Charlie Crave: Long-term success in sustainable dairy

Charlie Crave: Long-term success in sustainable dairy

What is the best strategy for sustainable dairy farming that not only benefits the environment but is also profitable? Charlie Crave, a founding partner in Crave Brothers Farm and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, explains how his family-owned dairy operation has grown with the addition of a methane digester and cheese plant, all while keeping sustainability practices at the forefront.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with Charlie Crave. Click below to hear the full audio.

David:            We’re here today with Charlie Crave of Crave Brothers Farm. How are you doing, Charlie?

Charlie:          I’m doing well today, yes.

David:            Well, thanks for joining us.

Charlie:          You’re welcome. I had a great week there in Louisville and, of course, like anything, it’s always nice to be back home, too. What an energetic, wonderful time that was at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference.

David:            Yeah. Thank you. It’s always a lot of fun, really.

Charlie:          Absolutely, yup — a great place to meet and connect and, certainly, reconnect with so many wonderful folks throughout the world, yes.

David:            Great! Well, I’ve been on your farm several years ago, on a tour, and I thought it was a pretty fascinating place. I wonder if you could give us a little bit of the history and describe your operation there.

Charlie:          All right. Well, we have a family farm that was founded by my brothers and I, and we’ve expanded now to the point where — we have a total of four brothers. I have two sons and a nephew, so we now have seven principals in the business. We have the agronomy portion of our business, where we crop 3,000 acres and we raise our young stock replacements. We milk 1,900 cows and have a biogas plant for capturing methane gas. Then we also have a farmstead cheese factory, which is a separate business located directly across the road from the farm. So, in a nutshell, we have a farm, a digester and a cheese factory.

David:            That sounds great.

Charlie:          Yeah, a lot of family, and a lot of employees involved, too.

David:            Yeah, that’s nice.

Charlie:          It is. The family — not only the partners I’ve mentioned, but then we have some other family members that are employees. Our dad — although he’s never been an owner of the business, he’s here every day. Even though he’s in his 90s, he helps with chores and mowing the grass and all those things that 90-year-olds do, so what a great journey it’s been for him right here in Waterloo as well.

David:            And your dad had a farm when you guys were kids growing up, right?

Charlie:          That’s right. My dad ran a farm that was owned by my grandmother, and he decided to quit farming when I was 19. And somewhat because of the times and somewhat because of his wisdom, he felt that it’d be better to get out of the way and let us farm our own business, not necessarily on his coattails, and that’s what we did. So, now, 41 years later, we started with 43 cows, and we’ve grown up into the bigger numbers I just shared with you and brought in many more family members and resources along the way.

David:            Well, that’s probably been a lot of fun and a lot of work and some serious challenges over 41 years, I would bet.

Charlie:          Yes, it has been. We’ve had, of course, the weather challenges that everyone has, and we have family challenges and relationship challenges like every relationship or family has, and we feel it’s important to lean in and really embrace (each other) the very best that we can so that we can have those wonderful, lifelong relationships. And while not every day is warm and fuzzy, we do want to make sure we’re in a point where we can share Thanksgiving dinner together without being encumbered in conversations and the like, so it’s important to have a business that works not only for the family and the community and the environment, but it must, of course, work financially, too. If it doesn’t work on all of those factors, it becomes stressful for all involved, so we really work at that.

David:            All of those things that you just mentioned — you mentioned people and the environment and the economic factors — and those are, really, all the things that go into sustainability. I know that’s a big focus for you guys, for you and your brothers. A lot of times, when people think about sustainability, they just think about the environmental aspect and trying to minimize our impact on the environment, so why don’t we start out and talk about that first, and tell me a little bit about your anaerobic digester and how it works and how you got that.

Charlie:          Well, we partnered with — another firm built it initially, and it didn’t quite pan out for them financially and with their corporate structure the way they had hoped.

In the meantime, though, it has produced a lot of power. The methane gas is captured every day in these tanks. Just to back up, if folks aren’t familiar with a methane digester, we capture the manure from the farm, from the cows and the heifers, in our situation. We do add some substrate, which is a byproduct of industry, and together, they’re warmed up to 100 degrees using excess heat off of an engine generator. So, the excess heat — just like we would capture the heat in our automobile to defrost our windows, for instance — is captured, and that’s used to warm off the manure. So, we have two tanks of three quarters of a million gallons each, so that means we have a million and a half gallons of warm manure at 100 degrees, and that’s at temperature. That’s body temperature.

At that temperature, the bacteria will grow. It’s got the food, it’s got the moisture, and it’s got the temperature. The bacteria is working in there, and it gives off methane gas and other gasses. The methane is captured and used to power a large engine. That large engine turns on an electric generator, which produces electricity, which is sold to the power company. So, there are three products off the digester every day: it’s the sale of electricity to the power company; it’s the excess heat off the engine, which helps keep the digesters the proper temperature; and it also helps us out on the farm for heating our buildings, such as the office, the shop, the hot water for the nursery, and even the farmhouse.

Then, the third product, or the revenue source, would be the manure fiber. After the manure goes through this digester and it comes out, it goes through a squeezer, a press that removes the fiber, and that manure fiber is then dried again using methane gas off the digester, and then we use that fiber for bedding the cattle on the farm. It’s a very closed-loop system, but methane production is equivalent to a thousand gallons a day of diesel fuel in terms of BTUs, so it’s a substantial amount of power, substantial amount of heat that’s captured, and electricity and fiber.

The electricity, in theory, is enough power for the farm, the cheese factory and 300 homes. My little jingle that goes with this is, “The sun is shining, the river is flowing, and this produces totally renewable energy every single day,” and that it does. Unlike some systems, such as many of those in Europe, we use 100% byproduct, the manure or byproducts from other industries, to provide the tool for the digester. We do not raise any corn silage that would be fed directly to the digester or other energy sources fed directly to the digester. Everything is a byproduct. So, in a nutshell, we still have all the nutrients. We still have all the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and those elements are tied to an elemental form, and they are located in the liquid manure, which we apply to the field.

For field application, we have a consistent manure product that’s got some of that manure fiber removed, so it’s much easier to agitate from the manure basin, and we can apply a good, even amount of liquid manure to our fields to meet our nutrient needs for our crops. So, we get a little better return on our manure application, as well as the other three products off the digester, and that’s where I’m going to stop for now.

Not only is the digester important for our business, but really, it’s what we do before we even get to the digester. Are we really conscious of our groundwater? How are we setting our wells, our water table? Are we conscious of our soil aggregates and what we’re doing to build soil health? Are we conscious of our grazing procedures or our harvesting and our various types of erosion and cover crops and interseeding and all those factors that go into a successful agricultural and agronomic business?

