Sledge Taylor farms cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, peanuts, and cattle at Buckeye Farms in Como, MS. Recipient of the 2015 Cotton Grower Achievement Award, Sledge is an active member of the USDA's Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade and serves on many national farm boards and organizations. Sledge offers his perspective on the Indigo model and what it may mean in terms of sustainability.
As I wrap up the 2017 harvest and turn my attention to the 2018 season, I think of the Indigo model… and what Indigo is doing in terms of sustainability.
The way I see it, sustainability can be thought of in two ways: First, there is environmental sustainability. Farmers are doing a lot to aid in the conservation of our natural resources, and to take care of the soil health so that it remains fertile for future generations. The list of practices farmers are implementing is long: increasing organic matter in the soil, working to stop erosion, preventing runoff and increasing rainfall infiltration, using water economically, tilling less, and using precision ag technologies to decrease input use are just a few.
Second, there is sustainability of the farm, and ensuring it continues to produce over the years. At Buckeye Farms, this is our livelihood, and we want it to produce for future generations. Today we grow cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, peanuts, and raise cattle. It is vitally important that we keep the soil healthy, so that we can continue to make a crop every year. We work hard to keep soil pH levels at the optimal level, we plant cover crops to increase organic matter, and we use no-till where we can.
Environmental sustainability and farm sustainability go hand-in-hand, and modern technology is doing a lot to increase both. As an example, on our farm we are now using moisture probes that take measurements at several different levels and send data back via cellular signal. This model can predict what lifecycle stage the crop is at and therefore how much water it needs – thereby allowing us to be more economical with our water usage. Another example of what is possible now is microbial technology, such as the work Indigo is doing with microbial seed treatments.
A Tradeoff Between Sustainability and Profitability?
Farmers are arguably the population segment that do the most to increase sustainability – both in terms of the environment and the farm. But there can often be a tradeoff between sustainability and profitability, at least in the short-run. We can all point out things that will make the soil more productive and sustainable in the future, but we also have short term bills to pay. At the end of the day, if we’re not profitable, our efforts to increase sustainability become limited.
I always try to balance this tradeoff, and I prefer to look at certain outlays as an investment in our future. Now, however, Indigo is bringing something new to the industry that doesn’t come with the high price tag.
Indigo’s technology and model are both very compelling. While this is Indigo’s first commercial season and I have not yet grown with them, the logic is there, and they truly seem to back up what they say.
To start, Indigo offers a seed treatment that is designed to help crops yield better in drought-stressed environments, thereby reducing the need for water and other inputs. Their research is based on the fact that modern agriculture practices have removed some of the good fungi and bacteria from the microbiome in which the plant interacts with the soil. Their microbial seed treatment can be thought of as a probiotic for plants – it puts the good microbes back in nature.
Taking things a step further, Indigo is helping bridge the gap by offering a solution that addresses both sustainability and profitability with the Indigo production model.
Indigo asserts that with a production contract of 500 acres, farmers pay nothing up front for the cost of the seed. This immediately frees up cash flow, with no-interest financing. Then, at the end of the season, Indigo promises to pay a per bushel premium on every bushel that is produced on the contracted number of acres. Along the way, Indigo’s agronomic service supports maximum production and continuous improvement.
While this will be Indigo’s first season to offer commercial contracts, their model seems to be working very well. The idea is to support sustainable farming practices with a premium at harvest, because at the end of the supply chain this is what consumers want.
Implications of Microbial Technology
Microbial technology is a relatively new field that I understand has a lot of positive implications. Looking ahead, is it possible that Indigo’s seed treatments can not only improve plant health during the crop’s lifecycle, but also put organic matter back into the soil and increase its fertility over the long term? The chemistry is there, and it is certainly something to think about.
In the meantime, Indigo’s products designed to help increase yield with no change in inputs could go a long way to help with conservation of resources. I know they are also looking at products to help reduce use of nitrogen and pesticides as well, and the future possibilities are wide open.
A More Sustainable Future
Considering microbial technology in terms of Indigo’s model, this could be an investment in sustainability where the farmer is not the one footing the bill.
There are farmers who are implementing the practices that set the stage for a sustainable future – creating environments that make the best use of resources, improving soil health, and continuing to produce enough to feed the world’s growing population. I believe these farmers should be rewarded for their efforts, and from what I can tell, Indigo is looking at this landscape and working to make this happen. I look forward to what the future holds.
December 19, 2017