Garland’s Letter from Atlanta

Ever wonder what farmers do when they aren’t planting, tending or harvesting their crops? And when they get together, what do they talk about?

Dirt to Dinner wanted to know the answers to both questions. So we attended the winter conference of one of our major commodity sectors.

Here’s our report.

To My Colleagues at Dirt to Dinner,

Hello, everybody. And greetings from Atlanta.

I just spent three days in a cavernous hotel meeting room here, listening and watching several hundred farmers and various others across the supply and marketing chain that makes this sector of American agriculture work. They do all the things that keep the sector going — day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out — helping farmers remain successful and responsive to the demands of the world around them, and helping provide consumers and other customers around the world with an uninterrupted pipeline of a widely popular forms of a food they need and like.

I won’t name this particular sector of our agricultural system. To do so would be unfair to all the ag sectors out there. You see, every part I follow in the magnificent, complex agricultural system we have does most of the same things going on around me here. (I will note in passing for the curious among you, however, that health professionals cite the sector as one of the absolute top sources of plant protein – readily available and affordable to customers around the world, and ripe for further growth. I also consumed a lot of Jif in three days. Make of that what you will.)

This convocation is called a winter conference. It’s a rare chance to all come together to think and reflect, to analyze and plan, to share experience and opinion for the collective good. It comes after the harvest is in, but before the orchestrated circus of spring planting gets under way. It comes while they also need to spend long hours keeping the machinery of farming up to date and functioning efficiently, and lining up all the inputs essential to modern production.

The winter conference comes at a time when most of these farmers are busy planning for next year and beyond, analyzing trends in market prices, demand, costs and all the other dozens if not hundreds of factors that shape the bottom line.

After all, profitability is the key to everything – investment, innovation, and all the other things farmers need to do to grow and adapt continuously.

Like I said, to me this group really isn’t all that different from the other segments of our ag system. But they do have some interesting characteristics, and one that jumps out at me from the opening session tells me a lot about the people in the room. The chairman of this event opens the proceedings by inviting the room to rise for the pledge of allegiance.

It’s not an order, probably couched this way to accommodate the current political environment. But every man and woman in the room rises as one to do so. And when they do, I see it less as some sort of old-fashioned embrace of a world gone with the wind than a simple expression of the optimism and strong belief in shared human values I’ve heard across multiple hallway conversations. The next three days tell me my impression is probably spot on.

There is an optimism here – coupled with an unshakeable faith in the importance and value of what this particular sector of the American agricultural system does.

This definitely isn’t purely a chance to get away from home, see some old friends and have a party. The comraderie is there, certainly, borne of common values and a long-shared history of constant effort to get better – in how they produce their crops, how they better serve their customers, how they better understand what the market is telling them about its needs and expectations. There are three full days of serious business at hand.

No small part of the program is devoted to coping with a world that seems to be changing faster and faster every day. The list of issues is amazingly long:

  • What regulators and consumers want from complex labeling requirements
  • How to sort through conflicting points of view on scientific and technical matters
  • How to respond to increasingly stringent regulatory requirements related to product quality, dietary considerations, points of origin, genetics, strange things called ‘non-tariff trade barriers,’ and more
  • How to figure out the role of social media in telling the sector’s story to the wider and wider circles of people becoming more and more important to its success

Break-out sessions focus on existing domestic and export markets. How do we deliver more value to our customers? How do we diversify our offering to match changing customer needs, or to tap into new opportunities to sell our crops? What do we need to do to maintain our best existing markets in the face of growing international competition? How do we make those markets grow? What new markets have real potential for us, and what do we need to do to penetrate them?  What are our competitors doing that we aren’t doing, or aren’t doing as well as they are?

Other long hours go to a review of the aggressive research program funded by the growers. How do we decide where to invest in the solid science people need to fully appreciate our crops? How do we prioritize among research to improve production efficiency and grower profitability, versus research to counter misperceptions or out-right misinformation about the health and safety aspects of our products? And how do we best get the accurate and complete word out to all the people who need to hear it, with so many competing voices and such entrenched yet mistaken points of view? How do we express our story, and how do we tell it better?

It’s a dizzying schedule of important topics, all posing real challenges. To many people, I suppose, the list would simply be too long and tough. The easy way out obviously would be to throw up your hands, walk away, leave it to someone else or some PR agency to deal with, and hope for the best. Just concentrate on the farming. Grow the best crops you can, as profitably as you can. This group will have none of that kind of thinking.

