John Mesko (00:30):
Welcome back to The People of Soil Health Podcast. And with me today is Elyssa McFarland, who is our Field Development Director at The Soil Health Partnership. She's also one of the longer tenured employees of our program and someone who serves with me on the Soil Health Partnership Leadership team. Thank you for joining Elyssa.
Elyssa McFarland (00:53):
Yeah John, thanks for having me.
John Mesko (00:54):
I was really looking forward to having a conversation with you today really in light of some of the things that we've been working on recently. As you know, we've just held our first ever public update. We have been, as an organization, really working hard to let folks know of our accomplishments and our relevance and our value to corn growers and the farming community. But you've been around Soil Health Partnership for quite a while. You've been here for a total of what, four years or so now?
Elyssa McFarland (01:26):
Something like that. I started back in 2015 as a field manager, we were just starting to enroll kind of the first sites in Iowa and I was able to participate in the development of this program and really rapid growth. It was really exciting and it was really satisfying to listen in to that public update and hear the big picture of everything that we've accomplished because I'm definitely down in the weeds most days working with our field team, working on our various grants. And so to take a step back and really see the overall big picture of all the things we accomplished was pretty awesome.
John Mesko (02:01):
Well, and you have had a big hand in the growth and development of the program as you referenced from those early days. I mean, it seems like so much has happened from what things were like then. Starting a new organization from scratch and applying the mission and the goals to a brand new audience of people, it must have been pretty, pretty amazing to be growing so fast and working so hard to get things on the ground for Soil Health Partnership?
Elyssa McFarland (02:34):
Yeah, it really was. I think back to my early days, as I was actually contractor to start with, and we were still figuring out the protocols and how to take these types of soil samples and get them out of the field, back to a lab, analyzed quickly and efficiently, and get those results back in the hands of farmers. And that's just for soil sampling, and that's just one part of the data collection that we do. It's top of mind right now for me because we happen to be recording this here in the spring where we're thinking a lot about soil sampling and what we need to get done.
Elyssa McFarland (03:07):
But the development of the protocols, I think being an agronomically kind of minded field team allowed us to adapt those protocols really quickly and having the Rockstar operations team behind us that took our feedback from the field of like, this is what we have to do with just the in the field logistics of samples and boxes and all those sort of things and get that scaled up to something that runs efficiently across hundreds of sites was a really amazing learning and I think it really shows the strength of having a really dedicated team that also has a diverse range of backgrounds in terms of logistics and technical knowledge and working with contractors.
John Mesko (03:48):
Yeah, I think when I look at, from my seat, looking at the history of the program that certainly predates my involvement, but it's hard to know how much energy is going to be needed to develop these protocols. If no one's ever done it before, it's hard to know and predict how many people you're going to need, how much time it's going to take, what components go into that? And it took SHP a little while to kind of get the momentum going in the right direction when it came to data collection and you and your team, over the last year, have made some big strides forward in all manner of data that we've collected.
Elyssa McFarland (04:28):
Yeah. I think that one of the things, when I think back to the early days of SHP is, in this space in general in agriculture, there was a lot of big promises being made about how on-farm data collection, data information about farm management could be managed integration of spatial data as well as economic data and all of the different pieces of information that are floating around on a farm. There was a lot of big promises being made at that time about what the possibilities were and I think that that created a lot of good energy, but also created kind of a lot of chaos in this space. And I think that one thing that I've seen over the past couple of years, more broadly across the industry, is an acknowledgement that farms are really diverse and there's not going to be this silver bullet magic software management system something that's going to integrate every piece of this together.
Elyssa McFarland (05:15):
Each farm is a little different in what their priorities are and I think that's healthy because I think it creates some competition in the marketplace in terms of figuring out how we manage all this information. And I think the niche that the SHP specifically filled in that, is that work that we've done to integrate specifically these soil metrics and the agronomic insights of our field managers with those management pieces that we've been working with the science team to collect in a standardized way so that we know when we see a change in yield or we see a change in weed pressure or a soils outcome that we have the ability to go back and dig deep into the data and figure out what are the management decisions that that farmer made along way that led to that successful outcome.