Those are discussions we have had for many, many years, and we’ve realized it’s important to really lean in on them, not just to rely on the laurels of saying, “Well, we have a lower carbon footprint.” Well, it’s just part of it. What are we really doing to be leaders? Those are topics that our family takes very seriously. What can we really do to lead, in terms of sustainability, with our agronomy, our manure digester, recycling? How do we improve? I’ve even sat in on some meetings with sustainability leaders from the likes of Harley Davidson and Miller Brewing Company, and they like the farm story, but believe me, I like their stories, too, and I think we all can learn from each other, and that’s where we want to be for our business, is really engaging with some of the very best. All right. I’ll leave it there.

David:            Okay. Well, I think it’s great that you mention (that) it’s not just the carbon footprint. If we don’t keep our soil healthy or rebuild our soils that need help, and if we don’t keep our groundwater at a good level, then it’s not going to matter if we solve our carbon footprint. We’re still going to have some serious issues, and we won’t be sustainable.

Charlie:          Absolutely. We participate in a community-based farmers’ and lake owners’ alliance, so rather than the lake owners saying, “Oh, our lakes are turning green” and the farmers saying, “We have a lower carbon footprint,” there’s a lot of unknown in that conversation. So, my son, myself and some of our other family members, we’ve engaged with some of the lake owners and the conservation groups in the area. We engage with some of the folks that might be considered, well, not quite tree-huggers, but pretty close to it, and share our story, and we learn from them what are other concerns. Are they viable concerns? Then, we, as farmers, in our case — our family, our business — what can we do to address those viable concerns? Those are topics we engage in and take action on.

Some of the action involves cover crops. It involves different forages for our livestock herd. It may involve using different hybrids so we can harvest earlier, maybe taking a bit of a reduction in yield, but then allowing us more time to get our nutrients prepped for the little crops, seeded — how do we do cover crops and handle manure? Last year, we did close to 30 million gallons of liquid manure. Well, that covers quite a few acres, so, indeed, if you’re going to incorporate manure, cover crops, forages, grains, small grains, not only is it an investment financially and in time, but management — and you’re dealing with Mother Nature, of course, too, so you really have to put on the thinking cap, leaning in on that. That’s what we’re up to, and I think that’s where a lot of our industry is heading, thankfully.

It’s not easy to say, “Yeah, we have lost perhaps more of our topsoil than we want to recognize.” Even though I’m a dairy farmer, yes, I totally have a fair amount of erosion compared to being just a crop farmer. I may not understand my soil bacteria to the level that I should. I may not understand the history of my soils the way I should. These are all topics that go on for years and years, but they do require rigor to make some headway in management and understanding — but it’s a great place to be, though. It really is. It’s a conversation we relish, so that covers part of the environment and the family that can pull that off. It involves being active in the community, whether it’s in your local town or with the lake owners, so we’ve covered the sustainability portion there.

You’ve got to make a little money on it or you’re going to disappear in a very painful manner, but we’ve been doing that for 41 years. We’ve been working at it, and we have a plan to continue on for more, so that’s good news. That’s what makes me excited about even speaking at the conference or sharing that news with this podcast. As an old guy, I’m still excited.

David:            It is exciting. I think it’s good that you’re excited about talking to all the environmental groups and trying to understand their concerns because, in the process, when you’re having a conversation with them, they’re understanding what you guys do, and a lot of times, people don’t understand what farmers are doing, and that’s a dangerous thing.

Charlie:          It is. It really is. We’ve seen a lot of misperception in terms of where our food comes from and what’s healthy for my family or my children or my community, and really, most of the fear is based upon ignorance, which has been very well-proven. Some of the concerns are definitely based upon lack of knowledge on the consumer side, but some of it is based upon lack of knowledge on our producer side as well. So, I think we, as producers, really need to learn to lean in, perhaps, more than we have. It would be one of my take-home messages as a producer: really step up to lean in with all the environmental actions that can be taken, not just one or two, but really lean in.

David:            Yeah, and in the long run, it’s going to keep your farm profitable as well, so it’s not just a matter of jumping through a hoop. I know that, probably, there are plenty of environmental regulations that might feel like just jumping through a hoop, but the things you’re talking about — really looking at your soil health closely — that’s so important for your long-term survival and all of our long-term survival. Talk a little bit about some of the conservation techniques that you use. You guys grow all your own forages, right? So, you really are crop farmers as well. What are some of the things you do to protect the soil and build up the microbial health of it?

Charlie:          Well, we really try to keep something green out there, growing, year-round. I long remember someone’s quote that “if your soil is exposed, it’s like having a hole in your fertilizer tank, and it’s just leaking out, never to be recovered.” So, we think it’s really important to keep some green growth out there. Learn to do a little better every year, whether it’s with the cover crop blends, the seeding procedures, the manure applications onto the cover crops, the manure applications onto the fields, taking proper credits for all manure harvesting, yields, nitrogen efficiency ratios — all of those things all enter into our conversations.

At the harvest’s end, it’s important that you don’t feel losses. Preserve that feed well in the bunker silos. We’ve got a whole system of wrapping our silo walls in drain tile to remove any rainwater and keep our feed just at the very best quality that we can, keep down that feed shrink, and keep feeding to the cattle preservation there in the bunks — even the use of propionic acid so you have better feed conversion. For instance, in the summer, when the weather is hot and muggy, we apply propionic acid to our total mixed ration, and even though it would keep for a day in the mangers, by using propionic acid, 3% of the feed that the cows don’t eat is still good for the next day, and we’re able to feed that back to the heifers and capture more of that feed value in our livestock. It’s been working very well. Now, all of this is not revolutionary, but it does take commitment. It takes a feeding system. It takes training of employees. It takes monitoring of your feed and going into the storage, coming out where it’s being fed. The amounts of feeds shrink every day, but you’re in and you’re out.

We’ve been proving that it works. Well, we might think of conservation as being all water waste, or grass and some fields. It’s a whole variety of interaction, all the way from the soil microbes through the fields, through the harvest, through the preservation, the feeding, the financial management of all that. That’s all part of the system we embrace here at the Crave Brothers; granted, we’re not alone in the industry (in) doing that, but we need to be a leader at it, not just another producer doing the same old thing. That’s where we’re at, and it’s a great place to be, too.

David:            That’s awesome. Tell me a little bit about the — let’s talk a little bit about the people aspect of sustainability, or the social part. What do you guys do to make sure that everybody has a good quality of life and they’re not just working 90 hours a week, and they have time for their families?

