Soil Health Imperative

Corporate Boards May Care How Grain is Grown, But Commodity Buyers Not So Much

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Erosion from a cornfield after a heavy spring rain. Groups such as the Soil Health Institute are trying to encourage commodity farmers to adopt practices that would reduce such erosion. (DTN file photo)

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (DTN) -- After a day of talk about soil health -- the science, metrics, economics, policy and possible markets -- an Alabama commodity farmer got to share some thoughts that reflect the business challenge for the average grain, oilseed or fiber producer.

V. Larkin Martin has served on boards of multiple farm and business organizations -- including the Soil Health Institute, Farm Foundation and the Cotton Board and is a former chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She manages her family's seventh-generation, 7,000-acre farm of both owned and rented land in Alabama.

Martin explained that soil health was vital to her farm because of the dry conditions in the South, as well as farming on a high percentage of highly erodible land. Soil health is an imperative, yet most of her landlords might be just mildly interested in the topic. The buyers of the corn, soybeans, wheat, peanuts and cotton raised on the farm, not so much, she said.

"My customers, the people I sell to, frankly don't care. I raise commodity crops and I'm selling into a global market on a thin margin, and the only thing that pays me is volume," Martin said. "My customers, my local elevator, cares about aflatoxins, but they couldn't care less about the soil health and where it came from."

Martin was part of the stakeholder panel at Soil Health Institute's second annual meeting. About 200 people attended the event in downtown St. Louis last week to discuss the gains and continuing challenges for the soil-health movement.

Martin's comments reflected some of the disconnect in the food-industry supply chain between the corporate boardroom and the farm gate for a large share of commodity producers. Martin sought to emphasize that, for the commodity farmer, soil health has to be tied closely to productivity.

"The business imperative, from a person trying to earn an annual living and manage risk on the soil, is productivity because yield is ultimately what pays," she said. "Yield equals income. How does soil health help improve or stabilize yields would be the topic. So that's where it's imperative."

Klaas Martens, though, sells into the $40-billion-a-year organic market from his 1,600-acre farm in New York where he also has an organic feed business. Martens converted to organic in the 1980s as a marketing niche but also to improve depleted soils. Martens' buyers are a lot more focused on soil health.

"Because we are going after a very select group of customers -- organic certification is a very good marketing tool -- our customers ask a lot of questions," he said. "They want to know how we are farming, and I don't believe we would have access to those markets if we weren't at least credible in how we are treating our soil."

While there is a suite of practices that improve the soils, practices most often identified with soil health are those that add organic matter to the soil. Often highlighted are no-till, or minimum tillage, leaving crop residues and planting a cover crop, or double-cropping. Increasingly, precision tools that reduce excessive fertilizer use are considered part of soil health.

John Wiebold, a vice president of sourcing and supply management at General Mills, explained that the $16-billion-revenue food company is starting to more heavily recruit farmers to convert from conventional to organic because of consumer demand. Further, General Mills has a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 28% by 2025, and roughly 52% of the company's emissions come from the raw materials the company buys for its foods. It's imperative for the company brands that more commodities are deemed "sustainably sourced."

"We have to figure out how to put less carbon into the atmosphere as a company," Wiebold said. "We know the only way we're going to be able to modify our footprint is by working back to the farm gate and starting to figure out how to put carbon back into the soil. So we have to solve that problem."

Wiebold sees the sustainability push in the food industry eventually reaching a broader group of commodity farms. His view was shared by Roian Atwood, director of sustainability for RV Jeanswear, which owns the Wrangler and Lee brands.

Atwood said the apparel industry is just starting to dive into sustainability and fiber production, such as cotton. He noted his company would like to tell the story of soil health practices, but the markets reward cotton buyers when prices are low. It's somewhat of a perverse incentive, he said. "The real challenge of the commodities is obscuring the distance between the growers and the brand," Atwood said.

Wayne Honeycutt, president and CEO of the Soil Health Institute, said most people trying to solve the market puzzle for soil health see the disconnect in the system. "We need to be focused on that productivity relationship and the economics behind it too," Honeycutt said.

There's no great market reward for implementing soil health practices, other than the resiliency it creates for the farmer to have better soils. One of the reasons for public outreach is to make soil health a matter of importance for the first buyer of grain. That requires more interest or connection with the consumer so they start wanting or demanding products from grains and oilseeds that are raised using best-management practices for the soils.

"It's obviously all tied in together like relating the work we do in soil health to human health," Honeycutt said. "If we can make some of those connections, then that becomes part of the message."

Honeycutt added that healthier soils will be needed to boost productivity as farmland continues to be lost at an alarming rate while global population increases by 80 million people a year. Further, it's important the public sees these soil-health practices are also beneficial for water quality and reducing greenhouse gases, he said.

Martin stressed she believes soil health is critical to productivity, short and long term. In dryland farming, it's crucial for stability, she added. Yet, a farm is a business that focuses on yield and productivity, "so the motivations are fear and greed." Altruism and environmental sensitivity are nice, but ultimately, farmers are focused on how to be profitable on a business level and how not to fail.

"How to convert soil health into the yield talk is to talk about productivity," she said.

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Chris Clayton