"The FARMSMART Podcast": Episode 45

Posted December 20, 2023 | By: Nutrien Ag Solutions

A 50-Year History of Agriculture and Sustainability, with Tom Daniel

Agriculture has been around for more than 10,000 years.

But you can argue that in the last 50 years, it’s changing and evolving faster than ever before.

That evolution has included the growing relationship between agriculture and what we now call “sustainability.” 

And someone who's been along for almost that entire ride is our very own Tom Daniel, Nutrien Ag Solutions' Director of North America Retail and Grower Sustainable Ag, who is retiring after 43 years in the industry.

So in this episode, we thought it would be fun and interesting to look back at that history through Tom's eyes.

He'll tell us about trends that have come and gone and re-emerged yet again. We'll chart how new technologies have made better sustainability outcomes, higher productivity and healthier margins possible. And we'll explore the changing relationship between consumers and the food they eat, and how sustainable ag has always been at the heart of all we do—whether you actually call it "sustainable ag" or not.

Episode Transcript

Tom Daniel 

Farming is sustainability. Sometimes we use that term as a separate part of the farming process, but I think all the way back to my beginning days, some things that we did on the farm. Those were all just practical things on the farm that we did. We didn’t really name it “sustainability,” but it was.  

 

Dusty 

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 taking a look back at the history of agriculture and sustainability over the last 50 years, as we tip our hats to our retiring colleague, Tom Daniel, who's taking his leave after a 43-year career in ag. I'm Dusty Weis, and Tom and Sally, we announced Tom's retirement on the last episode of the show, but... 

After we taped that episode, I got to thinking a little bit here, Tom, and anytime someone who's been in an industry for that long retires, they take with them a wealth of institutional knowledge that is quite literally priceless. Now, agriculture, of course, has been around for more than 10,000 years, but you can argue that in the last 50, it's changing and evolving faster than ever before.  

And we like to say that farmers are the original environmentalists, but these last 50 years also chart the arc of the growing relationship between agriculture and what we now call sustainability, Tom. So I know this show is usually focused on the present and the future, but as you're counting down the days to the departure here, we thought it'd be cool to do an episode where we look back at the time that you spent in the business to see just how we got here. So for starters, can you take us through the arc of your career? 

You grew up on your family's farm in Kentucky, and that's the farm where you still make your home today, but was there ever any doubt in your mind that agriculture was the field in which you were going to be working for the rest of your life? 

 

Tom Daniel 

No Dusty. And in fact, it's, it's been, I guess farming's in your blood, as they say, right? So it's been in my blood since I started. We had tobacco, corn that went into the feed operation for our cattle. 

My dad basically entrenched in me, my work ethic and everything came from the farm. And so, you know, it's just been a part of me from the very beginning. I can't remember, or I don't believe I would ever be able to see myself in any other industry than agriculture. It's always been there for me. 

 

Sally  

So Tom, as Dusty said, 43 years of a career, it struck in my mind that I am 43 years old this year.  

 

Dusty  

I'm sure he loves to hear that, Sally. 

 

Tom Daniel  

Yeah, we'll have to take that out now, guys. That's gotta come out. 

 

Sally 

So, it's interesting to think about similar experiences that you and I have had through the last 43 years, a little bit different for me. I didn't grow up on a farm, but my dad was a crop consultant. And so from a very young age was out, getting in the field, taking soil samples with my dad when he would get home from work, because now having kids realizing that was cause you know, mom needed a break and we were going to go soil sample with dad.  

But that early exposure to agriculture is something that I think that's probably helped us work well together and brought us together as a team, being something we've both been passionate about through our whole lives and not just our careers. So as you look back, what the farm used to have, what you guys are doing on the farm now. What are some of the big major changes that you've seen on the farm and across North America as you've progressed across that career? 

 

Tom Daniel 

Well, Sally, if you think about it, some of the major impacts of agriculture have really only happened in the last 75 years. I would have said the last 50 years, but you got to go back all the way back into the 50s, basically, where you see some of the major changes. And I guess one of the biggest things and when I went back and started looking at my career and things that I've been involved with…  

Farming is sustainability. I think we sometimes we use that term sustainability as a separate part of the farming process. But I think all the way back to my beginning days on things that we did on the farm to control erosion, you know, things we did on the farm with our cattle, as far as managing fresh water supplies and those types of things. 

