee, former USFRA Board member and farmer.



Phil:
0:01
Farm Food Facts where every farmer, every acre and every voice matter. Welcome to farm food facts for November 20th, 2019 I'm your host Phil Lempert. Remember to watch the new short film from USFRA 30 harvests to see just how farmers provide a source of healthy food while addressing environmental concern for current and future generations. Go to U S farmers and ranchers.org to view this impactful and heartfelt film. Today's topic is USF, our raise new metrics report. Later in the podcast we'll talk with Galen Lee, former USF RA board member and farmer. But first we talk to Ellie Moss. Ellie Moss has spent 15 years in helping clients develop pack strategies from the issue level to the organizational level. She has partnered with a diverse range of clients on sustainability strategies including consumer packaged goods companies, retailers and technology companies, and has specific expertise in food and agriculture systems, circular economy, conservation, finance and impact investment strategy. Ellie also specializes in designing and facilitating events such as multi-stakeholder meetings and appreciative inquiry summits and she's also the lead on the new USFRA report. Navigating the food metrics maze. Ellie, welcome to Farm Food Facts.
Ellie:
1:26
Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.
Phil:
1:27
So let's get to the facts. American farmers and ranchers are being asked by food companies, including food processors, CPG companies, restaurants, retailers, and food service companies to measure and report more farm level data than ever before. Why does USF RA feel that this report about improving better data flow is important across the entire supply chain?
Ellie:
1:51
Well, what we were hearing and speaking with people all across the system from farmers and ranchers all the way through to CPG companies, restaurants and retailers, is that everybody is experiencing increased pressure at the moment to increase the amount of transparency on how food is being produced and how it's being transformed and transported through the supply chain. Uh, so what we wanted to identify by is how can the system as a whole, uh, work together to find solutions to the challenges of our mobile data collection and in the flow of that data throughout the supply chain that can lower the, currently a significant burden, uh, for all players in the system.
Phil:
2:31
So I want to build on that. What are the challenges to collecting this food metric data?
Ellie:
2:37
Well, starting at the farm level right now, there is more technology and farmers are working with more tools than ever. And one of the challenges that farmers have is that while they're able to collect quite a bit more data than they've previously been able to collect, not all of the systems talk to each other. And so the process of getting the data into a format that can then be shared with someone had asking for it can be unfortunately still a very manual process and it can be very time consuming. One of the other challenges that farmers are having is that it's not a question of responding just to one survey or one request for data. While there are some really great efforts underway to streamline the metric landscape, many food companies are still preferring to use their own data requests and surveys rather than using existing industry standard tools or metrics initiatives that have been developed by multi-stakeholder organizations. And so farmers may get, um, many requests. Uh, usually they have to report not just at the product level, whether it's a commodity crop, excuse me or a, you know, fruits and vegetables. And they have to often then report at the field level as well. So, you know, five customers can translate into 25, uh, surveys relatively easily. So the challenge for farmers is significant.
Phil:
3:51
So this becomes a full time job for a farmer just filling out these forms.
Ellie:
3:56
Farmers said that in some cases they had had to hire additional staff just to be able to comply with the reporting requests that were being made of them. And certainly farmers said that, you know, unfortunately much of the reporting is happening at the same time as a lot of their other work as well. And so it's just another thing on a, in a long day, uh, that's already probably too full. So farmers are dedicating pretty significant resources to address this challenge today.
Phil:
4:21
So I've got to think that farmers are in the know one situation cause if they don't complete these forms, these companies are not going to buy their goods. They're already strapped for cash. So they might not have, you know, the, the funds to hire somebody to do it. So what's behind this thinking that USF RA can standardize all this and get the retailers and restaurant tours and everybody across the Lai chain to standardize this, to make it a reality. And if they don't make it a reality, are we just, you know, down a rabbit hole that we can't get out of.