John Mesko (05:59):
Well, I think you hit it right on the head there. What were the management decisions along the way that led to that successful outcome? So many of the conversations that I have across the whole community around soil health and ecosystem services and the ability for farmers to help bring about change in the environment and improvement in the environment is really lacking in this question about how to, or how to implement? Or as you said, every farm is different and there's no silver bullet approach to data management, there's no silver bullet approach to implementing a specific practice like cover crops. Your field team is home to a lot of expertise in this area.
Elyssa McFarland (06:47):
Yeah, I think that that's one of the things that I value most about the growth of SHP is we did have that kind of rapid growth and energy and I think that brought a lot of folks who have that passion for this work, particular expertise that were looking to jump into a project that they could really put their foot on the gas and help it get to the next stage. And when I look across the field team, as well as the science team, we've got a lot of folks who have a lot of energy and expertise and it keeps us moving forward and adapting to the new things that are on our plate. But what's nice is that we've established some of these protocols and the literal infrastructure to manage this information in a way that allows us to be a lot more nimble and I'm really excited for what the future holds.
Elyssa McFarland (07:28):
I know we've talked a little bit about the past here, which is something that I'm kind of known for on our team is, "Well, back in my day in 2015, we had to go out..." and so it's been good to take a trip down memory lane, but I also am very excited for the future and what the infrastructure as well as this energetic team can accomplish.
John Mesko (07:47):
Well, I think that's a great segue. I mean, the public update that we just recorded a day ago and is now available on the web, that update... I see it as kind of a stake in the ground to say, a lot of energy, a lot of expense, a lot of time and brainpower went into getting to this point in time where we have some results, we have some understanding of the impact of cover crops and reduced tillage have on soil health indicators. We have an understanding about how things can change over time. We have an understanding about how much time it takes to see change take place. But you mentioned the future, I mean, I think of this as a jumping off point now into the future in some of the things that we could do and some of the things we think about doing. When you think about the things that are exciting for you, I'm interested in hearing where you'd like to see things go.
Elyssa McFarland (08:46):
Well, I think one of the things that I'm most excited about is being able to take this kind of machine, if you will, this group of people and infrastructure that we've built that works really effectively with farmers on the ground to collect information, to process it and make it available, to be able to be interacted with in a way where, if we're working with a partner or one of our scientists, it's wanting to ask a question of our data, it's in a way that you can interact with it now, which I think is, is a huge step forward, and for those folks who might be listening, who work in research, you know how much of a challenge that is to not just collect the information, but make it kind of interoperable.
Elyssa McFarland (09:22):
And because we have those pieces in place, I think the sky's the limit in terms of the ways that we can help farmers understand how these practices are affecting their farm, affecting their bottom line, their soils, all of these things, how do we help farmers understand what's happening for themselves and then also represent that to our other constituents, whether that be folks that are looking to make policies or folks that have particular market opportunities available to farmers that are asking how long? What are the possibilities here? I think that we have the ability to be really nimble now and answer a lot of those questions for those folks that are interested.
Elyssa McFarland (09:59):
I think that the last thing I'll kind of highlight on this, and you can cut me off John, but the thing that I feel like we do best, it's hard to really describe sometimes, is we help farmers identify their goals. And it takes time to do that because this is a really broad space and there's so much awesome work that's happening. There's really great things that are happening in kind of the broad, sustainable agriculture space, whatever you want to call. There's a lot of cool stuff happening, but when it comes down to an individual farm and setting a goal and measuring success against that, it gets really complicated. And I think that's what our team is especially good at because we have the knowledge to integrate the technical soils and agronomic information with that management perspective at scale. We're working with large farmers, they need to make decisions in a really thoughtful way across a lot of acres, and I think that's another area where, where we have a specific niche that we can fill.
John Mesko (10:50):
Yeah. I agree with you and that's one of the things that interests me as well. And I've said, I think I may have said it on the update, but I've said it many times that, in our society, consumers and components of the value chain in food and ag. So whether that's a food company or an ag input supply company, consumers themselves all want to see the food and ag value chain become more sustainable to operate in a way that is less impactful on the environment and maybe even be positive, a net growth in environmental sustainability. I think everybody wants to see that because agriculture is one of, if not the biggest impact on the environment, especially in the commodity growing regions of the United States. That means farmers are going to be asked to do something different. And a lot of organization's goals rest on the shoulders of farmers to make a change their practices, and that's a big ask of farmers to say, "We think you should do it differently. We think you should produce corn or soybeans differently than you do and we think it should involve these types of practices."