Those are just all practical things on the farm that we did. We didn't really name it sustainability, but it was. My dad taught me way back early, and I think you've heard me say this before, Sally, and we've heard this said by multiple other people, you know, the good Lord doesn't make us new soil every year.  

We have to take what we were given, and we have to make sure that we continue to manage that resource in the future because I've got grandchildren now and my hope is that some of them will want to be on the farm someday and I hope that they'll be able to take this same ground, the same soil that I farmed, that my father farmed and that my grandfather farmed and still be able to make a living off of it. Not only that but supply food and fiber for what we know is a large and growing world today. So when we think about sustainability… 

I think I've been in sustainability since I've been on the farm. I just, I just don't think there's a separation from that. I live in Christian County, Kentucky, which if anyone knows anything about agriculture, especially around no-till, one of the first farmers that developed equipment to actually do no-till farming was Harry Young and he lived in between Herndon and Lafayette, Kentucky. 

Notice I said, Dusty, Lafayette, Kentucky. It's not Lafayette, it's Lafayette, Kentucky here, okay? But there's a placard on that farm that has been in continuous no-till since 1962. So that farm has never seen a tillage tool since 1962, that particular field.  

And if you go back and look at it, he was a pioneer at that time. When we talk about sustainability, Dusty, we talk about cover crops, we talk about no-till, that seems to be the big two things. But the no-till piece didn't have chemistry back then. Back in the old days, 2,4-D and Paraquat were really the only two chemicals at that time that farmers had to control weeds. And can you imagine controlling weeds without the use of Roundup Ready technology and all those type things and try to no-till at that time?  

 

Dusty  

No, I can't. 

 

Tom Daniel  

That was just, I can't either. And Sally, I know what you couldn't recognize that even being a possibility. You know, chemistry is what drove the no-till industry. And we've seen that especially over the last 50 years. But Mr. Harry did it without that. And one of the things that I kind of look back on my career, I spent the first days of my summers when I was between college at the University of Kentucky, I worked for the Integrated Pest Management Group out of the Extension Service.  

So I actually was scouting farms and we were managing the use of crop protection products on those farms based upon the scouting reports and the pest management that we did as scouts out in the field. So I spent three summers doing nothing but going out scouting fields and then making chemical recommendations back to the grower as to what those products needed to be used. Mr. Harry Young was one of my one of my farmers that I worked with. 

And you talking about being just wanting to sit at his foot sometimes and listen to all of the stuff that he talked about on farming. He was way ahead of his time, but he developed, like I said, one of the first original no-till planters. In fact, in Princeton, Kentucky, at the University of Kentucky Research Farm, that original Alice-Chalmers planter is sitting there because it was one of the original no-till planters. 

So, I got to sit at the foot of the guy who helped establish no-till. And now his son and now his sons are continuing those practices and continuing to develop no-till as it goes forward. 

 

Dusty 

Now, Tom, you mentioned that the agriculture that your dad practiced, the agriculture that neighbors like Harry Young practiced, they just called it practicing agriculture. They didn't call it sustainability, even though the practices were there. Did people talk about sustainability? Was that word thrown around? And in what context? What did people think of sustainability back then? 

 

Tom Daniel  

So I'll give you my dad's definition of that, Dusty, it’s probably the best one. My dad's definition was, you can't constantly abuse resources. They have to be taken care of. So sustainability to him was, how can we make a change that's going to make what we're working with even better?  

And when I think of Harry Young, he was looking at those gullies and those ditches, in his part of the country, which is Southern Christian County, that ground was flat. So erosion there was a big deal, but not as a big a deal it was in my part of the county, which is rolling type, you know. So one of my biggest deals is when my dad passed away in 2018, he made me promise him that I'd make sure all the gullies on that farm got fixed. 

And I said, I'll take care of that. And they are all fixed today. They're in CRP today and they're all sewn down with grass waterways and everything. But he, that was just his biggest concern up to his dying day that we made sure that we took care of this farm. Sustainability really is that. It's not a complicated term. You know, we, we get caught up in carbon and all these other things, which are all sustainable things and all things that are going to be part of sustainability in the future.  

