The business of relationships

By Terri Moore, vice president of communications at the American Farm Bureau Federation

Farming is a beautiful way of life for many families…it’s also a business. An often-quoted phrase is an important one in agriculture: the business of business is relationships. It’s the theme of a growing conversation between farmers and those downstream in the supply chain. And that’s something to celebrate. Why? Because it can make the difference between untenable mandates and collaborative progress.

As an example, we hosted a conversation at our convention at the end of January with Hans Specht, manager of global agriculture for Kraft Heinz, and Mallory Flanders, regional sustainability specialist for Cargill. It started by acknowledging that communication up and down the food supply chain hasn’t always been great, and there is shared responsibility for that. On the bright side, we heard how attitudes are evolving and relationships are strengthening within the food supply chain. 

Hans talked about his department at Kraft Heinz — the ag office — being a clearinghouse for other departments. Whether it’s a sourcing claim or emissions commitment, his job is to ensure it’s realistic for their farmer suppliers. He admits that’s not always easy. It required a mindset shift, he explained, realizing the only way to achieve their sustainability goals is through partnerships on the farm — not one-size-fits-all programs. He says the company increasingly understands the need for adaptability. This reality inspired them to employ a team of agronomists to dispatch across the country and globe to support their farmer suppliers in achieving tailored, obtainable goals. 

Mallory stressed that every farm and every field is unique, saying her job is to help Cargill become more nimble in its ability to accommodate the diverse needs of farmers. Full stop. Raise your hand if you heard similar sentiments from companies downstream in the supply chain a decade ago. I didn’t think so. It’s important to acknowledge and applaud the progress made toward increased understanding and fundamental respect for farmers and the challenges they face…even if we still have a long way to go.

No one thinks we’ve achieved supply chain utopia. Both Hans and Mallory are quick to say they don’t have all the answers, and both hope to further increase understanding of what farmers need within their companies. Frankly, plenty of companies within the food supply chain have yet to recognize the value of treating farmers as partners and the uniqueness of every farm. So, what can farmers do about it?

Tara Vander Dussen, a fifth-generation dairy farmer from New Mexico and co-host of the Discover Ag podcast, joined the conversation with Hans and Mallory to present a farmer’s perspective. She encouraged fellow farmers to view this moment as an opportunity. The tightening connections within the supply chain, increased consumer interest in how food is grown, and intense spotlight on climate-smart farming come together to represent unprecedented possibilities, she says, along with plenty of reasons for farmers to be cautious.

She stressed the importance of three things: leveraging, learning and collecting data. She hopes farmers will be proactive in leveraging the increased interest in collaboration by engaging those downstream in the supply chain. Obviously, that’s easier for some types of crops and contracts than others, but she pointed out that farmers can help to advance supply chain understanding even if not directly with the companies buying, processing and marketing their crops and herds. Building relationships will benefit all of agriculture. 

Learning has always been second nature to farmers, but Tara pointed out that the pace of technological advances and developing farm income opportunities is stunning. It can also be overwhelming. She suggests taking five minutes out of each day for learning. Whether that’s to read about new research into feed additives, check out carbon markets or to explore any one of a thousand other emerging topics in agriculture. She says it’s not about becoming an expert in five minutes, but rather about discovering what new options and advancements might be worth exploring further. 

Finally, she urges fellow farmers to start collecting on-farm data if they aren’t already doing so. Regardless of whether a farmer has any intention of sharing their data — ever — she says the only way to have a choice is by having the data. She was quick to point out an array of concerns about data privacy and the Wild West nature of current ecosystem markets, but equally quick to encourage farmers to position themselves in the driver’s seat. Collect it and hold it close, she says. Data has value and should be shared only with trusted partners.

Trust can’t be mandated or purchased. Trust is built when genuine respect is shown for farmers and the complexities of farming. It’s built when food companies hire agronomists instead of auditors. It’s built when relationships are built. After all, the business of business is relationships.

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  1. What strategies does Tara Vander Dussen suggest for farmers to stay informed about technological advances and emerging opportunities in agriculture?

  2. I think the cooperation between businesses is a key to develop faster

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