The program highlights a comprehensive three-year strategic plan that cuts across all these issues, and more. It’s the result of months and months of hard work, and it outlines a roster of possible and recommended actions. To an outsider like me, the plan appears to be a bit shorter than the Old Testament, but maybe a tad longer than the New Testament. No matter. This group starts tearing into it immediately with real enthusiasm. To me, it’s an amazing display of the innate optimism and confidence in a better future for our sector, if we all pull together in this.

Yep, I’m impressed by what I see here around me. And it rattles me a bit, too. My colleagues tell me I’ve become a cynical old man, a true curmudgeon about the social and political chaos I see around me, and the fragmentation and polarization of what used to be seen as a society based in certain shared beliefs and characteristics.

These three days have shaken that cynicism, more than a little.

But the crowning epiphany in my realization that at least part of our world is still on track comes in a relaxed dinner conversation with Dan Ward, a producer from my home state of North Carolina. We’re talking about the steady stream of challenges his family has seen over seven generations of farming. I ask him about one of the big topics from the conference schedule – a small matter labeled ‘sustainability.’ The program outlines all the many and costly efforts underway to deal with cropping and production issues, with water use and quality, soil replenishment and regenerative techniques, and on and on and on. How do you ever find time to wrap your head around all of that, I ask innocently enough. He just laughs at me.

“It’s not that complicated to me,” he says as he reaches for his smartphone and in a heartbeat displays the picture that makes up his phone wallpaper. It’s beautiful two-day old baby girl, wrapped in a near Carolina-blue blanket, lying perfectly positioned between two lush, text-book handsome rows of his farm’s top crop.

It’s calendar-quality beautiful.

“In 20 or 25 years,” he explains, “my granddaughter Blakely will have the choice of becoming the ninth generation of our family to farm this land. That will be her choice. My job is to leave this farm in the best possible shape it can be…even better than it is now, if I can. I want her to be able to make that choice because we have something that lasts and she can be proud of.

“I have to stop and think about every decision I make in operating this farm and ask if what I’m doing will help her make that decision, one way or another. And you know which one I want it to be.”

I left the conference on an admitted high.

Perhaps I am an old geezer, long past my prime and admittedly out of touch with many of the popular prevailing trends in thinking and attitudes.

But I found the can-do attitude and sheer work ethic on display here to be cause for optimism. It’s another prime example of the spirit that keeps our agricultural system constantly at work to address whatever it needs to confront to keep doing its job — which is to provide a steady stream of the high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable food people everywhere need.

I also took comfort in the special part of the program devoted to recognizing one person from the food industry for his life-long contributions to the sector. The audience rose as one again in recognition of a highly respected African-American research and development scientist and all he has done to advance to the best interests of farmers and others across the chain from dirt to dinner. Recent health issues perhaps slowed his normal confident stride just a bit, and it took a few moments for him to reach the podium. But the applause never diminished, and the back-slapping and hand-shaking in the corridors afterward made his departure a very protracted event, too. This whole sector just seems to work together far more than I ever fully appreciated.

We’re in good hands with people like this, I thought silently. Our ag system is going to be fine. Just fine.

See you soon.


Best to all,

Ukraine Conflict Tops 2022’s Ag Headlines

It All Starts with Ukraine

Our readers already know the important role played by Ukraine in major commodity markets. We have covered the effect of the disruption to production and export of grains and oilseeds, fertilizers, petroleum, and other products from Ukraine. The devastation of battle is taking its toll.

We’ve shown how the end of Ukraine exports early this year risked hunger for millions of dependent customers across the Middle East and Africa. We outlined the run-up in commodity prices and inflation around the world. We helped explain the damage to the intricate ballet of international ocean shipping and the harmful effects of the disruption to post-Covid efforts to restore the efficiency of the supply-chain system. We’ve looked at the enormous effort being made to restore Ukraine’s ability to resume exports and avoid further damage to global food security.

But the D2D staff is unanimous in its judgment that the Ukraine conflict is the story of the year for food and agriculture. It is a story that reaches far beyond the borders of Ukraine, with implications that ripple across the economics of our food system, our continuing climate and environmental needs, and a whole host of simple day-to-day events important to how our food system performs.  Let’s consider just a few examples.

