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Yogurt maker Stonyfield wants to use data, not certification, to prove environmental benefit of its practices

January 31, 2020

One of farmers’ biggest complaints about agtech is a simple yet unresolved one. It’s been described a few different ways but the best way to put it is that farmers are tired of being offered technologies that don’t talk to one another.

For Stonyfield’s organic dairy farmers, however, the days of data siloing might be coming to a close as part of a new technology program designed to help them sequester more carbon called OpenTEAM. Stonyfield is a US dairy products business you’d be most familiar with for its yogurt line.

“Over the years we have looked at a number of tools for trying to measure emissions from ag and have discovered a lot of variabilities,” Britt Lundgren, director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield, told AFN. “We struggled with figuring out how to give the best recommendations to the farms we are working with on specific things they can do at the farm level to sequester carbon and improve soil health.”

Through this exploration, the Stonyfield team realized that it wanted to see more connectivity between existing tools. Many tools provide farmers with one piece of info but not the full picture of what that info means in the greater context of their farms, for example. When tools are connected, the info becomes exponentially more useful.

Stonyfield decided to take action. It recently announced that it’s teaming up with Wolfe’s Neck Center (WNC), Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, LandPKS and others to establish OpenTEAM (Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management), a new software platform that offers farmers “fast, easy access to more accurate recommendations on the specific things they can do to improve soil health on their farm.” The platform will also break down a few digital barriers for its farmers. Dr. Dorn Cox who leads the OpenTEAM initiative from WNC won FoodShot’s GroundBreaker “Seed” Prize last year, getting $35,000 “to support his ambitious vision… to democratize access to environmental data and provide universal access to site-specific global agricultural knowledge.” (Read more about FoodShot here.)

“OpenTEAM merges a number of existing tools like farm record-keeping, remote sensing, and agroecosystem models like COMET, DNDC, and Cool Farm Tool. We are not necessarily creating a new tool, we are making existing tools more efficient and cost-effective for farmers,” Lundgren explains. “We have entered into MOUs with a number of other tech providers and researchers to add different tools.” 

Initial research will take place at WNC’s working organic dairy farm in Freeport, Maine. Once the software is ready to deploy, it will be tested at 10-15 Hub Farms later this year, which will be selected to represent the diverse types, sizes, geographies, and supply chains in Stonyfield’s company. Eventually, Stonyfield wants to create a global network of farms that use OpenTEAM to improve soil health and fight climate change together.

What does dairy production have to do with carbon sequestration?

Quite a bit considering the National Organic Program Pasture Rule, which requires certified organic livestock operations to ensure that animals spend at least 120 days per year grazing on pasture. Certain grazing management practices like rotational grazing can help sequester more carbon by controlling where and for how long the animals graze. A number of programs aiming to help livestock producers generate carbon credits for using rotational grazing are starting to pop up.

“A farm might want to use a tool like PastureMap to track rotational grazing and dry matter intake. You can start to layer tools on top of each other and that’s where it gets interesting. A farmer can now figure out how the rotational grazing plan is impacting carbon over time,” she says. “Pasture can create a lot of benefits from an environmental and health perspective when cows are grazing they are consuming more omega 3 fatty acids through the grass and they show up in the milk in higher concentrations. That’s a health benefit consumers are looking for.”

The partners are aiming to have the platform operative and providing quantitative feedback on millions of acres of farmland by 2024. Stonyfield also announced what it describes as an aggressive Science-Based Targets Initiative to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2030 and sees OpenTEAM playing a large role in accomplishing that task.

Where regenerative meets dairy

The dairy industry has been under serious distress in recent years. Many of America’s biggest dairy companies are filing for bankruptcy including behemoth Dean Foods and most recently Borden Dairy. Apart from subscribing to the main tenants of organic like focusing on soil health and refraining from using most synthetic substances, there are financial reasons a dairy operation may opt for organic production.

“In general, the organic ‘pay price’ — the price for 100 pounds of milk — is higher and more stable than the conventional pay price. Because of that, it’s a more dependable way to make a living as a dairy farmer. I think we are going on over five years where the pay price for conventional is consistently below the cost of production,” Lundgren explains. “We can distinguish between conventional and organic, but all dairy producers are really struggling right now. The organic dairy price has also come down in recent years and some of the same factors that have been at play in the organic market have led to a small decline in the organic dairy pay price.”

And while a myriad of technology solutions are available for dairy production, like ways to detect mastitis sooner or sensor-based methods for tracking individual cow health, depressed prices and uncertainty about the future make it difficult for many dairy farmers to invest in pricey new tools.

Stonyfield is joining a growing group of companies who are realizing that they must either swim with the changing tide of consumer preferences or perhaps find themselves making plant-based yogurt in lieu of dairy products like Tom Moffitt, co-founder and CEO of plant-based private-label foods maker Culture Fresh Foods. 

Danone announced last year that it is leading a global coalition of companies hoping to make dairy production more sustainable by assisting farmers with transitioning to regenerative practices. The Farming for Generations coalition includes a number of ag companies to support the effort like Corteva Agriscience and agtech startups Connecterra (an AgFunder portfolio company). The coalition is currently researching 25 different farm models to identify best practices and geographical differences as well as the role that technology has to play.

Regenerative ambiguity?

While many businesses are hopping on the regenerative bandwagon, however, there is still considerable ambiguity about what regenerative means. Recently, the Rodale Institute, which is the holy grail for all things organic, announced a new label: Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC). The label is meant to return organic production to the foundational principles that founder G.I. Rodale envisioned, many of which were diluted or disregarded entirely when the USDA took over regulation of organic production in 1990 under the National Organic Program.

Even still, Rodale’s certification is voluntary and unless a federal agency decides to promulgate an official definition for regenerative, the term is susceptible to countless interpretations. And as I learned at the inaugural Regenerative Food Systems Investment Forum in October 2019, the emerging cohort of regenerative movers and shakers aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to the best way to prove regenerative’s promise. Some are team data, opting for measurable outcomes. Others are taking a more holistic approach and saying that granular focus and a myopic hunt for data will distract from other aspects of regenerative’s goals like reconnecting humans with nature and identifying intersectionalities.

“We looked at ROC and we are really supportive of the idea and we want to all get better at measuring how farms are doing when it comes to performance,” says Stonyfield’s Lundgren. “We haven’t signed on to use the ROC with farms we work with because we are focused on OpenTEAM to measure outcomes on farms in terms of improving soil health and carbon sequestration over time. We think we can get to a better place by focusing on tools that measure performance rather than having farms follow a specific set of practices. We are working towards the same goal as ROC, just using a different toolbox.”

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