"The FARMSMART Podcast": Episode 44

Posted December 06, 2023 | By: Nutrien Ag Solutions

North of the Border: Canadian Sustainable Agriculture Insights, with Crop Consultant Dani Kerr

Sustainability doesn't stop at the border.

In fact, Nutrien Ag Solutions supports thousands of growers across Canada, and many of them are well along the path in their sustainability journey.

But while the overall goals and ideas are the same, like so much about the relationship between the U.S. and Canada, things are a little different north of the border.

So in this episode, we're discussing the sustainable ag program offerings for Canadian Nutrien Ag Solutions customers, and the evolving set of practices that are getting results there.

To do so, we're speaking with Dani Kerr, a Crop Production Advisor in Alberta. She'll tell us how she's grown the total acreage enrolled in the Canadian Carbon program, how her team uses data to drive results for its growers, and what sustainability lessons they've learned that farmers across North America can benefit from.

Plus, Tom makes a big announcement.

Learn more about the Canadian Sustainable Nitrogen Outcomes program at nutrienagsolutions.ca/sno

And check out the Canadian FARMSMART page at nutrienagsolutions.ca/farmsmart

Episode Transcript

Dani Kerr: 

Our growers have always been looking toward the future here. We were early adopters of minimum to no-till practices, and they've been using variable rate technology for the better part of ten years or more. They know that they're doing everything they can to decrease the overall emissions as well as work on carbon sequestration. 

Dusty Weis:

Welcome to the FARMSMART Podcast presented by Nutrien Ag Solutions. Every month we're talking to sustainable agriculture experts from throughout the industry, along with our very own Tom Daniel, director of North America Retail and Grower Sustainable Ag. And Dr. Sally Flis, director of Program Design and Outcome Management. As the leading source of insight for growers on evolving their sustainability practices while staying grounded in agronomic proof, FARMSMART is where sustainability meets opportunity. We don't just talk change, we're out in the field, helping you identify the products, practices, and technologies that bring the future to your fields faster. 

On this week's episode, we're headed out to the fields and foothills of Alberta, Canada, to check in on Nutrien Ag Solutions Canada Carbon Program with crop production advisor Dani Kerr, to learn about the driving force behind the success of this program, which is improving sustainability outcomes and growers' margins. I'm Dusty Weis, and Tom and Sally, Tom particularly, I understand that congratulations are in order, Tom, on your upcoming retirement.

Tom Daniel: 

Well, thank you, sir. And yes, we announced to the team last Friday, Dusty, that I'm going to be retiring in January of 2024, so over 43 years in agriculture. So I think it's probably time to set some of it back that we made the announcement to the team last Friday, and that's what we're going to do. So I've got a good friend that sent me a suggestion. So I've started this in my house. I've got a bowl of marbles that have 70 marbles in it. So he said you pull a marble out every day and set it to the side until you pull your last marble out. So I've got 70 marbles in my bowl today, which is probably more marbles than I have in my head. As people say, I usually have marbles in my head.

Dusty Weis: 

And by the time that retirement officially rolls around, we'll officially be able to say that Tom has lost all of his marbles. That's right.

Tom Daniel: 

It's correct. That is correct. But we still got work to do, Dusty. We've still got another 70 days. So, Sally, I'm going to kind of jump in. This is kind of our all-Canadian segment today and kindly give us a recap, if you don't mind, of the 2023 Canadian Carbon Program. And I think it's been extremely successful, Carlos Romero, and that geography has done a fantastic job with our retail, but kind of give us a recap of where it ended up.

Sally Flis: 

And I'll just add my congratulations there, Tom. It's been a pleasure working with you for just about three years now since I joined Nutrien, and the podcast is for sure a highlight of the work we've done together. Trying to think of who else will have this easy rapport with me. May have to put you on contract or something, Tom, to keep our content up, or it's just going to be me talking a lot, which I don't know if that's ideal. But anyways, on Canada in 2023 we did, we saw a doubling of the number of acres that were enrolled in our Canadian Carbon Program versus what we had in 2022, and the 2022 enrollment, Tom, if you remember, was what like a quadruple of what we had in 2021 because we had initially targeted only about 40,000 acres in Canada. So significant growth in the acres enrolled, touching pretty much every crop that can be grown from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and a little bit of British Columbia.