Charlie:          Yeah, that’s a great point. Well, we really try to give each of the partners an area where they can take a certain amount of responsibility and to provide them, too, with a budget, so they can have the help they need so they can get done at a decent time. For instance, we all know that a dairy farm such as ours, we milk three times a day, around the clock. Well, that means you need a good parlor manager. You need good training for the people that might be bedding the cows. They need good machinery. They need a place to store that machinery so it works every day. They need an opportunity to talk with the mechanic — and a mechanic that can respond. For instance, if their bedding wagon is not working, they (should be able to) get it fixed in short order so the cows can be bedded, and then the fellow doing that work can put in a decent day and go home at a respectable hour.

One of the things that separates our farm from many others is (that) we try and have most of the folks that work here — other than milkers or the nighttime crew — they would start between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. and go home in the afternoon, between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. Well, for a farm, for a dairy farm, those aren’t paid hours. If we can go home at 5:00 p.m. and maybe have supper or get our lawn mowed and then have time in the evening to go to a ball game for our kids or a meeting at church or school board, that’s not bad, especially when we think of when we were younger; you’d do well to be in the house by 7:30 or 8:00 at night and you still hadn’t eaten supper.

So, it’s been very much a focus on how to have the right people in the right places so we can all be successful. Try and take a day or a day and a half off or two days off every week, depending on the time of the year and the weather. That works. We take time and a half for about seven holidays a year. It helps to write a little incentive for folks to do a little extra work or sign up to do chores on those days. And, of course, it’s only fair to them; their families have to make some sacrifices, too, so we want to be fair.

Has it been easy in the last few years, with lower milk prices? Absolutely not. We have some of the same conversations others do, but in the meantime, we’re still getting our cows bred and producing good-quality milk and a lot other — having manure applied, all those things that go into every day without having the wheel fall off — and still get home at a decent hour at night, and that’s been a real focus. So, a sustainable workforce that can stick around, maybe work here for a generation — or two, even — that’s important, and that’s who we really want to be. We want to be a preferred employer, not just a default employer, and that can be said for many industries, but do you have a plan to be that preferred employer? Well, we do, using a lot of those things that I just described, and it’s been working, thankfully.

David:            Yeah. That’s great. That brings us, maybe, to the third part of sustainability, which is the economic aspect.

You can’t do any of this if you’re not profitable, and you mentioned some of the challenges, certainly, in the dairy industry. It can be really rough, and prices go up and down. You guys have insulated yourselves from that, to an extent, by having your own cheese factory, right?

Charlie:          Yes, we have. About 21 years ago, we undertook starting to spend time and money on investigating how to add more value to our farm, and we looked into doing more with what we had, such as: do we do more machinery work? Do we do more forage harvesting? Do we buy more land and raise corn and soybeans in addition to dairy cows? All those things, I think, enter into many, many conversations throughout the world and, of course, at the career.

Finally, we took a deep breath and decided to build a cheese factory here on our farm, not knowing much about it. We consulted with some folks throughout the industry and decided to build a cheese factory a hundred yards away from our milking parlor. So, we pump the fresh milk underground from the farm to the cheese factory and, from there, it’s stored and pasteurized and used to manufacture award-winning cheeses. So, we really have a whole system of procedures and investments, financially and human-wise, in place that has allowed us to become a real leader in quality cheese production. We have primary products of fresh mozzarella and mascarpone. We do some other cheese curds and Oaxaca products, and we’d market those nationwide. We work with brokers and distributors in the food industry to get our product out and try to capture enough value to make it worthwhile of all our investment. So far, after 20 years, I’d like to say yes, it’s been working.

One of the things I often point out is (that) I would hope that, for many of us, if we bought a farm 20 years ago, we would’ve had it paid off by now or made some pretty good headway on land improvements and such, and it’s the same thing with the cheese factory. A lot of folks say, “Wow, I really like your cheese factory,” but I just ask them to pause and reflect that, indeed, we have been at it for 20 years, and I would hope that, for 20 years, they would have some success with it, too, but now, it’s been a great part of our family story: the farm, the digester and the cheese factory.

David:            Yeah. Do you think that’s also helped keep the next generation involved in your operation?

Charlie:          I would think it has, yes, especially — I have a niece that probably would not be too interested in milking cows. While many families kind of enjoy some of the show cows or the registered portion of your business, it takes some real income to support the land purchases or building a cheese factory or a biogas plant, and the cheese factory has helped provide some solid financial returns, especially as the milk price has been soft. Yeah, it’s been better than taking some of those wholesale prices that we’ve been receiving otherwise, so yeah, it has provided a lot of energy for the next generation, no doubt.

David:            All right. Well, thank you so much, Charlie. That was a great conversation. We’ve covered a lot of ground here. I really appreciate your time.

Charlie:          Well, you’re welcome, David. If you’re out this way again, get a hold of the Alltech folks, and I’d love to spend some more time with you.

David:            All right. I definitely will.

Want to learn about solutions for your dairy operation?

Women in Food and Agriculture: Julia Ronghua Zhu

Women in Food and Agriculture: Julia Ronghua Zhu

Julia Ronghua Zhu photo

Julia Ronghua Zhu, leads the Mycotoxin Management and Poultry teams at Alltech

Ahead of the WFA Summit 2019, AgriBriefing spoke to Julia Ronghua Zhu, who leads the Mycotoxin Management and Poultry teams at Alltech.

Julia has always had a passion for animal nutrition and graduated from China Agriculture University in 2008, before joining Dachan Group. She worked at the firm’s Tianjin feed business for six years, mainly focussing on poultry nutrition.

What is your background in agriculture?

When I was in Danchan Group, although I worked in the R&D department, my role saw me undertake a lot of other duties, such as experimental technician, formulator, marketing assistant and salesperson. It has been an interesting and rewarding journey. At Alltech I often visit customers with the sales team to audit the feed mills, helping our customers to improve the production and prevent mycotoxin contamination.

What are the key drivers in agriculture and food? What are the main challenges the sector is facing now?

I think the key driver is the consumptive power of consumers and the challenge as an industry is to react to that. The main challenges in China is African Swine Fever.

What role do women play in agriculture today and how you can see it changing in the future?

I think men and women are equal in this field, and maybe women will be more and more important.

Where do you think there are opportunities for women in the sector?

There are many opportunities for women in the agri food, especially in research and in sales. In terms of natural skills, women are patient, persistent and good at communicating and understanding others.

How can we encourage more women to join the sector?

 We need to overcome the pay gap. In general, women are not as well paid as men and that can be off-putting to women, especially those starting out their careers.

However, we are seeing more and more outstanding women in this field.

What can agribusinesses do better?

I think for a highly integrated enterprise, it needs more and more professionals to participate in the field of excellence.

Women in Food and Agriculture: Julia Ronghua Zhu

Women in Food and Agriculture: Maria Agovino

Maria Agovino photo

Maria Agovino | European Technical Sales Manager for Ruminants, Alltech

“Women’s roles are changing as part of the constantly evolving social, environmental, cultural and economic contexts they live in.”

