3 missing ingredients for scaling regenerative agriculture

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

It’s already been a month since I returned from my visit to Minnesota, where I took a closer look at the state of regenerative agriculture in the bread basket. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand the transition to practices such as cover cropping, reduced tilling and planting perennial crops and how we could speed it up to advance soil carbon sequestration and other environmental benefits.

Impactful work is already happening regarding carbon market programs and other financial conservation incentives. But low adoption rates demonstrate that these efforts aren’t enough for a large-scale transition to regenerative practices to succeed.

From my conversations with farmers in Minnesota and many other practitioners over the past months, three pockets of work ask for more attention: independent and data-driven technical assistance, program alignment and standardization and supply chain infrastructure for crop diversification. Why are these issues critical?

Rethinking technical advice

Convincing farmers of the benefits of regenerative practices is one of the biggest riddles to solve in this space. Whose advice do they trust and what evidence do they need to take the leap?

Traditionally, many farmers will revert to their “trusted adviser” for farm management decisions — often a farmer cooperative or input company consultant. Many will also trust their neighbors or other peers and seek recommendations from agricultural extension agents from local universities or conservation agencies. But advice from an evidence-based source with the farmer’s best interest in mind rather than their own agenda of selling certain inputs and services or enrolling them into programs can be hard to come by.

Kristin Duncanson, owner and partner of Duncanson Growers and the Highland Family Farms in Minnesota, criticizes this situation. She has worked with an independent adviser for years and said it’s been critical to understand which regenerative practices make sense for her operations.

Similarly, Brad Jordahl Redline, water quality certification program manager at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, thinks that recommendations farmers get from regenerative programs often miss the bigger picture. Too often, they aim to convince farmers to adopt an individual practice such as cover crops instead of first a holistic conservation review of the farm that assesses its overall environmental impact and conservation opportunities to see which practices from the broader regenerative toolbox are right for them given the circumstances.

The lack of data aggregation and collaboration on pilot projects is another roadblock. “Pilot projects are often too proprietary and we tend to forget that it takes a long time to proof new concepts,” Duncanson said. But farmers require a certain level of confidence in a new practice when being asked to adopt it. Otherwise, the risk can seem overwhelming. USDA can play a leading role in consolidating resources and coordinating data standards and systems, as the AGree coalition to which Duncanson contributes has recently laid out in a white paper on modernizing agricultural data infrastructure.

To improve technical assistance and boost enrollment, companies and government agencies could consider pooling resources to fund a system of more independent advisers and ensure they have access to aggregated data from across pilot programs.

Standards to the rescue

Data isn’t the only thing that needs to be aggregated and standardized. The sprawling landscape of regenerative programs and carbon market providers could also use some organization.

Distance from markets, absence of buyers and financial hurdles will otherwise keep them locked in the corn and soy cycle.

Many farmers I talked to were overwhelmed trying to understand the landscape and figuring out which program would benefit them most. In many cases, this leads to choice paralysis and initial interest doesn’t translate into enrollment. On the other hand, program managers observe that farmers ready to adopt practice changes are delaying the transition, assuming that the roaring buzz they observe will lead to increased prices in the coming years. For example, a farmer who might be ready to plant cover crops this year and get a payout from a carbon market provider for the practice change might wait to plant until next year, assuming that the carbon payment will be higher then.

Not all credits are of equal quality on the carbon and conservation program front. There’s a wide range of measurement and verification approaches influencing prices for buyers, cost and payments for producers and the environmental improvements programs can achieve.

Some standardization and quality improvements have naturally occurred in the market, for example, via the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC). The non-profit collaborated slowly but steadily with a large group of buyers, producers and implementing partners over the past years to agree on a joint approach. The result is its recently launched Eco-Harvest, a voluntary market program generating and selling credits for increased soil carbon, reduced greenhouse gasses and improved water quality.

On the broader carbon market, however, shared practice even around seemingly basic components such as soil sampling is still absent. “We had a four-year workgroup and came as close as possible to consensus after huge investments, but we didn’t quite get there,” said Debbie Reed, executive director of ESCM.

To really level the playing field for credit quality and farmer expectations and experiences, the USDA should step up to harmonize approaches.

Demand for diversification

Crop diversification is a less talked about aspect of the regenerative transition since its contribution to carbon sequestration and other environmental improvements is less direct. But many commodity farmers are interested in moving away from the standard corn and soy crops used for animal feed and ethanol production, growing some human-grade food instead.

How can the industry support diversification, unlocking benefits for soils, biodiversity, water and more? Creating demand and supply chain infrastructure are essential pieces of that puzzle. Oatly has encouraged offering farmers to include oats in their crop rotations by secure contracts, premium payments and covering extra expenses for special machinery and processing. General Mills has done similar work to introduce the perennial wheatgrass kernza to farms in the midwest.

Farmers need these unique opportunities to diversify their operations. Distance from markets, absence of buyers and financial hurdles will otherwise keep them locked in the corn and soy cycle, which isn’t the right foundation for a healthy, sustainable and equitable food system. Companies have the power to change this — and they should do it collaboratively to avoid running into the carbon market roadblocks laid out above.

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

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