So we have acres across four provinces in those prairie provinces, a lot of wheat and canola, but also getting corn, grain and oats, and field peas. So a little bit of everything really getting a good diversified landscape of the data that we're collecting and the outcomes that we're calculating on a bunch of different crops, which has allowed us with our partner in Maple Leaf Foods to have sustainability reporting on four of the main ingredients in their feed for their pigs on the 2023 crop. While completely report, have enough acres enrolled in the program that four of the crops that they're feeding to their hogs, we have a sustainability report for and have a carbon outcome to talk about for all of the tons that they need to feed those hogs for the year. So that's a pretty exciting step forward as well. And we're able with a diversity in our program to address all of the crops that they're feeding to their hogs through the programming that we have in Canada. 

So it's been a really exciting year. And yeah, Carlos is the fire behind that program, Tom, out there traveling all the time, working directly with crop consultants, talking to growers, working with our customer success team to make sure the data's collected. So yeah, exciting times in Canada.

Tom Daniel: 

Well, Sally, we mentioned Carlos and all the work that he's done in Canada, but it also requires a lot of work from our retail team, and they have been just outstanding to work with. Carlos has done a good job working with those groups and bringing them in because, without them, we couldn't do this. So Echelon has been a big part of our Canadian piece. It's a for-service program that our North American retail, not North American retail, but our Canadian retail do with farmers on a subscription basis. And I think from talking to Carlos, he's seen multiple growers that have become part of Echelon today just because the Carbon program kind of took them to that. So I think that's been an advantage for our retail group too.

Sally Flis: 

Yeah, for sure. There's been growth across the portfolio for the products and programs that customers and crop consultants are using from us. So the Canada program is set up a little bit different than the US program because of the protocol that we're following. We actually work with growers on moving them from pretty basic, so not having any sort of nutrient management plan through the steps of basic, intermediate, and advanced for our nutrient management plan around nitrogen for the farm. So every year, we're really able to work with growers on what's the next product or service that we can add so that you can achieve that highest outcome in the advanced level and get the biggest payment back. But that helps drive those discussions of use of something like the Echelon platform or variable rate applications, or nitrification inhibitors to help drive those bigger and bigger emission reductions year over year in the program.

So, Tom, we talk about snow a lot, and in Canada, we're not going to be talking about snow that hits the ground. It's our Sustainable Nitrogen Outcomes program, is what we're changing the name to in 2024. So why are we changing the name of the program from just Canada Carbon to Sustainable Nitrogen Outcomes? 

Tom Daniel:

Well, as a focus, Nutrien is going to be focused on managing our nitrogen rates going to the acre because of our needs as a company to help manage inputs on the acre. And nitrogen is a main contributor of carbon emissions. And so we just want to be sure that we're using right rates, right timing, the four Rs, as we call it in our Canadian program. But we're doing the very same thing in our US program base too. So I think the purpose here is to bring some similarity between the two programs. Now the protocols may be slightly different, but they're still both sustainable nitrogen programs, and we want to be sure to manage those nitrogen rates that are going on the acre. So I will ask you this one. If you were comparing the US-based snow program to the Canadian program, where do you see the basic differences between the two? 

Sally Flis:

So there's two basic differences between the Canada program and the US program. So in Canada, as I mentioned, we follow that progression from basic to intermediate to advanced for our practices. So looking at source rate, timing, and placement, but because the emission reductions are related to that level of for our implementation, we don't look as much at rate. We record rate, we have to make sure the growers hit the target rate that they plan to hit. But if a grower reduces nitrogen rate because of the advancing of foreign practices, we don't calculate the emission reductions associated with that reduced nitrogen fertilizer rate. We only calculate the level of practice that they're implementing at. So we're potentially losing some benefits there by not having that calculation related to rate. But in the US, following the protocol that we're following, we have to use that 5% minimum rate reduction, which, as we know, can always be a bit of a non-starter when you have to lead your conversation around rate reduction versus improved nitrogen management. 

