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Family waving from tractor combine.

Editor’s Note: This interview launches our “Farms and Faces behind Feedstock CI Scoring” series. As the ag industry continues to uncover value-add opportunities for carbon intensity (CI) scoring, we believe that it is essential for biofuel producers, commodity managers, and grain farmers to not just understand the what behind CI scoring, but the who. The success of commercial CI scoring marketplaces will be largely dependent on the engagement of everyday corn farmers looking to capture new revenue opportunities and tell their operation’s story through simplified CI scoring. Let’s get to know a few of those stories.

Editor: I'd love to hear the story of your farm—what's the journey been like, and how has your connection to previous generations shaped your approach to farming?

Nik Jakobs, Jakobs Brothers Farms: We are a third generation cattle and crop operation in the United States and have been trading cattle for as many generations as we can trace back in the Netherlands. My family has a deep love for cattle and land. Preserving the lifestyle of a family farm is essential to our family’s strength and connectivity to one another.        

Tell us more about the crops you raise, the types of ground you farm, any other streams of income in your operation, and the daily rhythms at JBF?

At our farm, we create nearly all of the corn and feedstocks necessary to feed our cattle. We utilize our manure from the cattle to fertilize our crop ground. We believe in a closed ecosystem to minimize environmental impact.

Explain that “closed ecosystem”. What inspired you to start implementing conservation practices on your farm? Any "a-ha" moments that set you on this path?

Sustainability is in our blood. My grandfather insisted we leave things better than we found them. We believe in that approach to both our cattle and crop operations. To simplify it, we raise corn, much of corn that isn't fed directly to our cattle gets delivered to an ethanol plant, we then buy back that processed corn as commercial feed [often described as distillers grain] which is the byproduct of the ethanol production process, we feed it to our cattle, collect their manure, use that manure to fertilizer our corn and then start the process all over again. We are very proud of how efficient and environmentally friendly those production practices are compared to our peers in the industry.  We want to set the standard for stewardship. We also believe that after decades of experience and implementation of stewardship practices, we produce some of the most efficiently raised, lowest carbon intensive commodities on the planet.

Looking into the future, where do you see your farm in a decade or two? What dreams drive your vision for the farm's legacy?

We will continue to be the best version of ourselves possible.  Our long term goals include things like providing as many jobs as we can for our community, diversifying our operation to ensure we have fits for future generations to join our family business, leading by example in cattle production, and being a place where people and their families can enjoy the farming lifestyle.

We’re seeing a lot of change in the landscape in and around agriculture. How do you perceive the shifts happening, especially in terms of environmental assets and regulations?

I believe that at some point, like it or not, we are all going to be held accountable for our emissions. We’ve got to be involved with regulation to make sure that anything they would roll out is rooted in facts, data, and sound logic. In our state, we have a long track record that shows that if we don’t help write the regulations, they will be written for us. We must find solutions to enable producers to be comfortable with sharing information. Allowing producers to maintain data ownership, privacy, and control is critical in this process.

Farms are not isolated islands; they're part of a broader community. Have you thought about joining with other farmers or industry players to collectively address challenges and explore opportunities?

Sure. You are only as strong as the people you surround yourself with. We consistently seek advice and collaboration from respected people in our industry. I like to remind other farmers that we produce commodities and are on the same team—except for any land that we both border.

If your farm were part of a collaborative effort, what kind of story would you want it to tell about shared goals and achievements?

We can go fast alone but we will go further together. Or as my mom says about doing dishes—“many hands make light the load”.

Picture of the Jakobs family.
The Jakobs Family: David, Ricky, Margo, Nik, Alex

Let's shift gears to one of the more hot topics in your area, carbon intensity of corn for biofuel. With scoring projects ongoing in your neighborhood, you're likely finding that carbon intensity scoring can be a bit of a maze. Have you thought about navigating that maze, perhaps through programs like the Inflation Reduction Act’s 45Z? What piqued your interest in those avenues?

From everything I read and hear, 45Z seems like it is going to be game changing for our industry. Between 45Z for corn and new crush plants leveling-up our local market for soy, it's not hard to see how much effort and capital is going into making sure these renewable fuel opportunities are here to stay. The tension for our operation is not if to engage, but when. I'm a firm believer that in capitalism, early adopters get rewarded, then standards and regulations come. I want to be on the early side and get that carrot before it becomes a stick. Plus Im hopeful that biofuel producers implement programs to reward producers for their stewardship and low carbon intensity scores.

What should those rewards look like?

It's not my place to decide that. I know the folks at our local ethanol plants well. We deliver grain to them all the time. And you can see first hand how much they’ve invested into optimizing their operations and standing up these market opportunities for myself and my neighbors. I understand that they need to see a return on that investment. Like any free and competitive market, if we are bringing added value, we should be able to share in that, but I think there’s far too many contributing factors that are outside of my control to determine what an incentive should look like. I'll raise the most efficient, lowest CI corn I can, and let the market determine the rest.

Are you scoring carbon intensity of your 2024 crop with the intention of delivering it to a local ethanol plant?

Yes, we are.

Farming comes with its complexities. How do you currently navigate the sea of information and support related to sustainable practices? Any stories, tips, or advice that stand out?

Most of the industry is overwhelmed by options and possibilities that exist. As farmers, we often err on the side of being reactive versus proactive. Very few people can see the forest through the trees on this topic. And the space is only getting more crowded. So more than anything, aligning ourselves with experts we trust, who can speak our language and don't have a hidden agenda has been essential for us to navigate this path.          

To wrap us up, let's dream a bit—how do you envision your farm's story changing if you were able to participate in carbon markets and enhance the value of your grain?

The Midwest has global superiority in carbon markets. We have the best soils, yields, processing, equipment, technologies, transportation infrastructure to get it out to the rest of the world. It doesn't take an expert to know that we produce the most efficiently raised corn on the planet. We are long overdue to be compensated for these attributes and respective land prices highly substantiate this belief. These low carbon opportunities highlight the competitive advantage our region and industry already have, and expanded markets will only increase that advantage. So if you’re telling me that these markets mean that I can turn my family’s generational expertise in raising a sustainable, efficient crop into tangible value, we’ll write that into our story.

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