> The Zipline

Building Strong Links Along the Supply Chain

Zippy Duvall


photo credit: Getty Images

When buying the week’s groceries for the family, picking up paper supplies for a school project, or replacing a worn-out pair of jeans, we can trace all those products back to a farm. So when companies make pledges or establish goals that impact production and sourcing, they should begin by working with the farmers and ranchers who are on the frontlines.

From animal housing to organic production to sustainability, commitments have sometimes been made without understanding the unintended consequences. Over the past decade, there’s been a growing drumbeat for companies to reduce their carbon emissions, leading many to set ambitious goals. I’ve been paying close attention to food companies and large retailers because the products they sell rely on the hard work of America’s farmers and ranchers, and their goals often directly impact us.

As farmers, we know how important it is to protect our natural resources, our water, and the health of our soil, and we take great pride in caring for our animals. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to raise the crops and livestock that go into feeding and clothing the American people and families around the world. But sometimes, people who have never seen a farm – or a farm animal – don’t understand all the work we do to enhance the health of our soils, keep nutrients on our farms and achieve optimal animal health through precise nutrition and housing decisions.

As farmers and ranchers, we’ll work to meet consumer preferences and to help fulfill responsible company pledges.

When I hear companies say they are going to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chains or source meat, milk, and eggs only from animals raised a certain way, I wonder how much research they’ve done to know the feasibility and wisdom of the commitments. Did they consult with farmers and ranchers? Veterinarians? Agronomists? Unfortunately, as history has shown, in many cases, they have not. That’s why it’s important for agriculture to continue building relationships with companies that rely on farmers to make their products. If we want to help them avoid unintended consequences, open lines of communication are needed.

Earlier this month, we dug into this topic with representatives from two big companies: PepsiCo and Walmart. These two companies have made big commitments related to everything from protecting the environment to animal welfare. I’m delighted they agreed to join us at our convention. We invited them to meet with our members, have an honest conversation about where we’ve been historically, and talk about their companies’ views of agriculture and how they’re working with farmers and ranchers today.

From flying in their CEO for a farm visit to hosting regional meetings with farmers and ranchers, both companies discussed their efforts to better understand and connect with agriculture. Rob Meyers, Vice President of Sustainable Agriculture for PepsiCo, said the best programs they’ve implemented were farmer-led. He explained how the company is providing farmers with technical support, incentives, and choices when it comes to advancing sustainability. Mikel Hancock, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for Walmart Stores Inc., said he has never met a farmer or rancher who didn’t want to do the right thing. They also talked about ways in which they’ve stood up for agriculture in their roles.

Attendees lined up at the microphones to ask questions and many waited for a turn to speak to them afterward. There were handshakes, accolades, and also some frustration shared by our members over decisions made, which is okay, too. It was an honest conversation and there is just no doubt in my mind that dialogue increases understanding for all involved.

We need more food companies and retailers to engage in meaningful dialogue with the first stop in their supply chains and we need to take ownership of our part of the bargain, too. We’re all in this together.

As farmers and ranchers, we’ll work to meet consumer preferences and to help fulfill responsible company pledges, but with tight margins on the farm and the folly of one-size-fits-all approaches, dialogue and partnerships are critical to smart decision-making. At Farm Bureau, we’ll keep working to strengthen and expand the relationships between farmers and those on the other end of the food supply chain to ensure future commitments are a winning strategy for all involved.