Collaboration Drives Innovation and Success in Food System Transformation

Collaboration isn’t new in the agriculture and food industries — it can be traced back to early agrarian societies, when pastoralists were thought to trade goods with farmers in a cooperative relationship. It’s even more important today as those working in agriculture pivot to meet new challenges. Read more

by Bart Smith

Collaboration isn’t new in the agriculture and food industries — it can be traced back to early agrarian societies, when pastoralists were thought to trade goods with farmers in a cooperative relationship. It’s even more important today as those working in agriculture pivot to meet new challenges.

Author Howard Rheingold, who writes and speaks on the power of collaboration, believes that cooperative arrangements in agriculture have moved from a peripheral to a pivotal role, where self-interest is not the dominating factor. He says that more corporations are realizing that a certain kind of sharing is in their best interest.

Today, movements toward healthier food and soil regeneration, along with changing consumer markets and supply chain disruption make it ever more crucial to be able to adapt and grow. Substantive system-wide change is rarely easy, however. It takes individual leadership, willingness to take risks, organizations willing to invest, a vision for what might be possible, and partners with shared goals. Fortunately, there are a number of encouraging examples in the agriculture and food industries where farmers and producers are working collaboratively to make those important changes.

Creating Markets to Facilitate Transition
Effective collaboration requires individuals, groups, and companies to work together with a common goal to achieve success. It takes leadership from those willing to step away from traditional methods and to institute significant change in practices, as well as leadership from those willing to financially support innovation.

Ardent Mills developed an organic initiative four years ago to assist farmers to expand organic wheat production. This particular program is an example of collaboration between Food Maven, a Colorado Springs-based organization that finds buyers for food that might not otherwise be sold in the marketplace, with Annex, by Ardent Mills.

Angela Ichwan of Ardent Mills summed up the benefits of collaboration with farmers and grain customers. “If we have the ability to partner or collaborate with another stakeholder to have direct access to consumers, it will make the farm business more resilient. There is no perfect market,” she noted. “The more we can communicate and work together with each of the stakeholders, we will get better and better.”

Wyoming farmer Ron Rabou, is a producer who has built a collaborative relationship with Ardent Mills and Food Maven. Rabou has a successful farming operation, expanding to 8,000 acres of farmland and growing 8-10 crops per year. He is a firm believer in building relationships to find success in modern farming and effective crop marketing.

“I really think that communication and good relationships are two of the most viable things that we have,” Rabou said in a recent phone interview from his tractor. “I think the ag industry stands to learn an awful lot in regards to understanding how to communicate effectively with others; how to build good long-term relationships based on trust and quality of communications.”

Rabou has worked extensively with Ardent Mills on a variety of projects over the years. He credits that long-term relationship with aiding his most recent venture of developing a market for his transitional wheat through Food Maven. This alliance has allowed him to transition an additional 3,000 acres of property to certified organic wheat and is what enabled him to take the leap to move his entire farm to organic.

Rabou, also an author and speaker, is a devoted advocate of encouraging farmers to learn to build relationships in the industry.

“Being proactive is essential to our survival,” he said. “If you look at trends and understand the consumer and what the consumer wants then that brings value to our individual farms.”

“Ardent Mills has certainly been a key player for us. The relationship they have with us is enormously important. It’s mutually beneficial. They have helped create long-term sustainability for our farm, as have other buyers for the different crops that we raise.”

Reducing Risk with Collaborative Relationships
Making major changes in operations aren’t easy and require a lot of research and risk. Finding collaborative partners reduces that risk. The working business relationship with Ardent Mills and Food Maven helps both organizations achieve their goals.

Ardent Mills’ Organic Initiative had the goal of doubling harvested organic wheat acres by assisting farmers in their efforts to expand organic production. Since its launch, Ardent Mills has expanded from two organic milling locations to 10, and the company’s organic sales have increased six-fold.

The company’s Transitional Certification Assistance Program offers farmers education, support, and assistance as they transition to certified organic crops. That includes assisting farmers with selling their transitional wheat.

