John Mesko: (00:30)
Welcome to The People of Soil Health. One of the things we enjoy about our work at the Soil Health Partnership is the breadth of soil-health challenges and goals we get to address. What a farmer in Kentucky is dealing with is probably different from someone in Wisconsin or Missouri. And, thankfully, we have partners in each of these states who are experts on the issues facing agriculture in their region. One of those experts is Boone McAfee, director of research and stewardship at the Nebraska Corn Board. Boone, welcome to the show.
Boone McAfee: (01:04)
Thanks, John. Really appreciate the invite to be on.
John Mesko: (01:08)
I suspect many people who work in agriculture are like me; they've run into people over the course of their careers, friends, family members, who maybe don't have a real deep understanding of food and farming and the issues, the complexities around it. It is kind of a unique part of our culture and part of our economy. And I always tell people, when they're asking me questions about farming and farms and what farm economy is like and what the environment is like and these sorts of things, I always ask them, "Have you ever been through Nebraska?" When people say, "Oh yeah, I've been through Nebraska," then we've got something we can talk about. Right? Then we've got something that they can relate to in terms of agriculture.
John Mesko: (01:53)
It's always been in my mind, in my travels, real farm country, and always appreciate getting to Nebraska. And the work that you do there is obviously important to your state, but also, across the country, I think people look to the kinds of things that are going on there as kind of a bellwether.
John Mesko: (02:13)
I want to get into some of the sustainability efforts that you've been working on through the Nebraska Corn Growers there. But before we get to that, let's help our listeners get to know you a little bit more. What has brought you to the work that you do right now and how have you implemented or achieved your goals in your career there in Nebraska?
Boone McAfee: (02:36)
Sure. Yeah. So I grew up on my family's diversified farm near Leigh, Nebraska, which is a very small town of about 400. I guess, just for reference, kind of a hundred miles northwest of Omaha. So really that central part of Eastern Nebraska. Primarily feed cattle, but we do grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa, some wheat, and then have a small cow-calf herd as well. But I guess I should mention that we also have cover crops.
Boone McAfee: (03:00)
So, maybe not too surprising, I was really involved in 4-H and FFA growing up. And so I think all of those factors together really influenced that interest of mine to pursue a career in agriculture. I'd say it's a pretty broad interest, so when I attended the University of Nebraska Lincoln I majored in ag economics. I felt that really gave me the most flexibility in getting both that ag-business background, but then also getting some of that science background as well, with exposure to agronomy and animal science and some of those things.
Boone McAfee: (03:31)
And so I really thought I'd probably maybe go more of an ag-finance route, which I think is something... I did do that briefly after graduating, but eventually kind of realized that I did want something a little bit more dynamic, and that's where I found my current role with the Nebraska Corn Board and have been there going on nearly seven years at this point.
Boone McAfee: (03:52)
I guess even though I've been involved in ag my entire life, I don't necessarily have a background necessarily specific to soil, but would maybe even say soil is something I've taken for granted. But I think in my role with the Corn Board and the opportunity to work with groups like Soil Health Partnership, that's really helped build my understanding and, I guess, really that appreciation for just how important soil is and that it's really the literal foundation of our industry.
John Mesko: (04:19)
Well, I think that's a great recap. I mean, one of the things that I've learned and have come to appreciate is that a career in agriculture is going to touch on a lot of different things. It's going to touch on technology and finance, like you mentioned, and people-skills are going to be challenged. You've kind of hit the nail on the head when you say that everything is... that kind of the foundation is soil, and our ability to manage soil and care for soil in a way that keeps our productivity where it is, which is leading the world. I think it's great working in a state corn organization. I'm sure you touch on a lot of different things as you look to serve the members there, but tell us a little bit about your role as director of research and stewardship. What are the things that you're responsible for in that role?
Boone McAfee: (05:16)
Yeah, I mean, just like you mentioned, we do just touch on a number of things. And like I said, I was really looking for, in terms of my career, something more dynamic. And I'd definitely say that's a pretty accurate description of my role and maybe just as good of a description of working for a commodity group because of the breadth of topics, initiatives that we need to work with.