The Economic Story

  • Higher energy costs mean higher cost of food production and distribution
  • Rising commodity prices raise raw material costs for food manufacturers
  • Economic shocks along the food chain eventually show up as food price inflation

Higher costs and price instability translate into higher and more unpredictable prices for consumers everywhere.

What makes the Ukraine conflict an economic story?

  • Simple laws of supply and demand. Ukraine is a major player in global markets for corn, wheat, rapeseed, sunflower oil and other commodities that are cornerstones of the modern system. The sudden subtraction of millions of tons and billions of dollars worth of commodities from the market saw prices skyrocket – wheat up by more than a third, corn by more than 20 percent.
  • Energy is fundamental to food production. Ukraine conflict also helped drive sharp increases in energy costs around the world – and nowhere no more so than agriculture. Fuel costs for driving equipment, crop drying costs, sharply higher prices for nitrogen-based fertilizers – all these energy-related farm expenses cut deeply into farmers’ bottom lines. Transportation costs to deliver food around the world also increased.
  • High prices beget even higher prices. Even as commodity prices drifted lower as the conflict continued and some exports resumed, the overall trend upward remained. Food manufacturers had to pay more, inevitably showing up in prices at the grocery store for consumers. Food inflation during the year reached levels not seen in 40 years, with predictions of an annual increase of 11 percent led by rises in beef, poultry, eggs, dairy, fruit – virtually every major food category.

The Climate

Climate change remains one of our world’s top priorities. Perhaps no other public policy issue has consumed more time, energy and money in recent years, and 2022 saw that focus grow even more intense.

This year’s Convention on Climate Change brought together more than 100 heads of state and government for intense discussions on climate priorities, metrics and timetables.

While a lack of some specific commitments disappointed many, the conference nonetheless marked a major reaffirmation of the global community’s commitment to facing up to the challenges of climate change.

The Environmental Story

  • Dealing with climate change remains a top priority around the world, as global temperatures expect to reach the 1.5-degree C warming level within the next 5-10 years.
  • The entire ag sector increasingly came together during 2022 to address climate change with an aggressive agenda of innovative solutions
  • The Ukraine conflict highlighted our continuing dependence on energy (and fossil fuels) – and the potential for an energy crisis to shift attention and energy away from environmental priorities

2022 saw momentum building within the ag community for collective effort to become an active agent for good in environmental matters.  Ukraine highlights a potentially significant challenge to maintaining that momentum.

Similarly, a collaborative international effort to assess progress in corporate efforts in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) maintained pressure on the private sector to address climate and other issues deemed important to responsible corporate behavior.

This year’s report examined records from 350 companies and found greatest progress in Europe, followed by Asia. The United States and Australia trailed those leaders but showed noteworthy compliance levels nonetheless. Agriculture is one of the most active and committed sectors in the battle. In 2022, producers, processors, and CPG companies increasingly embraced better farming techniques and new technologies designed not just to protect the water, soil and air but equally to enhance them.

Farm, commodity groups, academic institutions, the private sector, investment groups and other funding sources converged in a shared effort to deal with food waste, greenhouse gases, improved water management, new technologies for every segment of the food chain – and more.

Regenerative agriculture became a newsworthy movement. No till, cover crops, crop rotation, and carbon sequestration is becoming a practice to enhance the soil, protect crops from drought and flooding, and increase yield.

2022’s notable events

  • Supply chain renewal. The pernicious effects of the Covid pandemic lingered through 2022, in many ways. One of the hidden stories of the year may well be the quiet, relentless effort to restore the smooth functioning of our food supply system. Few headlines were devoted to such things as efforts to add more trained labor, incorporate more innovative new transportation and handling technologies, rethink operational systems, rebalance a severely disrupted ocean freight market, and more.
  • Technology investment. It’s an old cliché: Food may nourish the world. But money makes it grow.  During 2022, enormous amounts of money were invested in developing new technologies appropriate to a completely revitalized global food system. Major areas of focus include such areas as crop health, animal health, crop protection and operational management, controlled environments, data science, automation and robotics, just to name a few. Estimates of investment across the spectrum vary and almost defy precise definition.  But with venture capital investment alone last year exceeding $11 billion, estimates of hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into ag technology seem very plausible.
  • Diversification in all its dimensions. Much of the innovation growing throughout 2022 centers on finding new and better uses for agricultural commodities, and the development of new ways of serving emerging societal needs. A recap of the year should not ignore the continuing efforts to advance development of alternative proteins, biofuels, non-chemical plant nutrients, improved seed varieties and other important elements of an evolving global agricultural system
  • It’s the science, stupid. A prominent U.S. politician once gained widespread attention by reminding voters of the key issue in the upcoming election: “It’s the economy, stupid.” 2022 may be the year in which a paraphrase of that sentiment began to gain real traction. Around the world, sometimes small news reports began to track a shift in sentiment among more people and many institutions, away from suspicion and emotion toward acceptance of scientific fact and reality. More and more stories began speaking of the need for intelligent and responsible use of good science as a critical tool in meeting growing food demand. At Dirt to Dinner, we view that trend as one of the most significant positive signs from 2022 for agriculture and consumers everywhere.

