By Nate Birt

ACAM Executive Q&A: Curt Blades And Megan Tanel, Association Of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)

October 21, 2021

Throughout 2021, Trust In Food is inviting leaders of the Foundational Partners of America’s Conservation Ag Movement to share their vision for the future of conservation and sustainability in U.S. agriculture. In this post, we spotlight Association Of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) leaders Curt Blades, senior vice president of agriculture services and forestry, and Megan Tanel, senior vice president of construction.

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you arrive in this leadership role within your organization, and how does a commitment to sustainability/conservation inform how you show up to work each day?

MEGAN: It was not really planned. I didn’t start in construction, but I started in public relations and ended up in the association business, which really has been with AEM almost my whole career. It was very easy to find the values. What better way to do good than to serve two industries—agriculture and construction—that have so much impact on everyone’s lives? For me, it was very easy to fall into the construction side of things and think about not necessarily building our roads but repairing our roads, reimagining what was put in place many years ago and putting in mind the impact on future generations.

CURT: That’s one of the reasons Megan and I are a great team. We do have a very strategic view of the association but also the industries that we represent. We recognize we’re part of society, and a very important part of society. You can’t have food without good infrastructure and also, there wouldn’t be a lot of people to build those roads without food. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We work together in a synergistic way. From a more strategic standpoint, that’s absolutely where we come from.

I’m a farm kid. The sustainability bug is one that bit me very early on in my career, way before it became cool, but it’s one that I think is really important. What we find is that farmers are absolutely part of the solution to climate change. There are so many things farmers do well when they employ modern technology. We’ve done a really crappy job of telling that story. Just like on the construction side, some phenomenal things are being done. Those stories don’t get told. We just need to tell the stories a little bit better so folks understand we really are trying to do what is good for society and future generations.

MEGAN: To share a personal story on perceptions of our industry, I have four daughters, and one used to say, “Mom, how can you go to work every day tearing down trees?” Right at home, you’ve got your own issues to help the perception of the industry.

CURT: That’s a prime example. That transcends all five of our sectors. We represent big equipment that ultimately moves earth and moves forests. We do it in a sustainable way for the good of society, but it’s really easy for someone not familiar with the work we do to come to some of those conclusions that are perhaps ill placed or incorrect.

What’s one book you’ve read recently that’s challenging how you think about conservation or the future of food and agriculture?

CURT: “1491,” by Charles Mann. It is a fantastic read that speaks to what America was like before it was discovered. It speaks to some of the things being talked about and re-popularized today, such as that modern agriculture has to live symbiotically with nature. Systems that have been around for centuries in the U.S. and everywhere in the world show that modern ag practices working in a symbiotic relationship with nature are what works. There have been different points in our history where we’ve ventured away from that a little bit. I think, ultimately, farmers recognize that symbiosis. We need to continue to rethink and rechallenge way we grow crops and make sure there’s a nice balance between what’s economically viable and also what’s good for the long-term viability of our society.

MEGAN: During the shutdown and pandemic, everyone was doing 12 jobs at home. There hasn’t been a lot of time for me to find for myself to read, so instead I have been joining one of my daughters, who just started reading “The Hunger Games”. Her perspective of this book is quite fascinating, and I can almost hear our society getting there today a little bit. We’re heading out to the fringes, we’re extreme on certain sides. If we’re not careful to listen and learn from each other, and if we’re not willing to understand the impact of one industry on another, we end up going down individual paths and find ourselves in mass chaos.

How you understand the impact of all our industries on each other, it’s truly greater than I think we appreciate. You can’t build the roads if you don’t have food to sustain the people.

In a sentence, describe AEM for executives in our audience who are unfamiliar with your work.

MEGAN: AEM is the North American-based organization for equipment manufacturers in construction agriculture, mining, forestry and utilities. Our purpose is to support our own members in their own companies, product development and product cycle, and in getting their product to market. We advocate on behalf of them, support their legislative needs and issues, and help them navigate through regulatory challenges. We help them create best safety practices and we provide best-in-class events for them to get together with their own customers, bringing buyers and sellers together.

What is the biggest sustainability challenge your organization is facing, and how are you navigating possible ways to address and overcome that challenge?

CURT: We started the Sustainability Council within AEM three years ago, frankly under the radar because it was not a popular topic. It went from under radar to front and center almost overnight. The biggest challenge we have, frankly, is getting over some of the internal hurdles. There have been fits and starts on environmentalism in the past, and sometimes those come from the fringes. As a result, that gives some of these movements a little bit of a negative perception.

