Danone North America: Leading the Charge

Published on Wed, 09/15/2021 - 2:24pm

Danone North America: Leading the Charge.

 Article by Maura Keller and Danone North America.

 Danone is a company that is rooted in purpose. Founded in Spain in 1919 to help those suffering from intestinal disorders due in particular to malnutrition, a key articulation and evolution of the company strategy came in 1972 in Marseille, when the CEO at the time, Antoine Riboud, spoke about his vision of Danone’s role as a company, recognizing the interdependence of economic and social factors in business. In essence, Riboud share his insights into Danone’s core focus: “A company’s responsibility does not end at the factory or office doorstep.” Indeed, Danone is an agriculture company where its farming partners are at the cornerstone of everything the company does.

Just ask Luke VanTilburg, fourth generation farmer, VanTilburg Farms and MVP Dairy, who has been a conventional dairy farmer partner with Danone North America since 2017.

“We are fourth generation grain farmers and entered into dairy farming after learning about Danone’s commitment to working directly with farmers to implement regenerative farming practices,” VanTilburg says. “At the time we weren’t dairy farmers, but we shared a lot of the same sustainability goals and values with Danone NA.” Through a partnership with the McCarty family, dairy farmers from Northwest Kansas, VanTilburg Farms built MVP Dairy in Celina, Ohio in close proximity to the VanTilburg’s 4,200 acres at MVP. The milk then goes to Danone’s largest plant, located only 20 miles from the dairy.

“We participate in Danone’s Soil Health program and complete an annual evaluation to see the effects of our regenerative farming practices,” VanTilburg says. “We work closely with Danone and EcoPractices to not only measure, but review our results. They support our continuous improvement mindset and also work to provide grants to help us move the needle in improving the health of our soil.”  They also help MVP Dairy determine what steps can be the most impactful in reducing their overall footprint while setting goals for the future.

“Danone views us as an important part of their value chain and understands our work but also considers our experience as fourth generation farmers,” VanTilburg says. “Our partnership helps elevate each other’s strengths when working toward the common goal of improving the land for the next generation and ultimately producing food more sustainably.”  
But Danone’s commitment to the farming community at large doesn’t stop there. Cody Turner, owner of a dairy farm in Gooding, Idaho, has been partnering with Danone since 2016 in producing the best quality organic dairy products. “I feel that it is a large responsibility to nurture and care for the cows that produce the raw dairy milk”, Turner says. “Together we collaborate often on ways to improve and set a new goal for quality.”

Turner takes great pride in caring for the dairy farm’s cows and ensuring that they supply them with the highest quality lifestyle. As a third-generation dairy farmer Turner is very excited to share his way of life with his family.

Today, Danone North America has a vast portfolio of brands that address a variety of consumer needs. From providing children with options like Danimals, to protein focused consumers with Oikos and those looking for lower-sugar options with Two Good, just to name a few.

“We view our brands as more than just a product,” says Nicholas Camu, vice president of agriculture at Danone North America. “At Danone we believe that each time we eat and drink we can vote for the world we want and through the work Danone is leading with regenerative agriculture, as just one example, consumers can vote with their dollars and feel part of this work.”

Looking at this from the farmer perspective, Danone’s direct sourcing model helps ensure the company has access to the correct quality and sustainability standard from things like CO2 emissions to water usage to animal welfare standards and broader environmental impact.  

In fact, regenerative agriculture is at the heart of Danone’s commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and be a water impact positive company. Danone’s global definition of regenerative agriculture– which includes organic production – is defined as a set of farming practices that: protects soil, water, biodiversity, respects animal welfare, and acknowledges the key role of farmers and the positive impact of farming, while taking into account its economic viability.

An example of one of these pillars in practice – in North America Danone has an industry leading soil health program in partnership with Sustainable Environmental Consultants and its EcoPractices® platform to conduct an in-depth field-level sustainability analysis and reporting on soil health and related goals leading to continuous improvement on enrolled farms.
Danone North America’s soil health research program is in year 4 of a 5 year program and has nearly tripled to more than 82,000 acres, inclusive of 28,000 organic acres, across the U.S. and Canada and has recently expanded into almond orchards in the central valley of California.

“The program enables Danone North America to continue supporting farms in implementing innovative farm management practices,” Camu says. “Each year, the program continues to grow, developing relationships with new farm partners, as well as expanding into new crops and regions. And we believe that regenerative farming is a key strategy to tackling climate change.”

Looking ahead, over the next year and a half, Danone North America will take the program’s findings, quantitative outcomes, and improvement plans to increase regenerative agriculture practices that will help lead to improved farm economic resilience.

The program will also continue to establish goals with farm partners, pilot innovative technologies to drive change. In addition, Danone North American plans to launch industry-leading tools and programs to encourage greater regenerative management adoption and achieve enrollment of 100,000 acres under the regenerative agriculture program.
As Camu explains, this program is done in complete partnership with Danone’s farm partners, and the company doesn’t provide mandates.

Strong communication includes explaining a proposed plan and outcome to each respective farm partner, going into detail about long-term sustainability goals and program benefits. The Danone team recognizes that it is important for each farm to truly be a partner throughout the entire process.

“We understand no two farms are the same and no single solution can be applied to every farm. That’s why we lean on the data collected to help build out individual plans tailored to what is best for the soil on each farm,” Camu says. The company is also doing this for the betterment of the industry. By gathering data and knowledge through the program, Danone North America shares this with other farms – including those who are not already a part of the program – as well as with other companies, furthering efforts to build a shared future and working toward the common goal that is combatting climate change.

“Danone has taken the role of processing and marketing our partnership very seriously. I feel very fortunate to be able to work with such a great company who is always striving to become better and striving to serve more people,” Turner says. “I enjoy working with Danone because they are always encouraging me to improve our operation. I think that type of encouragement is beneficial for the industry.”

The Danone North American team is excited about the future as they expect it to bring about innovation in the dairy space as they collectively work towards a common goal of fighting climate change.

“This will be done through continued on-farm innovation, continued learning, continued partnerships, and continued transparency,” Camu says. “The reality is when we work together, we can have the biggest impact and with the issue of climate change we should all be working together. That’s one reason why we’re committed to sharing the results and data from our soil health program. We know we don’t have all of the solutions, but we’re committed to the work and the dairy industry can be part of the solution to carbon reduction.”