But in truth, it's just a farmer taking care of his farm. That is sustainability. And that was the definition my dad always gave me. He said, you got to take care of what you got. Don't abuse it and know that you've got to make a living on it in the future. That was his concentration and that's kind of been my concentration moving forward. 

 

Sally  

Yeah, Tom, I would totally echo your comments there. I was just on a panel last week where I was asked very similar question of, you know, is sustainability going to be here in 10 years? And I said, it might not be called sustainability in 10 years or regenerative ag or whatever term is put on it.  

Same thing as you said, Tom. 

When I started my career 20 years ago, we were talking to growers about changing crop rotation, adding cover crops, reducing tillage, all of those practices, better nitrogen management, changing of timing and placement of manure and fertilizer rates. We didn't call it sustainability. It was just being a crop consultant and writing a nutrient management plan. It wasn't a term. It was just what we did with our customers to make them better farmers.  

So totally see that same standpoint and where things are at in the industry. And I guess probably curious what somebody comes up with as the next term for sustainability as we continue in this field going forward with our growers. In the different companies that you've worked with, you've been exposed to a lot of these changes. At BASF, you guys started to work with what was called smart applications of crop protection. What drove that change in how we approached crop protection applications in your time at BASF?  

 

Tom Daniel 

So BASF went to a soybean program and it's going to sound really, when I say it today, it kind of sounds funny that we named it that. We called it the BASA plan. Basagran was one of the chemicals we sold back then. So we came up with a system of soybean production called the BASA plan. And we worked with growers out of Illinois and Indiana that were no-tilling soybeans, narrow row no-tilling soybeans.  

Prior to that, everything had been done in wide row stands, you know, 30 inch row soybeans, so forth and so on. So we started promoting heavily back in the early nineties and late eighties, what we called a narrow row function system. So we were promoting 15 inch row soybeans or all the way down to 10 inch row soybeans at that time. 

And we were talking about using burndowns like Roundup were available at that time. So we used a burndown, planted narrow row soybeans and the weed control for those soybeans came from the canopy that was produced from the narrow row soybeans. We were reducing the amount of chemistry that was being used on that acre or we were using selective chemistry at that time.  

We were using things like. I'm going to speak some things that people won't even recognize names anymore, but we were using products like Basagran or Blazer or Fusilate or Post or all of those different chemistries that were used for grass control, selective grass control, selective broadleaf control. That was before Roundup came out as far as an over the top application for genetically modified soybeans. 

So we were coming up with systems that allowed the soybeans themselves to become their own herbicide protector, or own weed protector, right? They canopied the row, shaded the row, kept the sunshine away from the weeds. The weeds didn't grow, right? So that was sustainability in its own right at that time, right? We were going narrow row soybeans, no tillage, and we were looking at reducing the amount of crop protection products used on the acre by using the natural canopy of the crop itself as being weed control. 

Sally, at the time I left BASF back in 1999, at that time, I'd spent almost 18 years with BASF and I'd watched the progression of agriculture during that time, because that's when Roundup Ready came into play.   

That was back in the early 90s that we started seeing the first Roundup Ready crops. And if I have to look back on anything, there's two key things. Well, I'm going to say three key things in my history that I got to watch develop. One was no-till. We just talked about that. One was the progression of the use of synthetic fertilizers on the acre because that automatically led us to higher production opportunities and those type things. Right? 

But I think the one that really stands out of all is Roundup Ready crops. I mean, that completely changed the progression pattern for like no-till and everything else. Everything just suddenly ramped up because now we had a way to get weed control on a given acre that we could almost guarantee ourself weed control. We could use an application or maybe two over the top and take care of an entire weed spectrum in these genetically modified crops.  

Something we'd never been able to do in the past. Sally, I don't know if you remember the old days, but if you traveled in the South very far, one of the key things you always saw in a cotton field or a corn field or a soybean field was Johnson grass, rhizome Johnson grass. It would just overtake acres.  

And I remember that particular grass was not a grass that was domestic to the US, but it was brought over here for a pasture rangeland grass because it would grow in drought areas, you know, and it's a rhizome type material. But that particular grass took over the South especially where we just could not manage it until Roundup came on. When Roundup came on, we started being able to manage some of these weeds. And look at the production of yield on these acres. When you can take a weed out of the system that can't compete now with the crop, then that crop can go to its maximum advantage as far as yield and what it can do. So to me, those are the three main things that I've seen in my career that I think have driven to profitability for growers, but not only profitability, but our ability to produce food for this world. 

