Digging In

Podcast: Jay Watson - Why Soil Health is a Win-Win-Win Situation

Podcast: Jay Watson - Why Soil Health is a Win-Win-Win Situation

By SHP Staff on Tuesday, 16 June, 2020

General Mills is a consumer packaged goods company that puts their money where their mouth is, according to Soil Health Partnership Director John Mesko.  The company was an early funder of SHP and continues to work hand in hand with farmers to create economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

In this episode, Jay Watson, Sourcing Sustainability Engagement Manager for General Mills, chats with Mesko about why General Mills is so invested in this work.

“It’s the right thing to do,” states Watson. “We see the promise of soil health and what it can do for farmers and what it can do for our whole food system. We have a responsibility to be a catalyst for some of the change that we think is needed in society.”

General Mills also understands that investing in farmers is the right thing to do for their business. Their motto, “Food the World Loves,” includes helping the world love the way their food is grown. 

General Mills focuses on soil health because it is a great intersection of practices that contribute to significant environmental sustainability and practices that create substantial economic sustainability for farmers. Although SHP is heavily invested in corn and soybean farms and farmers, General Mills is helping with an expansion of considerable involvement with wheat as a cash crop as well.

“We are big buyers of wheat, so we wanted to take the SHP model to big wheat growing regions. It’s important to us because we want to advance soil health where our supply chain is,” Watson said. 

To Watson, the SHP model includes demonstrations and a lot of peer-to-peer learning.  Now, farmers in the program experimenting with wheat as a cash crop will be able to help their peers understand how a wheat system can work for them on their Kansas and Minnesota farms.  

“If you can change the way that you see things, there’s an opportunity to unlock new potential,” states Watson . 

Tune in to this full podcast with Jay Watson of General Mills below.

Episode Transcription:

Host: John Mesko

Guest: Jay  Watson

Speaker 1 (00:00):

Welcome to the People of Soil Health, a podcast that unearths the community, exploring the financial, economic, and environmental benefits of soil health. From farmers to researchers, meet the people committed to understanding soil health practices and improving the land. Here's your host, Senior Director of the Soil Health Partnership John Mesko.

John Mesko (00:31):

Hi, and welcome to another episode of the People of Soil Health. General Mills has been a part of the Soil Health Partnership from the beginning. And joining me today is Jay Watson, sourcing sustainability engagement manager at General Mills. Welcome Jay.

Jay Watson (00:48):

Hi, thanks for having me.

John Mesko (00:50):

You've been at General Mills for many years, and you have held several positions. How did your work at General Mills lead to this interest in soil health and regenerative agriculture?

Jay Watson (01:03):

Yeah, thanks for the question, John. So, my background at General Mills starts back in 2006, and I joined the organization in sourcing; So I was a buyer for 10 years before joining sustainability, and I had the opportunity to buy lots of different things for our facilities and for our products. (but, the two most closely related to soil health were corn and oats) and saw the opportunity to serve as the subject matter expert for all of those ingredients from a sourcing standpoint. And in my oats role, which was the last one before I joined sustainability full-time, I had the privilege and opportunity to launch our 2020 sustainability program for oats in Canada and a strong focus on working with producers, capturing field level data, translating those to environmental metrics, and trying to see continuous improvement over time.

Jay Watson (01:58):

So with that focus on continuous improvement, it quickly evolved into a conversation about what are the key levers to drive improvement in environmental metrics as it relates to agriculture? And soil health over time rose to the top of the list, and as we've pressed into soil health with investments and in our own company (but also investments in partners like SHP), we've now evolved to think about soil health principles as really the cornerstone for regenerative agriculture, which was one of our more recent public commitments back in 2019.

John Mesko (02:34):

Well, I think that you mentioned the support that General Mills has had for the Soil Health Partnership, and as you well know, General Mills has been a great supporter of our work, specifically our organization, but also soil health across the board, investing over $4 million to improve soil health in areas where commodities are grown General Mills uses. Why is it that General Mills is leading, really, many of the consumer packaged goods companies in this effort around soil health?

Jay Watson (03:10):

Yeah. Thanks. That's a great question, and I think a couple points I'd call out. So one, we think it's the right thing to do. We see the promise of soil health and what it can do for farmers, what it can do for the whole food system ( so connection to our values of doing the right thing). The right thing for us as a major food company: we have a responsibility to be a catalyst for some of the change that we think is needed in society. So, it's the right thing to do from a value standpoint, but it's the right thing to do for our business as well. Our business depends on the output of healthy ecosystems and really taking that output of farming, and we're converting it into products that many of us love and know, like Cheerios, Nature Valley, Pillsbury, among others. So if that agricultural system's not healthy or breaks down, it's really tough and puts a lot of strain on our business.