Other Noteworthy News

2022 saw far too many newsworthy events to catalogue here. So let’s look for the big news trends they may represent:

  • Quiet efforts to renew and revive our post-Covid supply chain.
  • Massive investment in all kinds of new and innovative ag-related technology right for the 21st century and beyond.
  • Thinking beyond the traditional – in how we use our commodities, the kinds of food we need, and how to produce them.
  • Growing trust in science – based n recognition of its critical role in feeding a bigger, hungrier world.

2022 saw momentum building within the ag community for collective effort to become an active agent for good in environmental matters. Ukraine highlights a potentially significant challenge to maintaining that momentum.

What about 2023?

Hard as it may be to believe, we at Dirt to Dinner don’t have a magic crystal ball that tells us the future. But we work hard to pay attention to what’s going on in the world of food and agriculture. We try to anticipate what is important and newsworthy – topics that might help our readers to know more about our global food system and to make better decisions about the food we all eat.

We have some ideas about what lies ahead in 2023, and we will be keeping our eye on a number of events, trends and noteworthy efforts at innovation and accomplishment across the food chain. We welcome your ideas about what’s to come, and what you would like to see us cover.

To help spur your thinking, let’s wrap up this special year-end review with a very short list of some of the things we’ll be watching in 2023.

  • Resolution of Ukraine conflict. How do we get back to where we were before all this started?
  • Regenerative ag. How is this important new approach to making agriculture a pro-active agent in addressing environmental concerns progressing?
  • Biofuels. What role can agricultural play in reordering our energy system to reduce dependence on fossil fuels?
  • Water management. How do we make smarter use of water?
  • The Farm Bill. Where are we placing our priorities for the future? How does such a proven successful mix of policies need to adapt for the future?
  • Alternative proteins. We need so much more protein for a healthy world. How are we going to produce it?
  • China and its food security challenges. China is front and center in major global agricultural markets. But the country faces enormous food security challenges – rising population, softer economy, climate and land use issues, growing political tensions, and more. What should we watch for?
  • Ag’s stake in labor, immigration and migration issues. Where re we going to find all the people we need to make our huge agricultural system work?
  • Trends in human, animal and plant nutrition. What’s the best way to think about how we provide all the different kinds of nutrients involved in our food system?
  • Trends in food consumption. What are the emerging trends, issues and interests shaping the food decisions made by consumers?
  • Unpredictable but newsworthy events. Holy cow, I never saw that coming. But I better pay attention.

Digging In: Mark McCall, iSelectFund

iSelectFund was created to help solve a complex web of interrelated challenges with food and human health. By connecting investors with the innovative companies fixing these industries, iSelect provides the network to create investment opportunities that are making a real impact on the future of our world.

Mark has over 25 years of experience in investing, executive leadership and business development while growing six early-stage funds/companies. He has extensive experience in impact investing, as an investor, developer, and operator. Most recently he was EVP Business Development for Cadenza Innovation, a leading energy storage technology company.

Previously, Mark was CEO of HPA Sonics, an early stage specialty materials company developing a clean process for the production of a key LED raw material. Prior to that, he was CEO of Greenleaf Biofuels (now American Greenfuels). At Greenleaf, he and his partners built the largest waste-to-biofuel plant in the Northeast U.S. Formerly, Mark was an investment banker at Progress Partners where he led the clean energy practice, and a Managing Director of two long/short equity hedge funds that he helped grow to $500M in combined assets.