Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 021 - Finding a Catalyst for Change in Agriculture featuring Sami Tellatin and Elizabeth Reaves

Sami Tellatin: A lot of people are farming rented land. And a lot of land owners are absentee landowners, so they’re not actually on their land. And that’s fine that they do it that way. But it also kind of distances them from their investment, which is their land and their soil. And so how do we reach them with this message that managing their land sustainably by talking to their landowner, incentivizing certain practices or results, like increasing soil health. How do we reach them with that message that that could help increase their investment in the long term?

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future. A podcast by SARE: The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. That was Sami Tellatin. Sami is enrolled in an MBA program at Stanford and works with SARE on soil health and cover crop research projects. In the sustainable agriculture movement, it can be difficult to determine which outreach tool or education initiative can make the most impact. But Sami and her conversation partner for this episode boil the movement’s momentum down to one thing: connection to land. Here’s Elizabeth Reaves of the Sustainable Food Lab in Vermont:

Elizabeth Reaves: I love being in wild places where there aren’t people. But there’s something so special about that connection between land and people. And so, I think I always feel like I’m in that heart place in agriculture when, you know, when you kinda connect with the people who are connected to the land. And that’s really the special place.

Mallory Daily: Both Sami and Elizabeth are interested in uncovering more rhetoric for transcribing that element of connection to the marketplace. Understanding how a sustainable outcome that nourishes the land affects an operation’s bottom line might help make sustainability a more accessible topic to the corporations, countries, and communities that have historically ignored their responsibility to care for the earth.

Elizabeth: I don’t work in local food systems. I value it highly, and it’s part of my own food choices and what I want to see it thrive and grow. But at the food lab, we really work and operate under this assumption that sustainable agriculture needs to get to scale through mainstream. And that these large multinationals who have a large environmental footprint through the agricultural raw materials that they source, that if we can support them to really figure out how they can change their business model to invest in sustainability-at-scale. Then, hopefully we can make a larger dent at that larger level while kind of pulling our local food systems along at the same time. 

Sami Tellatin: That’s cool. I think that’s really inspiring. I would love to get into that kind of work some day. Because I think that you are right in that the future of sustainable agriculture is in kind of meeting that bridging between that larger scale agribusiness economy, and that smaller scale ethos of stewarding the land. Definitely.

Elizabeth Reaves: For most food and beverage companies, 70 percent of their green house gas emissions or their footprint is really in their raw material supply. And that’s really also the place where they have the least amount of control. For the most part, they don’t have direct relationships with farmers. And they still have to operate really around a least-cost business model. So that inherent tension between farmers, the short-term returns, and the long-term investment that’s required to improve agronomic resiliency and all this systemic barriers that get in the way of farmers instituting practice change around incentives and support for that while still trying to stay in business and feed their families. That is a very hard thing to bridge between the goals of the customer and the goals of the farmer. 

Sami Tellatin: Are there any products out now what are success stories in this, that you’re excited about or partners that you’ve worked with recently that are doing cool things? 

Elizabeth Reaves: So I see two areas of innovation that get me really excited. One is where food and beverage companies are thinking together with their R&D departments, about how they can develop products around climate and soil-friendly rotations. So can we start building tasty products around some of the crops that farmers need to grow to maintain a sustainable rotation system, but don’t always have a strong market pull for because we’re so corn-wheat-soy focused. I think that’s exciting space where companies can start to design sustainability into their product development from the get-go. You know, avoiding all of the labels, just the ability to use more legumes in our food products or more small grains in different ways are, I think, really an exciting innovation space where companies could create a commercial product around something that is inherently going to pull more sustainability from the landscape. And the other place where I see a huge innovation space is around being able to feed some of those rotation crops to our livestock. So being able to use—we know that we can feed ruminants and non ruminants more small grains. They don’t have to eat just corn and soy beans. There won’t be any tradeoffs in efficiency and performance. And that when you fee more small grains you get more sustainable corn and soybeans.  And so how do we start to shift the way that we feed livestock to recreate that system where livestock were more integrated? I can’t imagine that we can very quickly move back from confined feeding to really integrated livestock at a large scale, although that certainly should be the goal. But how can we recreate that system a little bit in the way that we mix feed rations. And so those are two really product development innovation spaces that I get excited about. 

Sami Tellatin: That’s awesome. I hadn’t thought about utilizing those diverse feed mixes for small ruminants. And that’s huge because I know I’ve heard some people that are small ruminant producers talk about how they’re shocked how the U.S. doesn’t grow more small ruminants for meat production. Because we have populations that want to eat it and we import it a lot. So it seems like there could be a lot of potential to make that work on a bigger scale than we’re doing now. 