Ellie:
5:01
So there's a couple of really important ideas in there. One thing is that not all farmers are having the same burden of reporting right now. Some farmers, the ones who have products that are in some of the shorter agricultural supply chains tend to be hit the hardest because it's easier for their customers to get to them and to make more direct purchasing decisions based on that relationship. So that is worth noting that they're the ones at the moment at least, who are easiest for the customer to identify and therefore are receiving the most surveys, farmers facing commodity crops, but they largely sell into processors or into elevators. Um, I have not been receiving the same level of proliferation but there is still increased demands on them as well. And we did note that farmers that work within a co op for example, dairy farmers found that co-ops were very helpful in facilitating this process and it did ease the burden on the farmers themselves somewhat so not completely, but I wanted to address also what you said of you know, farmers being a bit stuck.
Ellie:
5:58
You know what we definitely heard from farmers is that they want to be responsive to their customers. They're not trying to be difficult, they're just trying to figure out how to get it all done. And I'll just add one small caveat there, which is that there is some nervousness by farmers around how data that is collected might be used. There's nervous as that it could be potentially used to change purchasing decisions based on what they've said, even if they think that you know what they're doing is correct and inappropriate. So there's nervousness around that because you just don't know. Even though many food companies are saying, well we just need it to aggregate it and see how we're doing as a whole. We just don't know for sure. The other thing that I wanted to highlight really quick is that not only are farmers experiencing a significant burden here but that food companies are as well.
Ellie:
6:42
So where farmers have had to hire people and spend a lot of extra time collecting this data and sharing it, whose companies are then receiving this data from massive numbers of suppliers in some cases and they've had to scale up their resourcing and really dedicate significant human and financial resources to processing and interpreting this data. So we heard from food companies as well as farmers that this is a priority and something that people see as important, but also something that feels like it could be done more efficiently and in a way that is not taxing the resources quite so much.
Phil:
7:15
In the report you say that only about 35% of the food companies that you interviewed said that they had set a sustainability related goal of some kind for their suppliers, including farmers and ranchers. So of about a third of them have done it and two thirds haven't. I find it even more difficult for farmers to be able to supply this information if they don't know what the target of the company is.
Ellie:
7:42
Well, it's an interesting dilemma. I think, you know, one of the things that we definitely heard from farmers and from food companies is that there is more pressure from stakeholders such as investors, ANGOs and others to see tangible targets and they're there to be a real sense of, of wanting to know what people are committing to do. At the same time, farmers and ranchers felt that they had not always been sufficiently consulted by the companies who were setting targets that were effectively committing them to make a change on their farm. And they were never asked about that. Whether they wanted to do that, what it would cost them to do that. Again, I think everyone we spoke with recognizes that metrics and data are important. They're valuable. This is an important exercise to be doing, but it needs to be connected to value. It needs to connect to economic value for farmers. It needs to make economic sense for everyone involved.
Phil:
8:31
In the report. You also list five key themes. Number one, learn each other's language. Number two, simplify. Continue to work towards a common integrated set of metrics by commodity. Third, don't over-simplify recognize that farming is not manufacturing a. Number four, make agriculture data technology work for everyone. Then number five, lower the cost of data collection, analysis and sharing to farmers while improving quality. Now, when I, when I look at all five of these, they're, they're critical. Where do we stand right now? If you had to give a report card from a being the best and F being a failing grade across the supply chain, where do we stand on these five things are, are we even to the level of F?
Ellie:
9:19
Well, I think that we probably get, I could see plus for trying, but that it's really challenging to look at the situation today and just say that we've really got it figured out. So I definitely think there's room for improvement. You know, I think it's important to call out that you acknowledged that the, and I've already spoke about the fact that technology is part of the challenge today is that technology has not provided the seamless efficient function that we would want it to. But I think we do see technology in the future as one of the key solutions. As you mentioned, you know it seems impossible and it probably is to think that everyone would agree on the same set of metrics. The fact that even with an existing set of metrics for each commodity that you still have retailers and and others wanting to send their own surveys out is a good signal. That agreement on this is probably not an easy thing to achieve if it's even possible. And that's where technology can be helpful because we see the potential for a technology system where farmers can put in a piece of data one and maybe it's even collected automatically and then that gets seamlessly transformed and report it out to anyone who needs it in whatever format they need it in. We're not there yet, but I think we do see that as a potential path to easing the burden as well as increasing the quality of the data.