Boone McAfee: (05:37)
So I guess our strategic vision at the Nebraska Corn Board is, "Enhancing demand, adding value, and ensuring sustainability," really, with that overall mission of creating opportunities for our corn growers. And so in my role, I'm really the staff lead in directing both strategy and then programs that support this mission across the broad areas of research and stewardship, as well as kind of handling some of our market intelligence and our analytics that we do as well.
Boone McAfee: (06:06)
So I guess one of my primary responsibilities is communicating the board's priorities in these areas to our partners and stakeholders. So kind of on the research side of my job, one of our major partners is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And so the research areas that we focus on with them really fall into these kind of two main priorities, the first being production efficiency; so kind of looking at how do we improve or protect production while using fewer resources like land, like water, like nutrients, kind of whatever those inputs might be. And then the second priority, more looking at kind of research and development of new uses for corn, so looking beyond ethanol, looking at things like bio-based plastics, industrial materials, kind of innovations to livestock feed. Essentially, we're kind of looking at what research can we bring that gives value to producers on both the supply and demand side of the corn that they produce.
Boone McAfee: (07:05)
And so when it comes to my responsibilities, then, more around stewardship, or kind of on the other side, that's where I'm really working to see how do we take that research, how do we work with partners and then develop projects that both encourage and provide those resources to producers, to continually improve how they grow their crop, not only for the better the betterment of their individual operation, but then the industry as a whole. And so, I think, in my role that's really looking at that crop from production all the way through use. I think that gives kind of a unique perspective of that entire life cycle and value chain of corn.
Boone McAfee: (07:45)
I mean, I think another aspect of my job is really using that perspective to advocate and kind of demonstrate that when research and best practices are used on farmer's fields, not only does that farmer benefit from being more efficient and being more sustainable, but so does that whole supply chain. So in my role, I'm looking at how do I find ways to help influence the public to understand that whether they're eating a hamburger made from corn-fed beef, they're fueling their car with ethanol, they're using any of the literally thousands of products that utilize corn, it's that corn farmers are contributing to the sustainability of all those things through that effort to continuously improve how they grow their crop, manage those resources. And, really, in a lot of ways, that begins with the soil.
John Mesko: (08:36)
Yeah, I think that's a very important role to play. And kind of tangentially, I would say, I applaud you for looking beyond ethanol. I mean, I think that ethanol has been a huge supportive use for corn, obviously, over the last many years, here, but society is changing and there's going to have to be a new uses for corn beyond ethanol. And so I'm excited to hear you working on that.
John Mesko: (09:01)
We get to work with you at Soil Health Partnership on environmental-stewardship issues as we work across the country. And I'm curious, for the listeners that are listening that may not be intimately aware of some of the nuances of how the environment is there in Nebraska, tell us some of the primary environmental stewardship issues you're facing there as you support Nebraska farmers.
Boone McAfee: (09:26)
Sure. Yeah. So, I mean, when we consider kind of stewardship issues, I think whether that's soil health, erosion, nutrient management, whatever it might be, I think for us, ultimately, everything kind of comes back to water. Water can both impact or be impacted by pretty much any other factor or decision related to ag production. Like we mentioned a little bit before about people coming to Nebraska, maybe people don't always realize some things about Nebraska, especially if they don't get off the Interstate.
Boone McAfee: (09:55)
But Nebraska, it's probably hard to imagine a place much more landlocked than Nebraska. So I think, on the surface, many people may not associate Nebraska with being a big water state. But I say on the surface, a little bit pun intended, because about two-thirds of the state sits on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the largest underground fresh water sources in the world. And having that resource has really been a key factor for us in the state that's enabled us to be among the top agriculturally-productive states, despite some kind of extreme environmental diversity and variability that we also have here.