 

Sally  

Yeah, it's interesting you bring up that Johnson grass example, Tom. My daughters were just asking me the other night, what is an invasive species and why do we have some of them? And I said, well, some of them we made ourselves. And the example I gave was the kudzu vines in the South of we, we did that to ourselves and it wasn't until we had some of the tools, like you talk about, like Roundup and some of these other genetic traits that we're able to really pull back on the implementation of things that we thought we're going to be the solution to things.  

And I think that's probably one of the things that I reflect on in sustainability is, what are some of the things we've done? And we've talked about it on the podcast a lot before. What are those unintended consequences when we don't think about the whole system when we implement a new practice and we just try and push something on the landscape for sake of meeting a short-term goal? 

 

Dusty 

It's like my grandma always used to tell me Sally the story about the little old lady who swallowed a fly. I don't know why she swallowed the fly, but things got a whole lot worse when she tried to do something about that fly. 

 

Tom Daniel 

It did, Dusty. But one of the things that Sally, you and I've talked about from the very beginning, you cannot look at just the crop cycle of the specific crop that you've got planted. We talk about that whole acre solution and maybe we overuse that term, but that's what it is. It's managing that acre 365 days a year, but now… 

Sally, in some of the programs you've done work with and design now, we have to look out in years to come as far as rotations and things that are going to happen on that farm. When we talk about no-till, it's not just no-till for the existing crop that's being planted that year, but how do I treat that acre toward tillage in the upcoming crop or crops coming in the future, right? How do I incorporate livestock? Am I using livestock this way on the farm? 

Or am I using it in controlled grazing? There's multiple things that we have to consider. But when we talk about that whole acre solution, that's what we're talking about. How do we manage that acre, not only this year, but also all the way into the future? Because that's where sustainability is going to have its biggest play. Not just today, but what the future holds. 

 

Dusty     

Well, Tom, it's really just so interesting walking through some of these specific milestones that you got to experience over the course of your 43-year career. These things reshaped agriculture and its relationship with sustainability. But coming up after the break here, we want to take a look back at some of the broader trends over that same time period that have led us to where we are today, practice changes, technology, economic factors, and of course, society's evolving relationship with agriculture. We're going to talk about all that coming up right after this here on the FARMSMART Podcast. 

 

Dusty 

This is the FARMSMART Podcast presented by Nutrien Ag Solutions. I'm Dusty Weis along with Sally Flis, and we're talking today to our retiring colleague, Tom Daniel, who's finally taking a well-deserved break after 43 years in this industry here. Tom, I got to ask you, how many marbles we got left in that bowl now as we're counting down? 

 

Tom Daniel 

So we're down to 51 marbles right now. So we got 51 left till I pull the last marble out of the bowl. 

 

Dusty 

Well, outstanding. And of course, this won't be your last podcast with us either. And we're grateful for that as well. But, wanted to dive back into this narrative that we're weaving as we talk about the evolution of agriculture and sustainability throughout the course of your career. You know, it's kind of funny how sometimes everything old is new again, but here we are in 2023 and we're preaching the value of cover crops, and seeing that adapted as a practice more and more. 

 

Certainly, we talked in the beginning here about your neighbor, Harry Young, who was a pioneer in no-till, but sort of similar to no-till, we're seeing a lot more of cover crops up there. Why did cover crops go away for a while as a practice, and what's driving its resurgence here? 

 

Tom Daniel  

Well, once again, we're going to go back to the old history of chemistry in the past, Dusty, when we think about the need for burndown chemistry that had the ability to terminate a cover crop and the ability to plant a new crop into the spring into it, right? So as we've seen the advancement of the herbicides that came through in the late 80s and early 90s, then we started seeing the opportunity for those cover crops to be used. And cover crops, when I think about my dad's time and when I was my early years on the farm, cover crops were used for erosion control.  

