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I want this land to be as productive 100 years from now, - Howard Dahl
Astarta - Kyiv, Ukriane, Kyiv,
Dec 21, Mon, 2021
Howard Dahl is an American hereditary machinery manufacturer. His family has been in the manufacturing business of machinery for 75 years.
His grandfather, a farmer and inventor, started a manufacturing business that after his death developed the Bobcat loader.
Then his father and uncle built the Steiger tractor company which was the world leader in large 4-wheel drive tractors and later sold to Case Corporation.
In 1981, Howard and his brother Brian developed the Concord air seeder. It became the leading pneumatic grain drill manufacturer in the United States and Canada, and also sold more than 500 units in the Former Soviet Union. In 1996 the company was also sold to Case Corporation.
Upon selling Concord, Brian and Howard began Amity Technology, a company that has been the leader in the sugar beet harvesting business in North America for the last 25 years. Their sugar beet harvesting machines have been shipped all around the world.
From 1987 Howard Dahl was a member of Boards for several non-profits, public service and private companies, such as the University of North Dakota Foundation, North Dakota Council for the Arts, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, The Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, etc.
In 2017 Howard Dahl was appointed as the Chairman of the Astarta’s Board of Directors.
- Why Astarta’s Board of Directors?
- Our relationship with Viktor Ivanchyk goes back to 2001 when I hosted Viktor and Irina in New York City. And then in Fargo, where our factory is located. Over these 20 plus years, Viktor has become a very dear friend, not just a business acquaintance. And I was honoured when he asked if I would join the Board of Astarta.
-Let's talk about agribusiness. So what is the difference between agricultural practices in Ukraine and the USA?
-There are several differences but let's be clear, principles of agronomy are the same everywhere in the world. And all farmers, everywhere in the world, understand you need very good quality seed. You need to put the seed in the ground at the right depth when the soil temperature is right. We need moisture.
The biggest changes that are going on in global agriculture involve using more digital tools for precision farming. With these tools we can do a more careful analysis of each small area of a field, especially taking into account different soil types. And those different soil types require different nutrients and in the same field, you may have three or four different soil types.
Many years ago at Astarta, we started our laboratory of agrochemical analysis of soil to manage soil fertility. Today, the company has already a unique database with a grid covering most of the fields under Astarta's operational management. So careful analysis of potassium, phosphate and nitrogen humus, soil pH and several minor nutrients are collected regularly and monitored. And based on this information, the company is implementing precision farming technologies, which, in my opinion, is the future.
I believe Astarta was the first large agribusiness to have their soil laboratory and was away ahead of other companies that are only now looking at doing their soil laboratory to have the confidence of getting the right quantity and the right type of nutrients to each field.
I would say even in the United States we're seeing greater and greater advances in soil analysis, understanding the physical chemistry of the soil. There's a great deal of research being done even on soil biology.
And of course, with the whole discussion of carbon sequestration.
-Are we talking about the introduction of new agronomic practices - carbon farming, which can increase the level of carbon sequestration of soil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere?
-Yes. Still, there are some important aspects. Many American farmers are already using new agricultural practices - no-till farming, planting cover crops, trying to build up more organic matter in the soil. How to make fewer trips over the field to reduce the total fuel consumption is another aspect of this practice.
There is a dramatic change in the thinking of everyone in agriculture. How do we sequester carbon? There's a lot of people spending a lot of money in this space. But we have not figured out a simple way to sequester the carbon and to measure the carbon sequestration in the soil. I would say American farmers are thinking deeply about this.
I think the subject of carbon sequestration is going to evolve into the totality of soil health, which every farmer cares deeply about. Our farmers own their land primarily or they have long term rental agreements on their land and so they care deeply about this soil health.
-So if I got you right, American farmers are already involved in the process and Ukrainian farmers are only at the beginning of this way, don't I?
-I would say that is pretty accurate. Ukrainian farmers are also beginning to introduce carbon farming practices, and large agricultural holdings are conducting relevant research. For example, this year Astarta, in cooperation with an international company, started to implement a carbon farming project in Ukraine. After the research, there will be given recommendations on tillage, application of organic and mineral fertilizers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
-The results of the recently held UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties COP26 provide that the participants agreed on the reduction of GHG emissions to limit the increase of global temperature below 1.5C. To meet the target, it is required to reduce the consumption of fossil energy sources, especially coal. What do you think will be the impact on the agriculture and food processing industries?
-I'm cautious in my thinking about climate change and I will say I'm optimistic that in our state of North Dakota we are going to have a couple of major technologies that may be game-changers in this climate debate.
Our scientists at our Environmental and Engineering Research Centre believe that they can capture CO2 from coal-fired utilities and bury it in abandoned oil wells. There's a $250 million project going on right now. The scientists have high confidence that it's going to be successful. If that happens coal will be, once again, the cheapest source of providing electricity. And the whole world is going to watch this experiment going on in North Dakota.
