Low crop yield is not just a problem for farmers, it is a problem for businesses like ours who depend on crops to make our products. It is a business threat and any company that does not look at it in this way is fooling themselves.
What do you think of the film? Is it what you expected?
The film is amazing. It surpassed my expectations, and I am very proud of it and how well Laura Checkoway, the director, told the story of our programme and partnership.
As an Iowan, do you have ties to the farming community?
Both of my parents grew up on farms and I spent time on my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm while I was growing up. My father wanted me to “know where I came from”.
You say in the film that you ‘know how to speak to farmers’. Why is this important for this project?
In order to bring in a new practice, you need to be able to relate. Having grown up in Iowa, around farmers, I share Midwest values with them and speak their language.
Would an example of this be when you say that farmers will not speak about climate change, but they will talk about the weather?
Yes. If we approach farmers about the need to change practices because of climate change, they are much more likely to resist.
But they experience weather and know it is real. In order to achieve change, we need to meet them where they are. Some farmers have been doing cover crops for years. Others are just getting started. And because of that, we have different types of conversations with each of them.
Taking stock at the ten-year mark
How has the soy project developed over the last ten years?
The Iowa Soy Programme started as the first sustainable sourcing project in the US under the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC).
The first few years were spent building relationships with farmers, collecting data on their practices and paying them a premium for sharing it. We also held annual grower meetings and brought in speakers to talk about different issues, including cover crops.
After that meeting, a couple of farmers approached me to say that they were interested in trying cover crops but were concerned about the additional cost. By partnering with conservation organisations, we were able to receive a state grant and pilot cover crop adoption with farmers. At the end of the three-year grant (2015–17), we had 150 farmers planting cover crops.
In 2018 we relaunched the programme as a cover crop cost share programme. Unilever pays the farmer a cost share to plant cover crops, provides technical assistance through Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and also helps the farmers learn from each other by using PFI’s farmer network.
Last year (2022) we had over 520 farmers planting 179,000 acres of cover crops.
Can you tell me about your partnership with PFI?
PFI has made this programme happen for us. Not only do they provide technical assistance, they also recruit a large number of farmers to our programme. Being a farmer-run organisation, farmers trust them.
How involved have you been personally in putting this programme into action?
Working for Unilever gave me the opportunity to raise my hand and offer to help when the original sustainable soy programme started and I’ve been involved ever since. My role in External Affairs also gives me the opportunity to advocate for Unilever’s positions on climate and sustainability.
I find working with farmers in my home state and telling their stories incredibly rewarding.
Challenges and motivation
What is the motivation for farmers and for Unilever in adopting these regenerative agriculture practices?
Resilience. Over time, cover crops help build healthier soils that can better absorb extreme rain falls or drought conditions. It also better holds nutrients in the soil and has the potential to capture carbon.
Iowa is losing its topsoil faster than it can be replenished. Cropland in the state is losing an estimated 5.5 tons of soil per acre per year. If the soil goes away, it is going to hurt farmer yields.
And low crop yield is not just a problem for farmers, it is a problem for businesses like ours who depend on crops to make our products. It is a business threat and any company that does not look at it in this way is fooling themselves.
What are the biggest barriers for farmers in adopting these methods?
Farmers – like most of us – do not like to be told what to do. They are proud of their farms and their legacies. Part of what I do is listen and learn from them, and see where there might be an appetite to try something new.
Moving to regenerative practices such as not using tillage and planting cover crops can be difficult for farmers because it takes more work than the current way of farming and can be more expensive in the short-term due to the added costs.
In working with farmers on these practices, we hope to help them realize cost savings over time as they need fewer inputs such as fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides.
The long view
How scalable is this programme?
The programme is developed around three pillars that can be replicated for different issues with different crops and locations. The three pillars – financial assistance, technical assistance and peer support/learning – are essentially the blueprint for how programmes are being set up in North America.
We currently have a programme in Arkansas, for example, that is helping farmers use less water to grow rice.
What would you like people to take away from this film?
I hope this film spurs other businesses to look at their own supply chains and the risks that lie within them if they do not take any action.
I hope consumers understand more about the great practices that farmers are putting in place in order to be resilient for the future.
And I hope farmers are inspired to look into cover crop or other soil health practices if they are not doing this already.