By partnering with FoodMaven, Ardent Mills is able to expand the reach of the program by increasing awareness and distribution of transitional wheat into more foodservice operations, according to Angie Goldberg, Chief Growth Officer at Ardent Mills. “We think it’s a meaningful story for both our customers as well as consumers in terms of supporting that transition,” Goldberg said in a report in Forbes.

Ichwan, who is Senior Director Technical Lead at The Annex by Ardent Mills, said that after listening to their customers, they launched the project to significantly increase production of organic grains. She said it is their goal to bear some of the risk of farmers doing conversions to organic during the transitional period.

Another example is Ardent Mills helping farmers in Colorado’s drought-stricken San Luis Valley convert some acreage to low water-demanding quinoa production.

Looking ahead, Ichwan, said the trend with consumers will be for more green-label food grown with regenerative practices. Connecting with farmers to produce affordable products will be the challenge.

Building Value in the Connections
Ardent Mills is not the only company building collaborative relationships between growers and the food industry. Grounded Growth, the brainchild of thought-leader Sara Harper, provides the resources, strategy, and connections needed to bring regenerative agriculture to market in a way that supports consumers, food producers, and farmers.

Jennifer Kocher, a director at Grounded Growth and an Emerging Leaders in Food & Ag Finalist, supports regenerative farmers through her market and pizza business, Around the World Gourmet. She uses both organic and regenerative ingredients in her products, providing a consistent outlet for producers. Besides donating a percentage of her sales to the effort, she also gives farmers prime display spots in her market.

Kansas farmer Justin Knopf, who is also a director of Grounded Growth, explains the benefit of this kind of collaboration.

“So often, we farmers have no connection with the people that decide how our crops are turned into food – or with the end consumer who is now so interested in farming,” said Knopf. “The chance to become more than just a commodity – but a partner with food companies that share a similar culture and reverence for regenerative principles, is extremely valuable.”

Capital Fuels New Solutions
While relationships are key to building successful collaborative solutions in food and agriculture, capital is often also a necessity. It takes strong, visionary leadership to pivot organizational goals (and capital) toward new solutions.

Food & beverage company Danone North America is making such a shift in its pursuit of new models for working with farmers to incentivize the adoption of innovative sustainable farm management practices. One example is maintaining long-term contracts with dairies to help alleviate short-term market volatility, thus allowing them to consider new ways of farming that might otherwise be too risky. The company has committed to investing $6 million in soil health research over five years. This research will enable Danone to better guide its farmer partners with regards to farm management and use of regenerative agriculture practices on their farms.

“Providing these loans mitigates the financial stress that transitioning to regenerative and organic farming practices places on our farmers and allows them to focus their energy on driving sustainable agriculture on their farms,” said Mariano Lozano, CEO of Danone North America, in a media release.

Along with these efforts came a first-of-its-kind, large-scale infusion of funds, announced early last year. Danone has partnered with rePlant Capital, a financial services firm dedicated to reversing climate change. Over the next several years, rePlant will invest up to $20 million to support Danone’s farmer partners with expenses related to converting to regenerative or organic farming practices. To accelerate this effort, rePlant recently brought their investor network into the mix to discuss how to further collaborate on funding opportunities.

Transforming the Food System Collaboratively
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught the agriculture and food industries nothing else, it is that the food system needs to be more resilient. To do that, investments in the things that make that happen – including healthy soil, strong supply chains, and beneficial partnerships – is necessary. Food companies, investment companies, and producers working together on collaborative projects shine a light on the relationships that can help make these necessary changes reality.

Consumers are making it clear that they want healthier, safer food that also has the health of the planet in mind. Time will tell if collaborative efforts to meet that demand are mere blips on the radar or the beginning of a wave of change.

Emerging Leaders in Food & Ag is a national initiative designed to build a stronger future for our food and agriculture sector. Along with hosting the Emerging Leaders in Food & Ag Conference and presenting the Top 20 Emerging Leaders Awards, the group generates original material highlighting people and companies working in agriculture and the food system. Angela Ichwan of Ardent Mills and Wyoming farmer Ron Rabou will participate in a panel discussion at the virtual conference on August 18. Please visit for more information and to register.

For more information about the partnerships described here please see:
• The complete Forbes story How a Colorado Partnership is Helping Wheat Farmers Go Organic, by Robin D. Schatz, can be found here

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