John Mesko (12:09):
And there's various ways that that gets communicated, sometimes it's an incentive payment from the federal or state government, sometimes it's advertising, or sometimes it's enrolling farmers in a program that advocates for those kinds of practices. But there's very little support for what you just described, and that is helping a farmer, from that perspective, from that viewpoint, realizing that a farmer is being asked to make changes and we're able to sit with that farmer and say, "Okay, what is it that you need to learn about your farm? What is it that you need to learn about a practice change, like cover crops or reduce tillage to help you implement this, or to decide if you want to, or how or where, or how much." I think that's what SHP is really poised to do now.
Elyssa McFarland (13:00):
Yeah. And I think, to build on that, we're poised to do that because of the types of data that we collect and the integration that we have amongst that. We don't think about it from purely just a soil science perspective or purely an economics perspective or a modeled perspective. We're working with real farmers at scale to both deliver insights for that individual farmer, but then also represent what some of these concepts that are a little bit maybe more one-sided like you were saying, like the particular company or entity that is in the agriculture space and asking something of farmers they might not have the other aspects of this in consideration because they're not operating a farm. I mean, they're potentially not doing research. If they are doing any research, they're not doing it at the scale that makes sense for a commodity farmer. And so I think that that's a really important piece of this, as well, is the scalability of that concept.
John Mesko (13:54):
Yeah. I think you're spot on there and I see that as well. Over the course of time that you've been working in this, you've talked with a lot of farmers. We all at SHB engaged with farmers in large numbers, whether it's in our winter research meetings or it's on individual farms or field days that we've been to, and those will come back eventually I'm sure. But in your experience, what are some of the questions that farmers have around this notion that they need to do something different or that people, the community, the society is asking more from farmers? What kinds of things are you hearing from them? And I'm sure it's variable, I mean, in my experience it is, but I'm curious your take on some of that from some of your conversations.
Elyssa McFarland (14:44):
I think there's a couple of things that come to mind right away. The first is being, especially in one-on-one or really open honesty about, "Well, this is what I'm doing, do you think that that's doing some good? Am I just not getting recognized for some good that I'm doing? How could I document that? Or I've been doing this, do you think that that's problematic? Is there something I'm missing?" And so I think a lot of farmers, especially when you start talking about their individual operations and as a trusted partner within the agriculture space, there's a lot of like, "What am I doing already? What could I be doing that's additive?" And then when we start getting into the specific practices that are talked about a lot of times, the next question is, "What is it going to cost me? And what is it going to benefit others and myself as well?"
Elyssa McFarland (15:35):
And I think a lot of times, organizations that are in this space that maybe aren't directly tied to farm management type discussions interpret that question as, "We just need an ROI number on cover crops. We need this many dollars per acre is what you get for cover crops and that's the return on your cover crop investment." And I think one of the things that is highlighted in our farm finance report, as well as, you touched on it in the update yesterday, is that that number probably wouldn't even be useful to an individual farmer. They want to understand the process that led to that number. You could say at the end of five years, cover crops will return $10 an acre on your farm.
Elyssa McFarland (16:17):
In my experience, working with farmers that wouldn't be the end of the conversation, they would want to know more about, "Well, where's that return coming on? Is it on decreased input costs? Is it on increased yield? Is it a combination of thereof? Is it because one out of those five years you saw a significant yield increase because of improved water management, but the rest of the years it was just even?" And so those are the kinds of things that I feel like farmers are asking on a more individual basis. I think, as a program, representing farmers on a little bit larger scale, I think that there is a question as well of like, how do we represent what farmers are doing in the aggregate? How do we share the story of what is happening already in this space and what the potential is in a way that is authentic to the science, as well as authentic to the farmers experiences out in the field and that's a really complicated one to communicate.