When we approach it from a rational standpoint, it’s very refreshing. But also, we’ve got this unfortunate legacy we have to overcome where some people have had bad experiences with regulation or with well-intended but probably harmful things that have been dictated to them that had a negative impact on their business. When we make the switch to proactive sustainability, our biggest hurdle is getting out of the legacy associated with the word.

MEGAN: I remember when I first started at AEM (at the time, it was called CIMA—the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association), I brought up the word “sustainability” and people said, “You can’t say that word!” I agree with everything that Curt said.

An additional challenge is that it’s gotten political. That’s unfortunate because it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s not support for one vision, and there really isn’t a clear vision from a global standpoint because sustainability is something we all have to get behind. We’re in different places in different parts of the world, and even here in our country, you have different regulatory efforts on the West Coast versus the East Coast versus the middle of the country.

Talk about the sustainability leadership AEM’s members are taking through several novel programs of work your organization runs—including the Leadership Groups you’ve developed (e.g. Dairy, Manure, Specialty Crops) as well as the Futures Council and industry research on the state of sustainability. What are AEM and its members doing and learning in these groups? Why is investment in these specific topical workstreams so important to the future of sustainable agriculture?

CURT: Our philosophy on Leadership Groups is that problems are solved in the niches. Sometimes, our solution is providing a clean, well-lit room for people to get together and talk. Leadership Groups are a prime example of this. We get executives from companies with tighter segments of products together, and inevitably what comes out are multiple common problems. Most of those problems have to do with regulatory compliance, sustainability, things they’re trying to get in front of, things that all fit into this broad category of sustainability.

We don’t set those groups out to solve for sustainability, but because those groups are charged with solving issues facing their segments, we talk about sustainability a lot. Then what becomes really neat about those groups and the power of having those people together is we quickly move from just beating up on the problem to collectively coming up with solutions. Being much more proactive in solving these problems makes really good since economically and for society.

MEGAN: I think the biggest value is you’re able to bring together different groups with different perspectives and ideas. That’s the whole role of an association. It’s almost like we have our own mini think tanks. The main thing is to make sure they feel comfortable sharing their ideas, and you don’t want to get into any intellectual property issues.

In construction, these groups are focused a lot on technology and how that interacts with the individual equipment, and what access to that technology does the end user have. When we’re talking leadership in construction right now, it’s folding right into Curt’s Sustainability Council. We’re working cohesively to benefit all.

CURT: The groups that Megan is overseeing—I’m thinking specifically of the Engine Emissions Group and the Automation Group—there are some bigger fundamental things that may have started in construction that may have implications across all the sectors we serve. That’s a minor difference in how our sectors approach these smaller groups. It’s pretty easy to say, “Dairy people are dairy people,” versus in construction, you might have 15 types of construction equipment. They tend to focus on function versus a particular type or crop.

MEGAN: In construction, our focus ends up being a little more related to the job site or the materials used, as well. That’s not always talked about just in our Leadership Groups but in broader groups that bring original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and customers together.

The conversations have changed greatly even in the last 10 years, let alone the last 30 years. The positive side of this is the entire industry is wanting to raise the perception of what we do and the reality of what we’re doing for the future. When you think about what ag and construction were doing 20 years ago, and some of the materials and chemicals that were being used—we just don’t talk about it, right?

Moving forward, everyone has a vested interest in being safer and having conversations about this. You can see an industry wanting to move forward.

How is the growing national conversation around carbon, reduced emissions and a changing climate shaping the priorities of AEM and its members?

CURT: There’s a lot packed into that one. In ag circles, talking about carbon immediately turns into this as a potential revenue opportunity for farmers. You can’t sequester carbon without plants. Part of me gets excited about that as a revenue opportunity in which farmers become more economically viable by participating in carbon markets.

The piece that’s challenging for us—all of AEM, not just the ag side—is that we produce a lot of equipment that uses internal combustion engines. There’s a whole lot of conversation around what the future of carbon emissions and internal combustion engines will look like. The one thing shaping our conversations is: What is no carbon? Reduced carbon? Carbon sequestration? And how does it all tie together? There are multiple angles this could go. Some could be very good for all five sectors, some could be really bad for all of our sectors. That current power source is really good, and the technology to completely eliminate carbon from that power source is just frankly not there today.

