Farm Food Facts

Advances In Fertilizers And The Role In Precision Agriculture

September 25, 2020 USFRA Episode 92
Farm Food Facts
Advances In Fertilizers And The Role In Precision Agriculture
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Farm Food Facts
Advances In Fertilizers And The Role In Precision Agriculture
Sep 25, 2020 Episode 92
USFRA

Today, we're going to talk about fertilizer and the role, the important role that it plays in agriculture. Our guest is Mike Frank, Executive Vice President of Nutrien and CEO of Nutrien ag solutions. Mike is a global ag leader with more than 30 years of working extensively with farmers and other ag professionals around the world. And most important, Mike grew up on a farm in Canada and a passionate agriculture advocate. Mike is focused on the issues of global food security and driving environmental and economic sustainability for farmers and the ag industry. He serves on the board of the U S farmers and ranchers in action. 

Show Notes Transcript

Today, we're going to talk about fertilizer and the role, the important role that it plays in agriculture. Our guest is Mike Frank, Executive Vice President of Nutrien and CEO of Nutrien ag solutions. Mike is a global ag leader with more than 30 years of working extensively with farmers and other ag professionals around the world. And most important, Mike grew up on a farm in Canada and a passionate agriculture advocate. Mike is focused on the issues of global food security and driving environmental and economic sustainability for farmers and the ag industry. He serves on the board of the U S farmers and ranchers in action. 

Phil:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 Honor the Harvest forum . Welcome to the U S Farmers and Ranchers in action weekly video podcast for September 25th, 2020. I'm your host, Phil Lempert. Today, we're going to talk about fertilizer and the role, the important role that it plays in agriculture. Our guest is Mike Frank, Executive Vice President of Nutrien and CEO of Nutrien ag solutions. Mike is a global ag leader with more than 30 years of working extensively with farmers and other ag professionals around the world. And most important, Mike grew up on a farm in Canada and a passionate agriculture advocate. Mike is focused on the issues of global food security and driving environmental and economic sustainability for farmers and the ag industry. He serves on the board of the U S farmers and ranchers in action. Mike, great to talk to you again, welcome to Farm Food Facts.

Mike:

Good morning, Phil. Great to be with you. Nice to see you again.

Phil:

Good to see you. So Mike, tell me a bit more about nutrient and its role in farming and ranching.

Mike:

Sure. So Phil nutrient is still a fairly new name in agriculture. We , uh, we merged two companies back in January of 2018 , uh Agrium and potash corporation, and that created this new company called nutrient. So at nutrient, we are a large fertilizer , uh , maker in particular, we produce about 25 million tons of NPK fertilizer and sell out around the world. And in addition to that, we also operate a large network of ag retail locations. And that's the business that I run. So we have approximately 2000 retail locations in seven countries where we serve our farmer customers, selling them fertilizer, but also seeds and crop protection products, lots of services, including custom application . So we work directly with farmers around the world. We serve over 500,000 farmers , uh, again in seven countries. And so , uh , that's a very exciting part of our business as well. So Mike, talk to me about the retail environment, if you would, these days , uh, because of the pandemic , um , are you seeing , uh , the more people, you know, are ordering online and , and you have to do what supermarkets are doing as far as, you know, curbside pickup or they coming in the stores, what changes have you had to make as a result of the pandemic? Yeah, great question. So, I mean, 2020 has been a challenging year for our farmer customers and we've had to adjust our operations to just make sure that we kept our employees and our customers safe. And so, yeah, you're exactly right. What, what happened , uh , with , um, other consumer markets in terms of people going into stores really it's the same thing at our retail locations and right out of the gate. Uh, w e, we wanted to make sure we kept our employees safe and so we had to set up our operations. And so they were all socially distanced and wearing masks when that couldn't happen. U m, we encourage customers to, if they w anted to come in and pick up to let us know they were going to pick up a product and we had a touchless pickup service. And with in our business, we do a lot of drop off and delivery as well. And so we set up a , a process where we could drop, u h, y ou k now, products at our c ustomers, u h, farms, u m, and do that in a touchless way. And so our truck drivers and our customers stayed safe throughout the whole process. Yeah.

Phil:

So, you know, I know that there's a lot of questions about sustainability of fertilizer from G HG emissions to run off , um , as the largest fertilizer company in the world. How does nutrient approach sustainability?

