The Supply Side: Kellogg works with Arkansas rice farmers to conserve water

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,465 views 

Food giant Kellogg Co. said it is committed to sustainability sourcing raw materials used in its cereal and other products. One project showing results is with 30 Arkansas farmers who grow rice for Kellogg and other food companies like Riceland Foods.

“Farmers are working to grow more food with fewer resources,” said Mary Gallagher, responsible sourcing manager at Kellogg. “One way Kellogg is supporting farmers is by taking the risk out of trying new practices that can enable more sustainable rice production.”

Gallagher told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that Kellogg worked with The Nature Conservancy on the Arkansas project by funding the cost of timers that rice farmers can use to automate field irrigation pumps. That’s just one of the projects Kellogg has underway as part of its overall sustainability platform to support 1 million farmers by the end of 2030.

Jason Milks, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, said rice has been grown in the state for about 100 years. He said as important as rice is to the region, water is one of the few things that’s more important.

“Making the most efficient use of that water is going to be critical in the future if the state keeps growing rice for generations to come,” Milks said.

Gallagher said working with The Nature Conservancy was a way Kellogg could help support farmers with water conservation by putting technology in their hands, at no cost. The timer technology allows farmers to irrigate the exact amount of water they need and not a drop more.

Field flooding is an essential part of the rice-growing process as it helps to control weeds, mitigate soil erosion and maximize crop yields, Milks explained. The Mississippi Valley Alluvial Aquifer — an underground water source — provides 80% of the water used for rice growing in Arkansas. However, water levels have dropped dramatically due to excessive pumping.

“In many areas across the state, the aquifer has 10% or less water left in it,” Milks said. “For every minute the timer saves in pumping time, thousands of gallons of critical groundwater are conserved.”

He said farmers have used more water than needed over the years, depleting the precious resource faster than it can catch up. He identified around 40 areas in the eastern half of the state as “critical” groundwater areas. He said the area is only recouping through natural means about 44% of the water being used. Milks said alternative water sources are expensive, and going deeper would interfere with rural drinking water supplies.

Milks said the overuse of water occurs when the pump does not shut off immediately after irrigation. He said farmers are busy, and by the time they get to the pump, it has likely spilled thousands of gallons of water needlessly. He said annually, Arkansas consumes 7 billion gallons of water a day, and 80% is irrigating row crop acreage.

Farmers using the timers can control precisely how long the pumps run. The pumps with the low-tech timers automatically shut themselves off once irrigation is complete. Milks said the project with Kellogg has already saved an estimated 9 billion gallons of water annually on the 30 farms that span 15,000 acres.

To picture that, line up 1-gallon bottles of water end-to-end that stretch to the moon and back and a return trip to the moon and about halfway back to the earth. This water would fill up an Olympic size swimming pool 13,636 times. Milks said the water-saving is enormous, but there is more to the story. He said farmers also save time, labor and wear and tear on equipment by not driving down muddy roads to turn off the pumps.

Milks said grants from Kellogg cover the pumps and installation cost, which are about $1,000 each. He said the project opted for low-tech timers that are easy to set manually. He said they are durable and have a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years.

“This is a great place for farmers to start with no cost outlay of their own, and in the first two years of this three-year project, farmers have been overwhelmed by the water savings and other benefits the timers have provided,” Milks said.

Marvell (Phillips County) farmer Kotton Guest has 30 pumps on his large rice farm, and each is equipped with a timer. Guest said having an easy-to-use solution like the timers is significant.

“We have to step up and do our part in saving the water for future farmers and people in the world. Everybody has to do their part, and Kellogg’s support of this project makes it easier for us to use new conservation techniques,” Guest said. “I love this land. I love farming, and I love helping to feed people. If we’re smart, we’ll be able to keep the water — and the rice — flowing for many generations to come.”

Gallagher said that as a supplier to Walmart and Kellogg’s convictions, they have an extensive sustainability program. It will help Walmart achieve its overall sustainability goals with Project Gigaton — an effort to reduce greenhouse gases by 1 billion metric tons across the global supply chain by 2030. Kellogg is one of 400 Walmart suppliers to receive the retail giant’s Giga-Gurus designation.

She said Kellogg is proud to be a Walmart “Giga Guru” since 2017, which recognizes suppliers that have set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited) and report publicly on how the company is reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Gallagher said Kellogg sources rice used in Rice Krispies and Special K cereals from Arkansas farmers like Guest and from Louisiana farmers. She said the rice project is part of a broader collaboration with The Nature Conservancy to positively impact conservation programs in over 255,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan and Nebraska. She said other conservation projects are underway with corn and wheat growers in the Midwest.

“Kellogg has a responsibility to customers to sustainability source raw ingredients used in our products like breakfast cereal. Consumers want to know they can trust food companies, and we want consumers to feel good about the products they buy and their impact on the environment,” Gallagher said.

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