When a big food firm wants a smaller footprint, the farmer steps in

Daniel Olson
American Crystal Sugar grower Daniel Olson is participating in a pilot project to make farms more sustainable. The Reynolds, N.D., farmer says "sustainability is here to stay," but changes must be economically viable.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

When General Mills makes a box of cereal, the raw materials, like sugar, come from farm fields.

So when General Mills set a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by cutting greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent in 10 years, the company realized it had to have help from farmers. They represent two-thirds of the company's carbon footprint.

General Mills asked American Crystal Sugar to join a sustainability project, and the sugar producer agreed.

"So we're looking at what we've done in the past and the things we've done well and we're looking to find those things we can improve on for the future," said Tyler Grove, an American Crystal agronomist.

Grove's job is to help farmers grow bigger and better crops. Now he's working with 25 farmers to help them to adapt more sustainable practices.

American Crystal Sugar Co.
A mound of sugar beets sat outside American Crystal Sugar's processing plant in Moorhead, Minn., in November 2011.
Ann Arbor Miller | For MPR News 2011

The first challenge is to define "sustainable."

"We asked the growers that were in the study what their definition was, and it was simply stewardship," he said. "Let's take care of the land and keep it in good shape for the next generation."

A coalition of environmental and agribusiness groups called Field to Market has identified some specific ways of defining and measuring sustainability: greenhouse gas emissions, water use and quality, conservation and energy use. General Mills is among the organizations taking part in the Field to Market initiative.

"I did really good on conservation, energy and greenhouse gases," said Daniel Olson, looking at a graph on a laptop computer in his farm shop.

Software tracks everything that goes into growing a crop: fertilizer, pesticides, fuel and conservation practices. It then rates his efficiency growing a crop, and his carbon footprint.

Olson, 38, is one of the farmers in the American Crystal pilot project. He grows sugar beets, wheat and beans on 1,800 acres west of Crookston, Minn., just across the Red River in North Dakota.

American Crystal Sugar
Crystal Sugar was available at this Fargo, N.D., grocery store.
Ann Arbor Miller | For MPR News 2012

He's been experimenting with cover crops to prevent erosion and improve soil health. Cover crops, which also keep more carbon in the soil, are often planted after harvest. Some years, Olson said, the short growing season makes it a challenge to start another crop after the fall harvest. Sugar beet farmers are trying cover crops planted in the spring to protect beet seedlings from wind damage and to reduce erosion.

Olson is also testing no-till practices. For example, instead of tilling a wheat field after harvest, he left the field untouched and planted sugar beets in among the wheat straw in the spring. There were some problems with the beets' growth, but he saw enough potential that he'll keep experimenting.

"It could be a process over 10 years to convert more towards a no-till situation," he said. "Will I ever get there? I don't know. But all the data I see with the benefits of no-till makes me very curious about moving in that direction, seeing what we can actually do."

Little things can also make a big difference. Even slight reductions in fertilizer can reduce field runoff and help water quality. Automated steering on tractors makes each pass across the field more precise, saving fuel.

Olson is taking a slow approach to any big changes, because he needs proof a new practice won't be an economic disaster. Still, he firmly believes sustainability is the future of farming.

American Crystal Sugar Vice President Brian Ingulsrud agrees. He said it's the right thing do to, but it's also a wise business decision.

Brian Ingulsrud
American Crystal Sugar intends to be a "sustainable producer of sugar," says Brian Ingulsrud, the company's vice president for agriculture.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"I welcome the fact that there's more attention to sustainability," he said, "because I see it as a competitive advantage for us."

Part of that competitive advantage is due to a clear message from General Mills: "Companies that are willing to work with us and help us innovate and help us figure out this challenge together will get our business," said John Church, executive vice president.

And why is General Mills so concerned about sustainability? Increasingly, Church said, consumers who buy a box of General Mills cereal care where the sugar in that cereal comes from.

"The millenial generation votes with their pocketbook in a way that no generation before them ever has," he said.

General Mills says by 2020, all of its suppliers must be aligned with its sustainability goals. That's likely to push more farmers into changing how they do business.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.