Mike:

Yeah. So look, you know, as, as your listeners would likely know , uh , plant nutrients are incredibly important for healthy plants and ultimately a healthy harvest. And so, you know , uh , replenishing the soils with both macro and micro micro nutrients are critically important to, to feed the population, whether it's 330 million people in the U S or the 7.8 billion people around the world. And so it's a very important part of agriculture and a very important part is sustainable agriculture. Now look, you know, we really focused on what is often called the four R's , which is having the right source, the right rate, the right time and the right place to , uh , apply that fertilizer. And so we , we spend a lot of time with our customers, making sure that they're selecting the right nutrients often in , in customized blends. And so depending on the crop, depending on the soil, we do a lot of soil sampling to make sure we know exactly what needs to be replaced in the soil. Now you asked about precision agriculture and it's a really exciting field that continues to, I think , uh , evolve every year with new and new tools with , uh , with a lot of our customers. We now look at their, their soil across the field. And so instead of going in and treating the field , uh, as a homogeneous , uh , field and getting the same rate across the field, we're now doing , uh , variable rate applications with , with most of our customers where , you know, in , in the really heavy parts of their field where they can grow more crops, we'll probably put on a little bit heavier rates of fertilizer and likewise where they've got lighter soils and they aren't as productive. We will , uh, put on less fertilizer , uh, because that that's exactly what the plants need , uh, to optimize the sustainability side of fertilizers. But, you know, when we think about sustainability, I mean, it's , it's obviously on the fertilizer side, but it's really, it starts with the whole system. So it includes, you know, no till or minimum till farming, it includes cover crops. And so we really think in terms of like, what's the system and how can help our customers because they all want to be sustainable. How can we help them maximize their sustainability outcomes?

Phil:

So Mike, you know, in talking to a lot of farmers , um, I'm fascinated , um , how far , um , both in, in the case of fertilizer and technology has come, where, where they're sharing with me that, you know, if they can fertilize, you know, a square inch, if you would , um, of, of their field, if that's what they need to do, they've got that technology now , uh , to do those kinds of things. So as we look to , to the future, you know, and, and technology and fertilizer and crops, what do you see happening?

Mike:

Yeah. So you talk about kind of farming square inch by score engine and that's that variable rate technology I talk about, which combines, you know, soil sampling. So going in and actually sampling a cross section of the field, but then also using satellite data to really see, okay, over the past several years, how did the crop grow and where did it yield more? And where did that yield less than the field. There's other really exciting technologies. For example, we have a product that's called ESN nitrogen, and this is a, it's a polymer coated nitrogen that releases over time. And so, you know, the , for a healthy plant, it needs nitrogen throughout the growing season with ESN , uh, nitrogen. It releases over a 50 to 80 day period. Um, and if it's really wet, it slows its release. If it's really dry, it slows it's released . And so it's really designed to really, you know, release , uh , over the growing season. So that's, that's incredibly exciting. And that's part of our , uh , sustainability offerings that we're working with our customers on. There's also a lot of biological products and there's a lot of science going into really understanding like what's happening below the surface and round that, that root and the microbiome. And so, you know, sometimes we talk about, you know, a healthy gut bacteria, it's really the same for plants. They need a healthy root system and the right bacteria. And so we now have , uh , products like microbial products that we'll put on either with , uh , at the time of planting or with fertilizer that creates an environment. So the roots are, are even more efficient at absorbing the fertilizers that are , uh , nutrients that are around them. And so these are the , the merging fields that I think are incredibly exciting and they help farmers again, create more sustainable harvest.

Phil:

Who knew that there was gut health for, for plants. So, well, you know , I know that you just published your, your , uh, latest ESG report. Um, what's in it. What does it mean? Um, what changes can be implemented? Um, how does it benefit farmers?

Mike:

Yeah. So for your listeners that may not know what ESG means is it , it really stands for environmental, social, and governance. And so it's an acronym that, that, that a lot of companies are, are , um , are working with. And so ESG is really about being really transparent with your stakeholders in terms of how you're becoming more sustainable as a, as a company and how you're working downstream with your customers to help them achieve sustainability outcomes as well. And so it cumulates into our report that we publish every year. And again, stakeholders that are interested in agriculture , uh , including our investors are very interested in what we're doing. And so , um, I think it's a, it's a great opportunity for us as a company, at least to really showcase the exciting things that we're doing across our business, in our, in our operations to become more sustainable , uh, focusing on greenhouse gases, focusing on water efficiency. But then again, since we work directly with so many farmers, that's also a big part of our story in terms of the work we're doing directly with them. Look, I think we feel we're , you know, what's happening is, you know, a lot of companies are making commitments around greenhouse gas emissions. And what we can see happening is there's, there's a market that's forming where , uh, agriculture can be a solution to sequester carbon. And so again, some of the practices like , uh, no till and cover crops , uh, growing really strong and healthy crops that all sequesters carbon. And so we think, you know, farmers and agriculture is part of this solution around climate change and sustainability, and , uh , what we think is going to happen over time. And it's just starting to happen is farmers can get rewarded for practicing those environmentally sustainable practices. And so we're working with them directly. We have a number of pilot projects where we , uh, we are working with our customers to measure , um, the greenhouse gas , uh, sequester sequestration across each of their fields, their water efficiency. And then we're working with some of the food companies that are very interested in buying , uh , grains from these companies that are actually achieving those, those, those results.

Phil:

So, you know, I know you're not going to tell me, but, you know, you've mentioned pilot projects. What are some of the pilot projects that are going on , uh , that you can share and, you know, what has you the most excited?

Mike:

Yeah. So look , since this whole area is, I think is emerging. And I think in four or five years, this is going to become a marketplace where farmers can really participate and get rewarded. So we're working with, again, a number of, in a number of areas, whether it be the Chesapeake Bay area we're working with , uh, the governor in Ohio , uh , around the water systems there, we're working in, in Alberta with , uh, with , uh, the oil and gas industry. And so there , there's a lot of different partnerships that we think can emerge in this space where farmers, when they practice most environmentally sustainable practices , uh, which again, being very productive. And so driving high yields is a big part of this and being economically sustainable, but then measuring the greenhouse gas and the water efficiency. And so again, things like , uh, ESN nitrogen that , uh, actually helps , uh , um , uh , reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions , uh, putting on the microbials, making sure that farmers are thinking about their tillage practices. And so all of these things are being , um, monitored and recorded, and there's a number of emerging kind of third party measurement tools. And so this is an us saying what we think is happening in the field. We're working with Colorado state university and other developers of tools and technologies that, that are available to really scientifically measure what's happening in the field. And so again, I think it's early days, that's why we have a number of pilots in 2020, but I think these are going to scale up , uh, into the future.

Phil:

So, you know, Mike, I know you a long time and , um, I know you've got a crystal ball, so, you know, look, you know, beyond 2020, beyond 2021 , uh, talk to me about where agriculture , uh , where fertilizer, all the things that we've talked about, where are we going to be in five years from now?

Mike:

Yeah, look, I think what's really important in this conversation is we need to do two things. We need to a farm as sustainable as we can and grow livestock as sustainably as we can. And we need to feed a growing planet. So the two go hand in hand, you can't have one without the other. And I think in the past, there's been focused on one or focus on the other, and I think this needs to come together. And this is why a USF RA I think plays such an important role because it's easy for us in agriculture to , to talk amongst the industry and talk with ourselves and convince ourselves what we're doing. Makes sense. USF foray is connecting the dots with stakeholders inside and outside of agriculture, including NGOs and , and government bodies. And I think, you know, over the next four or five years coming together and bringing together people that have the same objectives , uh, sharing information, sharing best practices and, and ultimately solving these problems cooperatively together. I think that's where this goes. So it's, it's not, it's not going to be like, you're doing something wrong. It's like, who are practicing the best practices and how do we feed a growing planet and how do we do it sustainably, but let's help farmers maximize their efficiency and their yields that will prevent, you know , new agricultural land from having to come online. Uh , and again, that's part of the sustainability , uh , need that we have as a planet.

Phil:

Mike as always brilliant. Uh , thanks for joining us today on, on Farm Food Facts.

:

Wonderful, good to be with you, Phil. Thanks.

Speaker 1:

US Farmers and Ranchers in action would like to recognize the sponsors of the 2020 honor. The harvest form or movement sponsors, United soybean board and national pork board. Our presenting sponsors, Wells Fargo and Cargil. Our gold sponsors, Bayer, Dairy West, Nebraska soybean board, McDonald's, Nutrien and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Our bronze sponsors, Purina and Ernst & Young, our youth sponsor Ruan and our donor sponsor Tyson. For more on all things, food and agriculture. Please visit [email protected] Also be sure to look out for us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers and on Twitter at USFRA until next time.witter at USF RA until next time.