“Tip of the Spear” Sustainability Pilot Project

Goldfish crackers may no longer be swimming upstream in the sustainability discussion. After a two-year pilot, 10,000 acres of cropland have yielded three key data-derived takeaways on the environmental footprint of wheat used in the supply chain for Pepperidge Farm baked goods. 

The pilot was located in the Chesapeake Bay Region, specifically Maryland and Pennsylvania, and brought together farmers, trusted advisers at The Mill ag retailer, Campbell Soup Company (parent company of Pepperidge Farm) and Truterra, LLC, the sustainability solutions business unit of Land O’ Lakes. The Truterra Insights Engine was used to collect all on-farm data and help The Mill team work with farmers to advance conservation practices across the three crops grown in a wheat rotation.  

The three early takeaways from on-going efforts include: 

  1. Participating acres were greenhouse gas emissions-neutral. Truterra data show all acres in the pilot were near-zero net on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, and for acres with conservation tillage and covers the net emissions were negative. 
  2. Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) improved from year-to-year. In 2019, the average NUE across the wheat acres was 1.14 pounds of nitrogen per bushel, which indicates optimized use of applied nitrogen and minimizing environmental loss risk.  
  3. Practices will lead to improving soil health. The pilot measured erosion and top soil loss, which declined from 2018 to 2019. 

The Truterra Champion at The Mill is Tim Hushon, who says it’s tools like the Truterra Insights Engine, which was launched in 2016, that are making the conversations around conservation more proactive than reflexive. 
“Every decision we make, every thing we recommend impacts growers. And when we have tools and reporting capability to show how we can intertwine environmental, agronomic and financial outcomes, we can refocus our discussion to be much more future-focused,” Hushon says. 

An outcome of this type of program, of which the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) helped build the original pilot structure, demonstrates the field-by-field return on investment in the conservation practices. 

“When we were reached out to for this opportunity—it was a no-brainer,” Hushon says. “We have nothing to hide, and our growers are very receptive to conservation practices. Guys always ask when they are going to get paid directly for these efforts, but I tell them we’re not just at the front of the pack, we are at the bleeding edge.”

Hushon is encouraged that this pilot is a springboard for new market opportunities, of which he wants to help growers be on top of. He shares the pilot wanted to have 10,000 acres enrolled by 2020, but that goal was reached by 2019. Now, Campbell’s has announced more than 70,000 acres are enrolled in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio as their supply chain pilot program has expanded. 

The scaling of this project couldn’t be done without the partnership of the local ag retailer, says Jason Weller, Vice President, Truterra, LLC. 

“Often overlooked in this equation is the ag retailer. If you are seeking landscape-scale change, and you aren’t working with who farmers do a majority of their business with you aren’t going to see change at the scale you are doing business with,” Weller says. “For many reasons this pilot demonstrates success. Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay have been on the tip of the spear with agriculture and the environment. If you look at what’s happened in the Chesapeake Bay in the past 10 years, it’s an ecological restoration and ag has been on the forefront.”

This pilot also highlights collaboration up and down the food chain. Hushon says one of the biggest benefits was engaging multiple stakeholders. For example, field signs with partners’ logos started local conversations. And having corporate involvement from the food company opened opportunities for them to have in-field visits and see agriculture and meet farmers. 

For the future, Weller says a powerful takeaway from this effort is that’s it’s voluntary. 

“This isn’t a mandate. It’s an empowerment for the farmer and the ag retailer to be part of this positive change on the ground. The ag retailer has the farmer’s trust, and we are seamlessly weaving in stewardship to help them take their next steps,” he says. “To us, these efforts are an accelerant to add, multiply and expand new practices. In ag, if something is ‘disruptive’ we’ve made someone have a bad day. Our goal is to evaluate how farms have been operating, identify opportunities and enhance profitability.”