Boone McAfee: (10:34)
For example, going from west to east, there's a drop of over 4,500 feet in elevation across Nebraska. And so things in Western Nebraska and Eastern Nebraska are very different. I think Western Nebraska and the Panhandle is really known more for the Sandhills and predominantly sandier soils, where, by contrast, Eastern Nebraska generally has more clay. And then things like precipitation, if we look at that very northwest corner, they're only getting about 18 inches of per year of precipitation, where we go to the southeast and they're getting all the way up to 30 inches per year. So the needs of our farmers, as well as the stewardship issues and how they are managed, really can vary greatly across the state.
Boone McAfee: (11:18)
I think, again, having the Ogallala Aquifer, and just water resources in general, is huge for us. And I really believe that Nebraska's producers, they feel that responsibility for protecting and sustaining those because we do rely on it so much. And so I'd say, at least historically, we've probably put a greater focus on quantity when it comes to water-related stewardship efforts, but I'd also say that we've quickly shifted to include a greater focus on water quality, as well.
Boone McAfee: (11:46)
Several of our corn organization counterparts are in states that are dealing with some pretty highly-publicized water-quality issues, and we know we're immune from those same concerns. And I think we've learned we need to be productive in how we address those and how we work with stakeholders and, really, all water users, to do our industry's part in protecting our resources. And I think that's one of among many reasons why we're kind of partnering with SHP, just knowing that water, both quantity and quality, is really intertwined with soil in so many different ways.
John Mesko: (12:19)
Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. And the water issue is becoming... It wasn't that long ago the topic that created a lot of buzz in public policy circles and in various state organizations and organizations that support farmers was soil health, and it's quickly morphed into water quality and water quantity as a key area of focus. And of course, that all ties in and builds off of soil health.
John Mesko: (12:50)
You mentioned how those priorities integrate with the work that's going on there with the Soil Health Partnership, and we have a number of farms that we're working with there in Nebraska, and of course our field manager, Keith Byerly, has been working there on the ground in Nebraska for a while to help understand and share the learnings that we're pulling off of those farms. But what's the value to corn growers and to your organization for having that kind of boots-on-the-ground support that we're providing?
Boone McAfee: (13:21)
I guess as I was kind of preparing for this, I was thinking a lot about the motivations and challenges that farmers face when it comes to soil health, and I kind of realized that, at least in a very general sense, I'd say, that how soil health is kind of approached really shares quite a few similarities with how personal health is sometimes approached.
Boone McAfee: (13:42)
At the time we're recording this, a new year just started about a month and a half ago, and I would say there was probably a number of New Year's resolutions made that relate to personal health; maybe that's weights, building muscle, lowering cholesterol, whatever it might be. And so I think many of these types of resolutions are made because we know that by doing these things we'll become healthier. They're the "right" things to do. They'll ultimately help us to sustain our own wellbeing.
Boone McAfee: (14:10)
And despite all those great things, I think it's really still hard for us to adopt those healthier practices. And at this point, many of those resolutions have probably already been broken. And why is that? There's a number of reasons. Maybe it's because the the cost of equipment or more nutritious food doesn't fit your budget. Maybe there's too much of a time commitment. Maybe you don't have good access to information or you're just overwhelmed by how much information is out there. And sometimes it just takes too long to see results and we get discouraged and want to give up on that.
Boone McAfee: (14:42)
So I guess my point being is that, of all those things that I just mentioned relating to personal health, I think those could just as easily be describing those motivations and challenges around soil health, as well.
Boone McAfee: (14:54)
So I think coming back to SHP and why we partner, I think when it comes to helping our farmers I see SHP as kind of taking on those multiple roles of coach, as support group, that boots-on-the-ground to help ease some of those real and those perceived barriers that we encounter with soil health.
Boone McAfee: (15:13)
I think sometimes soil health is such a neat and simple term that I think it can be easy for us to forget that it's actually many complex interactions that take time and guidance to really understand those things. And, again, I think, just like with personal health, when it comes to soil, there really is no one-size-fits-all approach, and that best plan to see results is really just the one that you're able to stick with and commit to.
