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MBOLD: Growing Innovation

hand planting soy seed in the vegetable garden. agriculture concept

Who would have thought that Minnesota would be a hotbed of agricultural problem-solving? MBOLD, a Minnesota business coalition, is taking issues facing the food and agriculture sectors seriously while also providing necessary solutions.

MBOLD is backed by some of Minnesota’s largest companies in the hopes of tackling global issues. They do this by concentrating leadership on specific issues in agriculture. Right now, MBOLD has executive leadership from companies like Target, General Mills, Land O’ Lakes, Cargill and more.

We sat down with MBOLD’s managing director JoAnne Berkenkamp to learn more about how MBOLD is helping in the agricultural sector.

Can you just start by talking about the genesis of MBOLD and how this idea came forward?

The idea behind MBOLD started forming several years ago when various CEO’s in our state started talking together about the challenges that lie ahead for food and agriculture and the unique role that Minnesota could play in addressing them.  Minnesota is home to a concentration of corporate leadership that is unparalleled around the world.  We have first-class ag research institutions and some of the best farmers and farmland in the world. I think it’s easy to take that for granted when you live here, but what we have here in Minnesota really is pretty extraordinary. A number of the CEOs came together and realized that we could do more to shape the future of food and ag if we worked together more intentionally. That desire to take on big challenges in a collaborative way gave rise to the creation of MBOLD.

This coalition is kind of the who’s who of Minnesota companies. Why was it important for them? And how did they all get involved?

These days, food and agriculture are seeing unprecedented challenges — climate change, more wild weather events and the growing global demand for food to name a few. The need to confront those challenges was really the impetus for folks to come together and create a table for a new kind of collaboration.

Additional members of the group include the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, Grow North, McKinsey & Co., Ecolab and Hormel.  We have embraced a mission that’s focused on accelerating practical solutions to climate change, sustainability challenges and the growing global demand for food. So that’s what we are focused on and we have a set of initial priorities that are guiding how we approach that work together.

MBOLD is an initiative of the Greater Minneapolis St. Paul Economic Development Partnership.  Why is this such an important avenue for GREATER MSP?

GREATER MSP is all about economic development. Food and agriculture is a huge part of our economy statewide and in the Twin Cities/Minneapolis-St. Paul region. Greater collaboration around food and ag is key to the future of our economy and MBOLD is a core strategy for driving that growth and innovation.

Let’s dive a little bit into the focus areas. Can you elaborate on what they are and then how did you define them?

Our initial priorities are soil health and water stewardship on agricultural land, packaging, driving food and ag innovation, advancing Minnesota’s ecosystem for entrepreneurship, connecting people with food and ag career opportunities in both rural and urban Minnesota, and food insecurity in light of COVID-driven unemployment.  

Can you talk about how you chose specific issues to focus on? Out of all the big problems that we’re facing, how did you narrow it down?

We looked at a lot of outside research on high potential strategies for addressing climate change and sustainability while feeding a growing population.  We looked at assets here in Minnesota that could be leveraged further and areas where we had something unique to contribute in collaboration with others.  We wanted to aim for strategies that have the potential for scale and impact within and beyond Minnesota. That led us to the priorities that we’ve since chosen.

Can you talk about the impact that MBOLD will have on farmers? Why should farmers actually care about the work you’re doing and pay attention to it?

Advancing soil health and water stewardship on ag land is central to what MBOLD hopes to do. We’re starting to feel the effect of a changing climate and the need to become more resilient.  Many growers are looking for ways to diversify their income.  At the same time, food and ag companies are more and more motivated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chains, improve water stewardship and build soil health.  So how can we work together better — across the supply chain — to make those things possible?  And not just possible, but something people really want to be part of?

One of the things that we’re focusing on is de-risking strategies for farmers when they explore new farming practices, different crops, longer rotations and that sort of thing. MBOLD recognizes that farmers are businesses too and that these transitions are complicated.  They involve risk. We need to be in conversations where that reality is acknowledged.  We need to put our heads together to come up with meaningful solutions that can work on the ground.

So if I was a farmer and interested in participating in or getting involved, are there tangible ways to do so?

MBOLD is currently working on three ag-related projects.  This is a good time for growers to get involved in all three of them.  First, one is a project focused on the headwaters of the Red River. The Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District, General Mills, Cargill and MBOLD are teaming up to support farm adoption of soil health and water stewardship practices.  The program will offer farmers a per-acre payment to implement best management practices on their land including Strip-Till, No-Till, Nutrient Management and Cover Crops. Together these practices can reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss, improve water quality, soil health, soil resiliency during extreme weather conditions, and enhance farm profits.  

Since there are many different ways to implement these practices, the Wilkin SWCD will help farmers develop plans to address site-specific resource concerns and each farmer’s management objectives. SWCD staff will also offer annual soil health assessments with each contract to help landowners understand changes that are taking place in the field along the way. The Wilkin County SWCD is now enlisting farmers for the program, so please give a call to Don or Kim at 218-643-2933 Ext. 3 if you’d like to see how you could get involved.

Second, mechanisms that would pay growers for actual soil and water outcomes could help make “the math” work for growers who adopt new practices.  The Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) is a national group that is working to develop those kinds of soil and water credit mechanisms with the goal of having a credit marketplace operational in 2022. We are fortunate that ESMC has a pilot here in Minnesota, focused on the Sauk River Watershed.  The pilot is led by the Nature Conservancy and MBOLD is participating in that effort.  TNC is aiming to enlist 50,000 acres of cropland in the pilot in 2021 and cost-share dollars are in place to support farmer engagement starting this summer. I encourage interested growers (corn/soy, dairy, turkey, etc.) in or near the Sauk River Watershed to contact Leif Fixen from TNC at  [email protected] to learn more. 

Third, we recognize that cover crops might be a whole lot more compelling to growers if they also functioned as cash commodity crops. So with that in mind, MBOLD is working with the Forever Green program at the University of Minnesota to explore ways to commercialize the cover crop “winter camelina” as a cash crop. Winter camelina produces high-value oil and protein with potential for applications as human food, animal feed and various industrial uses. Winter camelina can be woven into traditional corn/soy systems by adding a third year to the crop rotation – with cool-season crops like pea, wheat, oat or hybrid rye followed by winter camelina. We are working with potential buyers to scope out market applications for winter camelina.  We’re also talking with commodity groups and farmers about the pros and cons they see and de-risking strategies they feel would be important.  We are in the early stages, but we hope to develop this cash cover crop so it can work for growers, buyers and key players in the middle of the value chain.  If your readers would like to check out camelina or participate in an upcoming focus group, we’d invite them to contact Colin Cureton at Forever Green at [email protected].

MBOLD has these great Minnesota companies that we have a long-standing history in agriculture, but why is Minnesota the right place for this to launch, and why is now the time to get this off the ground?

Minnesota has so many opportunities ahead of us. There’s so much momentum here – so much innovation and creativity in our farm community, in our corporate community and our ag research community. At the same time, the challenges facing agriculture are greater than ever. This is really the time for us to mobilize and to do it together. We can be stronger together than we are alone. 

Pull out your crystal ball, what do you see 10 years from now? How do you hope that MBOLD will have impacted our state, country and world?

I want Minnesota to be known as a place that develops practical solutions to big food and ag challenges in ways that work up and down the value chain.  If we can do that, we’ll have done something worthwhile.

More Info
Twitter: @MBOLDmn
Get Involved: [email protected]

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