Phil:
10:35
One of the key learnings for me when I went through the report that I think is so important and should probably be where we start is where you say make the relationship between companies and farmers more of a partnership. And I think having technology and having all these tools is great, but first is that relationship and, and I think the more that we can do to form a strong relationship between that supply chain, the easier that all of these tasks can be.
Ellie:
11:05
I absolutely agree. I think one of the challenges we've had is that companies are responding to quarterly shareholder demands. You know they have a much shorter time horizon and how they're thinking about what they're doing and how they create value. Farmers have a very different time horizon and they need to be thinking about seasons. They need to be thinking about five years, 10 years at a time. If we can do more to better align those planning horizon and make sure that as companies are asking farmers to make changes on their farms to accomplish environmental and other goals that I think everyone would support. Companies need to have some skin in the game and they need to be willing to work with farmers on that longer term basis to ensure that farmers are not taking all the risks and receiving very of the reward.
Phil:
11:54
So if our listeners want to get a copy of navigating the food metrics May's report, how do they do that?
Speaker 4:
12:01
Well, on the USFRA's website, us farmers and ranchers.org they can download a standalone infographic that tells the story of the report on one page with some key statistics and they can download a report summary for people who would like the full report. They should contact USFRA to find out information about becoming a member and that would give them access to the full report. Right.
Phil:
12:25
Ellie, thanks so much for joining us today on farm food facts.
Ellie:
12:28
Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.
Phil:
12:34
And now the news you need to know. Productivity of farms in the Heartland has increased over time except for the smallest farms. The economic research service, a component of the U S da recently examined productivity trends in the Heartland region, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana as well as sections of Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio. The research indicates that the smallest crop farms, those that are less than a hundred acres fell further behind larger farms in terms of productivity between 1982 and 2012 the total factor productivity is the measure of the quantity of output produced relative to the quantity of inputs that are used, and this grew at similar rates across farm sized classes except for those smallest which had slower growth rates. Now this may be due in part to technological advances over the last 10 to 20 years, including large combine harvesters and precision ag technologies, which is not as accessible for small farms because of cost.
Phil:
13:39
The result is a deterioration of sorts of the competitive position of farms in the small sized category and has likely contributed to a decline in their share of total output making being a smaller farmer even harder and quite possibly be a hindrance to attract new small farmers. And in other research related news, scientists have now sequenced the avocado genome. So what's the benefit? A team of researchers from Texas tech university and the university of Buffalo have studied avocados in an innovative way that's best described as 23 in me and they've sequenced the avocado genome as a reminder, 23 in me was the first company to begin offering DNA testing for ancestry research. The researchers found that the avocado genome has naturally evolved over time in order to increase its resistance to disease. A finding that could prove to be quite significant for the future of avocado breeding.
Phil:
14:37
This discovery could help growers breed more disease resistant avocados and eventually lead to varieties that are drought resistant or less temperature sensitive and more suited for growing and climates affected by climate change. And just what we'll be able to do across hundreds of different fruits and vegetables. Technology continues to open doors in the agriculture world and not just in production but in the retail experience as well. An innovative retailer has quadrupled their online farmer engagement. Last year a team at Landus cooperative, the farmer owned co-op that supports the full circle of the food chain from seed to commodity from product feed and from cow to the kitchen table has launched a new customer digital experience which led to four times as many farmers signing up and using these tools. The online portal and mobile app provided the co op a new way to connect with farmers and provide them with the latest business information.