Jay Watson (04:00):

So with our purpose to make the food the world loves, it's partly we want the world to love how food is being produced. So food grown under conditions that help to improve natural resources while also making food, that's really why we've invested in soil health. We've identified partners that are really working on the ground with producers because we want that investment to be in producers--to be in organizations that help producers--and we're trying to figure out what the best role that we can play as a downstream food company in the overall movement. So, soil health and the investments in SHP but also Soil Health Institute and TNC are some of the earlier ones [contributions] we've made. And now, [we are] pressing into specific supply sheds with our focus on regenerative ag and how we can create enabling environments for producers to go down the path for those that are interested. So, it's the right thing to do for our business. It's also a responsibility we have as a major food company.

John Mesko (05:02):

Well, I think that's a great summary of what I think of in terms of sustainability. You're saying that General Mills wants to grow food that people love and wants to do that in a way that people love as well, and that that is at the root of what sustainability is, Don't you think?

Jay Watson (05:21):

That's right. That's kind of key to the double entendre of food the world loves. I mean, we need food that people enjoy. I mean, obviously, we wouldn't have a business if there weren't demand for our products, but we need to do it in a way that sustains and rebuilds and restores natural resources and farming communities, and that's why there's such a strong emphasis on soil health. If we can maintain yield or even increase yield, while at the same time reducing costs and improving natural resources like water, air, soil, increase the vitality of communities, that feels kind of like a win- win-win for the producers, for the environment, [and] for downstream food companies. So, that's why we've placed a lot of these early bets in soil health; [we] have had an opportunity to learn from a lot of partners and producers along the way. We like what we see, we see the promise, and that's why we're deepening our investment with programs and pilots of our own. And again, finding ways to support producers, given that they're the ones really doing the hard work and leaning into risk and innovating on farms like they've always done. So, what role can we play at General Mills to support and catalyze the movement and show producers that we want to support them and support the industry to advance progress?

John Mesko (06:40):

Well, it sounds like you've got the three legs of sustainability covered there (the economic sustainability, environmental, and social sustainability) when you talk about really impacting rural communities and the impact that a healthy supply chain can have on our society as a whole.

Jay Watson (07:00):

Yeah, that's right. We often speak about those three pillars of sustainability, and depending on the ingredient, there's maybe a stronger focus on one or a few versus the other. It really just depends on where we think the opportunity is. I have the privilege to work across not only North American row crops and the sustainability programs there but also specialty crops in global growing origins like cocoa and vanilla, where the sustainability agenda and priorities are a little bit different because it's a different climate; it's a different supply chain. So, we really tailor the focus in the design of our programs to address where we think we're going to have the greatest potential and ability to impact change as it relates to one or multiple of those sustainability pillars of social, environmental, and economic. And I think really what we hear from producers and which makes the most sense is we need a lot of those to work in concert. We need economic sustainability to be able to steward natural resources, and that's where soil health plays such a critical role (where we believe that there's benefit in both environmental and economic, if done the right way and done with support for it based on local context) to see how soil health can deliver both of those things.

John Mesko (08:32):

The thing, I guess, I appreciate about your work, as well as General Mills as a whole, is it's not just words. So, General Mills, as I said earlier, has been a heavy funder of Soil Health Partnership, and among other things, you folks are funding some new wheat sites in Kansas and Minnesota that we are putting out to help growers understand how a wheat cash crop can impact soil health and productivity. That's a pretty specific crop and a pretty specific geography. And why are these sites so important to General Mills?

Jay Watson (09:11):

Yeah, I think a couple of things. We really appreciated the approach of Soil Health Partnership being more focused on corn and bean rotations as part of the National Corn Growers. The demonstration approach, the peer-to-peer learning, so we really liked the model. And we buy corn that's both used for corn flour and cereal products and then corn syrup that's used across our portfolio. But, we're much bigger buyers of wheat, so we wanted to take a proven model and translate it where possible to key wheat growing regions and supply sheds. So, that's where the Northern Plains in Minnesota plays in, and that's also Kansas. Kansas is probably one of our biggest wheat sourcing regions.