A friend of mine is the head of the company doing this. And they're quite hopeful. In addition, we have underground salt caverns in North Dakota that are allowing us to build a pipeline from Iowa and some other states to take all the CO2 from 31 ethanol plants and bury all that CO2 underground. These many different projects are looking at how to manage this problem without shutting down the economy.
Energy has been the key to all development in the world in the last 150 years. But if you read Daniel Yergen’s book – the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power”, you understand that economic development is almost all tied to the availability of inexpensive energy. And so far developing countries have to be very resistant to such challenges.
I believe that through great innovation, really talented people, we're going to figure out some ways to continue using the abundant energy resources and deal with this CO2 problem. That's the optimism in me speaking.
-The optimism also makes it possible to consider possible climate changes not only in terms of losses but also in terms of challenges that can be used as new opportunities. For example, growing crops in the regions where previously such growing was impossible or economically senseless. What opportunities can be observed in this context?
-I think the time where we live is a perfect example of that. At the northern part of North Dakota at the Canadian border, we are seeing farmers raising 16 metric tons of corn per hectare. A place where no one raised any corn 20 years ago.
A combination of plant breeding, that takes into account the number of growing degree days a crop needs can provide opportunities to produce more food in northern growing areas.
-The experts say agriculture and IT should come together to deliver great results. What do you think about it?
-Well, a year ago I read a study on the digitisation of various business sectors in America. They compared 24 business sectors of which agriculture was one of the sectors. Agriculture was number 23 in digitisation showing that incredible opportunities are going forward. And we're just in the early stages of this.
100 interesting projects are going on using digital technology to greatly improve the precision of farming. For example, a work with the highest hyperspectral cameras that are going over fields to recognise particular weeds and then people pick particular chemicals to kill that particular weeds.
All these projects are very expensive. And as I've told many people over the years most of those who spent money in precision agriculture in the 80s, nineties, 2000s wasted them, except for autosteering and combine yield monitors. Successful were those two technologies. I have personal experience with two or three investments that were very interesting but never successful.
So there are tremendous opportunities to greatly improve agriculture and we have a lot of work to do and as we're just in the early stages of, I call it, the micromanaging of each plant.
-Why should agribusiness be responsible?
-Agribusiness has an enormous responsibility for feeding the world, having safe food, quality food, transporting that food, efficiently at a price that people throughout the world could afford. It has always been a challenge.
We always need to maintain soil health. Soil health is the passion that I have. I want this land to be as productive 100 years from now. And this, by the way, completely coincides with Viktor Ivanchyk’s and Astarta’s vision.
In my region of North Dakota, South Dakota where we have a lot of chernozem soil like Ukraine has, we saw a degradation of the organic matter in the soil for the first 130 years that the land was farmed. But in the last 20 years, the organic matter has remained constant, largely through no-till farming.
There are a lot of practices that farmers are learning from each other. By observing those who do all the good practices farmers can maintain their yields and profitability. It's a constant learning experience.
You get one year of an experiment to farming, you can't do multiple experiments. You put in a crop and then you have a year to wait and learn what you can learn. It is not like a laboratory where you can do hundreds of experiments in a short time. Each year is a new year that we learn new lessons. I'm optimistic that we're going to continue to see better plant breeding, more efficient seeds and the farmer must apply the right nutrients in the right spot in each field.
-During our conversation, you often talk about the need to introduce new agricultural practices, new technologies, ideas and projects. And how to create an environment in the company for these ideas and projects to be generated?
-The employees feel empowered when their ideas are listened to. And we know for many years of experience that every single employee has a good idea of how something should change to improve the company and we just need to listen well to all those suggestions.
In the best cultures in America, there's freedom for employers to disagree with a decision their bosses made to talk through it. But I find that a lot of Ukrainian employees are afraid to criticize their boss or say something to their boss that the boss might disagree with.
Yes. It is hard to be a recipient of criticism or disagreement from one of your subordinates. But the really strong people can take those criticisms. And listen to them realizing that they may be wrong in their judgment, and they need to see something through new eyes.
I have had the privilege of meeting with Astarta’s employees several times. And there was an openness there. The culture of Astarta is different from most Russian, Ukrainian companies that I've dealt with. And I have now made 93 trips into the former Soviet Union countries since 1992.
If Astarta were located in the United States, it would resemble the culture of a lot of very good companies. I think that is one of the distinctives of Astarta. And it starts with the desire of the shareholders to have an open culture where employees can express their concerns, some of their dreams or opportunities that they see in.
-To top it all off. What is your advice to Ukrainian agrarians?
-Constantly educate yourself. Constantly learn. Don't think you know it all. Most farmers who are most open to new ideas and learning, willing to take some new ideas into their farming practice each year, usually are those who succeed the most.
You don't do a whole new experiment on 100,000 acres of land, but you go into it slowly. So Astarta is working with organic farming. I could tell you stories of many companies that largely went into organic farming and failed because they had not thought through the consequences of their decision.
I think in the wintertime, the best farmers spend a lot of time going to seminars and learning all that they can before they put in their crop in the following year. I don't think any of us can ever learn enough, and so it's the attitude of being teachable that is critical for success.