So we're trying to find ways that we can bring these two protocols together, somehow, for a more uniform North American approach where we get the advantages of not just the rate reductions that come along with better management but also the emission reductions that come along with better management. So trying to find that piece that brings those two together. But for now, we've got one that's really kind of management-focused in Canada and one that has to be based on rate in the US, is the biggest difference. Tom, what are some of the eligibility requirements for growers in that Canadian Carbon Program or SNO in Canada?

Tom Daniel: 

So one of the basic requirements, Sally, obviously, is there has to be a nutrient management plan. So when we talk about a four R, we're talking about the main components of that nutrient management plan, and we want to determine where is the grower in his walk with sustainability. Is he basically a basic, intermediate, or an advanced? And then, of course, we obviously want to continue to progress a grower from a basic plan all the way to an advanced plan because there's more payment opportunities for the grower at the advanced plan, but it also shows he's making consistent improvements on the farm. So any grower that has a qualifying crop in the Canadian geography can sign up for one of these programs. Our preference is that the grower be a part of our Echelon program too. The requirements for information are so much easier to pull when we have the documented information coming through initial on platform. What other eligibility requirements do you see, Sally, that a grower would need to think about before engaging in this program?

Sally Flis: 

Well, you mentioned having a target crop, which we do cover most of the row crops in these geographies in Western Canada, but we also like to have a lot of growers we're working with that have been long-term no-till. It's not a requirement of the program anymore to be in long-term no-till, but it's definitely a metric when we work on the reporting to food companies downstream to be able to talk about all of the sustainable practices that the grower is implementing and not just the nitrogen management piece that gets us to those carbon credits. So there really aren't additional sustainability practices that are required at this point in time, but we want to be able to report on and collect the data so that when we talk to those downstream buyers of our outcomes, we can have a more holistic picture of the outcomes that we're reporting on and not just the emission reductions related to nitrogen management.

Tom Daniel: 

Sally, people question a lot of times why is no-till such a big ingredient when we talk about carbon or sustainability in general, but obviously some of the big pieces we need to remember is every time we till the soil, we release carbon. And so we want to make sure that we're reducing the amount of impact that we're having with the farming practice we have on the acres. So no-till is a key component. We talk about cover crops, but that's also a big play in Canada today too. So all of the different pieces that we talk about, these are significant portions of the program that help drive either carbon maintenance or carbon sequestration. And obviously, when we talk about the basic, intermediate, or advanced programs around four R, we're talking about nitrogen management too. How are we managing the nitrogen on that acre, and how are we applying it? So, Sally, when you think about it pretty well, then most growers in Canada could apply for this product and be eligible for this program. Am I correct?

Sally Flis: 

Really, geography is our limiting factor, Tom, because we don't operate retail locations or signup growers in Ontario and Quebec, so it's really almost mostly a geography thing is anything Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, or British Columbia should be able to sign up for the program if they're looking to improve or make changes to their nitrogen management practices in 2024.

Tom Daniel: 

Sally, we also have a program that's currently taking applicants for, it's our Sustainable Champions program, and I know this is a program that you've put together and set up for us in the US and in Canada. What are some deadlines that are coming up on that program? And just give us a quick background on that program.

Sally Flis: 

So applications for that program are due December 15th, and what we're looking for there is that story of the crop consultant and the grower working together to implement sustainable practices on the farm. The grower doesn't have to be enrolled in one of our programs officially. If they are, that's great, but it's just really that story about how is the grower and the crop consultant working together in order to advance sustainability on the farm.

