From remote sensors to digital field mapping, information technology (IT) is rapidly becoming a part of day-to-day farm management. When a state-of-the-art cotton picker, for example, records crop yield and moisture every few seconds, along with the GPS coordinates of the machine, that data can be analyzed against water and fertilizer applications — or other farm practices — to determine optimal growing conditions. Technology also can enable reporting up and down the agricultural value chain of all farm practices and conservation metrics associated with a particular field.
Denim brand Wrangler has partnered with farm management software firm MyFarms to create a data-sharing solution for the U.S. cotton industry. This week, they announced 125 growers will receive platform subscriptions at no cost for the 2018 harvest season. The companies also published a paper, ***From Burden to Benefit: Sustainability Data in the Agricultural Supply Chain***.
I interviewed Wrangler sustainability director Roian Atwood and MyFarms managing director Chris Fennig, about what they’re up to. (Disclosure: Wrangler is a client of my communications firm.)
What is farm management software (FMS) and what’s been added to the MyFarms platform as a result of this new partnership with Wrangler?
Fennig: Good farm management software makes it easy for growers to record their planting, fertilizer, spraying, tillage and cover-crop operations. Some of these systems cater to farmers who have fully embraced the digital age by managing map data, while other systems cater to growers who prefer the older method of manually populating forms. MyFarms caters to both. What we’ve done in partnership with Wrangler is add support for tracking and measuring the environmental outcomes associated with cotton production across the United States, which builds on our previous work in other crops, such as corn.
Atwood: We want to have a verifiable supply of sustainably grown US cotton. More than 50 percent of Wrangler’s cotton comes from US growers, but the current supply chain infrastructure doesn’t provide transparency into on-farm practices. We know there are lots of growers committed to meaningful soil-health practices and striving for continual improvement. A grower that is using a complex rotation, conservation tillage and cover crops has the opportunity to drive three times as much carbon into soils, and have better water infiltration and water retention. We want to make it simpler for these progressive growers to report what they’re doing. Growing cotton is challenging work with thin profit margins, and if we’re going to ask farmers to take the time to report field-level sustainability data, we want to offer something of value in return.This software is a way to do just that.
How exactly does MyFarms benefit growers?
Fennig: Thanks to Wrangler’s decision to deliver new data infrastructure through MyFarms, cotton farmers are now able to use MyFarms to track field-level operations and compare their business-performance metrics to an anonymous group of peers. Plus, they can calculate how much of each seed, fertilizer and crop protection product they need to buy (a process that otherwise involves a calculator or spreadsheet). The system also processes and analyzes yield-map data, tracks rainfall events, and helps make decisions about when to spray, based on real-time wind forecasts. Not to mention that using the system makes it quicker and easier to report to sustainability certifications like the e3 program and the Fieldprint® platform.
What’s the benefit for Wrangler of all this data? And what about for other actors in the supply chain?
Atwood: First, we should note that Wrangler doesn’t want access to field-level data of individual farmers; we respect the privacy of growers and are focused on encouraging continuous improvement. We want to know the aggregate environmental impacts of the cotton that makes up our products and to be able to report the impacts of our supply chain to our retail customers and other stakeholders. And most importantly, we want to be able to tell our consumers, with confidence, that we’re producing sustainable products because the farmers we’re working with do their part to preserve the land by reducing erosion and implementing soil health principles.
As far as other links in the supply chain, a seamless IT infrastructure could benefit them in a variety of ways, many of which we’ve outlined in the paper. For example, as the demand for responsible fabric increases, cotton gins and merchants can better serve their customers — the yarn and fabric mills — if they can easily track the sustainability metrics associated with individual bales of cotton. Well-built software makes data sharing less burdensome to the entire supply chain.
The paper discusses the need to build trust with growers. Chris, you’re not just in the software business — you’re a farmer, as well. How do you advise brands to engage growers on sustainability metrics and reporting?
Fennig: First of all, sustainability managers need to think win-win. How can we return value to growers by either streamlining or replacing an existing task, or by delivering new business insight to them? Sustainability leaders are not going to win hearts and minds by using fear or embarrassment to motivate change among growers. Instead, we need to use science and integrity to demonstrate that peers are doing better in some regard. Almost every farmer I know already cares about preserving their land for the next generation, and every farmer I know wants to compete effectively with the guys they see at church or at the coffee shop.
What do you say to farmers who are apprehensive about sharing their field-level data?
Fennig: Grower data managed in MyFarms is never shared with third parties in a way that can be traced back to a specific grower or field. Period.
That said, I think some growers would be prudent to consider how a strategic input supplier or crop buyer could use their field-level data to price future purchasing or sales transactions. That’s why it’s important to partner with companies that engage a third-party technology company, like MyFarms, to manage sensitive field-level data. MyFarms, and other pure-play technology companies like us, do not price crop inputs or buy crops, so farmer data is safe with us.
Who is the paper for, and what will they get out of reading it?
Atwood: Wrangler has learned considerably from leading food and beverage companies that have strong farmer-engagement programs. Nestlé, General Mills, Miller Coors and Walmart have been considerably helpful in developing our approach to engaging farmers. In that same spirit of cross-industry sharing, this paper was written for the sustainability practitioner who is considering launching a farm-engagement program and/or considering how to engage their suppliers more effectively. If what we have learned from working with cotton growers is meaningful to others, we’re happy to share. We’re all working towards a similar end goal of seeing our agricultural systems catalyze sustainable practices while achieving greater on-farm resiliency and farmer wellbeing.