Tyson aims to make its corn 'greener'

The exterior of Tyson Foods Inc. headquarters in Springdale.

Tyson Foods, Inc. on Tuesday announced plans to "improve environmental practices" on 2 million acres of corn by the end of 2020 by encouraging farmers to adopt better land practices.

As part of Tyson's 2017 sustainability report, the company said it will begin efforts to sway corn growers who supply grain for Tyson's animal feeds to manage their land in a way that reduces fertilizer use, water runoff and soil loss.

Tyson is calling it "the largest-ever land stewardship commitment by a U.S. protein company."

To accomplish its 2020 goal, Tyson plans to "work with at least one third-party organization," environmental groups, and other large companies to help grain growers adopt more sustainable land practices. That should help reduce greenhouse gas, carbon emissions and water use throughout Tyson's supply chain, the company said in a news release.

"This is a big step. ... We've made significant progress toward previously announced goals related to workplace safety and fully expect similar momentum with today's land stewardship target," said Justin Whitmore, Tyson's executive vice president of corporate strategy and chief sustainability officer, in a statement.

Tyson also set a goal recently to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030. By sourcing grains from feed mills closer to Tyson's feeding operations in the South, for example, the company can cut transportation costs and carbon emissions while injecting dollars into local economies, the company said.

Scott Simon, Arkansas director of the Nature Conservancy, one of the groups working with Tyson on its sustainability efforts, said he admired the Springdale company's target goals that self-check its own operations.

Simon said in a news release that his organization looks forward to improving "some of the most critical supply chains and geographies for our conservation mission."

There are nine Tyson feed mills in Arkansas. A Tyson spokesman said it purchases corn directly from 250 independent farmers in Arkansas, and several state-based grain companies. A Tyson spokesman said in an email that it's "tough to say" what share Tyson buys of the state's grain production.

Andrew Grobmyer, executive director of the Agriculture Council of Arkansas, couldn't say either, but guessed it is significant: "Most of what's grown here, is consumed here."

About 70 percent of the state's corn supply is used to feed poultry and other animals, according to the Arkansas Corn & Grain Sorghum Board. The rest is exported.

Grobmyer compared Tyson's corn commitment to updates that Walmart asks of its suppliers. Technological advancements have made it easier for companies to purchase products direct from the source instead of by broker, he said.

For example, Tyson's Local Grain Services business created a mobile app for independent grain growers so that they can sell directly to Tyson.*

Grobmyer said he has not looked into the agreement, but compared it with what Ozark Mountain Poultry has done with some of its grain suppliers, which includes incentives for farmers who adopt certain practices.

"It sounds like they want to get closer to their supply and have a better understanding from a marketing perspective," Grobmyer said. "There seems to be a growing interest in knowing more about food and ... they're trying to meet a form of demand."

It also places "a form of pressure" on large grain brokers and independent farmers who supply them, said Travis Justice, chief economist of the Arkansas Farm Bureau.

Over the past decade, Arkansas corn yields have surpassed cotton, making the Natural State a formidable player, but not a leading producer like Nebraska, Justice said.

The University of Arkansas System's Agriculture Division estimates state farmers will plant 650,000 acres of corn this year.

Jason Kelley, a wheat and feed grains agronomist with the Agriculture Division, said Tyson's plan "seemed a little vague on what they are wanting corn farmers to do."

Many corn growers already make necessary adjustments and implement best management practices, Kelley said. They reduce fertilizer usage, reduce tillage, and use cover crops to reduce soil erosion and runoff.

"How they're going to persuade farmers to do this is a good question," he said. "But if there's an incentive, people will do it quickly."

Business on 04/04/2018

*CORRECTION: A mobile application that independent grain growers can use to sell grain directly to Tyson Foods does not require growers to meet environmental requirements. A previous version of this article incorrectly described the application.