Elizabeth Reaves: That’s good. I was thinking mostly about beef and diary so now you’ve got me thinking about market potential for goats and sheep. 

Sami Tellatin: Yeah, oh but beef and dairy—definitely huge. So I mentioned that I was vegan in college, but now I eat beef and I think I would be interested in buying beef from someone who was raising it in a way that had even just a more diverse mix. It wouldn’t all have to be grass, I would definitely eat beef raised with small grains in a diverse rotation.

Elizabeth Reaves: Rotationally raised.  

Sami Tellatin: Yeah, ‘rotationally raised’. That’s great. I’m excited about that. Did you see the, I think Annie’s came out with that new macaroni that’s used from the farmer growing cover crops or small grains in Montana or Idaho?

Elizabeth Reaves: I did. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And they’re part of a larger corporation: General Mills. So their ability to influence in that sense is, you know, there’s a lot of potential there. 

Sami Tellatin: When I saw that, I wanted to buy a pack. But I know they’re kind of piloting it in just a few stores at first. Also, there’s a supply issue there, too. They were working with this one producer—or I think it was just one—but you need more producers doing that kind of thing to get the product into more stores and more people’s hands. So I hope that we can build up the supply as well. It’s exciting to think about though. 

Elizabeth Reaves: How do you see yourself taking your soil health and cover crop knowledge and applying that in a business context? 

Sami Tellatin: That’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’d like to get a masters in business administration. And I’ve thought a lot about what graduate degree to pursue and I decided on that one because I have researched programs that have an emphasis on sustainability and looking at different metrics besides from just profitability when it comes to money. So some programs offer classes on lifecycle analysis, classes that’ll help you integrate environmental metrics, for example, into your supply chain and data analysis work for a future company. And so that is something that I would like to pursue, to learn those skills in the classroom and then go work for a company or an organization that is doing that sort of data analysis and helping inform the decision making for their supply chain, and to really shape those around more of the not only profit but environmental profit as well. So that’s what I’m thinking right now and soil health is a huge part of that because I see so much potential in getting more profitability not only for the dollar but for the environment out of soil health practices. But we really need to invest in projects and research that can make those number more visible. Because right now we have some numbers about that but it’s not very integrated. And I think it deters people from more fully embracing these options. So that’s what I’m hoping to do. 

Elizabeth Reaves: Right and the challenge with that is that it’s really hyper-localized, that kind of data. So the system interactions that we’re talking about are going to be—the principles will be generalizable, but the innovations and the tweaking of how that works is going to be hyper-localized in terms of what works in Southern Illinois, what works in Northern Illinois, what works in Missouri, and what works in Oregon. So, I’ve been thinking about that conundrum and that we also have to—this shift, this amazing, beautiful shift in our sustainability language to talking about soil health, which is just really exciting because it holds the tent wide for sustainable agriculture, that we also have to change the way in which we think about how we support those communities of farmers who are going to start to institute these principles. I think that there is a role for SARE in moving out of our very fairly traditional models of extension, and sort of technical service delivery to these more adaptive knowledge networks where they are expert facilitated support for farmers, but the farmers—its the knowledge within the community of farmers that really makes them feel supported and helps them take those risks because they’re adapting it to their local context. 

Sami Tellatin: I’ve always heard from the soil health community that farmers resonate more with messages that come from other farmers. So you're so right. We need that more localized type of outreach to happen. And I think that SARE does a pretty good job of enabling that through our farmer-driven research grants, but there needs to be—you know, we need all those other organizations that are doing it: Practical Farmers of Iowa, groups that have cover crop champions, those kinds of networks are so strong. And that way those farmers can share their specific bottom line economic data with each other, without feeling the pressure that I think some of the scientific community feels to like publish a paper about it, to have generalized results and means. And I think both are important, but I think it is strong to just encourage those conversations with farmers, and then they can have very practical interactions with each other. Definitely. Another thing I’d be curious if you thought about this is the landowner piece in the soil health world. It’s a little bit related to business because a lot of people are farming rented land. And a lot of land owners are absentee landowners, so they’re not actually on their land. And they really don’t have much interaction with their farmers because sometimes they go through a farm management agency. So they never go see their land. And that’s fine that they do it that way. But it also kind of distances them from their investment, which is their land and their soil. And so how do we reach them with this message that managing their farms, their land sustainably by talking to their landowner, incentivizing certain practices or results, like soil health. How do we reach them with that message that that could help increase their investment in the long term? I think that’s a big piece. 