Jay Watson (09:56):

So understanding how we could take the demonstration approach and that peer-to-peer learning and bring it to those regions with a different cropping system, that was important to us because we want to advance soil health where our supply chain touches agriculture. So with a big focus on wheat for brands like Pillsbury or Gold Medal Flour or Totino's, taking a proven model and bring[ing] it to a place where we can get some new insights was the focus of that expansion and partnership with Soil Health Partnership but also with the National Wheat Foundation. So those demonstration sites, I think, will be important to understand what we can learn and how that different rotation... what we can learn from the soil health parameters and measurements in those regions.

John Mesko (10:54):

Absolutely. And as I said, it's a great example of an organization, a funder of ours, really putting their money where their mouth is, and we love those kinds of partnerships. We feel like our organization really thrives on those types of deep connections, where it's not just in word only; but, we're really focused on making a difference, and it's a very rewarding thing to be a part of. But, you and General Mills have been deeply involved. I think you have the credibility to look at the soil health community and the work that's being done on farms and among organizations like General Mills to help advocate for and learn about and promote soil health farming practices. Based on your involvement and the things that you've been involved with previously, are there things that are missing in the discussion on soil health and sustainability? I mean, where are the gaps that are not yet filled? Certainly the work that we do with the funding from General Mills is substantial, and we think we're doing [a] great job; but, we're not doing everything and neither are all the other groups. So in your opinion, where are some of the shortcomings in the current discussions around soil health?

Jay Watson (12:14):

Yeah, it's a good question. I think some of the opportunities exist around one-on -one coaching, peer-to-peer learning, and I think that's where Soil Health Partnership does a good job. I think a lot of producers see the opportunity with soil health, but they're just not exactly sure how to start or how to take the next step on their unique operation. We hear often from producers; they attend a conference or a field day, and they're revved up and ready to go. And then, they get back to their operation or a specific field, and they're just not quite sure on what to do first or how to evolve from one of their first practices to incorporate another. So, we've really seen that as an opportunity to invest in programs and organizations that come alongside producers to provide ongoing support, in addition to maybe some of the conferences and a couple of day trainings that exist out there, so that producers are supported technically. That technical assistance piece is why we believe there's gaps and maybe bigger gaps in certain parts of the country than others.

Jay Watson (13:28):

So technical assistance, I think just the assistance in general. We think about technical, social, cultural support. This is a significant shift for a lot of producers, so how, as an industry and as a collaborative, do we make sure that we bring that holistic surrounds so that producers can be successful? So, I think technical support is one that we think needs to be part of all discussions around soil health and how we advance and drive adoption. I think we also have the opportunity to make sure that economics really is highlighted. I mean, that's where SHP is doing work. That's where Soil Health Institute is doing great work. Really makes sure that that pillar of sustainability is included. We need more economic case studies in more geographies, in more cropping systems, because that likely will be a key for some producers to start experimenting. They want to see the dollars and cents, and it takes time, like we know. So having funding and commitment from organizations to take the time to study these systems over time, when management has changed and there's a different approach, is what's needed, so we can highlight the economic advantages and focus on profit maybe versus yield...understand what resiliency and yield stability looks like. So that, I think, is key.

Jay Watson (14:58):

And the last thing I would maybe offer is just the opportunity to study grain quality or different attributes. What happens to protein (and that was part of the focus of the wheat Soil Health Partnership expansion)? What happens to protein for wheat that comes from a plant that was grown in a soil health management system versus one that's not. So, I think that's [an] untapped opportunity in a lot of places: to understand if there are certain parameters or characteristics or attributes in grain or oil or whatever it may be. How might we study those so that we can create even a stronger connection with agriculture and the output to what downstream food companies like us use? So, there's been some work there. I think there's an opportunity to do more.

John Mesko (15:54):

Well, I'm sure, from my days in the seed business, when our main selection was for yield and dry down was the two big concerns that we had, and it's still two of the biggest concerns that the development of new varieties is involved in. But, certainly food companies are looking for that nutritional quality measurement. There's a lot of other aspects that are important to you all, and I think this is a great way to get at that as well, by investing in soil health and flagging some of these gaps that we need. How do these changes impact the nutritional quality of that food coming off the farm?

Jay Watson (16:37):

Yeah, absolutely. Nutrient density is one of those other kind[s] of frontiers that we have an opportunity to explore. That's probably said better than grain quality or other attributes. But, how does the makeup of that commodity change when we're changing how that product is brought to market?

John Mesko (17:00):

Absolutely. And then talk about food that people love and talk about actual sustainability, like global sustainability and raising the quality of the diet of human people...human beings across the world. That's life changing, and that's got to be motivating to be doing that kind of work.

