For this edition of the Sustainability Spotlight, Tim Deal, a fourth-generation farmer from Doran, Minn., was interviewed. Deal is a shareholder of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative and is on the Board of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. Deal farms with his wife, Kathy, and one of their three children. They grow sugarbeets, soybeans, corn, wheat, and other specialty crops including sunflowers and barley.
When asked what sustainability means to him, Deal responded, “Sustainably on my farm has a lot of moving parts. First and foremost, I need to have profitability. When so much of our potential profits are dictated each crop season by weather, we realize profitability is not going to be there every year. So, we manage production risk as well as we can through crop insurance products, financial management, and controlling expenses and inputs. For me, sustainability also includes taking care of our land, adapting to affordable technology and plant genetics, keeping good employees and having a succession plan in place. All of this requires having a long-term vision for our farm.”
He said that Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative (“Minn-Dak”), has also taken measures to help grower-owners meet sustainability goals and metrics. “On the producer side of Minn-Dak, our agriculture department continuously researches and tests the best sugarbeet growing practices. Minn- Dak requires its growers to follow a minimum crop rotation of three years. Four- or five-year rotations are best as crop diversity helps control weeds, insects and diseases. The crop rotations in our area have changed over the last 20 years since the ethanol boom started. We now have over 50% of our beets grown on land that was corn the prior year. This is a big change from 25 years ago when 90% of the beets were grown on land that was small grains the prior year. Having a corn to sugarbeet rotation offers many benefits to the land including establishing an increased level of soil surface protection from wind and/or soil erosion and water runoff. Also, any corn residue left over after harvest improves overall soil structure stability (tilth) and restores soil organic matter and provides better carbon sequestration.”
“Our agriculture department and research staff are always looking for ways to improve the quality of our sugarbeets. They have many test plots and studies done on Minn-Dak acres that show we can cut back our nitrogen rate and improve beet quality while maintaining yield. Over the past 20 years we have become increasingly efficient with nitrogen stewardship and through extensive soil testing our growers can even create different “nitrogen zones” within an individual field. This allows them to apply a specific amount of nitrogen or other fertilizer to various sections of the field based on need. In addition, Minn-Dak promotes the use cover crops to control wind erosion and reduce damage to the seedlings early in the season. Now, 75 percent of the acres at Minn-Dak have a cover crop system.”
“Recently, several large dairy operations have been built in the Minn-Dak area. Because of the large dairies in the area, many farmers are applying manure back on their land. Research is being done to integrate dairy manure into the fertility program for sugarbeets. All of this is beneficial to preserving our soil and water quality and improving fertility and soil tilth. The ag and research department is also helping our growers apply integrated pest management programs on our farms. This helps keep pesticide resistance of weeds, bugs, and diseases at bay and reduces crop losses and environmental risks. In addition to sustainability practices that the growers are using to grow the beets, we have also made investments to store the beets in the best conditions possible. This includes indoor storage sheds, and outside pile ventilation. We’re able to freeze or ventilate 65% of our crop which allows us to make sugar well into May. Storage of sugarbeets is incredibly important because much of the sugar content of the beet can be lost if the storage conditions are not managed well.”
“Many decisions and investments have been made by Minn-Dak’s management and board to keep Minn-Dak’s factory sustainable for our shareholders. Most recently, a five-year capital improvement plan has been implemented which will improve many aspects of our sugarbeet factory. Many of the expenditures will increase extraction, slice capacity, factory efficiency and employee safety. We have also made investments to increase our water treatment capacity including the addition of a biodigester to reduce pond odors from our processing water. These projects and many more are major investments in sustainability for the environment and our community.”
Deal went on to describe sustainability measures he has undertaken to improve his own farming operation. He said, “For sugarbeets grown on our farm, we continue to strive for efficiency and raising better quality beets. We implement new technology as much as we are able. Precision agriculture equipment has been amazing. I remember starting out with a GPS light bar on our sprayer, but technology hadn’t coupled it to the steering yet. Then auto steer came out and now precision agriculture is a critical component for our farm. For example, we are now planting our beets with speed tubes allowing us to plant at 7-9 mph. The planter controls every unit individually for down pressure at the seed disc to the down pressure on the closing wheels. We’re mapping our fields’ elevations, soil moisture and temperature, compaction zones, seed spacing, variety trials and much more while planting. We’ve done field mapping to allow us to make variable rate seed and fertilizer applications. All the data we receive from the precision agriculture equipment is used to make better decisions for our crop inputs and farming practices. It all adds up to sustainability by reducing our carbon footprint. We continuously try improve our yields while reducing our environmental impact and taking good care of the land. This is really a win-win because if we find affordable ways to improve efficiencies and reduce inputs then can improve profitability and improve sustainability.”