Tom Daniel: 

That's right, and this is both a US-based and a Canadian-based program, and the winner of that program are the one that's selected for that. The crop consultant and the grower both get an opportunity to go to the Commodity Classic, which I believe this year, Sally, is in Houston. Am I correct on that?

Sally Flis: 

I believe so. Yes.

Tom Daniel: 

It is. It is.

Dusty Weis: 

Awesome. Well, Tom and Sally, you guys did a great job of sort of giving us an overview of the Canada Carbon Program and a lot of what's been accomplished this year, but you guys like to say that no two fields are the same, and so if we want to learn what's really going on in Canada, we're going to have to visit someone who stepped in a whole lot of farm fields there. That is Dani Kerr, Crop Production Advisor from Nutrien Ag Solutions, and we're going to talk to her coming up in a moment here on the FARMSMART Podcast.

This is the FARMSMART Podcast presented by Nutrien Ag Solutions. I'm Dusty Weis, along with Tom Daniel and Sally Flis, and we're joined now by Dani Kerr, Crop Production Advisor at Nutrien Ag Solutions. Dani, thank you for joining us. 

Dani Kerr:

Thanks for putting up with me. 

Dusty Weis:

I say that to Tom and Sally every time we jump on the call. Dani, to get us kicked off here, can you tell us a little bit about your background, your role in Nutrien Ag Solutions, and particularly the geography that you tend to? 

Dani Kerr:

You bet. Well, I fell into this by accident. I have a background degree in medically-based biology and a double diploma in land reclamation, but it worked out really good because eight years later I'm a Crop Productions Advisor out of Strathmore, Alberta, and it's been a blast because my team has made everything fun and easy, and my growers are innovative and always up for a new challenge. 

Sally Flis:

Dani, in that time, over the last three years specifically, you've been involved with your growers in our Carbon program, and since 2021, you've enrolled about 91,000 acres in the program under the four R nutrient stewardship work, going from that basic to advanced practices in the field. So what's driven the interest among your customers to see that growth from about 4,000 acres in 2021 to almost 70,000 acres in 2023 enrolled in the program? 

Dani Kerr:

Our growers have always been looking towards the future here. We were early adopters of minimum-to-no-till practices, and they've been using variable-rate technology for the better part of 10 years or more. With those in hand, it includes our Carbon program as the next logical step. We're able to keep an eye on new practice requirements and adjustments coming down the line with the climate change fight that we've got on our hands, and it really helps our growers feel as though they're directly involved in making an impact, and with getting on board now, they know that they're doing everything they can to decrease the overall emissions as well as work on carbon sequestration. And I mean, it doesn't hurt to receive a little bit of compensation for the hard work that they've been doing year over year. 

Sally Flis:

Dani, when you think about your ideal customer to participate in this, what does that ideal customer look like as you think about how to continue growing this program for the 2024 cropping season? 

Dani Kerr:

The easy way to put it is innovative and open-minded because I know we've got a classic battle of, "Oh, well, dad used to do it this way, so why would I change anything?" And sometimes those conversations end up with your head against the wall a few times as you try to adjust expectations and practices as we continue to move towards the future. We've been really blessed with the growers that continue to work with us because they are keeping their eye on what's coming and what they can do better. Our actual current focus at this branch has been soil health, which we find, again, goes hand in hand with carbon. 

Tom Daniel:

Dani, do you see anything generationally that you see more engagement from one generation or another on the farm, or do you see the sons today being more interested in the climate piece, or do you see any differences? 

Dani Kerr:

It really depends on where the farm has been in the past because the adopters that we have here are anywhere from 25 years old to 75 years old. So it's not truly generational, but entirely individual, and what they pass on to their kids from there. 

Tom Daniel:

I understand, with Nutrien Ag Solutions, we're one of the largest suppliers of products and services to the field, and I know that we're different in the field today from what our competition is in most cases. How have you seen these sustainable programs, such as the Carbon program? How has it enabled you to differentiate yourself from other retailers in that marketplace? 

