Second-generation rice farmer Trey Bowers does not want to be stuck in his ways. He is always looking to make his rice, corn, and soybean operation more profitable. That means cutting costs while still producing big yields. Ten years ago, he started focusing on the main drains to his bottom line—inputs, labor, and time—by experimenting with and integrating new farming techniques that conserved resources, especially on his rice fields. This brought new risks, but Bowers hoped for tremendous reward. “You've got to grow as a whole or you'll get left behind,” he shared.
First, Bowers wanted to save on fuel. An agronomist suggested minimizing tillage could help: fewer passes over the field with a plow left more diesel in the tank. Bowers was concerned that weeds would take over the soil if it was left undisturbed; soon, however, he was able to use controlled field burning to handle the growth and create a beneficial layer of ash on the topsoil in the process, locking in key nutrients.
“If you’re making one pass instead of four,” Bowers said, extolling the practice of reduced tillage, “it doesn’t take much economically to figure out that you’re doing something good there.” Plus, he added, this allows him to limit the fuel burned and greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. “It was one of the greatest things for me.”
From there, with confidence, Bowers was off, starting on 100 acres or so with new practices to see how they worked, expanding the ones that worked well across his 4,400 rice acres with every new season. He invested in new infrastructure, such as more on-farm storage, and worked to understand new ways for completing standard tasks, like using drones to spray crops. He is even growing cotton again, a crop that has not been seen on Bowers Farms since 1974.
Every decision made seeks to balance economic and environmental benefits. “I'm all about wanting this world to stay sustainable or to keep everything for everybody to have long term,” Bowers said. “But it all comes down to money when it starts.” This is where Bowers has been fortunate to participate in Indigo’s sustainable crop programs, called Market+ Source. He delivers sustainably grown rice into the supply chains of the world’s biggest consumer packaged goods companies. Bowers remarked, “Anytime somebody can add 35, 40 cents to your pocket, with things like they are, especially with the rise in fuel this year and fertilizer costs, [it helps]. Indigo brings us programs that help the farmer.”
After several years, Bowers did eventually reach a plateau with his agronomic experiments. More complex practices, such as furrow irrigation or “row rice,” a precise method for systematically flooding fields that uses millions fewer gallons of water than conventional methods, had piqued Bowers’ interest. These practices could keep more money in his pocket and conserve a valuable natural resource. But there was the real and daunting question of yield drag. Not knowing how much his overall rice production could or would drop left Bowers on the fence. Rice is an aquatic crop; cutting out so much irrigation poses a significant risk.
This was also not the first time Bowers Farms was in talks to venture out into the complicated and intensive world of row rice. Trey’s father, Doin Bowers, had tried it out in the mid-1980s. It was, Trey notes, “before they had all the technologies to control it—and so it was just a flop.” To be effective, row rice requires computerized hole placements in pipes throughout the field and specific pumping schedules and volumes, all of which is borderline impossible to manage without advanced digital tools.
With CPGs investing in the sustainability of their supply chain, Bowers had the bump in capital he needed to give this major new sustainable practice a shot. “The premium gave us enough incentive to go in and do it because we would be able to make up for a dip in yield if one occurred,” he said. And Indigo’s data science capabilities enabled Bowers and his agronomy staff to know exactly how row rice could be rapidly implemented and scaled. The benefits have been numerous: not only does this irrigation practice save water, but it also saves fuel, since pumps no longer need to run continuously through the week, and labor, since less manpower is needed to manually handle the pumps.
Much to Bowers’ surprise, yields have also remained steady, a cherry on top of all the other revenue generating and cost saving aspects of the practice. Combined, this success is encouraging Bowers to go even further. “I know we’re going to do more of what we’ve been doing, adding more and more acres of row rice. We have already discussed doing over half to two thirds of all of our fields in it next year.” Over 40 years after his father tried and failed to make row rice a reality on their farm, Trey has now brought it back in stride—and has even started to see a number of his farming neighbors also take on the practice.
As Bowers sees more CPGs and agriculture technology companies like Indigo work together to help create the right incentives for farmers to integrate sustainable practices within their operations, he thinks more “farmers will get on board.” He reflected, “It’s becoming a new way.”
Farm economics, of course, are one aspect that informs the premium in the sustainability space. There is also the need for rigorous policies, ones that verify the size of the beneficial change and prove it is only being accounted for in one supply chain. There is the need for advanced modeling, allowing this beneficial change to be accurately measured and accounted for across different soil types, weather conditions, and agronomic practices. Combined, these capabilities underlying the premium allow for leading food and beverage companies and Indigo to plan multi-year programs that scale even more climate positive change on more fields over a shorter period of time.
At the end of the day, Bowers wants to set up the most profitable farming operation possible for the next generation. “I'm trying to leave something for my kids to have to keep our name, to keep the Bowers name going, I hope,” he said. Whether or not his two young boys want to take on the mantle, he does not want them to ever worry about the financial aspect of the business. “I want it to be in a place where if they want to farm, they can just farm.” That’s what Bowers means when he says he farms for his family. At the same time he also farms “for the love of it,” for himself, just like his father did. “Very, very few people are fortunate enough to get up and do something they love every day,” he said, adding, “if I won the lottery, I’d still farm.”