Maria Agovino is Alltech’s European Technical Sales Manager for Ruminants based in Switzerland. She focuses on business, product development and technical support, plus strategic planning. Ahead of the WFA Summit, we asked her to share her thoughts on some of the big issues facing women in the agrifood sector.

What is your background and how did you get started in the industry?

Maria: I graduated in 2003 in Animal Science, specialising in Ruminant Nutrition at the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences at Napoli University ‘Federico II’, Italy. I then did a postgraduate course, ‘Agrifood Innovative System Manager’. This means I am a Cow Signals® trainer. I can train colleagues as well as farmers to know the basic needs of the cow, learn to recognise early disease signals and understand the concepts of health, management, housing, feed and economics. I joined Alltech in 2005 and since then I have been covering different roles as Distributor Manager, Key Account Manager for Italy. Subsequently I moved to Switzerland to take on a new challenge as the ruminant specialist for Europe.

What are the key drivers in agriculture and food? What are the main challenges the sector is facing now?

Maria: I would like to think that the key drivers are the consumers. They are broadly interested in supporting sustainable and ethical food production. The consumption is increasingly being driven by the heart: consumers are making choices defined by their positive impact on the world.

There are several long-term challenges that face agriculture. The population is growing, especially in developing countries, and global food demand is increasing as a result. Water quality and availability threaten current agricultural standards. The greatest challenge to me, is improving the consumer’s perception of modern agriculture often perceived as negatively impacting the environment.

What role do women play in agriculture today and how you can see it changing in the future?

Maria: The contribution of women to agricultural and food production is significant. Women are the backbone of the rural economy, especially in developing countries.  Women’s participation in rural labour markets varies considerably across regions, but invariably women are over represented in unpaid, seasonal and part-time work, and the available evidence suggests that women are often paid less than men, for the same work and sometimes their activities are not always acknowledged. For example, farm activities of women smallholder farmers are often considered to be part of their domestic chores. Therefore, their contributions remain informal and do not get due recognition. Today, their roles are changing as part of the constantly evolving social, environmental, cultural and economic contexts they live in. Worldwide, women are impressively demonstrating that they are willing and able to use their qualifications and growing self-determination in order to directly increase social prosperity and to preserve natural resources. Historical perception of a male driven business. Agriculture needs a change and having women as decision makers and or covering roles of responsibility can represent that change

Our research highlights that investing in women is becoming more important for businesses in the food and agricultural sector and the importance of promoting the sector to younger generation. Where do you think there are opportunities for women in the sector?

Maria: I think there are opportunities everywhere. Women have the skills that modern farming needs; we are natural multi-taskers, good communicators and used to hard work. Sensibility, determination, resourcefulness, creativity of women are essential ingredients in agriculture. More women need to be involved steering the direction of the industry.

How can we inspire the future of women and diversity in our industry?

Maria: There are hundreds of women who inspire us in agriculture and food, though there are still not enough! They are entrepreneurs, stewards of the land, business owners, researchers, farmers, and innovators who are the backbone of the world’s food systems.

What should agribusinesses be doing better?

Maria: There is a lot to do. We need to improve the status of women in agriculture and rural areas; increase awareness that policies have different impacts on women and men; guarantee gender equality both on paper and in practice; promote female participation in decision-making processes and recognise women’s work burden.

Women in Food and Agriculture: Julia Ronghua Zhu

Women in Food & Ag: Bianca Martins

Bianca Martins photo

Bianca Martins | Head of Alltech Mexico

There is a lot to be said for leveraging on our strengths, and this is a mindset Bianca Martins has firmly adopted on her road to success.

In just 12 years, Bianca has upped through the ranks at Alltech since landing a job on the sales floor in 2007, to being appointed as country manager for Mexico earlier this year.

“There are no limits for women in the field,” says Bianca.

“But we can see more success when women respect their own natural aptitudes.”

Bianca graduated as an animal scientist, with a MBA in Agribusiness and master degree in animal production and nutrition in 1998, and, eager to get a foothold in the ladder, then began working in a large-scale monogastrics production company in Brazil, before joining Alltech.

Relishing in the opportunities presented to gather experience during this time, Bianca spent time in the premix department as well as with the research team in the laboratory of animal nutrition, biochemistry and poultry patology.

Around that time, Bianca recalls a somewhat male dominated sector.

She recalls having just a few female colleagues in the field, but never any in the same company.

“Curiously, I never had a female reference in my work line, not even in research or finance, all men, says Bianca.

“I remember in my beginnings in the agribusiness, I took the liberty to count in my mind how many women I could find in the national congress we had back in the year of 1997.

“There were 250 people in the room, but it was an easy task; we were just seven women and were made up of four internal nutritionists and three in the field with farmers, including me.”

Working in a sector she says is now challenged daily to reinvent itself and stay profitable, Bianca credits those who have walked the path before her.

“Women started to change the field more than 20 years ago, when they decided to have a presence in agribusiness.

“The first ag women had to fight to have a voice in the industry.

“I saw some of the representatives of this generation facilitate extraordinary changes in the way we produce food.

“I had the feeling they were giants when I was young, with a strong voice who commanded a lot of respect where ever they decided to be.

“They opened all the doors to the next generation, one in which I am now included as a woman.”

Fast-forward to the present and the industry today is one which Bianca believes has accepted woman as having an important, but different role to that of men.

“It doesn´t mean better or worse,” she continues.

“It means the industry has accepted any gender with the same objective, working together to achieve a common goal.

“But we live in times of unprecedented change.

“The way we live, familiar relationships, politics, education, food and beliefs have been changing so deeply in the last decades, giving us so many new factors to deal with daily.”

Communication and technology, Bianca says, are central to some of this and manifest as some of the challenges facing us in the future.

“Agribusiness should find a way to share more information with consumers, the current generation of whom want to eat healthily, with less impact to the environment.

“Managing and adapting technological advances in the field also needs careful organisation, in terms of incorporating these to improve production and traceability which is demanded by our supply chains.

“It will be revolutionary, for example, if the industry can find ways to predict a disease and prevent it before collapsing a system, as we have seen with the ASF situation in China recently.

“Are robots, block chain, face recognition the new tools of the future?”

With such change afoot, Bianca feels woman can focus on the attributes that set them apart from their male counterparts in pursuit of success.

“Women are amazing leaders, with a high level of team spirit and exceptional guides in a culture of change.”

“In some anthropology research of female nature, we can find protection and prevention as main behaviors of female groups.

“When a group of animals are in danger in wild, the females are the first to alarm and protect the group, sometimes at a detriment to their individual goals.