Phil:
15:35
Robert Barker, chief information technology officer at Landis said the following communication is at the core of what we set out to do. We wanted to allow the ability for us to communicate with the grower and the grower be able to communicate with us. The co op will roll out even more features as it anticipates a great need to stay connected during what's proving to be a challenging harvest season. For the previous harvest season. There were 12 locations with cameras installed so that farmers could log in and view remotely how long the unloading lines were and this season the cooperative is adding cameras at several more locations as another harvest logistical planning tool. 55 grain locations are reporting scale to scale time for corn and soybean lines. Farmers can log in and see an average from the last hour of truck traffic scaling in dumping and then scaling out. It's still another way these technology tools will strengthen connectivity with farmers is the ability for all green elevator location managers to make updates in an employee app that communicates with the customer's app via text. For example, if a location closes early due to receiving their maximum of high moisture corn, they can adjust the hours as they see fit and communicate that directly to the farmers. Innovation is key for farmers and ranchers to be successful and now
Phil:
16:55
Let's head to the farm. Galen lee and his parents, Art and Freeda, own and operate Sunnyside farm, which is a diversified row crop and livestock operation in new Plymouth, Idaho. The 1,250 acre operation grows sugar beach, asparagus and peppermint as cash crops and alfalfa, corn silage peas and edge for the 250 head dairy and 85 head Koch calf operation. Galen, welcome to farm food facts.
Galen:
17:22
Well thank you Phil. Good to be here.
Phil:
17:24
So USFRAs new metrics report is an important effort for all farmers and ranchers to understand, as we discussed earlier on today's podcast, it seems that everyone across the supply chain is asking farmers for more transparency and data than ever before. How many data requests do you receive and how much detail are they asking for?
Galen:
17:45
I usually get something about once a month on average and some are more detailed than others. It kind of depends. Um, the biggest one we've done took like two and a half hours to get through. Most of them they're just looking for six days, maybe 10 data points and so they're not too time consuming.
Phil:
18:05
What part of the supply chain you receive requests from?
Galen:
18:09
We get from mostly from, um, food, the shoes for consumption, um, the sugarbeets, although most of that's handled by the co op, but obviously the sugar goes to consumption. So we get requests on the sugarbeets peppermint, we get some on that and asparagus. We get a lot more on that because most of that sold fresh.
Phil:
18:30
So what, what do you think is driving this trend for all these people to be asking for more and more data and more and more transparency?
Galen:
18:40
I think consumers want to know where the food comes from and they want to know what's safe used to be. Consumers were more tied to the farm through a relative, you know, maybe a grandparent or, or whatever else. Aunts and uncles that were actual farmers, they are more removed from the farm now than they have been. And so they don't have that firsthand knowledge and they want to know their food safe. And I totally get that the food reproduces safe, our family eats it, we feed it to our neighbors and we're not afraid of it at all. But the consumer that doesn't have that exposure directly to the farm, they want to know cause there's a lot of negative propaganda out there so they can get themselves informed and they can find out the facts and make an informed decision before they buy.
Phil:
19:21
Getting back to, um, gap audits, are there labor practice questions that are being asked as well?
Galen:
19:28
Yes, there are. Um, most of it is just on the documentation of your workers that they're legal. And that's primarily what comes out of the gap audit for labor. Lots of other questions too, but that's the labor portion of it.
Phil:
19:40
And what about labor in, in general? We hear all these stories about labor shortages. Is this something that you're experiencing
Galen:
19:48
in my area? Yeah. I'm, I'm in Southwest Idaho right next to the Oregon border and there's a lot of housing going on here in this area. A lot of construction, a lot of people moving in. So there's a big demand for contractors and they're getting anybody they can, um, to come and, and help them build. They can pay more than we can on the farm. And so it's tough to keep them on the farm and keep them doing things here. Another thing that just happened this year is hemp was legalized in Oregon. It was legalized federally, but Oregon was quick to jump on it and it wasn't legalized in Idaho. So a lot of hemp farmers right across the river, I'm like six miles from the river, from the border. A lot of farmers over there were over trying to attract extra help because it's a very labor intensive. And so they were trying to pull help from farms over here in Idaho. So it's, it's been a challenge you work with as best you can though.