“Drain tile is another tool that has had a tremendous benefit to raising sugarbeets in our region. Keeping the soil from over-saturation leads to healthier beets, less disease, better quality. Tile also benefits the environment and lessens the impact of surface runoff which helps sustainability. On our farm, we run as wide of equipment as possible to cover more ground with each pass and reduce our total passes on every field. Every field operation is accurately driven with GPS auto-steer. This helps reduce our carbon footprint. In the future, I see autonomous tractors doing more of the field operations. It is coming to the farm sooner than we expect.”
“In addition, biotechnology has been a game-changer for farmers and consumers. The glyphosate-tolerant varieties in sugarbeets and all the crops is an important factor in sustainability and allows us to apply fewer chemical applications. We are able to utilize many advanced tillage practices that minimize soil disturbance to protect the surface from wind and/or soil erosion. In addition, the implements that we pull are much wider than in the past which limits soil compaction. Continued improvements in biotech will make our crops yield more, be more resilient to pests and weather, and feed the growing population. Gene editing offers a path for faster improvements than traditional plant breeding. We are encouraged by our successes in sugarbeet genetics that have been achieved through conventional plant breeding as well that have improved resistance to Cercospora leaf spot (CLS) and other diseases. We face continued weed pressure in the form of Palmer Amaranth and waterhemp so are in need of additional pesticides for sugarbeets to combat those threats.”
When asked what growers can do to help educate people on the importance of our industry he responded, “We just need to keep telling our story. Sugar has always had a great story to tell. We’ve been challenged in the last 8-10 years with many attacks from trade agreements, dietary guidelines, or attacks on sugar policy, through it all we have weathered the storm. We’re all farmer-owned, farmer proud, and we’re resilient. We’re still here growing sugarbeets and supplying the majority of the sugar to the United States. We make sugar in factories that we own and maintain and we provide the best-paying jobs in our communities. Our Washington government affairs teams are in DC to guard our interests and tell our story to the elected officials and the people who work in various government agencies. We have a powerful voice in DC but we can’t let our guard down or fail to advocate for our interests because the communities we support depend on our continued success.”
“In recent years there has been increased interest in sustainability and the environment. Our every action has a real or perceived impact on the environment, humanity, and climate. These discussions are moving at a high speed and trying to keep up with them as well as potential solutions gets mind-boggling. We just can’t know everything. But when asked about my farming operation, I just tell people exactly what we do. How we as farmers and those that develop and market solutions for sustainability in all aspects of crop and food production, have the same goals: to produce safe, affordable food. And at the same time protecting the very resources that provide us with that opportunity. We are farmers and it is our duty to care of the resources and the people that help us feed the world. Being on the ASGA board and getting first-hand lobbying experience has made me more comfortable telling our story. We can never assume that people will just know what we’re talking about when it comes to the realities of farming. This is especially true as generations of people get further removed from where their food comes from.”
“Beyond discussions with elected officials it is very important to be engaged in the discussions regarding sustainability with our customers. We may feel like sustainability may be the current buzzword consumers are interested in and it will go away. But sustainability is important for people and the power of social media is bringing sustainability to the marketing forefront. On our farm, we went through a farmer sustainability assessment audit for a non-sugarbeet crop we raise which is distributed through a large, national company. It involved all aspects of production, from environmental, to employee satisfaction to how we do business. It was necessary to do the audit to continue doing business with them and we are rewarded with additional premiums for having that certificate. It is nice to be rewarded for the extra steps we have taken.”
“In completing this interview, it has made me realize that sustainability is not just a buzzword, it is in fact what we have been doing on our farms the whole time. We have always tried to grow a healthy crop, take care of the land, and constantly improve but we used to just call that being a good farmer. Whatever you call it, I am proud that our industry is at the forefront of discussions for creative ways to reduce the environmental footprint of farming. I look forward to improvements in technology that allow us to continue to advance.”
Scott Herndon serves as the Vice President and General Counsel of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association (ASGA) in Washington, DC. He represents growers on all issues that impact the sugar industry, including sustainability. On sustainability policy, he works with Farmers for a Sustainable Future, www.sustainablefarming.us, a coalition of twenty-one farm and ranch groups committed to environmental and economic sustainability. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.