“Transporting this idea to human relationships, in any kind of project where women can express their carefulness and respect of individuality, they will succeed.”

In an industry which Bianca feels is rich in opportunity, there is space for individuals of any gender who have the willingness and drive to want to join it and be successful.

“I always repeat to the new ones “If you can dream it, you can do it, just make an extra effort to make it quickly.”

David Cleary: Deforestation and habitat loss in the Amazon and beyond

David Cleary: Deforestation and habitat loss in the Amazon and beyond

David Cleary, director of global agriculture at The Nature Conservancy, discusses the institution’s three main sustainability goals: to reduce deforestation, increase soil health and promote water conservation. Learn what these three goals mean for climate change, habitat conservation, regenerative agriculture and the recent fires in the Amazon.

The following is an edited transcript of David Butler’s interview with David Cleary. Click below to hear the full audio.

Interviewer:  I’m here with David Cleary, director of global agriculture for the Nature Conservancy. Welcome, David.

David:             It’s a pleasure to be here.

Interviewer:  Thank you very much. Tell us a little bit about what your role entails.

David:             Sure. Basically, three things. We have agriculture programs in about 40 countries around the world, so my first and most important job is to support those programs to help them grow their capacity, help fund-raise for them, and also to have them sort of, more or less, flying information around a shared definition of what sustainability and agriculture means. I represent the organization and voice our opinions on topics relevant to agriculture. That’s the main reason why I’m here at this particular event. I also help to manage some of the global-level relationships relevant to our agriculture work in both the private and the public sector — so large agribusiness companies that operate on a global scale, but also organizations like the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Gates Foundation, institutions that have an important role to play within the global ag space that we’d like to try and have conversations with and, occasionally, try to influence.

Interviewer:  You said that the Nature Conservancy has agriculture programs in how many countries?

David:             Around about 30.

Interviewer:  Okay, so what goes on at the country level? What do your programs do?

David:             Well, we have three areas of focus. One is trying to reduce and eliminate deforestation and habitat conversion from supply chains. We also have a soil program, trying to avoid soil erosion but also manage soils and increase soil health. The third area of focus is around water, water conservation and water quality, so dealing with agriculture so that it has the least possible impact and the most efficient possible use of water around the world.

Interviewer:  Great! That sounds like very important work, really.

David:             Very important and very challenging, sometimes.

Interviewer:  Yeah. You’ve spent a lot of your career — you’ve been at the Nature Conservancy a pretty long time, right?

David:             It wasn’t deliberate, but that’s how it’s turned out, yeah.

Interviewer:  You’ve spent a lot of your career there focused on Brazil. Is that right?

David:             Mm-hmm, Brazil and Latin America, more broadly.

Interviewer:  Okay, so what are some of the biggest challenges there? I can guess one of them.

David:             Well, Brazil is a big country, so wherever you are, the challenges are slightly different. I think the biggest challenge that I dealt with the time I was living there was around deforestation and commodity supply chains, especially in the soy and the beef industry. We’ve actually been very successful over the last 10 to 15 years in reducing deforestation in the Amazon, way below where it used to be. I’d say you have an increasing problem now in various parts of Brazil with water use. We’ve already been able to see some changes in rainfall patterns probably linked to climate change. We’ve also, I think, in different parts of Brazil, got issues around soil loss and soil health. Brazil is an extremely efficient agricultural producer. It’s a massive supply of agricultural commodities to the global market, but in some ways, that grain complex, an oil seed complex that drives that, have got some vulnerabilities on the soil and the water front.

Interviewer:  And is most of the erosion there related to large quantities of rainfall? Are a lot of the farmers there using no-till?

David:             No-till is really common in Brazil. It’s been taken up by wildfire, actually, over the last 10 or 15 years. Brazil is a tropical climate, so you do have quite violent rain. That’s just part of the natural cycle there, but I think what’s happened is that quite a lot of habitat has been cleared in recent years to be able to expand the agricultural, the planted area there, and quite often, that’s loosened root structures, and it’s made soil erosion a problem in some places.

Interviewer:  Yeah. I’m sure there’s a massive amount of erosion right after the forests are cleared, right?

David:             Yeah, that’s absolutely right. You can see it very obviously on the landscape. It’s important just to flag, though, that, actually, most of the cropland area in Brazil, it’s expanded over grasslands rather than forests. The Amazon is by far the most famous part of Brazil outside Brazil, but the real engine of agricultural growth in Brazil has been, actually, more the Cerrado, which is a mix of savannah and woodland-type biome.

                        It’s rather similar to the U.S., actually. The history of U.S. agriculture is it expanded much more over grasslands than it did in forested areas, and that’s actually true of Brazil, too.

Interviewer:  Okay. Is that actually a bigger environmental problem than the rainforest deforestation?

David:             Well, it depends (on) what lens you want to view it through. If you’re worried about biodiversity, then forests are more of a problem because they have much higher levels of biodiversity. If you’re worried about climate change, probably, you’re going to be more worried about forests as well because, when you burn a forest, it releases more carbon, if you’re burning savannahs — but at the same time, we worry about all ecosystems, not just about forests. The Cerrado and grasslands, generally — the U.S. also — they’re a really important ecosystem. They have historically been incredibly important to human life both in agricultural terms and for ranging and livestock, so it’s really important, around the world, that rangelands and grasslands are kept in a good state. That’s always going to be a focus of our work.

Interviewer:  This episode was recorded in May 2019 at our ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was a great conversation with David Cleary. But shortly after that, things went awry in the Amazon rainforest, and there were thousands and thousands of fires this summer. David was nice enough to get on the phone with us today and give us a little update about where we are, how much damage was done, and what does the future look like for the Amazon.

David:             Thank you, David. Well, yes, you’re right. Things have gone awry. The background to that is that the Brazilian government essentially signaled to the farming and ranching sectors in the Amazon that they weren’t going to spend a huge amount of time or effort chasing down people who didn’t have the requisite deforestation permits to clear land.

                        What we’ve been able to verify so far is an uptick, quite a strong uptick, in fire activity. It’s important you understand what we know and what we don’t know. What we do know is there’s a lot more fire activity in the Amazon. What we don’t know is the size of the land areas that those fires are clearing. We don’t know that because the smoke and the clouds at this time of year make it very difficult for us to get reliable satellite data. But what happened is we’re at the end of the year, and at the end of the year, we’ll know what the deforestation figures are.

                        Now, I know the figures that you’ve seen in the media are quite dramatic. There definitely has been a significant increase in fire activity, but there’s a lot of other factors in the mix as well. I mean, if the rains come early, that dampens it down. It’s not necessarily true that a large increase in fire activity in the Amazon is going to result in that level of increase in deforestation. It could be more; it could be less. We won’t know until the end of the year. What I think we can say is that, even with the quite strong uptick of deforestation in the Amazon, it will be bad in comparison with last year, but it’s still going to be at a level that, historically, is not as bad as it was about ten years ago. It’s bad news, but it’s not devastating yet.

