BOCA RATON, FLORIDA, US — Wheat growers sit in an advantageous position when it comes to sustainable agricultural practices, said Chandler Goule, chief executive officer, National Association of Wheat Growers.

At the same time, Goule, in a presentation to the North American Millers’ Association, said considerable work needs to be done before growers should be expected to invest in steps to further reduce their water usage or carbon footprint. He spoke Oct. 8 during the NAMA annual meeting at the Boca Raton Beach Club hotel in Boca Raton.

The foundation of the case for wheat is a strong one, Goule said. Growers are producing more wheat on fewer acres. He said 67% of growers have adopted what he would characterize as “very good conservation practices.”

“We know we have a great story,” he said. “We know we are sustainable. We know that when we are looking at what is coming ahead — whether through sustainability programs coming from the private sector or whether it is something coming in from the government.”

Ahead of potential legislation and regulation around the carbon footprint of wheat production, wheat growers have numerous concerns that were articulated in recent testimony before the House Agriculture Committee, Goule said. Question posed included:

  • Who will set the parameters of what is a sustainable carbon market?
  • How much is carbon actually going to be worth?
  • If carbon is going to be sequestered and produced on a farm, and then it continues to be a value-added product as it moves through the supply chain, how will farmers be assured of gaining their full share of that added value rather than being relegated to a position of price takers?
  • What will the baseline be?

To the millers, Goule expanded on concerns about how sustainability programs may be set up. He said it is important for growers to be credited with steps already taken rather than creating a new baseline for sound practices that ignores this progress.

“We’ve had that with the Conservation Stewardship Program a couple years ago,” he said. “A couple of our growers using no-till wouldn’t qualify. In the eyes of the government, what you should do is plow up your field so you can go back and qualify. We’re worried some of that is going to be overlooked as we move forward. This is considered one of the key components we are stressing and continuing to talk about, that our early adopters began using no-till 10, 15, 20 years ago to help keep that moisture, help keep the carbon sequestered in the soil.”

Another concern Goule voiced relates to the remarkable diversity of wheat production in the United States — six different classes grown across 42 different states. Approaches to sustainable production will by necessity be very different in the states of Iowa and Washington, where soil types are dramatically different. Cover crops are not practical in some areas because of the competition they pose for moisture while in other parts of the country, cover crops are very important.

“We cannot let these programs be ‘one-size-fits-all,’” he said. “Specifically talking about wheat, we can’t drive a program that is only going to benefit hard red and up the I-35 corridor through the Plains. That’s not going to benefit the soft white in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the elements may need to overlap, but we’ve got to have flexibility built into these programs. They must be voluntary with some sort of incentive. However you put these programs together, you are going to raise the cost of production.”

Also necessary for wheat grower participation is access to a full complement of crop inputs, Goule said.

“Nobody in a commodity industry is ever going to be able to attain the climate goals, carbon sequestration without crop protection tools, without the ability to control weeds and pests,” he said.

As discussions around regenerative and sustainable agriculture advance, it is crucial that the industry step back from a debate about the reality of climate change, Goule said.

He estimated that between 10% and 15% of his board of directors is not 100% convinced that “climate change is here, that it’s real.”

“I say this to my board, ‘I am not here to tell you what to believe,’” he said. “The government believes it’s real. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not. The government does. They are going to be at the table. We can be at the table or we can be on the table.”

While the wheat sector is confident “we have a great story,” Goule said at present, the story lacks precision. Research is required quantifying the environmental impact of wheat production.

“What we don’t have is a life cycle assessment of the wheat production,” he said. “NAWG and NAWG Foundation are working with US Wheat Associates to work with a land grant university to determine how much water we use, what is our carbon footprint.”

To avoid pitting of one wheat class against another, data will be aggregated between classes, Goule said. The work is expected to begin in November and will generate important information for the upcoming farm bill.

Food companies also are asking for the data, which will provide a baseline against which improvement may be measured, Goule said.