The Ground Work series shares the perspectives of U.S. soybean farmers as they observe how the U.S. Soy industry lays the groundwork to grow innovative, reliable and sustainable solutions for people and communities around the world.  

When you are focused on a critical deadline and time is limited, it’s hard to step away. Even for important things — and people. But taking time to connect with others is worth it.

That’s what I experienced in early May, when my family and I took a couple hours out of our hectic schedule during planting season to host a farm tour for a unique group.

I raise soybeans and corn with my family near Eau Galle, Wisconsin, about 80 miles, or nearly 130 kilometers, east of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the upper U.S. Midwest. Planting is one of the most critical times of the year, because research shows that timely planting gives us the best chance to grow high-yielding crops. We know that after a certain point, every day planting is delayed, we lose a percent of the total we will harvest in the fall.  

On May 9, we had been rained out of the fields for a few days. The weather finally allowed us to return to planting our crops and controlling weeds. We had planted about three-fourths of our soybean fields and half of our corn fields. We needed to keep making progress.

But in the middle of the morning, my wife Katie, my parents and I all took a couple hours to welcome more than 20 company leaders attending Sustainable Brands’ 2024 Brand-Led Culture Change conference in Minneapolis to our farm. The tour was sponsored by U.S. Soy.

The group included representatives from companies like General Mills, Rootree Inc. and ClimatePartner. They came with lots of questions and curiosity, but without biases, and we explained the role U.S. Soy can play in making their brands more sustainable.

Our conversations, both as a large group and one-on-one, continued non-stop.

My family shared our approach to practices like soil fertility, tillage and cover crops. In response to questions about using specific management practices, my answer was usually, “Yes, on some acres.”

I explained that we treat each of our fields the way you would want your doctor to treat you. We examine the soil in the fields with soil tests, while tissue tests on the crops in the fields tell us what nutrients they have and lack. Then, we treat each field according to what it needs, rather than just doing the same thing everywhere. We want our doctors to examine us and prescribe treatments based on what we need, rather than just getting a blanket prescription.

That’s why we don’t use any single practice on 100% of our acres. We talked about how managing factors like soil compaction, residue from last year’s crop, insect pressure, soil temperature and more play into our decisions.

Before they arrived, my dad dug up a bunch of just-emerging soybean seedlings from the fields we had first planted, so our visitors could see what the plants look like as they come out of the soil. That sparked many other questions, like, “Is this edamame?” I responded that it could be, though that has different harvest timing and handling, so that won’t be the endpoint for our soybeans. When growing soybeans for a specific purpose like that, farmers choose soybean varieties developed specifically to be best for that use.

The group saw some of our equipment, like our nutrient applicator that applies fertilizer in corn, our sprayer that applies crop protection products to help us manage weeds, diseases and insects, and the vertical tillage tool we use in some fields to help warm up the soil. They watched a corn planter that was in action near the shed we met in.

We discussed hot topics like biologicals and carbon intensity. We shared how we consider incorporating new products and how unknowns about how something like a potential carbon market requires us to wait for more information before making decisions.

Through it all, we tackled issues similar to the ones they deal with for their brands about how to constantly improve sustainability while providing the quality products customers needs.

The group left our farm really thinking. The tour piqued their interest in the potential for soy and built their understanding of the challenges farmers like my family face. It also started long-term conversations about the sustainable solutions U.S. Soy can provide in products from food and lip balm to tires and packaging.

As I got back to our pressing work, I was glad we took the time to talk to this group, representing customers with the potential to influence how we grow our crops. I spent the rest of my long day planting soybeans, spraying soybean fields for weeds and delivering seed to keep our other planters rolling.

While I didn’t cover as many acres as I might have, connecting with curious customers who are eager to learn is worth the time.