Interviewer:  What do you see for the remainder of President Bolsonaro’s term? Do you expect that this is going to be an ongoing thing year after year? Will it accelerate? I know that conversations or messages from the G7 to him didn’t work very well this summer. How can we engage with Brazil to slow this down?

David:             Well, I think it’s pretty interesting, what happened, because I think the strong international reaction to the fires in the Amazon really put the Brazilian government on the back foot. It was very clear that they weren’t expecting such a strong reaction. It wasn’t just the environmental NGOs and the Greenpeaces of this world that were very critical. A lot of the companies that invest in Brazil and are active in the agricultural sector were also critical.

                        Brazil depends upon those companies, and the agribusiness sector in general is an incredibly important and thriving part of its economy. So, to the extent that Brazil makes life more difficult for its big agribusiness sector, and because it’s an exporting economy, an agricultural commodity-exporting economy, it could do without the sort of damage to its image that the Amazon fires do. I think the government understands that better now. There are actually parts of the Brazilian government that always understood that very well. The Agriculture Ministry, for example, is run by an extremely competent woman who was very active in saying that, “No, no, this is not the way for us to be going.”

                        I think you did point to the sort of diversity of opinion even within the Brazilian government. In fact, there are different power centers within it. I’d be quite optimistic that, next year, perhaps, learning a little bit from this experience, we’ll find the government and the private sector and the farmers making more of an effort to combat the damage that was done. There was clearly damage.

Interviewer:  Well, that sounds good. I hope that we can find a good way to go forward and not lose all the progress that we made over the last decade or more. At this point, we’ll rejoin our previous interview in which you talk about how all that progress was made. Thanks for joining us again today, David. I really appreciate it.

David:             It was a pleasure.

Interviewer:  You mentioned that there’s been a lot of progress in reducing deforestation in the Amazon. What were some of the things that were successful there?

David:             Both private and public initiatives played a role. On the public side, you have, actually, very good regulatory framework for agriculture. Farmers in the Amazon have to keep 80% of the land holding in native vegetation, so that’s already a good thing, a high bar to be able to work from. The government also recognized deforestation is a problem, and it had targeted strategies to crack down on it where in the bits of the Amazon they could see that deforestation was increasing.

                        Technology really improved over the last 20 years to the point that you could really pinpoint where the problem was, and that made it much easier to target policing actions, but it wasn’t just a sort of top-down regulatory approach. There was also, I think, a recognition on many market actors that there’s plenty of land that’s already cleared that you could expand soy over. There was also an understanding, I think, that there was consumer resistance to deforestation because the soy and beef that was being produced, significant amounts of that were exported to Europe. There was also, I think, a feeling among the big global traders that had their presence there that they had a reputation or risk here as well, so it was a kind of perfect storm of coming together of both the public and private initiatives that drove the deforestation levels down. It’s worth saying by how much: Fifteen years ago, it was about 30,000 square kilometers a year. Right now, it bumps along between 5,000 and 8,000 kilometers, so very, very significant reduction.

Interviewer:  That is a big difference, yeah. How is that effort working on the savannah areas?

David:             Well, it’s sort of like a catch-22 because, the way the geography of Brazil is, is you have the forest in the north. In the center of Brazil, you have the grasslands, the Cerrado. From our standpoint as a conservation organization, it’s not a win if we’re successful in reducing deforestation in the Amazon but all that does is displace that pressure for habitat conversion into the grasslands of the Cerrado. That has actually not happened. The dynamics are slightly different in the different regions.

                        Right now, we’re in a situation where, for the last three years, habitat conversion levels in the Cerrado have been very low. Six or seven years before that, they were really booming. A lot of the Cerrado was converted and, right now, we’re in a situation where we have about half of the Cerrado in native vegetation; the other half is under agricultural or pasture. There’s a very large amount of pasture that’s not particularly productive — probably about 20 million hectares in total that you could expand cropland over. So, at least in theory, you can see a future sweet spot where you have cropland expanding over pasture and pasture intensifying. That would make a lot of economic sense. Of course, there’s many a slip between cup and lip, and you can see that in theory, but actually, having that land-use pattern develop is a complicated thing, but that’s what we’re working towards there.

Interviewer:  Some of the areas that have been in agriculture the longest, do they suffer from soil degradation, loss of fertility, possibly partly because of the heavy rainfall?

David:             Well, that’s a hard question to answer because if you pull out globally and just do a quick look around the world, there are places that have had agriculture in place literally for millennia with reasonable soil quality being maintained throughout that period. There are parts of Southeast Asia, for example, that you’ve got these smallholder, peasant farming systems that use a very intensive — they use manure a lot, and they have maintained really excellent soil quality. That’s because, on the whole, there are fairly stable systems, and they’re in fairly stable market context.

                        What’s destabilizing for soil is when you have a sudden expansion of demand and intensification of production that the natural ecosystem of the soil in that particular area can’t support. There are many places around the world where you can point to that kind of dynamic having happened as well. There’s no hard and fast rule, I think. You can certainly generate what the basic principles of good soil management are and apply them pretty much anywhere and it’s going to improve your situation if you’re in one of those stress systems.

Interviewer:  Yeah. Is there a movement to try to use regenerative agriculture techniques like no-till?

David:             Yeah. No-till, cover cropping, there’s a whole range of systems. I think whatever agricultural system you’re in — whether it’s a system that’s typical of, like, the U.S. or the Brazilian corn and soy belt, very high productivity, industrial agriculture, or a smallholder system like you could find in Africa or Southeast Asia — good soil management is a basic principle of success in all of those different agricultural systems. That’s why it’s really strategic for us to focus on it, because it doesn’t really matter what scale of agriculture you’re in; basic soil management is going to be important, too, so it’s an across-the-board strategy for us.

Interviewer:  Okay. Let’s step back up to the global level that you’re focused on. When you look at agriculture as a whole internationally, what do you see with regard to greenhouse gas emissions? That’s a trickier thing to measure at the local level, right?

David:             Yeah. Well, we know a lot about what the patterns of greenhouse gas emissions around agriculture are, and I think we can make some pretty secure assumptions moving forward based around what we know about population growth rates and also consumption, patterns of consumption in developing countries as they transition from developing status to developed. I think China is a really good example of what you can expect; the country, a generation ago, was poor. I have colleagues in China who talk to me about their siblings who — they remember famine conditions when they were children. China today is a totally transformed country: much higher levels of income, much higher levels of protein consumption, protein demand, rather, so we can expect a world where hundreds of millions of people are transitioning into a middle-class lifestyle with all of these demand patterns that are involved.