Jay Watson (17:17):

Yeah, absolutely. I think there's a lot of potential there, and I think the tough part is figuring out how to commercialize it because a lot of our products rely on large volumes and commodity infrastructure So, how do we support the overall effort and industry, raise all boats-- maybe in some cases build our unique or specific supply chains--but balancing some of that uniqueness with flexibility, given there's lots of uncertainty? I mean, I think this year is a great example of that, and then of course, we have weather and climate volatility. So, where can we drive improvements in the overall nutrition of what's being produced and find ways to deliver that to consumers who are looking for it, while at the same time not creating unneeded complexity and costs in the supply chain and commodity infrastructure? That's a challenge for all of us.

John Mesko (18:18):

Absolutely. Well, a great example of the kinds of work that General Mills does is taking a commodity and adding value and making it something that is in demand by consumers; and when you think about your work and engaging with farmers, the farmers are looking to add value to their commodities at the farm gate as well. So, do you have any advice for farmers who might be looking to add value to their commodities?

Jay Watson (18:45):

Yeah, one thing I appreciate about farmers and ranchers is: marketing is just one of the many hats that they wear. So, absolutely press into that and take advantage of marketing opportunities that you believe exist or that you believe could exist if you were to approach your operation differently or to bring different practices on the farm. I might suggest taking a little bit [of a] different approach and thinking about not only the commodities, but how would you add value to your overall operation. Like I mentioned, adding value to commodities is challenging because they're just that--a commodity So unless you can break out of that to a specialty market [for value]....and there might not be as great a return there for you at the end of the day. But, how can you embrace a learning mindset or picking small parcels of land for experimentation, finding ways to drive the overall operation forward with soil health to maintain or increase production, potentially reduce costs, restoring that ecosystem function and resilience, and building up the potential of those resources, soil being a key one? Doing that, I think, drives a lot of value that's maybe not easy to see initially or maybe not even easy to paint in the P&L over time because it's things like resiliency and yield stability with a better functioning ecosystem--that absolutely we've heard are valuable to farmers--that have gone down this path.

Jay Watson (20:22):

So if you're thinking about adding value, How can you look at the holistic farm system and value that you would feel very confident and comfortable passing along to a future generation? Some of that might be dollars and cents with some of the reduced costs that could come from improving soil health and nutrient cycling, but some of that's the longer term value proposition with a higher functioning ecosystem--a more resilient system. So, that's where I think we've seen this movement take off. It's farmers identifying that opportunity without necessarily the market demand coming yet because there's work that we have to do with consumers to help them understand agriculture as a whole but also what some of the potential is with a different approach to agriculture, with soil health being the cornerstone or foundation. So, focusing on something that the producer can control, and then some of those unique marketing opportunities, I think, become an add-on and advantage on top of some of the work that they're doing to drive greater value into their operation.

John Mesko (21:35):

Well, you're spot on with this last comment about farmers, and earlier, you were talking about the farmers as entrepreneurs and resilient business people that are looking for opportunities to meet the demand that people have. I know that you and your colleagues are out on farms. I've been with you on those farms at different times, talking with farmers and engaging with them around crops and soil health, and I'm just curious because I learned something from a farmer every time I go. My own experience growing up on a farm and being a farmer has taught me that I need to listen as much as or more than I need to be talking with farmers. So I'm curious, in your experience, what's the most interesting thing you've learned from a farmer in this work?

Jay Watson (22:27):

And you're right, John. I have the privilege of getting out to farm, and I have some close relationships with producers that I've known for several years as part of our work in sustainability and probably more so than most people at General Mills. And I, too, have learned quite a bit over three, four years now( if not longer). One thing that sticks out to me though-- that I think focuses in on this whole mindset and approach that some of these leading producers are taking--rather than thinking about what things they can do differently, they're going to soil health trainings, or they're learning from other producers to see their operation differently. So, looking at their operation as an ecosystem and thinking about how one decision can have cascading and compounding effects as part of the whole system. That's kind of the systems thinking mindset and a holistic approach that I've tried to take and apply to my life and how I see the world--how I see challenges and opportunities.

Jay Watson (23:38):

So maybe not [a] specific translation to an agriculture context because I don't farm, but just this idea of, if you have a different lens to look through, you see different opportunities, and you probably make different decisions. So some of the leading farmers that are further down this path, I think they're embracing that learning mindset. They're taking that ingenuity that's always been there on [the] farm and they're looking at their operation with a different mindset, and it's unlocking all this new potential and enjoyment. I think that's what I feel most encouraged by is seeing farmers who are seeing the fruits of their labor, not with just the production from their system, but from seeing their soil health improving, seeing how much fun they're having. Because we certainly hear the challenges with the mental health crisis, and if we had producers that were producing food the world loves but also really enjoy what they're doing and were happy and were content with their life and their financial situation and their balance...that's what I'm really encouraged by. So, I think the key learning of...just, if you can change the way that you see things, there's going to be opportunity to unlock new potential.

