By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- To help farmers look at various stewardship practices and the effects on their lands, Minneapolis-based farmer cooperative Land O'Lakes on Monday rolled out a new software program called the Truterra Insights Engine.
Jason Weller, sustainability director for Land O'Lakes SUSTAIN program, said he saw a lot of shared goals between agricultural retailers and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service when he served as the agency's chief. The goals centered on sharing long-term economic success with farmers, he said. Still, Weller added, there was also some disconnect between NRCS and retailers, or agronomy advisers.
"More often, they were ships passing in the night and not on the same page in terms of recommendations, certainly with technology, but it just starts foundationally with what is the best way to start a conversation with a farmer about adopting additional conservation on their operation," Weller said.
Truterra adds another piece connecting retailers and crop consultants in SUSTAIN's outreach to producers as a piece of Land O'Lakes' broader retailer and cooperative network. The SUSTAIN program ties the conservation work of individual farmers with larger corporate sustainability goals for the grains, oilseeds and livestock products sold through the food supply chain.
SUSTAIN was initially developed by United Suppliers, a group of 600 ag retailers in the Midwest and Canada, to help farmers manage fertilizer practices to reduce nutrient runoff and improve water quality. United Suppliers then merged with Land O'Lakes in 2015. Land O'Lakes also invested in Agren Inc., an Iowa-based software company focused on soil health and conservation. Earlier this summer, Land O'Lakes acquired substantially all of Agren, specifically to bolster tools for SUSTAIN.
Truterra, dubbed as an "insights engine," will provide more knowledge to farmers about soil and water conservation practices. But it will also give input to retailers and crop advisers who use the program tools to talk with farmers about stewardship. Truterra also shows how farmers can tap into USDA conservation programs to help pay for such farm practices. Truterra is being rolled out this week at a food summit in the Chesapeake Bay.
Truterra is oriented to demonstrate that successful land stewardship with a farmer begins with economics and helping a farmer achieve his or her business goals. Conservation practices ideally then would continue after a government payment ends, Weller said.
"It (conservation practice) needs to be one that ultimately has direct or indirect payback to the farmer," he said. "They have got to help them eventually reduce their costs, eliminate or remove waste, help them be more efficient or improve their per-acre profitability."
Truterra uses the growing capabilities in geospatial programs to examine what's going on, not just on the soil surface, but underground. Weller said he thinks geospatial technology will increasingly go deeper into the soil profile as the next step in using conservation to help improve profitability.
"This is something NRCS knows where the next frontier is, but they don't yet have the technology to get there," Weller said. "I think this is the future of on-farm stewardship is moving to the sub-field scale."
Geospatial tools are now beginning to show how nutrients are lost to waterways under the surface, or in just particular areas of a larger acreage. In a larger view, new attention to sub-field data could also help target conservation efforts to areas where there is heavy sediment loading into streams and lakes. Weller said NRCS data shows in areas such as the western basin of Lake Erie that as much as 70% of sediment comes off 4% of the land base.
"We need to help farmers better manage and give them options and strategies to go after that sub-field zone because that's where they either can make more money or reduce the loss of money," Weller said. "In the end, you're more net profitable in that field."
Truterra provides analytics on the profit and possible yield changes of specific practices and will provide details on stewardship indicators. A stewardship report card details how a farm is doing holistically to avoid nutrient loss and maximize fertilizer efficiency.
The program also will tie into programs such as Field to Market's field print calculator as well as Walmart's Project Gigaton, an initiative through Walmart's supply chain to reduce the retailer's overall carbon footprint. Land O'Lakes is among the companies that has committed to help Walmart meet those goals.
A key to Truterra, though, is working with retailers to demonstrate the tool and use it to make recommendations to farmers. That's critical because each crop adviser or field consultant who uses Truterra can show how its analytics are site-specific, Weller said.
"You're not going to be successful at scale unless you have those boots-on-the-ground capacity and capability," he said. "And, more often than not, growers rely on their local co-op, their local retailer, their CCA (certified crop adviser) to understand their farm, their soils, climate they are dealing with and giving them that everyday advice. So we need to tap into these local experts."
Initially, Truterra will be promoted and used and integrated by retailers that are already part of the SUSTAIN network.
As Land O'Lakes rolls out the program, it is drawing some early testimonials from groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund, as well as Campbell's Soup Co., which is working on a pilot project with Land O'Lakes and crop consulting for wheat sourcing in the Chesapeake Bay region.
For more details, got to www.truterrainsights.com
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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