That was really all the discussion point we had at the time. You know, we plant cover crops for the purpose of making sure that this ground doesn't wash away in the wintertime. You know, when we're getting all those heavy rains and the spring rains and the freeze and the thaws, we use that cover crop to hold that ground in place and make sure we don't lose it. We didn't really look at soil health at that time as being part of cover crop. Now I'm not saying there weren't some advancements during that time that some of the research institutions were looking at it as cover crop as being a valid tool for helping to increase soil health and microbiology in the soil, but for us, it was more around a protection of the soil, to keep it in place.  

So we talk about a resurgence of no-till, the main issue, Sally, and I ask you this, but I think one of the main reasons we're seeing the resurgence of no-till is because of all the carbon discussions today, because that is the single way that we know that we can sequester carbon out of the atmosphere through a normal plant process and then sink it back into the soil. So to me, that's where the big resurgence of the discussion of cover crops have come from. 

 

Sally 

Yeah, I would agree, Tom. I think the carbon has helped continue driving that. But, you know, as I think back over the last 10 years, the discussions that were started around soil health and soil quality really started pushing that in the field with growers. And then I think the carbon has just kind of become sort of the icing on the cake of how can we continue to incentivize those sort of last sections of growers that haven't adopted no-till as a practice.  

But like we always say, it gets a little complicated and what is the right place? Because we know there's crops and rotations that we aren't going to be able to be 100% no-till. All of our peanuts, potatoes, sugar beets, all that kind of stuff, we can't be 100% no-till. So what is the right practice to implement with those growers?  

And I think one of the other pieces we've always tried to touch on in the podcast, Tom, is sustainability is about more than the environmental piece of sustainability. We've always tried to highlight the economic and social impacts of doing sustainable practices on the field. So through your career, you've seen lots of ups and downs in ag financing, ag commodity prices, in whether or not we can export and where we can export to.  

So how do we manage that economic sustainability piece when we don't have any control over the weather, right? But we really have no control over the prices or the markets or the returns that are available to our growers sometimes as we ask them to do these practices that could have a cost in the early years of implementation. 

 

Tom Daniel 

Yes, Sally, I'm going to take you back in history a little bit too. All farmers are very much engaged in maintaining resources on the farm. The environmental side, as you just talked about. Yes, absolutely. All of them are involved because that's kind of their lifeblood, right? But when it comes down to it, it's economic sustainability. You know, farming is a business.  

When I worked on the farm and we raised tobacco and we had, like I said, cattle on the farm and stuff. We didn't raise those because we enjoyed going out and feeding the cattle when it was zero degrees outside. And back then, by the way, we didn't have, you know, the nice things of rolled hay and the big haystacks and those types of things. It was baled hay that you got out of the loft and that you went out and dumped in the field, it was a different time. Let's just put it that way.  

But regardless of all that, when I got out of college in 1981, I had full intentions of coming back to the farm and being a full-time farmer with my dad. And anyone that lived through those times and remembers those times, that was probably the worst of agriculture at that time. Because we had just come off some of the highest commodity prices we'd ever seen. We saw, you know, $16, $17 soybeans. We saw high corn prices. But then our export markets got shut down. 

And then we saw interest rates go crazy. I know farmers that during that time had 22, 23% interest rates on operating loans for the farm. I mean, that's just ridiculous. You can't make that work, right? And so I watched farmers going out of business in the 80s. And a lot of those were good farmers. These were farmers that were probably the best production farmers in their area, but they couldn't manage the business side of it. 

Because, you know, between input cost or between the cost of interest or whatever it was, they couldn't manage that side of the business. They were good production farmers, but they have to manage it as a business.  

So when we think about sustainability, we always have to remember that it's got to make sense for the grower to do it. It can't be just because it feels good or there's a soil health benefit over here, but that soil health benefit doesn't bring me an economical benefit. I've got to weigh the balances of what I can or can't do on my farm. So one of the things you and I Sally have worked on, I know, is making sure that we're bringing a value proposition at the grower level that makes him want to implement these practices or maybe just get credit for the practices he's already implementing, but the key thing is it's got to make economic sense. It's got to be sustainable economically, right? 

 

Sally 

Yeah, for sure. It's a huge part of what we consider as we're designing the different programs that we bring out to the field and as we're thinking about the right place for different programs to be brought to the field.  

