Hanging on in this tumultuous agricultural economy has been a point of emphasis for the last three years, but for farmer Chase Crawford outside Sherburn, Minnesota, conservation has become the key to sustainability.

Crawford, whose parents didn’t farm and who had no brothers or sisters to push him to agriculture, found himself taking on his grandparents’ profession by way of desire rather than out of circumstance.

Over the years, while working off-farm jobs in agricultural data for NuWay-K&H Cooperative, Crawford realized that conserving, regenerating and preserving the soil on his operation was the best way to move forward.

For the last year, Crawford has used Land O’Lakes’ newest farmer-driven tool – the Sustain Truterra Insights Engine – to realize his dream of sustaining his operation long enough for his three kids – Jack, Finch and a third child due in September – to take over and build a family legacy.

Sustain is Land O’Lake’s platform that helps connect farmers with agronomists, data-analysists, and conservation programs to better their operations. Truterra is a new program and app that collects data through Sustain programs. It uses it to track conservation and presents the data in ways that help farmers understand how their current practices compare with what they could be doing on their operation.

The Truterra Engine

The Truterra Insights Engine came out last year amidst one of the wettest growing seasons of the 2010s and the seemingly ever-declining ag economy. Hosted on top of Land O’Lakes’ Sustain platform, Truterra was designed to help farmers understand ways they could conserve resources while maintaining their profitable land.

“We just want to help them understand the balance between the environment and economics,” said Matt Carstens, senior vice president of Land O’Lakes Sustain.

Carstens and his team at Sustain worked over the last three years to develop the first-of-its-kind farmer app because they saw a trend in agriculture where farmers were asked to report more on what they were doing to help the environment, all while trying to maintain a healthy profit margin and balancing tough weather and economic pressures.

Helping farmers be profitable, sustainable, regenerative, and transparent drove Carstens towards what eventually became Truterra.

“We felt the need to not only help farmers find that journey but probably as important to help ag aggregate the journey farmers are on,” he said.

The actual process of using the app is a multi-step journey through any producers operation. The Truterra app takes in all data gathered with various precision ag tools on the farm and compiles that information into reports that a farmer and his or her ag retailer can look at.

The data is compiled into easy-to-read reports that show the different levels of nutrients, yields, and other helpful crop information. With this data, the engine outputs an algorithm-driven score that shows how successful the farmer has been with individual fields, based on conservation and conventional farming practices.

The next steps involve diving deeper into each field to see exactly which acres aren’t producing, and which should continue to produce as normal.

“When you start looking at it on a profit basis and an economic basis, you probably realize a few acres probably shouldn’t be producing crops,” Carstens said.

For Crawford and his ag retailer and former employer, NuWay-K&H Coopereative, this engine has given them access to information they didn’t think was possible on the per-acre level.

“I had been dabbling in the different programs that have come along for a while now, seeing what works and what might not work,” Crawford said. “But it’s nice to see the results that the program prints out to show what we’re doing – it’s just nice to quantify what we’re doing.”

On the Crawford operation, which runs 1,600 acres of corns and beans, conserving poor, low-lying lands was a key step into improving soil health and improving his bottom line. He said that once the data is given to him and his retailer, they can see where they can improve to become more efficient, as opposed to just more profitable.

“Everything is about ROI (return on investment),” said Kevin Anderson an ag director with the co-op.

Anderson has worked with Crawford for many years, including during Crawford’s years as a data manager. He said that before Truterra came along, Crawford’s operation specifically focused on nitrogen models. Now, with Truterra, they’re able to look at all inputs and conservation tactics to pinpoint where they can help plants better use applied nitrogen and prevent runoff.

Jeff Crissinger, the vice president of agronomy sales and marketing with NuWay-K&H Co-op, said that Truterra allowed Crawford and other producers to actually see what was being talked about.

“(Sustain) had a lot of feel-good moments but not a great way to measure how much we were having an impact,” Crissinger said. “The grower couldn’t put in any numbers to measure how they were having an impact with profitability or conservation.”

With the advent of the new app and more tools being added by the season, Crissinger said they finally have a product to go along with their conservation and agronomic suggestions to the producers they serve.