What we’re really nervous about is well-intended regulators getting too far in front of the technology to mandate things that, although they may be correct, simply can’t be done. We want to be very careful. We don’t like prescriptions on anything. We like to shoot for goals and let innovation figure it out. That’s what we’ve done with engines and precision agriculture all along, and it seems like what we need to do for carbon emissions. There are some concerns out there that we may not get the luxury of letting the technology catch up with the regulations.

MEGAN: it’s not just about emissions but also: How are you going to get to a different version of what it is you’re trying to get to? Is it electric? How are we doing it on the job site? If we do change how we’re powering our equipment, there needs to be a the discussion about not only what the impact will be on our environment but also how do we change the system together, all in the same direction? You’ve got options at that point—hydraulic, pneumatic, electrical. How do you support that shift at a job site or in a factory or whatever It might be? If an issue arises, how will we address  it, and what’s the ripple effect?

CURT: One cool thing that ties our sectors together is that any of this reduced carbon future is going to require investments in infrastructure. We love infrastructure at AEM. We support the building of roads, of utilities, all of those types of things. Our relationship with carbon is complicated.

What sustainability lessons can agriculture professionals learn from other segments of the equipment market that AEM serves, including in forestry and construction? What past or current challenges or opportunities those segments have faced could inform agriculture’s path forward? 

CURT: I think you can look really closely at the mining industry and, although it still has more than its share of black eyes, they’ve done a lot  of great work to improve their image. They did a lot of bad thigs for a while, but they also improved their practices along the way. Reclamation work done afterward at a mine is pretty incredible. It cannot be done without really good equipment. The industry is aggressively trying to change and doing a good job of changing their reputation in society as a whole. When you move from being defensive to being part of a solution, the conversation changes dramatically.

MEGAN: A couple of our members led some of the focus on that change because they didn’t like what they were seeing. They voiced: “We’re not OK with this. We have to take a stand. We have to make change.” It’s great that some of our members were that forward thinking, including some of the same members on Curt’s Sustainability Council. Ag has been doing a fairly decent job of trying to stay up on things and trying to educate people about how we do things.

I was really proud AEM was a part of the spray-drift conversation. Different sides were wiling to come together, take a step back and actually listen. For any struggling industry, you’ve can’t hide things. You’ve got to be open and honest and take a look at what the perception is of your industry. It’s going to have that impact on you.

If you think about forestry and what was happening in South American rainforests, you’ve had contractors and equipment manufacturers working together collectively to replant trees. Forestry is another industry that has done great things.

What three conservation trends have you most excited and optimistic about the future of U.S. agriculture and farming in the next four years, relative to AEM’s sustainability priorities?

CURT: One trend that I’m excited about is the acceptance that technology and innovation is part of the solution. That’s universal across all five of the sectors at AEM. There is recognition that if you employ technology, it’s not a choice of either or. You can do both good things for environment and do good things economically.

The trend I find frankly most exciting in ag is a noticeable shift in attitudes among farmers from being defensive to being part of the solution. Last spring when the coronavirus pandemic began, our friends in the health care industry rolled up their sleeves and said, “We’ve got this.” I see farmers doing the same with sustainability and climate change solutions. I see farmers saying, “Trust us, we’ve got this.” That’s changed in the last two years.

What one sustainability trend or issue keeps you up at night and gives you heartburn?

MEGAN: A trend that keeps me up at night is water and access to safe and clean water. Look at almond farmers on the West Coast, at what’s happening to drinking water in places like Flint, Mich. Water impacts all of our industries, and it will just continue to elevate the issue of access to clean and clear drinking water for everyone while also ensuring we can water our crops and livestock.

What’s the single most important action step that conservation- and sustainability-oriented food and ag professionals should be taking in the next 12 months? 

MEGAN: It could be so simple as getting involved within whatever organizations you’re involved in. While the Sustainability Council doesn’t need to have 4,000 people on it, it still could use your support and your engagement.

If you’re involved in a group that doesn’t have a council or a committee focused on sustainability, you probably want to start the conversation as to, “Why don’t we have this? Shouldn’t we?” If you do have one, you need to get engaged and figure out what’s recommended and what you can do. Look internally within your own company, your own life and family. Ask, “What are a couple small steps that I can do?”

CURT: Mine is the same—start. Start somewhere. One small step makes a really big difference. The more you get into sustainability work and put politics and preconceived notions aside, it gets really exciting. This is noble work to be thinking about the future of society for generations. It’s important work that farmers have been doing for years, but we didn’t frame it as sustainability, we framed it as just doing our jobs. It’s pretty cool to line those two things up together.

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