 

Tom Daniel  

And you think about the farm crisis that we've lived through. Well, they say agriculture cycles every 30 years. I think the cycle is probably tighter than that now. I think it's probably closer to 20 years now than it used to be. But we'll watch the cycle. This is bad to say, Dusty. I've lived long enough. I sound like my grandfather now. I've lived long enough that I've seen the cycles, right? Well, I have seen the cycles. I got to get out of college in ‘81. I got to see the farm cycle go down in a spiral in the 80s. Then I got to see it come back. 

Back in 2008, 2010, we watched the cycle come back. So, we get to watch these things and it's funny that we don't want history to repeat itself but it seems to do that regardless of whether we want it to or not. So we just have to be prepared for it. And I think sustainability is just about getting ready, getting ready for the cycle and being sure that what we're doing is the right thing on the farm. 

 

Dusty  

Well, and you know, Tom, we go through these cycles and you get your bust times, but you also get your boom times as well. And one of the big questions that growers have to face down when we're in the midst of a boom time is do I take some profit here and pad the retirement account? Or do I reinvest that in new technology on the farm? And I've got an old friend, Tom, who likes to say, if you haven't been on a farm in the last two years, you haven't been on a farm. Jon Doggett gets the credit for that one there.  

Certainly we can't talk about how sustainable agriculture has changed in recent decades without addressing the technology that has made so much of that possible. So what are, would you say, some of the biggest innovations and how have they changed the game? 

 

Tom Daniel 

I'm going to date myself again. Back when I started my career right out of college, I actually went to work for Southern States, co-op here in Kentucky at that time. So I managed a retail location and I'll never forget that as a bonus one year, you know, how you would win gifts, from different companies that you work with, they send you a gift for a goal that you achieved or whatever.  

So one of the first gifts I ever received when I was managing a location was a computer. Now we think what's the big deal about that, right? But this was 1983, 1984, and they shipped me a computer. It wasn't even a laptop. It was just a computer that, you know, you had to have your monitor and other things to go with it, which at that time were just TVs. 

 

Dusty  

It was the size of a desk. 

 

Tom Daniel  

Yes. And so, but they sent me that computer and I was so thrilled to get it because I was on the cutting edge and this was going to be cutting edge stuff. And I opened it up and I turned it on. And it was, I'll never forget it was in DOS, the language of DOS at that time, which I remembered a little bit of it in college, but I figured out that without software, that computer was nothing. It's just a piece of furniture sitting on my desk, right? 

And back then you didn't have software. You had people that wrote programming specifically for certain things you wanted to do. But I thought to myself, how are these computers going to impact the world? You know, I just didn't see this is going to be a major deal, right. But now look where we are today. I mean, look at the technology we have today. There are lots of farmers out there today that are looking at technology and choosing, as you said, to invest or not to invest, right? And they're probably looking at that piece of equipment. 

That monitor that's sitting in the cab of that tractor, a whole lot like I looked at that computer sitting on my desk. I say, well, it's just a piece of furniture now or just an appliance. I don't know how to use it. 

 

Dusty  

A really expensive space heater. 

 

Tom Daniel  

Yeah, exactly right. But here's the key. That particular equipment is going to change the face of agriculture, right? Computers change the face of everything we do today. We carry in our pocket, a more sophisticated computer than they used when they sent people to the moon, right? So technology is a great thing and we have to be willing to invest in and use it.  

So when I think about technology, you know, I talked about being in integrated pest management when I was in college and working through those things, but integrated pest management supported with technology today is just an unbelievable tool for a grower. We have the ability now to apply herbicides directed to certain sections of the farm that have a specific weed problem. That's all driven by technology today, right? 

We have technology that we can do management zones in a field. So we can go out there and say, this part of the farm is more productive than this part of the farm. So now we have the ability to sustainably apply the right nutrients in the right places that are going to give us the best value, the most production back on the farm. I'll give you another example from my farming days. 

Back in the days when I started farming, we spread most of our fertilizer with just a fertilizer buggy, as we called it back then, right? Just pulled by the tractor with spinner wheels on the back that were driven off the ground drive of the spreader. Well, today we have variable rate technology that allows us to on and off certain parts of the field, depending on what we need, or variable the rate as we need to, you know, according to production areas.  