Boone McAfee: (15:41)
Just with the number of farms involved in SHP across the country and that amount of data being collected, I think it's really our hope that this can both help farmers in the program, as well as their peers outside of the program, kind of accelerate their learnings of what does and what doesn't work for their farm, while also complimenting all of the great resources that other state partners, like UNL, are also working on in the same areas.
Boone McAfee: (16:08)
But I'd say even beyond just the value add at field level, I think just having that nationwide, farmer-led soil health initiative, like SHP, I think that kind of gives us that united front in showing that corn farmers really take stewardship seriously, that we're working together to continue to improve. And I think, again, kind of going back to the previous question of looking at soil health and water quality, I think that's just really important in building trust with the public, with, again, policymakers and with, really, any of our customers who ultimately buy our product.
John Mesko: (16:42)
Yeah. I think you're right on there. And it's really important to... I really appreciate your comment about having a national program working in various states. It's not always easy to take something at a national level and implemented it in 20 different states. That's a real difficult challenge because, as we've said, it's different growing conditions, different crops, different environmental conditions that affect that.
John Mesko: (17:11)
But I think over the years that Soil Health Partnership has been around... I think when we first started, maybe in 2014, 2015, there was still... there was a need for understanding - kind of building off of your human-health analogy - there was a need for understanding, "Are cover crops that much helpful? Should we be focusing on soil health?" Right? "Is this something that we should give our attention to as growers across the country?"
John Mesko: (17:40)
And I think, in the time that we've been working, the work that Soil Health Partnership has done, and other organizations, as you mentioned, I think everybody understands, "Yep. We should be focusing on this. This is important. We should definitely improve the things that we're doing on the land and thereby improve our sustainability."
John Mesko: (17:57)
And now it feels like the conversation has shifted more towards, "How?" "What is the way the best way to implement some of these practices specifically on my farm?" I think that's where we're at right now. I'm curious, as you interact with farmers there in Nebraska, your members, what kinds of things are you hearing that they're learning, both from SHP trials or any other work that's going on in the area?
Boone McAfee: (18:26)
Well, I think you're exactly right. When I think back to when SHP was first established, we only had one demonstration site here in Nebraska. And I'd say really the focus, like you said, at that time was around, "What are the benefits or potential benefits of cover crops?" At that time, cover crops were still kind of this buzz word. They were just kind of starting to gain some of this mainstream acceptance. Or maybe not even acceptance, but just kind of a mainstream curiosity. And so there was obviously a lot of questions about what benefit could they provide before people really wanted to jump in and see if that would fit with their system or kind of fit with their operation.
Boone McAfee: (19:07)
And so, again, like you said, after a few years of, I think, seeing and learning what those benefits are, the focus now has really kind of shifted towards implementation. So I think, for us, things like timing of application, or termination of a crop, what is that best species or mix for your specific location and goal? And then things like kind of what that method of cover crop application looks like, what works best, again, for your system that you're using. Again, all of those questions related to how to successfully utilize that crop on a specific farm.
Boone McAfee: (19:42)
As I mentioned, Nebraska, we have a lot of kind of ecological variation across the state. And that was really one of our main motivations in wanting to see SHP grow and expand in Nebraska, so we can ... more answering those questions along... questions across those diverse locations, and address questions specific to those locations and their unique resource concerns.
Boone McAfee: (20:05)
Even though our diverse conditions can kind of be challenging for producers, I think, from a research perspective, that same diversity that we have really provides a lot of opportunity to experiment and collect the data that we hope will really add to the robustness of the SHP program and hopefully will help benefit more who are considering the use of cover crops across kind of any situation.
John Mesko: (20:30)
That's a lot of the work that we're doing now, is answering those site-specific kinds of questions. One of the things that farmers involved in the Soil Health Partnership benefit from is the interaction with other farmers; learning the kinds of things that are going on anecdotally, in addition to the data and the research numbers that we're providing.