Elizabeth Reaves: That’s such a good question. And it’s something that our community of partners has started to talk about. I don’t think we have good answers yet. It’s really important, especially as we think about, you know, as SARE thinks about, ok, we’re celebrating 10 years what are we going to be celebrating 10 years from now? We’re on the cusp of one of the biggest land transfers in the history of the U.S. since sod busting. So the majority of the land is no longer owned by farmers. It’s about to, it’s in the hands of the elderly generation who will pass that land onto their children, who for the most part aren't not on the land any more and may just choose to sell it or keep renting it. So that land transfer is happening and is going to happen in the next ten years. So I think that this is probably going to be a bit of a carrot-and-stick challenge for our sustainable ag community. One sort of stick opportunity is to assign value to land based on soil organic matter scores. Or some sort of value around the health of the soil. And have that value transfer with the land. So that landowners are incentivized to work with their farming partners to improve the value of their land, rather than to just keep it bare and clean of weeds. Quote, unquote. Another opportunity, I think, is maybe around contracting. It’s tricky. Very few multinationals have direct relationships with farmers, so they have very little influence over the way in which they contract with farmers. But it would be possible to start, you know, already they have built into those contracting agreements around quality, so you get a base price and then you get, you know, occasionally the contracts will bonus on quality and other attributes. It could be possible that directionally, as their stand-alone sustainability metric, that directionally they could also start to build into those contracts improvements in soil organic matter or we could think about if we wanted to see something that moved more quickly, what it is it? Water stable aggregate. Maybe there are also some opportunities to also start incentivizing farmers to have to focus on that sort of metric, as opposed to a whole bunch of other metrics. You know, it’s a big challenge. And I’m not sure. You look at counties in the midwest where 70 percent of land is non-owned or operated. And those are also usually the places where you see the biggest gaps in terms of cover crops, for example. 

Sami Tellatin: That makes sense. It would be hard to justify doing something that regenerates on land that’s not yours. 

Elizabeth Reaves: What do you think?

Sami Tellatin: I mean I think that you the two ways that you mentioned are what I’ve heard people talk about as promising areas. I feel like when we talk about disconnects. The disconnect between landowner and land is one that we really need to bridge. So having more landowner outreach is something I’d really like to see. I don’t know the best model for that and it’s probably not going to be one model for every community. But I feel like if they were just a little more connected to their land, whether that’s through their farmers sending them a newsletter at Christmas time or quarterly, saying ‘I did this to the land and I saw this many water stable aggregates in this part and that’s good because of these reasons and it helps water infiltration’. If you could find a way to engage famers in reaching out a little more to their landowners, that might help it. But also having that reciprocated, where landowners don’t feel as intimidated to talk to their farmer about farming but instead want to meet them and be a learner and explore the topic. So definitely a big piece of the puzzle that we need to solve. The land issue. So one thing that I recently heard that I thought was interesting is that we want to incentivize outcomes, not specific practices. So like in those agreements that a landowner might make with their farmer, they need to be thinking about outcomes like water-stable aggregates not specific practices like cover cropping of no-till. Because it might not work for everyone’s lands. That’s something I haven’t thought about before but that makes a lot of sense. So does your family still have their land in Vermont?

Elizabeth Reaves: We do. We just had an Easter egg hunt in our orchard.  

Sami Tellatin: Oh wow, that sounds really fun. Is it blooming right now? 

Elizabeth Reaves: It is not. It is brown. And cold. 

Sami Tellatin: Still cool, though. Well so are you or are you siblings if you have them, thinking about farming that in the future or do you do that now? 

Elizabeth Reaves: We don’t, and it was a dream of mine to come back to Vermont and farm. And all of those challenges that our young farmers face were sort of insurmountable for me. Even with the land coming to me free - quote, unquote ‘free’ - just the capital investment and the lack of secure markets just didn’t line up. And I think it also can be a fairly lonely choice. And so I saw myself as being called to play a role in agriculture that was different than farming. And I love being in wild places where there aren’t people. But there’s something so special about that connection between land and people. And so, I think I always feel like I’m in that heart place in agriculture when, you know, when you kinda connect with the people who are connected to the land. And that’s really a special place. 

Sami Tellatin: That’s beautiful. Thank you.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Sami Tellatin, an MBA student at Stanford who is working part time with SARE on cover cropping research and soil health projects. And Elizabeth Reaves of the Sustainable Food Lab in Vermont. You can check out links to their work in our show notes. 

And a special shoutout to Sami, who did a lot of work to organize and plan the Our Farms, Our Future Conference in April of 2018. That’s where we recorded this interview and most of the others you’ve heard this season. She dreamt up the podcast and really helped make it happen. So, thank you, Sami! 

This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host, Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.