                        For agriculture, I think the really big question on the climate change standpoint is you’re going to have a big increase in demand for protein. As we know, enteric fermentation is the second-biggest source of greenhouse gasses after land conversion, so if you have the huge increase in protein demand that we expect, that’s got implications. The agriculture could increase overall, in absolute terms, its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a really important problem for the industry to be thinking about, the solutions to it. There’s different range, a very large range of potential solutions to it, but it’s really important that people understand, I think, within the industry, that the development pattern that we’re on, which we have to manage, too — I don’t think it’s possible to do more than bend the curve of development of the margins. It’s very difficult to go to countries like China and Brazil and say, “No, you can’t be achieving the same levels of consumption and development of the U.S. and Western Europe.” That’s not going to happen, but I think, with the combination of wider understanding within the agriculture industry of how critical this is, and also science and ingenuity, which has always been really important in agricultural history as well, I’m reasonably optimistic that we can make progress.

Interviewer:  Can you drill down on a couple of the tools that we might put into place there?

David:             There are a lot of things around soil management that you can do that reduce carbon emissions. There’s a lot of work that you can do around reducing the emissions intensity of livestock production. We’re going to be diving into, I think, some of that work during this conference (ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference). There’s also a lot that you can do around managing fertilizer, which is an important contributor here as well.

                        But most critically of all, I think we can think about ways that we can intensify agriculture without expanding its geographical footprint into a natural habitat because, if you look at the numbers, that’s the single biggest contributor of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s the expansion of the geographical footprint of agriculture. If food demand increases by 70% or 100% or whatever it is — we know it’s going to be a big number — there is no way that we can do that by expanding 70% or 100% the area that we farm or the area that we graze. We absolutely have to intensify our production systems but do that in a way that doesn’t increase the environmental impact of those systems. It’s hard, but I think there are some places around the world that you can point to where this is happening to a significant extent already.

Interviewer:  What do you sense as the mood in the room, sort of, when you talk to large agribusiness companies and you talk to governments? Do you think they’re excited about digging into this challenge, or are they helpful or optimistic or pessimistic?

David:             That’s a hard question to answer because I think it depends on who you’re talking to. If I could make some very dangerous generalizations, I’d say that I think the CEO level of ag companies in the agribusiness sector, they get how climate change is important. They’re faced with two problems. One is their obligation is to their shareholders, and a lot of the short-term impact of what you need to do to address climate change is not necessarily going to be positive for your bottom line, so there’s that tension between the short-term time horizon that many companies have to manage to and the medium- to long-term nature of the impacts of climate change.

                        The other problem, I think, that the private sector often faces is that you have — the world food system and the agribusiness companies within it are very large and complicated organizations, and it’s like trying to change, the proverbial changing the direction of a supertanker. It’s a difficult thing to do and it takes time and one has to be patient about it, but at the same time, there’s a limit to the patience that we can have here given the urgency of some of the problems that we face.

                        In governments, I think there’s much greater variety compared to market actors and how they look at climate change and the urgency that they feel. I think the European governments, to take one example, feel the urgency of climate change a great deal, and that’s because they’re reflecting, I think, the greater level of concern about that among European electorates. You don’t see that same level of concern in developing countries, for obvious reasons; they have very pressing social and economic issues that they have to address, and they regard those as more politically important in the short term than the longer-term issues that swirl around climate change. I completely get where they’re coming from on that, but that’s basically the picture of where we are.

Interviewer:  Well, let’s talk about a couple of specific governments, maybe. The president in Brazil has just rolled back a lot of environmental regulations there. Are you afraid that that might undermine a lot of the progress that you’ve made?

David:             Well, I broadened it out because I think that Brazil and the United States are a really interesting compare-and-contrast right now. There’s also, in the U.S., been a rollback of a lot of environmental regulations. There are some similarities, I think, with the view of the world that both President Trump and President Bolsonaro have. I think what you’ll find in Brazil, and I think what we’ve seen in the U.S., is that the president can try and do things and set a certain tone, but Brazil and the U.S. both have quite strong institutions.

                        You will, I think, see a lot of the things that President Bolsonaro was attempting to do end up in court in the same way as things in the U.S. are ending up in court. Brazil has a very strong judicial system. It will take a while for things to work themselves out. I know there’s a lot of coverage, all the media coverage about all of the things that could happen and might happen. I suspect that what actually will happen is actually a lot less than some people are thinking, because those institutions are going to come into play and, I think, to a significant extent, moderate what President Bolsonaro is thinking about doing. I think you’re probably going to see the same or have seen the same dynamic in the U.S. as well.

Interviewer:  Tell me a little bit about this online tool that you’ve created for mapping out soybean production in Brazil.

David:             Sure. As I’ve referred to, a critical question for the long-term sustainability of agriculture in the Cerrado is encouraging soy and other grains and oil seeds to expand over land that’s already been cleared instead of directly into native habitat. So, companies and other market actors, they might want to do that, but they’d face the challenge of, “Well, where would it be most economic for me to do that?” That’s partly a question of what your environmental conditions are, what your topography is, what your precipitation ratio is, what your soil conditions are like, but it’s also a question of economics — like, what are your transport costs going to be like, what’s the yield history of this particular area, what yields can I expect, how much fertilizer am I going to need, all those kinds of questions.

                        What Agroideal does — and I should emphasize that Nature Conservancy put the system together, but the parameters of the system and what it’s meant to do was completely designed by the soy traders and the financial institutions in Brazil that have a direct interest in this and can actually really drive what happens. All we did was execute what they said they needed. Agroideal is a geospatial planning tool. It’s web-based. It’s free for anyone who wants to use it. It allows you to zoom in on particular regions within the Cerrado. It covers the whole of the Cerrado. It’s also, by the way, being expanded to Chaco in Argentina and Paraguay. It layers different categories of information — environmental, social, economic — and it allows the user to model different potential scenarios. So, I put a silo here or if I build a road spur over there or a railway in here, how can I do that in a way that minimizes soy expansion into native habitat and maximizes expansion over land that’s already been cleared? It’s a tool that allows market actors to be able to play with different scenarios and have that influence where they site their infrastructure in a way that channels cropland expansion over cleared land, over pasture, usually, rather than into native vegetation.

Interviewer:  That’s fantastic. Well, let’s talk a little bit about resiliency. You mentioned that as one of your global focuses.

David:             Well, the first thing to say about resilience is, it’s kind of difficult to define. Scientists tie themselves up in knots trying to define it and map it, but you can recognize it when you see it. It’s like good art: difficult to define but easy to see when you’re walking around the landscape.