Dani Kerr:

It allows us to focus more on the farm as a whole and from an agronomic perspective because I've found over the last eight years of my short career compared to some others’ longer careers that the more we push for a transactional interaction with our growers, the less we have an opportunity to work with them and build towards something good. So by focusing on it as a full farm piece instead of a, "Oh, you need 300 ton of fertilizer, let me get you that price," it builds that trust and really builds into what the guy is looking for at the end of the day. 

Sally Flis:

Dani, a big part of participating in this program and any of our Sustainable Ag programs is the data that drives the outcomes that we're able to measure, but also helps drive the decisions you guys are working with growers on in the field. So one of those tools is the Echelon tool. How have you guys kind of combined the Carbon program and driving higher use of Echelon or other services related to data with the growers or with new growers because of the Carbon program? 

Dani Kerr:

One qualifying piece that we utilize for the Carbon program is to be an Echelon user. A lot of what carbon needs is already aligned with what our Echelon program requirements are, and we figure these guys are already willing to give us access to all this information, so why don't we have the information work for them? 

Sally Flis:

Following on that, this year we're introducing a new data collection piece to the Sustainable Nitrogen Outcomes Program in Canada, the use of Agrible, and I know you recently did some trainings on that and have started trying to get some growers involved in it and signed up in the program, and starting to get set up for 2024. So what do you see as both the positives and the negatives of adding another tool like Agrible to a program like this in Canada? 

Dani Kerr:

I see it mostly as a positive addition, especially looking at what Agrible can do. I've been along for the ride from the time it was Crop Production Services and before Echelon existed through Echelon and everything that it's been building up to and what Agrible can take it further into. So I really hope that it can do everything that we've been shown it can do and then some because it gives us more of a, not quite, but similar to John Deere feel where it works, it integrates, it flows nicely, and customers can see what we're doing. It's more open and easier to access. 

Tom Daniel:

So, Sally, I may jump in on this just a second. Can you give us a description of what the Agrible platform actually does so that our listeners will understand what that platform is? 

Sally Flis:

Sure. The Agrible platform is designed to be our Sustainable Ag data collection platform. So while there is some overlap with what we collect in Echelon or other digital tools we have in the field, it's really designed to make sure we have all the pieces that we need in order to generate a Sustainable Ag report from something like the Cool Farm Tool or the Fieldprint Calculator in the US, or to meet the requirements of a validation and verification process for a Scope 3 inset or a Scope 1 offset. So it's a lot of the same information as you're going to find in Echelon or that you're going to find in one of these farm management software systems, but it's organized in a way that makes sure we get to the outcomes we need to report on and give reports back to people like Dani and the growers to talk about what's the next step to take in that sustainability journey for the grower and the crop consultant working together. 

Tom Daniel:

So, Dani, I'll go ask you this question. When we look at a program like Agrible, which is a grower-facing program, or it can be a grower facing-program where the grower can enter his own data in. Which type of grower do you see is more likely to be willing to do his own data entry versus having one of his Nutrien people do it? 

Dani Kerr:

That is a really good question because, with the way our growers work, they trust us enough to let us do that for them. And I know it takes a load off of their shoulders, but it's also a way of ensuring that we get the data through for them in a way that's going to function the best and truly report those results that they're looking for at the end of the day. So I guess in that point it would be trust with the grower, but of course that's not instantly earned. It's something that's built over time and knowing that we may not have that from the get-go. 

Dusty Weis:

Kind of expounding on that a little bit, Dani, when Connor, who's the executive producer of the podcast, emailed us that we were going to be interviewing you, he said that Carlos Romero had described you as a rockstar crop consultant, and certainly I would say that doing the data entry for your growers is one thing, but what are some other things that you would say defines what a rockstar crop consultant brings to the table? 

