Smithfield Foods Invests in Sustainable Agronomics: Q&A with Bill Gill

by | Apr 18, 2018

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Smithfield Foods Bill GillIn early December 2016, Smithfield Foods became the first major livestock company to set an absolute supply chain goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The world’s largest pork producer committed to cutting emissions in its US supply chain 25% by 2025.

“We’re getting a lot of input from our customers, NGOs, and different groups as to how we can participate in an effort to reduce our carbon emissions,” says Bill Gill, assistant vice president for sustainability at Smithfield Foods.

Gill, who has been with the company for just over 30 years, heads up environmental and sustainability efforts there. He says that Smithfield has partnered with the University of Minnesota and the Environmental Defense Fund to develop a science-based approach for reducing emissions.

Agronomics, the science and technology of land cultivation that includes soil management and crop production, also plays a big role. Recently we caught up with Gill to learn more about the company’s goal, and how two major agronomics initiatives could help Smithfield cut emissions and costs.

Just how big is Smithfield’s 25 by 25 goal?

It’s really big. Working with our partners we think that our emissions are around 17 million tons per year. Twenty-five percent would be 4.25 million tons. With all of the grain, agriculture, and hog production that we’re involved in, we’re looking to create efficiencies across our supply chain as well as reduce our overall impact.

What initiatives does Smithfield have to help achieve the goal?

We view the effort through two main initiatives. One is addressing our grain supply. Because we raise a lot of hogs, we’re a large purchaser of grains from the Midwest and other areas. We’re looking at the efficiency of our grain supply.

The other is renewable energy. We want to reduce our carbon emissions and produce a substitute for natural gas from the manure treatment processes at our hog farming operations.

It sounds like hog waste-to-energy is starting to take off in the US.

In Missouri we’ve partnered with a company called Roeslein Alternative Energy that is in the process of covering our hog farm anaerobic lagoons to collect biogas. RAE has technology to treat that biogas and make it ‘pipeline quality,’ essentially the same as natural gas. They can inject that renewable natural gas into the natural gas pipeline in the vicinity. Customers can then agree to purchase that specifically. We’re looking at about 850,000 tons of greenhouse gas reduction by collecting the gas and making use of it.

We also have a large hog farming operation in Utah that already has covered lagoons. They’re collecting the biogas and using it in special generator sets that convert it to electricity. The electricity goes onto the grid as a renewable.

How is Smithfield Foods working to improve the efficiency of your grain supply, and what is the business case there?

One project is Smithfield Agronomics. Because we irrigate with hog waste from our farms, we have quite a few agronomists on staff who help keep track of water, nitrogen, plant uptake, and crop yield. We set up a program where we provide those agronomists to local farmers who are interested in learning about efficient farming techniques.

That’s the business case — more efficient farmers produce more grain with less, which has economies. If they can grow more corn with less fertilizer, that’s good for everyone involved because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.

Another area driven by diverse factors including economics is feed conversion. We have worked with the folks in our hog production division to develop diets and breed hogs that are more efficient at capturing the nutrients in the food and converting it to pork rather than waste material.

If you go back 30 years, it took about 4 pounds of feed to make a finished pound of pork. Now we’re down to 2.5 pounds of feed to create a pound of pork. That’s a win-win in terms of economics and carbon emissions.

What are the main challenges?

We partnered with the University of Minnesota and the Environmental Defense Fund to help us develop our science-based goal, but what is our baseline, and how can we quantify those emissions? Grain goes through several middlemen before it ends up at our farms. Trying to connect with the right people and quantify on the grain side is a significant challenge.

We’re also thinking about how to quantify that we reduced carbon emissions by 25%. Collecting quantitative data that we’re comfortable with will be a challenge. At the same time, I think we can accomplish quite a bit, even if our numbers aren’t correct to the hundredth place.

With biogas, we’re dealing with regulatory and government programs to try and fund those projects. Figuring out what is the best project for us to pursue is a challenge. We’re looking at partners, people who know about the technology, the incentives, the subsidies, and the requirements that go along with renewable energy. And people who know how to work with utilities because we have to get our energy to somebody who can use it.

Are there metrics you can share about progress toward the 25 by 25 goal?

For the agronomics program, we set a goal about three years ago to try to impact 75% of the corn acreage that we’re supplied through. Right now we’re at about 410,000 acres where farmers have engaged with our program.

We go to the farmers and ask, ‘How many acres do you plant?’ Again, the challenge is quantifying exactly what are they accomplishing: How much less fertilizer, how much improved yield? Are they getting cover crops, no-till, and other techniques that have an impact on carbon emissions as well as crop yield?

The University of Minnesota folks are good at data mining, even county-by-county information on crop yields, growth, and rainfall. We’re trying to pull that together so we can quantify our results. Then we have similar issues with the dollars involved — how much are farmers saving, how much will we save?

The renewable natural gas project in Missouri is going well. I think we’re a year or two away from reducing the carbon emissions associated with the lagoons that will be covered. They’re down by 850,000 tons — that’s calculated based on what we think the emissions from the lagoons are currently, and what we think the ultimate emissions will be with the renewable natural gas and how it’s used.

What does the future look like?

We hope the programs we initiated will continue to grow. We have quite a few hog farms so the opportunity on the renewables side is significant. The grain side is a bit more difficult because so many people need to be reached to make it effective, but I think momentum will build as we demonstrate successes. And we’ll continue to work on quantifying the results.

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