I know before we had GPS and before we had the precision ag pieces we have today, if I had a little fertilizer that was left over in the buggy after I got through spreading the cornfield, my dad said, well, go spread it, that extra up there on that old red hillside because it's poor and we need to put more fertilizer on it. Well, no, we didn't. 

But that was the thought process back then, right? If it didn't make, it's because it didn't have enough fertilizer or something. Nobody really looked at the soil properties and looked at the fact that ground was never going to produce 200 bushel corn. It might produce 50 bushel corn on a good year, right? That there were limiting factors outside of just fertility. So we've learned so much. 

And to me, the technology, Dusty and Sally is what's driving this whole piece for us now. And we need to be willing to use that technology. And I think farmers get a little bit, Sally, I think they get a little concerned about using technology because they're like me. They look at it and say, well, I don't know. I don't know how that monitor is going to work. Or I don't want to learn it, but there's a generation of kids out there. I say kids, here I am I dated myself. 

But there's a generation out there that understand this technology piece and grasp it. I mean, they use it every day. And Sally, we've got some of the best crop consultants in the world at Nutrien today that they grasp that technology piece and they understand it's a tool that can be used.  

So I would tell a farmer today, if you don't understand the technology, go find somebody that does and let them lead you through that process or let them take the lead if that's what you choose to do. But technology is going to drive us to the future of this farming operation. 

 

Sally  

Tom, we had to face that technology barrier right away when I started at Nutrien. So when I started, it was, we were still travel restricted because of the pandemic and talk about trying to get growers to figure out technology and address a new topic like carbon and climate over a Teams call, when a lot of them have never experienced something like a Teams call or even a video call on their iPhone. 

So, we had multiple layers of technology that we were trying to get through there and try and get over that hurdle of how do we have that discussion about something like climate change with a grower that's already thinking sustainability in the field and make that connection of the grower, to their downstream and to the consumers that are bringing them their products.  

So in those interactions and then also throughout your career, how have you seen that attitude or perception of the consumer change or shift or the connections of the consumer to a grower change over time? 

 

Tom Daniel  

Well, I guess the big one, and look, I think this still goes back. You mentioned COVID, but I think COVID is the one that's driven a lot of this change for us Sally. I think people started paying attention when they started going to the grocery and couldn't find a loaf of bread on the shelf, right? They started paying attention. They said, you know, I've always assumed that loaf of bread came from my grocery, right?  

They didn't recognize that there's a whole downstream that produced that loaf of bread that finally got to the consumer shelf. And I think because of that, we've got consumers now that started looking at labels. I mean, I don't think somebody believes it's suddenly the whole consumer body is looking at labels. I don't believe they're actually doing that today, but I think there's a select group that's starting to get very vocal when they look at those labels and they understand what those labels mean today. 

They started looking at a lot of it for health reasons. You know, they looked at calories or they looked at sugar content or whatever the main issues were. But now there's interest in where does that crop come from? You know, where does that particular ingredient come from? Is it being produced sustainably? I know that's still kind of a moving target, what consumers are actually asking for.  

But you're starting to see companies that you have contact with every day, Sally, that are saying, you know, we've got consumers that are asking for this information now. We don't know how to provide it. And you know, field level data is going to become invaluable in the future. And I think the direction that you've led the team as far as programming into managing this field level data and getting it then in a format that consumers can actually look at it and understand where their products coming from, how it's being produced. Is it being produced in a sustainable way?  

I think when you look at US agriculture, North American agriculture, you're looking at a sustainably produced commodity, but we need to be able to tell that story. 

And to tell that story, we need all that data and that information off the farm that can be shared with the consumer. And then the consumer can make his choice.  

 

Dusty  

Well, and Tom, you talk about telling the story and certainly I think that that's where over the last five years your role at Nutrien Ag Solutions along with Sally's role have been so critical. You've led the field in Nutrien Ag Solutions’ embrace of advanced sustainable ag practices.  

And so as you look at the wins that you've had there, but also as you look to the future, what do you think is in store for Nutrien Ag Solutions and for sustainable agriculture here in the next 10 years? 