John Mesko (17:12):
You're right, but I think that one of the things that is our good fortune and something that we can leverage as an organization is our association with the national corn growers, and certainly other commodity groups as well that we've been working with lately. I think that one of the objectives of a member base commodity group is to act on behalf of its members. And I think you're right, I think corn growers and commodity producers in general are looking for those kinds of answers. "Is what I'm doing beneficial? How do I get credit for that? Whether it's financial credit or just publicity credit or public relations credit." And I think the powers that be that brought our organization together so many years ago were wise in their assessment of where this program should rest. It should rest with a commodity group and the corn growers are one of the largest commodity groups and provide that exposure, that opportunity that we have to work with farmers throughout the country.
John Mesko (18:18):
And I know you've been involved for a long time, so tell me what your thoughts are with regard to how we might work state to state and work in other regions of the country where we're strong in the Midwest, but we have opportunities to have influence in other areas as well to serve more members of corn growers and other commodity farmers.
Elyssa McFarland (18:42):
I think this is where my role in kind of wearing both a development hat and a field manager hat at different times, it has really benefited my ability to see the bigger picture here and now that we have some of these in-depth analysis on individual farms, as well as some of these higher level insights on the impact that, for example, cover crops have on soil health metrics, we have the ability to engage with some of our local and state-based researchers and commodity organizations to leverage that work with some of, maybe say small plot research for a university. Which historically in the past, I didn't have those resources right at my fingertips with SHP, it wasn't as easy to access that information because we didn't have that infrastructure in place. And now that we do, those pieces of information are a lot more easily accessible and also in a format that's really shareable for farmers.
Elyssa McFarland (19:39):
I think about the awesome work that we did to put out both that in-depth farm finance report, as well as some individual kind of examples that went along with it of business cases that really highlight a particular farm and how we might be able to take that information from that farm highlight that we did on farm finance and what the budget looks like on this farm and maybe pair that with some extension information from a similar region or something like that to be able to put this information out there in this space so that more folks can access it as well as maybe pull nuggets from other folks with other expertise. Because while we have this farm management kind of expertise at a broad level, there are certainly partners out there in this space that have really, really hyper-specific water quality expertise, or herbicide weed resistance management expertise or whatever that particular niche is, and I think that that's where we can really start to accelerate the distribution of this information as well as the local relevancy of it.
John Mesko (20:40):
Well said, Elyssa. Thank you for summarizing some of those thoughts for us. I mean, I really appreciate the work that you do in our various states working with not only your field team but, as you mentioned, some of the development partners that we have across the country. Certainly appreciate your insight and background both with SHB, but also as a farmer and as an agronomist and as another expert on our team in these areas, you are a great asset to the organization and to agriculture so thank you very much.
Elyssa McFarland (21:15):
Oh thank you, John. I always say I wear a lot of hats, none of them particularly well, but I try to help us keep moving forward. And it's been a real pleasure to be able to see the insights that have come out over the last year or so and the leadership that you've shown in terms of how we communicate that and I think that one of the things I always struggle with is, probably obvious on this podcast, is being pretty succinct. And I think one of the things that I appreciated about the update yesterday is it was a really succinct view of all of the amazing work that we've done and it was really awesome to listen to that. And so I hope other folks will take the time to do that because it's fast, it's hard hitting. If you want to see a summary of all the different things that we've done and in some really useful bits of data in there, I think that there are some absolute nuggets in there that you can then go and explore further in the literature and resources that we have.
John Mesko (22:09):
Well, you read my mind because my next comment was to say to the listeners here, we've been talking with Elyssa McFarland, the Field Development Director at Soil Health Partnership, and we've been talking about Soil Health Partnership, our history, where we're at currently, our future goals and some of the opportunities we think we have in the future. And we've been referencing a report, an update that I recorded yesterday as a webinar. That is available on our website, soilhealthpartnership.org. As is the economics report that Elyssa referenced, conservation's impact on the farm bottom line. That report was done as a joint effort between the Soil Health Partnership, Environmental Defense Fund, and the accounting firm, K·Coe Isom. And it is the answer to one of the most frequently asked questions I get which is, "Tell me what the economics are of conservation practices, cover crops, reduced tillage and so forth." And that report is one of the answers that we've developed to that question and I hope that folks like you, I hope that folks will go there and check that out. Soilhealthpartnership.org. Elyssa, thanks again. I appreciate the chance to visit with you as always.
Elyssa McFarland (23:29):
Good to talk with you too, John.