Farmers talking during panel discussion

Bryan Severs, Robb Ewoldt and John Fleming share their thoughts during annual Soybean Research Forum and Think Tank. (Photo: Iowa Soybean Association / Jeff Hutton)

Farmers weigh in on traceability and transparency

August 3, 2023 | Jeff Hutton

Traceability and transparency were at the heart of the discussion during the third annual Soybean Research Forum and Think Tank last week in Indianapolis.

Farmers, industry professionals and others gathered to share ideas, hear from industry partners about the future of soybean farming and what’s next for them and consumers. The event was hosted by the U.S. Soybean Research Collaborative, a soybean-checkoff partnership with the purpose of bringing more collaboration to soybean checkoff research.

Among the topics discussed were the intersection between traceability and sustainability; climate smart/soil health metrics; leveraging farm data beyond traceability and future supply chain implications of changing standards.

Just let us farm and ‘feed the world’

Robb Ewoldt, former president of the Iowa Soybean Association and a current board director with the United Soybean Board; John Fleming of North Carolina and a board member of the American Soybean Association; and Bryan Severs, treasurer of the Illinois Soybean Board, shared their perspectives in a follow-up panel discussion which touched on a number of issues.

Embracing technology while maximizing efficiency is important, the farmers says. And in times of slim margins, profitability in those intersections is important.

“There are things like variable rate planting – a lot of it makes sense – but in the real world, we’re tried it, but when you plant too early in Iowa with the best dirt and have to replant, I said, ‘never again,’” Ewoldt says.

“I’m going for base hits, not home runs.”

He’s transparent with those who visit his farm, explaining the things they’ve tried and why they’ve chosen to adopt the technology or move in a different direction.

“We need to invite people out to our farms, and engage in those discussions,” he added, pointing out that consumers and others need to understand that conservation and chemical use ultimately helps improve soil health and water quality.

“It concerns me that our customers want fewer herbicides used. I can’t do it. I’d rather use less, but I can’t do it when you’re in a no-till situation – you have to rely on that. They want both, but we can’t do it and feed the world.”

Severs, who raises non-GMO corn and soybeans, says he has shown consumers, like trade mission members from Cambodia, what exactly he does on his farm.

“They were just amazed at what we do,” he says, adding that it’s a good example of showcasing traceability and transparency. “To me, (trade missions are a) good start, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

Fleming, who raises soybeans, cotton, peanuts and some corn on his North Carolina farm, says while he wants to please consumers and satisfy everyone along the supply chain, sometimes too much is too much.

“I don’t want to be cynical, but I’m tired of jumping through hoops,” he says. “I got to fill out paperwork and tell people what I’m doing when I really could just be doing it.”

“Most farmers here today or back home are not going to take kindly to how we need to farm,” Ewoldt agrees. “We kind of like our freedom.”

Data and deliverables

Ewoldt says most farmers are doing the best job they can in terms of raising sustainable crops. Additional demands from consumers and suppliers may be a bridge too far.

He added that going from conventional farming to utilizing no-till and strip-till farming, as well as implementing other conservation practices has been a challenge, but now that he’s proven he has quality production and healthy soil, he is being rewarded.

“If there’s a premium there, and I don’t have to do much, I’m grabbing it,” Ewoldt says.

In terms of data sharing and accessibility, Severs says he knows farmers in the European Union are already pushing back on those efforts, because it’s a question of who has access to that information.

“That’s a scary thought,” he says. “I know it’s already there in the EU and it’s probably going to come here.”

Fleming asked if with all the transparency requests, “could that information be weaponized?”

Ewoldt was more pragmatic and says so much of that information is out there already.

“If somebody wants my data bad enough, they’re going to find it,” he says. “I’m not hiding what I’m doing; it’s all documented. I’m not doing anything wrong.”

All three farmers agreed that in terms of liability issues, chemical use on their farms should fall on the manufacturers of the pesticides and other chemicals that they are using.

“We do it right and we’re following the instructions on the labels,” Severs says. “Everything we do is documented.”

In the end …

All three farmers agreed that if demands on how they raised their crops are increased, industry partners are going to struggle to find grain “suitable” for their needs.

“We’re doing everything we can with the knowledge we have now,” Ewoldt says. “I believe my farm is using the best practices of my time. I think they’re going to have a lot of trouble with not just my grain but most farmers’ grain in meeting their increased expectations.”

And if farmers have established contracts with certain buyers and they want changes made, Severs says they need to know “they can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.”

Fleming says unlike cotton where there is really one standard to follow, soybean producers across the nation would find fluctuating standards difficult.

“You just can’t do that because of the diversity of cultural practices,” he says.

Finally, the farmers say they’re on board with being as transparent as possible, but within reason.

“A lot of people in my area (Davenport, Quad Cities) are far removed from farming,” Ewoldt says, adding he highlights his farm so non-farmers can see what’s going on. “We want to be transparent. Transparency is huge.”