An Interview with Paul Helgeson: Sustainability Manager, GNP Company

  • April 19, 2016
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  • Greg Bohrer

Environmental Initiative has a network of environmental leaders across all sectors of the economy – from businesses, all levels of government, nonprofits, academia, and more. In a new series, we’ll be interviewing environmental and sustainability leaders from our diverse community to share their passions and how they lead.

I’m kicking off the series with sustainability leader and Environmental Initiative board member, Paul Helgeson. Paul is currently the Sustainability Manager with GNP Company and is the founder and visionary behind the Field Stewards program.

To start us off, can you tell us a little bit about how you became sustainability manager at GNP Company?

I grew up in central Minnesota surrounded by the agricultural industry. My great-grandfather started what became Gold n’ Plump as one of the hundreds of small hatcheries in Minnesota in the 1920’s.  For most of my life my dad was CEO and he, along with our team members, worked very hard to grow the company into the largest chicken company in the Upper Midwest.

This inspired me to pursue a business education and during my undergrad days I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. There I visited Carlsberg, the big beer company. This was my first exposure to a large company advocating for sustainability. Beverage companies had worked with the Danish government to put a high deposit on bottles. So those bottles were getting turned back in and Carlsberg was reusing them to bottle beer. This reduced litter, saving the government money, and saved Carlsberg from having to buy expensive new bottles. Seeing this win-win for business, government, and the people of Denmark sparked my interest in harnessing the profit motive of business to achieve social and environmental goals.

I remained interested in sustainability while earning my MBA from the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota and working outside the company. When I joined GNP Company in 2010 I helped my family’s business to consider sustainability and together we developed the 4 P Framework: people, poultry, progress, and planet. We set aggressive planet goals for improving the resource efficiency of our operations and made a commitment to working with our supply chain.  During this time, I also helped develop the Field Stewards idea and I’m the liaison from GNP Company on the project.

For folks who haven’t heard about it before, how would you describe the Field Stewards project?

At the core, it’s a way to connect consumers and farmers who care about water quality.

Functionally, it is a certification and market system that recognizes and rewards farmers for their environmental protection efforts.  Food companies can buy certificates to offset some of the environmental impacts of their commodity crop inputs. The market system allows us to support farmers in our local area who have gone above and beyond the norm to protect water quality on their farms.

Consumers increasingly care about their food and how it was produced. The underlying sentiment is “Do the people creating my food share my values?” However, the commodity crop system isn’t set up for food companies to track sustainability at the farm level. Like a lot of food companies, we buy the grain used in our feed off of what is essentially an international commodity market.  The grain markets and the commodity crop systems are not designed for food companies or consumers to track on-farm sustainability practices.  So, we have no way to know what practices were used in the fields that our grain came from.

This is the opportunity for Field Stewards. It is a program that gives food-marketing companies like GNP Company the ability to create a more sustainable supply chain for their most critical inputs.

Where did the idea for Field Stewards come from?

For food and other consumable products, most of the environmental impacts tend to be upstream, in the supply chain. When we ran a life cycle assessment at GNP Company it became clear that if we wanted to reduce our environmental footprint significantly, we would need to also consider how we influence our feed ingredient supply chain.

However, the corn and soybean supply chain works a lot like the electricity grid. When you turn on your lights you don’t know, or have a choice, if the electrons coming to your house are from a coal-fired power plant or a solar panel.  Even if you want to buy clean energy it is not possible for the grid to deliver only those clean electrons to your house.  So renewable energy credits (REC) were developed as a way to connect producers of renewable energy with consumers that want to buy renewable energy.

Between doing the life cycle analysis and buying REC’s for GNP Company, I got the idea of creating REC’s for agricultural commodities.  Take this thinking from electrons to bushels and apply the concept to the agricultural system. What if there was a way for food companies to efficiently support farmers that go the extra mile for the environment?

After some searching, I brought this idea to Mike Harley at Environmental Initiative, who immediately understood the potential and created a project around it. A few years later and with some support from the McKnight Foundation and other funders, we are almost ready to deploy the system at a prototype level this year.

What is the biggest problem Field Stewards will help us solve?

Today we have fewer and larger farmers selling to even fewer food companies that then sell to even still fewer grocery store chains and restaurants distributors. The mostly urban consumers of this food have little connection to where their food comes from. Furthermore, food companies have pushed value and convenience, in response to price conscience and busy consumers.  But consumer values are changing and the system isn’t set up to accommodate these emerging and unorthodox demands. Field Stewards gives people a way to connect to their food purchases with the values that are important to them, such as environmental sustainability.

Organic is one method of doing that, but it is expensive and out of reach for a large portion of consumers. Field Stewards layers on top of the existing commodity system, keeping the cost-effectiveness of our agricultural system while allowing companies to make a positive environmental difference in their agricultural communities by supporting farmers who are actively working to protect water quality.

GNP Company provided seed funding for this idea, and is committed to be the first food brand that will purchase certified acres from farmers to offset water quality impacts in the supply chain.

Why did GNP decide to support this idea?

The Field Stewards objective is consistent with our company’s values of respect, integrity, and innovation. Additionally, it makes strategic sense to connect our branding, business objectives, and the Field Stewards program to work towards improving the sustainability of our feed ingredient supply chain.

I believe getting farmers in our “feedshed” to adopt best management practices for water quality will help ensure a more resilient supply of critical inputs in the face of volatile and severe weather, which is increasing as a result of climate change.

In addition to adding resilience to our most critical input, we are also developing a way to differentiate our premium brand, Just BARE®. Just BARE was launched in 2008 to meet the needs of consumers who are more mindful of what they eat. The Just BARE consumer wants want to know where their food comes from and that the producers of the food share their values, including respect for animals and the planet.

One of the ways we differentiate Just BARE is by certifying them with the American Humane Certified™  farm program, an animal welfare certification. Another is with the purchase of wind energy RECs.  Field Stewards is another possible attribute that will help reinforce the brand’s value promise and further build trust with consumers.