John Mesko: (20:51)
But I have to really tip my hat to the work that you're doing there because I think Nebraska, and maybe a few other states, but, actually, I'd like to see more really start to think more about the connection between sustainability and market development. As I talk with partners in the food-supply chain, the food-retail chain, when I talk with folks who are more engaged with consumers around agricultural products, there is a definite connection between how the crop or the animal is raised and it's interest in the marketplace.
John Mesko: (21:31)
So how do you see the work that you're doing there around stewardship and the environmental issues we've been discussing? How do you see that work supporting Nebraska Corn's efforts to build new markets and new opportunities for corn?
Boone McAfee: (21:48)
So going back to the vision of the Nebraska Corn Board, enhancing demand, adding value, ensuring sustainability, I think that connection between sustainability and market development is very much an opportunity that we're looking at because it really aligns with every aspect of that vision. As you alluded to, I think, now more than ever, agricultural environment policy, and now private industry, like the retailers and consumer-goods companies, are really converging around sustainability. And I think while that may have the potential to bring its own challenges to agricultural production, I think we're trying to be optimistic that there will also be these market opportunities as well.
Boone McAfee: (22:29)
I think one of those areas that is kind of particular interest to us and to growers that we've heard from is this market for environmental outcomes that are generated from ag production practices, so things like carbon markets. It kind of seems like these new carbon or ecosystem markets, or just sustainability programs in general, are popping up almost weekly. And on one hand it's exciting to see that there's kind of this momentum building behind that and there's hopefully going to be a lot of potential for these really diverse opportunities for growers.
Boone McAfee: (22:59)
But, on the other hand, this space has become crowded pretty fast, I'd say, and we kind of like... might be a little bit like the Wild West, because there's not a lot of standardization or oversight, per se, when it comes to that, and so can make it pretty convoluted and confusing for growers.
Boone McAfee: (23:15)
And so our focus right now has really been trying to learn what resources may best help our farmers navigate these markets and hopefully ensure that the risks of participating don't exceed those potential benefits. Again, thinking back to that three-legged-stool model of sustainability being economic, environmental, and social sustainability, and I think, at least in concept, these types of market-based sustainability programs I think do have potential to be one tool that may provide of those win-win-win opportunities.
Boone McAfee: (23:49)
It's going to take farmers to do that, and it's going to take farmers being involved. And we want to make sure that they are included in getting those wins as well.
John Mesko: (23:56)
I can't agree with you more and I've said it many, many times. The sustainability goals that everybody wants to see, and that is everybody from the federal government to consumers to companies that are producing consumer goods, supply-chain partners, input companies, everybody wants to see sustainability goals achieved and all of those goals come from, or most of those goals, come from the actions and decisions that farmers are making. And I agree with you that I think there is an important role for commodity groups to play in representing farmers in those discussions, because these markets are popping up and these opportunities are popping up, not just for the benefit of farmers. There's folks that are helping those things to develop because they have benefits they want to see, and that's normal and expected.
Boone McAfee: (24:58)
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I'd say that's exactly kind of what we're working on. And like we mentioned, it's just there's a lot of information being thrown out there and we know that it's going to take producers, it's going to take them being involved. And we kind of like to joke, "All of these companies or groups, they all have these commitments, they all have these things that they want to accomplish, but nobody really knows exactly how we're going to do it." So I think that's really where it comes, finding that connection between producers and ag practices and kind of what those goals are.
John Mesko: (25:28)
Yeah. Well said. Well, Boone, this has been a great conversation. I sure appreciate the opportunity to visit with you and hear from your insights. Again, I think the things that you're doing in Nebraska are critical to success, not only there, but give us a great example of things that can be done across the country. So certainly appreciate the opportunity to visit with you today and look forward to hearing how things develop there further.
Boone McAfee: (25:53)
Yeah. Just really appreciate being on, John, and I think we look forward to continuing to work with SHP, not only to benefit soil health and our farmers at the field level, but, again, just to help amplify that story of soil health stewardship to everybody.
John Mesko: (26:08)
Very good. Thank you so much.