Anderson said that the wonder of Truterra actually lies in its ability to compare year by year and see how different fields stack up with various conservation practices.

Crawford’s operation was running no-till and conventional-till soybeans. With the platform, they were able to determine which practice worked best for Crawford’s land, which is key.

“It isn’t telling the farmer that they need to do something, it just gives them the data to tell farmers all the options,” Anderson said. “Chase has young kids that will probably want to take over the farm someday, so why wouldn’t he want to conserve land?”

Crawford’s first major venture with the Truterra and Sustain platforms came after a tremendous rain event hit his operation several years back.

“We had one of those rain events where it rained as hard as it possibly could,” Crawford said. “It was tilled, real black and just planted, and it washed corn seeds into the ditch.”

After he watched several inches of topsoil come off his field and into the ditches and waterways, Crawford said he felt sick and disgusted that that much soil history could be destroyed so quickly. Soon after, Crawford began talks with the co-op and other groups about how he could improve his soil health and prevent erosion like he saw. The answer came months later when he enrolled his low-lying land into several conservation programs for a five-year term.

A year later, the land is improving daily with pheasant and wildlife populations exploding, Crawford said. This is what Carstens said he dreamed of when they launched the Truterra engine.

“I don’t know a single farmer that will raise their hand and say they don’t want to do that,” Carstens said.

Reaching the consumer

Balancing farming and conservation is a noble goal, and one that many farmers look to everyday, Carstens said. But everything on a farm or ranch has to be about economics, and Truterra aims to put in plain numbers how profitable each decision will make you.

The insight engine will output a score from 0-100 on the plot of land they want to dissect. Instead of improving in large chunks, Carstens said Truterra, as well as the ag retailers, would rather see gradual improvement.

“We’re looking for plus something every year so it continues to improve,” he said. “It’s the journey we are looking for. All farms certainly aren’t created equally.”

With the data in hand, the engine outputs dozens of recommendations for conservation practices and shows you how profitable each decision can be.

The biggest partnership Land O’Lakes has established is with Pheasants Forever. Producers can use data gathered by the Insights engine to discuss with a Pheasants Forever biologist the best way to conserve land on any given operation.

“It was really a perfect match,” he said.

Working with Pheasants Forever isn’t the only partnership available to Truterra users. Anderson has helped producers connect with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other conservation groups using the same data.

Even with all the information available at a farmer’s fingertips, Carstens said the biggest and most influential aspect of the Truterra Insights Engine is its ability to track and report a farmer’s progress directly to the consumer.

“Everyone wants to improve the land, the environment and profitability,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re more transparent. I’m not negative at all about our past, but we have an even better future.”

Land O’Lakes refers to this aspect as the “value chain.” With data gathered by the program, and with various partners across the country, Truterra will help build a database of what each individual farmer has done to improve his or her operation to show consumers just how progressive farmers have become.

“That pressure and desire of transparency from a consumer was right there in front of us,” Carstens said.

However, even with built in mechanisms to track progressive farming practices overtime, consumers won’t be able to access the data directly, nor see the private information stored with the service. The value chain’s goal is to build a report of exactly what farming practices went into the food that it’s tracking, without compromising farmers’ private information.

For Anderson and Crissinger, this was the key that sold them completely on the engine’s capabilities.

Over the last 10 years, Crissinger said he’s watched consumers change their tune on how they approach agriculture. Before, the general consumers may have been more hands off and detached from the way their food was grown. Now, even if they don’t know a lot about how it’s done, consumers want to know their food is grown safely and ethically.

“We can’t just talk about doing the right thing anymore, we have to show we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “We always have and always have made that effort, but we haven’t been great at showing that.”

“Farming used to live on an island, and the coasts didn’t really care what was going on in the Midwest,” Anderson added. “When I started back in 1997, we were transferring data on floppy disks and updates took three days. Social media changed everything.”

This “value chain” that Land O’Lakes has delivered is one in a long line of innovations coming to the agricultural industry that deals with gathering, storing, and then reporting the step-by-step process of producing food in the U.S.

On the livestock side of things, earlier this year the National Pork Board partnered with a technology company called Ripe.io to introduce a pilot program focusing on blockchain technology that does tracking in the pork industry similar to what Truterra is doing in the crop sector.

