By Nate Birt

ACAM Executive Q&A: Norma Ritz-Johnson, Executive Director, United Sorghum Checkoff Program

November 1, 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 Norma Ritz-Johnson, Executive Director at United Sorghum Checkoff Program, a Founding Partner of ACAM.

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?

I grew up in the small farming community of Meadow, Texas. One of the main crops is cotton but also sorghum and, more recently, wine grapes. It has about 600 people.

My dad was employed with USDA and also had a small business. I was involved in 4-H activities growing up, and that shaped a whole lot of what was going to be my outlook on the value of agriculture and the importance of having a strong and sustainable ag industry. It also certainly shaped my career.

I attended Texas TechUniversity, where I earned a bachelor of science in ag. I have had an amazing career, met amazing people and had some great opportunities. I had the good fortune, in the late ‘90s, to work on behalf of sorghum producers at National Sorghum Producers. I spent a little over six years at that organization before leaving to take on a broader public policy role representing the agriculture industry and small businesses at the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce. I spent 17 years in organizational management in roles of progressively increasing responsibility.

Then, I had the opportunity to come back to the sorghum industry and work with sorghum producers at the Sorghum Checkoff. The checkoff was not in existence when I left the sorghum industry in the early 2000s. Just to have a chance to come back and be a part of this great organization was something I couldn’t turn away.

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

It’s actually a work of fiction. The book—“Where The Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens—was recommended to me, and I took the opportunity to treat myself to it, if you will, and I’m so glad I did.

The book is an amazing work of art when it comes to the simple use of the English language in literature. It’s a book I highly recommend. After I got through the book and had the opportunity to reflect on it, one of the things notable to me is the main character’s grasp, understanding and firsthand deep knowledge of the very unique environment the main character finds herself in. Her understanding of that environment is what her very survival depends on.

When you think about it, much like that book, each farm is a unique environment unto itself. There’s really no one who is better equipped or better understands their own unique environment than producers. Family farmers depend on that land, not only for their own survival but the ability for future generations to thrive and survive on that land. It’s really important to grasp the relationship that every farmer has with their own land and their own operation.

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

It is a fairly new organization compared to other checkoff organizations, but like many of the other checkoff organizations the Sorghum Checkoff works with producer checkoff dollars to help improve profitability and add value to sorghum producers through enhanced efforts of research, promotion and information.

Having been a part of the industry before there was a Sorghum Checkoff, I am so appreciative to the producer leadership and the sorghum industry and sorghum farmers for empowering themselves in this way.

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

Sometimes the challenges are opportunities, as well.It all depends on how you look at these things. There are a handful of challenges, but one that I would highlight is striking a balance. As we begin to identify solutions and best practices in conservation and sustainability, we have to constantly recognize that economic sustainability of producers’ operations has to go hand in hand with environmental sustainability.

Your organization has really ramped up sustainability programming over the past 18 months, from recent partnerships such as with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever and America’s Conservation Ag Movement, to a series of hires in sustainability and precision ag. What drivers are behind those investments?

One of the important drivers is that growers traditionally have looked for ways to ensure that they make their land better than it was when they began farming. They want to do so as an investment for the future.

Through the years, the most valued mentors I’ve had have stressed that whatever you take on, you leave it better than you found it. I think producers are a great example of that concept.

Certainly, finding ways for producers to be able to pass their operations to future generations is another driver. We must ensure producers can address some of the biggest challenges we see—for instance, increasingly limited water. We can provide improved varieties or improved rotation options for those producers to be able to continue to produce on that land.

I would also mention the increased desire for resource-conserving ingredients from processors and end users. I think that is driven in large part by the consumer demand for sustainable ingredients. Sorghum checks all the boxes on resource conservation. If we can translate consumer desire for that into added value for producers, that’s certainly an important area for us to focus on.

Consumer and environmental pressure are leading more food manufacturers to seek out ingredients with a strong sustainability position. What role do you see as sorghum’s role in a more sustainable food future?

We look at sorghum’s characteristics in terms of its resilience, its ability to provide residue and its effect on soil health and what that means for reducing erosion.

Sorghum is part of a really great low- or no-till type of rotation. About 75% of sorghum acres are grown under no-till or minimal tillage type practices. When you have something like that you can incorporate, it certainly can lead to healthier soils.

Of course, the very well-known characteristic of sorghum is its ability to thrive in minimal water situations. We call it a water-smart crop that can carefully manage its own water use in times of drought. This is a characteristic that’s increasingly valuable in hotter, more arid growing environments. Here, in these environment water is scarce and is increasingly a valuable resource. Around 91% or so of sorghum acres in the U.S. are non-irrigated or rain fed.

One of the exciting areas that we have put some producer investment dollars in is with relation to sorghum and wildlife. Sorghum provides excellent habitat for upland birds and is an area we’re continuing to collect data on and have recently formed a partnership with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever to further document the benefits of sorghum when it comes to wildlife and how residue can provide cover in winter months and nutrition year-round, when you’ve got birds feeding on seed heads or grain that falls on the ground.

The Sorghum Checkoff recently partnered with the University of California to promote drought resilience in sorghum and increase demand for the cereal crop in biofuel and bioproduct markets. What key outcomes are you seeking from this collaboration, and what needs are those outcomes addressing – both on the drought resilience side and the biofuels side?

This is such an exciting first-of-its-kind partnership. A lot of folks might not realize that the particular area ofCalifornia’s Central Valley, where much of this drought research will take place on sorghum and drought tolerance, is an area that receives virtually zero inches of rain over the summer. You tend to be able to get consistent research results in an area like that. Certainly, one of the areas that will lead the research there will be breeding.

We are also working on gene discovery, phenotyping and research related to the impacts of soil microbes, photosynthesis and management when it comes to drought resilience. It’s really a comprehensive effort.

Another component of the program will be working with the University of California-Merced on biofuel and bioproduct usage for sorghum. This is sort of a full-circle project when it comes to conservation and sustainability. Certainly, it brings with it the opportunity to leverage producer funds invested in this project to help multiply those dollars and bring even more value back to sorghum producers.

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 Sorghum Checkoff’s sustainability priorities?

Three conservation trends make me optimistic. First is the work underway on sustainable landscapes that marry conservation principles with economically sustainable working lands. A great example of that is the work with wildlife that I mentioned earlier.

Another area is the priorities that are increasingly being placed on areas related to water conservation and climate resiliency. Much of sorghum production is centered in the High Plains up to theGreat Plains, where water tends to be limited.Everyone increasingly is begin to wake up to the issue of water scarcity. Sorghum certainly fits the bill when it comes to solutions.

The other thing I’ll mention is the role of technology when it comes to maximizing conservation and measuring positive environmental impacts to ensure that solutions and best practices are suited to the environments for which they’re recommended.

Every operation is a unique environment, and the danger is to try to come up with one-size fits all solutions. I think the role of technology in assessing individual operations and then coming up with solutions that are appropriate for those particular operations is really important.

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

The thing that keeps me up at night or gives me heartburn is ensuring that we do strike that delicate balance. That does tie back into my previous response for ensuring we’re not trying to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions for different areas that are unique, or different operations that are unique.

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? 

I believe that a dialogue is a really important place to start. Dialogue leads to engagement at the grower level and all along the supply chain. I think that America’s Conservation Ag Movement (ACAM) certainly has a role to play and has played a role in increasing that dialogue that results in increased engagement—not only grower to grower but also grower with supply chain, supply chain back to grower, potentially consumer to grower, consumer to supply chain. Having that dialogue and having people engaged at all levels of the supply chain is really where we come up with the best solutions.

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