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After five years of working at Anheuser-Busch, first as an agronomist, now as the agronomy manager for rice, Bill Jones has seen firsthand how consumer demand for traceability and sustainability comes down to data integrity and analysis. Consumers and farmers both want data to inform their decisions – whether that’s what to buy or which farming practices to use.
That insight is a backbone of Anheuser-Busch’s 2019 to 2020 partnership with Indigo Ag, two companies working together to produce rice grown with specific environmental attributes. The goal: reduce water use, nitrogen use, and greenhouse emissions in rice production by 10 percent, respectively. In its inaugural year, the program outpaced those ambitious targets. Water use savings increased 23.7% on average, equating more than two billion gallons. Nitrogen application was down 13.3% on average; methane emissions, 26.6%.
“One year results were phenomenal,” Bill said. “It’s very encouraging to see this success as we are witnessing the ag industry as a whole drift to a more sustainable focus, whether it's poultry or cattle or hogs or row crops or small grains. We are seeing a shift all the way down the supply chain to consumer demands.”
Thanks to this enterprising collective mindset of farmers, data scientists, and beer brewers, Anheuser-Busch and Indigo were awarded the TECHe Award from the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment – recognizing the innovative use of technology to conserve resources and improve the environment. Below, read more on Bill’s background, the evolution of the program, and how data and technology in agriculture will continue to grow in 2021.
How can agriculture help Anheuser-Busch achieve its sustainability goals?
Farmers are integral members of our supply chain. We rely on the goods that the farms produce so heavily and have such a great partnership with those farmers. We have the unique ability to help them implement change that will result in positive benefits for our processes as well as theirs. It's a mutually synergistic relationship that we have, and with great partnerships out there in the ag industry, it's proven very successful to start the transition for change.
We have a team of agronomists at Anheuser-Busch who help transfer knowledge on best management practices, to help collect data, benchmark where those farms exist in the sustainability landscape, and then with the main goal is to utilize that data to drive in season insights back to that farm so they can make changes to better their yield, their quality, which in turn betters our products and our processes.
Tell us more about your background. Do you have a personal connection with agriculture?
I grew up in rural America, in Oklahoma on a small farm. I have a graduate and an undergraduate degree in agriculture. Through my career path, I’ve spent some time in the northern plains up in North Dakota, working with farmers up there – helping them maximize their returns and lessen their impact on the environment.
What are the opportunities Anheuser-Busch sees for agriculture to help the environment?
There are so many buzzwords out there and so many areas of production, whether soil health, regenerative ag – we hear these terms every day, but for us, the biggest challenge and the biggest hurdle at the moment is just understanding where we’re starting. We don't have that baseline or that benchmark data to really assess where our supply chain sits. That’s what makes the partnership with Indigo Ag great for us. It lets us collect data at a farm level.
There’s a lot of work on the farm that’s currently undocumented. We want to capture the great work that's happening organically, when farmers try new things, when they discover one practice might be more cost effective. Is there an opportunity for us to leverage our position in the industry to get them discounts? Can we provide our expertise to help them make the on-farm changes? That's where we can all start helping the most. Ensuring that the supply chain is resilient to climate change and to legislation change, et cetera.
What is the next level for this partnership to become stronger and contribute further to AB's sustainability goals?
It really comes back to the one question: How can we scale these results and mitigate supply chain risk? I would love to have every grower involved in a sustainable sourcing program. I think the prime goal of this next year will be to help the grower understand if he were to make a change, what would his outcome be? And if we can become more predictive and more proactive in our recommendations instead of reactive as much of agriculture is, it'll help us succeed in the future.
How do you think this partnership can take data and technology further to help you achieve your grain buying and sustainability goals in 2021?
Data can help us achieve our sustainability goals by driving the value from the farm. Data integrity is very important. We want the data to be as good as it can be relevant to the grower because we don't want to waste anybody's time. And time is money and data is money. So, I believe that the integrity of that data will help the ag industry shift to a more sustainable production. And it also helped bridge the gap to the consumers who are demanding the traceability and data behind their products.