John Mesko (25:01):

Oh, that's great advice, and I see that as well, and I think that's something that we can apply in our community and in our work. And as you think about looking through that lens, you talked about seeing things differently and looking through a different lens; I like to think about the future and where could my efforts today lead things in the future. How can I contribute to things being different in the future? So when you think about that lens of regenerative ag and sustainability and the things that you personally are working on and things General Mills is investing in, where do you see this thing going? And when I say this thing, I mean, this focus on soil health and the opportunity to mitigate climate change and these sorts of things. Where do you see this thing going, and what kind of surprises might be in store for us as we think about business as usual, maybe not being business as usual?

Jay Watson (26:04):

I don't know. I mean, that's what's fun about it is that there's a lot of white space and unknown, and it requires a lot of innovation, not just on farm[s] but within the whole industry. I certainly feel the shift that soil health is not a niche term anymore. I mean, you hear about it in all the ag press; you hear about it in all the sustainability meetings focused on agriculture sourcing. Even regenerative agriculture, I think that's part of the intention and goal of General Mills. With our public commitment was that we wanted to come out and get it out there to say, "Hey, General Mills, a major food company, is committed to this." And we've certainly seen some ripple effects from that. So, I think the opportunity exists to drive more of that through our brands, try and have consumers be more aware of what soil health, and regenerative ag means and what it can do.

Jay Watson (27:04):

I wouldn't be surprised if three to five years down the road, we had more companies investing in Soil Health Partnership and other programs to advance the movement. More companies advance investing in specific farmers or specific supply sheds to build the capability and capacity to support farmers in their journey. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw specific brands coming out and saying we've decided that this is important to us, and for that reason, we want to support farmers, or we want to support farmers and educate consumers. I think it's not out of the question to think about these hubs that are developing organically across the country because producers are just going down this path on their own, working with other producers, where you would have these hubs expand, built out, so we'd have a lot more mentoring. Producers that are down the path, taking others under their wings...where you have that kind of good nature that's always been on the farmer to give back and be able to give back and take those learnings and invest in another producer where there's not maybe that competitive dynamic in place.

Jay Watson (28:25):

Yeah, I don't know. I would hope that it becomes more of the norm, like you mentioned, where it's not how can we do this, but how will we do this? Because this is where we really all need to go. I hope part of it is an understanding that there's lots of benefits that deliver off farm. If we think about communities, farming communities, and we think about community resources like water, like air quality, think about infrastructure, and if we don't have well-functioning ecosystems that infiltrate water, what kind of damage that can do in an extreme water events to bridges and roads. So, I think there's an opportunity, again, to think really holistically about the positive outcomes that can come from more soil health and regenerative ag practices on the landscape. It's maybe not all that surprising to think about how cities or stakeholders that aren't connected to agriculture come into the fold and decide that that's really an important investment for them to make: investing in producers or investing in programs that help producers to really get after the root cause of some of the challenges and opportunities that we have ahead of us, rather than addressing them after the fact.

John Mesko (29:46):

Absolutely. Well, that sounds great. That's a future that I certainly want to work in and like to see our organization be a part of, and I'd like to keep working with you and work on this together. It's something that I feel we have in common and shared interest, and I appreciate the work that you do at General Mills. But, I also appreciate your personal commitment to soil health, and the benefits that are available to us through improving the practices that farmers are using out there.

Jay Watson (30:18):

Yeah, absolutely. I thank Soil Health Partnership for their commitment investment and all the producers out there because that's the opportunity, and that's really part of the future that I'd love to see, is that producer innovation ingenuity, that producers commitment, sacrifice being lifted up and really the producers carrying that flag as being the real champions of the work. So, I see the industry really working to align on messaging and investment so that we can give back because we've been given so much from the farming community. I'm hopeful that others see that opportunity and that's a future that I think we should all feel really compelled to play a role in and feel really proud about sharing that story.

John Mesko (31:15):

That's great. And I really appreciate that perspective, and thank you, Jay, for joining us on the People of Soil Health today. And thank you for working, and we'll keep moving forward together.

Jay Watson (31:26):

Absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.

Speaker 1 (31:36):

Thank you for listening to the People of Soil Health. If you're looking for more soil health resources, visit our website, soilhealthpartnership.org.