                        I’d say there are two really important points to make. One is that you can make all agricultural systems, whatever scale they are, more resilient. You often hear debates about, “Well, this particular system is more resilient than that particular system.” Well, that might be true, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t increase the resilience of all systems. The other thing, I think, that’s really important to understand is that, in order to increase the resilience of your system, it’s going to make sense for you to be sharing your agricultural landscape at least a little bit with natural habitat, because natural habitat plays a huge role in buffering the environmental impacts of agriculture. That’s true even in a largely converted landscape like the U.S. Corn Belt, for example.

                        Provided you’ve got patches of native vegetation buffering your field edges, provided you’re doing things like cover cropping and trying to do what you can to increase the variety of the agricultural system that you’re using — intercropping, whatever it is — you’re going to be more resilient than you would be if you weren’t doing it.

                        Now, if you’re in a smallholder system in Africa, say, or Southeast Asia or China, you’re going to be probably more resilient in the sense that you’ve got lots of different crops instead of just one or two, often, in a really small area — but at the same time, you’ve got bigger population and growth. You’ve got urgent demands for production, and that can also undermine the resilience of your system, because you’re over-intensifying, basically. The strategies that you would use in different settings vary depending on the nature of the system, but in general, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Diversify as much as you can. Make sure you’ve got some native habitat around to be buffering the impacts of what you’re doing.

                        I think it’s easy to talk about it in the abstract. It’s often good to be citing some concrete examples. My favorite example is actually what, on the surface, looks like one of the most vulnerable, politically unstable parts of the world for farmers, and that’s Sahel. That’s the area just south of the Sahara Desert as it transitions into West Africa. In the last 10 to 15 years, specifically in Mali and Niger, countries which had all sorts of political problems, you’ve had this extremely impressive agroforestry movement, where thousands and thousands of small farmers have implemented a system that’s known in the trade as farmer-managed natural regeneration. It involves using a lot of different tree species to intersperse with their cropping. Some of the tree species have direct economic use, some of them don’t, but they all have an important role in helping to shield cropping from the effects of drought and increasing yield. You look at satellite photos of that part of the world, compare them, what they are, compare them today with what that part of the world looked like 20 years ago. It’s much greener today, so there are examples of success stories. It’s not just a story of “what a terrible problem, and it’s really difficult to do anything about it.”

Interviewer:  Yeah. Well, that’s really exciting that they’re seeing increased yield from that practice. Do you know if there are upfront costs that they have before they can switch to a practice like that, and how can we overcome those upfront costs?

David:             There are upfront costs. The upfront costs are quite modest. It’s a fairly low-tech solution compared to what you might be using in other parts of the world. Those costs have been funded by a combination of governments getting behind it, agriculture research institutes and extension agents getting behind it, so a lot of experimentation on what particular species would be good that was done within CGIAR network, which is a UN-funded network of agricultural research institutes. A lot of non-governmental organizations also played a really important role in bankrolling some of the costs, so lots of different people got involved.

                        The critical thing, I think, is that this was a low-tech solution. There were costs, but they weren’t crippling. And even within the context of the fairly poor, hardscrabble farming that most of these villages were in, it was realistic. With appropriate external help, they were able to scale it up to the level that it’s reached today.

Interviewer:  I imagine that Nature Conservancy works to try to spread practices like that.

David:             Yeah. Funnily enough, we can’t claim any credit here because we actually don’t have a program in West Africa. Our programs are in East Africa in Africa. It’s very much the type of thing that we try to encourage, building resiliency, but also when we’re looking at it, not just trying to import expensive external solutions that just aren’t a realistic proposition for the realities on the ground and the places that we’re trying to influence.

Interviewer:  A similar kind of practice, I think, is silvopasture, where you mix forests and livestock pasture. Where do you see that taking off in parts of the world?

David:             Actually, that is one of the areas we work very directly with in Colombia and also in Argentina. You do see it taking off, yeah. It’s really impressive to see some of the transformations it’s been able to cause on the ground. I would introduce one note of caution, which I think is not just with agro-silvopastoral systems, but across the board, is that, sometimes, the impacts are really spectacular, especially in places that have been badly degraded. It’s extraordinary how quickly areas can come back when they’re well-managed, and these systems are really good at doing that.

                        Agriculture is always about context. It’s the most contextual thing that there is, and what works in one valley might not work in the next valley along, so it’s important not to get too evangelical and oversell any individual strategy. I think sometimes that happens with agro-silvopastoral systems. People try and say it’s a silver bullet when, in fact, we’re in a world where it’s silver buckshot. I think it’s really useful. We work with it directly. We find, especially in Colombia and Argentina, it’s really made a huge contribution, but it’s one of lots of solutions that we need to be thinking about and implementing.

Interviewer:  Well, it’s exciting that there are some very low-tech solutions like this that are helping farmers put carbon back into the soil and into the forests.

David:             Yeah, although I would say also, I’m not knocking for the high-tech solutions either, because I think one of the really interesting things about American agriculture right now is that you look at the digital technologies that are coming out and the extraordinary way that they can transform how we manage water, for example, how we’re able to target inputs in a really efficient way so that we can, for example, know exactly when we ought to be applying fertilizer, exactly where, and that kind of input efficiency is also really important in being able to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture while increasing yields.

                        I think one of the really fascinating questions that we’ll be working out over the next 10 or 20 years is the U.S., in particular, it’s always been this engine of technological innovation that’s always led the way in thinking about the appliance of science. It’s really had an extraordinary impact on the productivity of American agriculture. Now, if we could get those, even a fraction of those productivity gains in places like Africa or in Southeast Asia, we’d be well on the way to solving the problems that the world food system faces.

                        One of the great challenges, I think, is how can we translate those technologies and bring the promise that digital agriculture offers to very different settings, where you have farmers who are, on the whole, poor; on the whole, can’t afford the level of investment that American farmers can to access these technologies; and, on the whole, don’t have much of a digital education. These technologies are complicated, and a farmer who doesn’t have much education is going to have trouble applying them. You don’t have, in Kenya or Tanzania, this ecosystem of service providers that you have in the U.S., but when you think about the need to increase the productivity of agriculture while minimizing its environmental impacts, these technologies can be incredibly transformative. How you can get them working at a scale in a smallholder farming context, where you have poor farmers and not so much capital to invest — that, I think, is one of the great unanswered questions of the next generation. If we answer it, I think we’ll be a long way towards cracking the kind of questions that we’ve been discussing today.

Interviewer:  That’s very exciting, and I like your concept of silver buckshot.

David:             It’s not my phrase, by the way. I have to acknowledge Jon Foley, who’s the president of the California Association of Science, who came up with that.

Interviewer:  Well, thank you very much, David. It was great talking to you.

David:             Yeah, it was a great pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Interviewer:  Thanks.