Dani Kerr:

That's a really good question because I like to just refer to myself as the all-around nerd, and everybody kind of accepts that I know all this stuff over here, but I make it work for them over there. But I guess one thing that makes me really proud of what I do and I hope translates into Carlos's glowing praise is throughout the year, so we go from soil sampling in the fall. We're 400 samples deep right now, almost to 500, and making sure that we get the right nutrients at the right place and the right time to really fill in that four R stuff. But we also have our scouts in the field every five to seven days to make sure that the program is doing what it's supposed to do and we're not missing anything significant in the field so that our guys have the best possible success at the end of the year. 

Sally Flis:

So, Dani, when you're talking to a grower about why they should sign up for the Carbon program or Sustainable Nitrogen Outcomes, what are the values or the gains that you cover with that grower about why they should participate? 

Dani Kerr:

Well, to prove that I'm a nerd all over again, it's like Heath Ledger said in Batman, "If you're good at something, you don't do it for free." So if we're doing these practices anyways and we can get our guys paid for them and make them more inclined to continue increasing their plant and soil health and really working towards bettering the farm's future, then why wouldn't we give them a little bit more of an incentive? So that's one piece that we talk about here. 

Sally Flis:

So, Dani, with our time together today, we've covered a lot of stuff, but one of the things as the program design person that I would love to know is what do you like about our programs? What do you dislike about our programs? What changes that we've made have been good, or maybe should we reconsider before we move forward with more years of this work? 

Dani Kerr:

One piece that always struck me as a little bit irksome is the overall trackability of carbon in the soil. So being, like I said, medically-based biology nerd, I had to go through all my science labs, had to say, "Oh yeah, this is all the quantifiable information." So for me, it's like, "Okay, let's prove that we're actually pushing this carbon back in the soil and see where all that's going." I know when we had the chance to talk there, you'd mentioned that the plan is in the future to get it to a place where we can truly quantify it so that we know whether the practices are doing well and where we can improve. Kind of like with any other Echelon program that we've run in the past, we look at the scorecards at the end of the year and we're like, "Okay, this one did really well. Oh, we can grow." 

But I've really appreciated the fact that every time we chat and going from ‘21 till now, the program has continued to improve, and it's getting easier for me to input all the information and to see what the growers are going to get back out of it. So I've thoroughly appreciated that.

Tom Daniel: 

Dani, what other lessons can you take away from the success you've been getting from customers involved with our carbon program in Canada? Can you apply what you think across different regions across all of North America? What do you see as your major successes in this program, and how can we duplicate those in other parts of North America?

Dani Kerr: 

I think it starts with knowing what our program is and what it offers the grower. At the end of the day, yes, things do come down to money, but seeing the bigger picture of, "Okay, we have to do more with less. The population continues to grow. Farmland continues to be converted into other uses, and yet we are still needing to feed the world." So by knowing what our carbon program offers our guys and knowing what practices can lead into that and the innovations that it can push us towards the future, it helps us step more confidently into that future.

Tom Daniel: 

And Dani, I would say this too, with your focus as a retail on soil health, the carbon program is just a natural, intertwined process to that soil health piece.

Dani Kerr: 

It fits really well with how our growers currently work and where we're hoping to take them as we go forward.

Dusty Weis: 

Well, Dani, you quoted Heath Ledger's Joker to us, so I'm going to quote it back to you. You are just too much fun. Dani Kerr, rockstar crop consultant from Nutrien Ag Solutions, thank you so much for joining us on this episode of the FARMSMART Podcast.

Dani Kerr: 

Thanks for having me.

Dusty Weis: 

That is going to conclude this episode of the FARMSMART Podcast. New episodes arrive every month, so make sure you subscribe to the FARMSMART Podcast in your favorite app and visit nutrienagsolutions.com/FARMSMART to learn more.

The FARMSMART Podcast is brought to you by Nutrien Ag Solutions. Our executive producer is Connor Erwin, and the show is edited by Matt Covarrubias. The FARMSMART Podcast is produced by Podcamp Media. Branded podcast production for businesses, podcampmedia.com. I'm Dusty Weis for Nutrien Ag Solutions. Thanks for listening. 

 

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