 

Tom Daniel  

Well, Dusty, I came over to this group from an acquisition. I was a Vice President of Security Seed and Chemical. So we came over. We'd been in business for about 20 years. We'd started that company from scratch with a bunch of very dedicated people that came over to start that company. And then we sold it to Nutrien in 2019.  

And when I came over then, I was always interested in sustainability because that was something that we used at Security Seed as a differentiation tool, something unique, right? Now I don't think it's unique anymore. I think other companies now, other businesses are starting to embrace this whole piece of sustainability. But when I came over in 2020 physically, we kind of really just started sustainability strong in 2020. 

We hired in our staffs at that time. And, and look, I'm going to give her a compliment here, but I think one of my greatest accomplishments was I hired Sally. So, she came over and became part of the Nutrien group and has been such a huge, valuable contributor to this team. But I got the honor of hiring a lot of really good people that work for this company today. We have John Griffin in the South. We had Carson Brits in the West. 

Sally's in the process of hiring a new manager in the West. But we have Carlos Romero in Canada. We have Marty Templeton, we have Sky Hoffman. We've got Melissa Lawrence, who's in our customer success group. We've just got a great team. I mean, and I think Sally would tell you, it's just a great team. And I think the future for Nutrien is going to be driven by these people. I think it's going to be strong.   

I think the vision for sustainability, still is, I'm going to call it in its development stages within retail Nutrien today, but I think it's coming. I think it'll have to come because I think, I think we're not just going to be helping growers produce corn anymore, we're going to be helping growers produce corn that's going to a specific use, whether it be to a fuel usage or whether it be to a feedlot or wherever it goes, we're going to start looking at producing commodity crops that have certain attributes that are going to be valuable in the future.  

Right. So, and I just think that's coming and Sally, you may disagree with me on that, but I just think, it's not going to be just about sustainability, but it's going to be around quality and other metrics that are going to be picked up on the farm that are going to create value for the grower that's taking the time to pay attention to those things. 

 

Sally 

Totally agree, Tom, and thank you for all of the compliments. And I agree. We have a great team. We have a great 2024 coming up for the programs we have rolling out across North America and the teams that we have in place. And we've all learned a lot from you, Tom, from what your experience is in the field and from the different aspects of agriculture that you've been involved in.  

And so you've been a big asset to all of us in our development as a team. So we all appreciate you being here with us and sticking around to help start this team when you probably could have just taken your retirement five years ago and not dealt with carbon and carbon accounting and protocols and signing up growers and additionality and all the things we talk about on the podcast all the time. 

 

Tom Daniel 

Sally, what fun would that have been though? What fun would that have been to have done that? 

 

Sally  

I think I would hope Tom, there are days that would have been a lot more fun than what some of the things we've done in the last three years. But we've accomplished a lot and it's been fun. We're all going to miss it. Not that this is your last episode, but we're all going to miss you and I'm going to miss doing the podcast. I've had lots of people ask me, how often do we rehearse and how much is this scripted and how much time do we spend preparing?  

And I'm like, you know, honestly, we could just record Tom and I on the phone and make it a podcast episode, because that's about what we do, in order to put these together and get them out there. It's just great having these conversations with you, Tom. And, and I'm sure they'll continue cause we'll all be looking for tips and I'm sure you'll be looking for something to do, as you get through those last few marbles in your bowl. 

 

Tom Daniel 

There you go. There you go. 

 

Dusty 

I don't know if I can improve on anything that Sally just said. I think that when someone with your passion for agriculture and your level of institutional knowledge retires, Tom, the rest of us know that there's no replacing someone like that. And all we can do is be grateful that we've had the opportunity to learn from them and hopefully absorb some of that knowledge. So as Sally said, this isn't the last time we're going to talk here on the show, but it's been one of those opportunities for us.  

So thank you for letting us celebrate that storied career a little bit. I hope it wasn't too painful for you, Tom. And thanks for all that you've done for us here on the FARMSMART Podcast. 

 

Tom Daniel  

Thank you, Dusty, I appreciate it. And look, it's been a great ride and I see just great things for Nutrien in the future. 

 

Dusty  

And that is going to conclude this episode of the FARMSMART Podcast. New episodes arrive every month, so make sure that 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, a branded podcast production for businesses, podcampmedia.com. I'm Dusty Weis, for Nutrien Ag Solutions, thanks for listening. 

 

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