Phil:
20:38
So what are you doing, um, about that, you know, is it, is it using more technology on the farm so you don't have to rely on workers? Is it a pay more to the workers?
Galen:
20:49
It's a combination of both. Um, we've had to pay a little more. Um, I can't compete with what construction guys are doing, but yeah,
Phil:
20:56
right.
Galen:
20:56
We try to help the guys with different things, be flexible with hours if they have to take off for a school function or something like that. We let them go for a couple hours during the day and come back to work. Kind of work with it that way.
Phil:
21:09
Back to, back to the audit and filling out all this information. Um, is this being done online or in paper? What's the process?
Galen:
21:19
I think the requests come about half and half that, uh, that come in. And honestly, the hardest part is trying to find time to sit down and, and do it, whether it's, you know, online or whether it's paperwork. Um, not that it takes a huge amount of time, 20 to 30 minutes. Usually we'll cover each request, but there's a lot of demands as you're farming, a lot of things going on and you're trying to make the most efficient use of your time at that point in time. And like I said, just making the efforts down and do it sometimes is the most difficult. But you can squeeze it in sometimes at the very end of the day when you're tired, want to go to bed. But you know, it's important to have to get it done.
Phil:
21:59
So you know, we, we know that you don't have a choice, um, as, as the entire supply chain is, is demanding this. Is there any opportunity by supplying this information to offset some of the costs?
Galen:
22:13
Occasionally you can get a premium for some products that you do. One that we see, we get a small premium on our beef that is sold. We raise it hormone free and antibiotic free and it goes to a, let me, the last part of our, of raising the beef, we get them until they're about 60 days from ready for market. And then they go over to a neighbor of ours and he'll finish them out and then he'll sell a whole truck vote at a time. Instead of us being able to do like half a truck load. And because it's hormone free and antibiotic free, we actually get a premium from who that goes to. But we have to certify that it is free of any antibiotics, any hormones.
Phil:
22:51
What would you like to be able to tell, uh, consumers, retailers about your operation that, that they might not know today?
Galen:
23:00
Well, like I tell anybody that asks, we're producing a safe food supply. I'll eat anything off of the farm. I'm not afraid of it at all. We don't go through and douse our plants with chemicals. We don't inject antibiotics into the animals just to make sure they stay healthy. I mean that's the food's good to eat and that's why we produce it. We get more efficient every year. We have to get more efficient because our prices that we received for the product aren't going up nearly as fast as what the inputs are. Sugar for instance, 30 years ago we were getting the same price for sugar per pound of sugar that we are now. Wow. And you old's gone up. Labor's gone up. You know, machinery has gone up. Fertilizer, everything's more expensive than it was, you know, two decades ago. But the price is the same.
Galen:
23:51
So we have to make up for that inefficiencies. And so we get bigger, wider equipment. We get stuff that does things faster. We try to cut down on inputs and we don't spray as often as some people think we might, we spray only when we have to and only the amount we have do or putting on insect this high their pesticides. And like I say, we make it up proficiency and that's what we have to do. We want to stay in business, we love the farm. Farmers love to be out there working with their animals or working in the dirt or the harvesting. That's, that's what we love to do. And to still compete we've had to raise those efficiencies like I say and get more efficient. And so we have wider equipment and there's a tractor going down the road that takes up both lanes of the road. Um, we blocked traffic for a little bit but we're trying to get to the next field so we can keep producing food. We just ask people to be patient with this cause we're out there trying to feed the country.
Phil:
24:44
Well, Galen, keep up the great work and thanks so much for joining us today on farm food facts.
Galen:
24:52
Thank You Phil
Phil:
24:52
For more information on all things, food and agriculture, and to listen to our archives, please visit food dialogues.com under the programs and media tab and visit us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers or on Twitter at USDA FRA. Until next time.
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