Blockchain is essentially a collection of information gathered during the process of producing and processing food, or really any product. Every input and change is recorded for consumers to study and check before purchasing their food.

“It’s just a database,” said Andy Brudtkuhl. “The difference is that I can’t change the data and everybody in our network has a copy.”

Brudtkuhl is the director of emerging technology for the National Pork Board and was a key reason the pork industry is getting involved in blockchain. Much like the Truterra engine’s background, Brudtkuhl said that the pork board began looking at ways to accurately portray what pork producers do every day to the American consumer. Blockchain and Ripe.io’s platform hit a cord for pork board that Brudtkuhl said is the right call for agriculture moving forward.

“We’d like to be out there doing this before those issues are put on our supply chain. We’ve been doing (regenerative) practices for years, but Blockchain gives us the ability (to show it),” he said. “My gut says this is the future.”

Due to the nature of gathering that much data and presenting it in a readable format to the average consumer in a grocery store, Brudtkuhl said that no one in agriculture has done blockchain, or anything like it, at scale yet. He hopes their most recent pilot project can fix that.

“If we get to the point where the consumer wants to know (where) everything their eating (came from), this technology gets you there,” he said.

On the flip side, Nikki Putnam-Badding, an Alltech nutrition specialist, said that blockchain and consumer interest in the technology is coming, whether agriculture is ready or not.

By 2020, Putnam-Badding said that online grocery shopping will make for the largest supermarkets in the U.S. and will be able to read and display any and all information a consumer needs before purchasing their food.

“We didn’t talk about this for so long because consumers weren’t asking us,” Putnam-Badding said. “They are now.”

On top of providing information how the food is raised, Putnam-Badding said that many consumers even want to know how the operation handles its workforce and other components. She said many consumers will check working conditions, wages, and waste handling techniques before purchasing food just to check all the boxes of sustainability.

“A technology like blockchain could allow the food and ag industries to improve their relationship and build confidence with consumers by providing an unprecedented level of transparency,” she said. “(This will incentivize) each step in the supply chain to become more efficient, more sustainable and more ethical.”

The future of conservation, consumer interaction, and traditional farming practices

With conservation-minded farming practices taking center stage over the last five years, Crawford said that farmers have been slow to adapt for one simple reason - fear.

“New things are just scary,” he said. “All these farmers grew up with their dad doing things a certain way and a lot of the times, dad is still there.”

But with change comes hope for a brighter future, which is what Anderson and Crissinger said the ag economy needs right now. As prices continue to jump all over the board with an active trade war and slowing economic growth, both of the career ag retailers said that they hope their work can make it easier on the producer.

“That’s kind of where we fit into the whole picture,” Crissinger said. “The ag retailer can make it bearable.”

Even with help, Crissinger said that neither the retailer, nor the farmer, will get to choose agriculture’s future. That lies with the consumer, which is something that the National Pork Board and Brudtkuhl emphasize when partnering to improve blockchain in the ag industry. Whether producers want to or not, Brudtkuhl said adapting to new technology will be key moving forward.

Blockchain also improves the ability to trace disease. Even if the consumer isn’t aware of them in real time, it can help a lot of industries to know exactly what caused an outbreak or what herd an outbreak originated from.

Even as Land O’Lakes builds its value chain tracking, expanding on Truterra has to start first and foremost with adding producer-side benefits. Carstens said they are looking to add more partners to their conservation program list.

On top of that, he hopes Truterra and Sustain can help expand the carbon sequestration market for the average consumer, which is yet another way for farmers to earn money doing what they already do.

“We need to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil with data from Truterra,” he said.

On the producer side of things, Crawford said he is just glad he can continue to track the data necessary to improve the land. With all the talk surrounding commodity prices, adding conservation is a way to enhance profits. Even with the ag economy eventually recovers Crawford believes most producers are going to stick with improving their land over farming every acre.

He hopes to one day turn the farm over to his kids, but for now he and his wife Betsy will do their best to be as efficient as they can be, he said.

Jager Robinson can be reached at jager.robinson@lee.net.