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Soybean row spacing, top view. Row width is agricultural management practice most often considered as important to increase soya bean yields

Farmers are adopting regenerative ag practices, but who’s leading the movement?

August 30, 2019

The Soil Health Institute recently released a report describing adoption rates for regenerative agriculture practices like no-till drilling and cover cropping using data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture. The team compared the data to information obtained about regenerative agriculture practices in the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

“There has been a 50% increase in cover crop acreage between 2012 and 2017, from 10.3 million acres to 15.4 million acres. Once farmers started adopting these practices, they expanded the practices to more acres,” Sara Eckhouse, executive director of FoodShot Global, told AFN. Soil Health Institute is one of FoodShot’s partners and the duo worked together on FoodShot’s Soil 3.0 Challenge.

The data is inspiring for Eckhouse and other soil health enthusiasts, as well as helpful when it comes to figuring out where the nascent regenerative agriculture movement needs to head. FoodShot’s lengthy list of prestigious partners includes Rabobank, Rockefeller Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Stone Barns Center for Food and Innovation, Builders’ Initiative, Armonia, alongside a number of venture funds and NGOs. This provides Eckhouse and her team with a powerful network of people who can make real, meaningful change when it comes to bringing regenerative agriculture from the academic realm to actual farmland.

“When we have looked at these soil innovations, there’s a lot happening on the technical side, but ultimately it has to be implemented by farmers. If the tools aren’t practical and don’t work for them, then they won’t be used. Understanding what they are doing and what they’ve been able to implement is really important. We need to be able to see where there are opportunities and where things are working.”

But 2017 is already two years ago and if the forward momentum in just the five year period between the two censuses is any indication, regenerative agriculture is catching on, ironically, like wildfire. A number of new players are also hopping on the bandwagon and bringing their sizeable pocketbooks and networks with them. 

“This data is already outdated especially in light of the increase in emphasis on soil health especially from large corporate actors like Danone and General Mills and new startups like Indigo’s Terraton Initiative and the California Healthy Soils Program. It will be interesting to see with the next census what has changed as we get more information about soil, microbial communities in the soil, and how we can make those healthy and support efforts by farmers.”

(Indigo’s Terraton Challenge is still open to innovators accelerating, quantifying and rewarding carbon sequestration. Learn more and apply here.)

For some regenerative agriculture enthusiasts, this may be cause for celebration. But it may also bring a bit of concern about where the movement is heading and which stakeholders will not only be leading the way but charting the movement’s course.

We spoke with Eckhouse to learn more about how she views the rise of regenerative agriculture and how each stakeholder may potentially fit into the rapidly changing equation.

How do you feel about some of the corporate interests announcing regenerative agriculture initiatives? Are they helpful? Distracting?

I think we are seeing a lot of these corporates starting to do both results-based and practice-based outcomes, so they want to see if its working and to quantify those practices. Part of this is facilitated by tools like COMET-Farm, which is a voluntary carbon reporting tool that provides farmers and ranchers with carbon values for specific management practices. I think that’s really important. The California Healthy Soils Program uses that tool to estimate sequestered carbon and quite a few corporates are also doing that. 

There is a desire to be more specific about carbon sequestration and to be able to point to data and scientific-backed results for what they are making claims about. It’s easy to slap a label on something so this is important. Those labels could lead to more consumer confusion.

But corporates are investing dollars in farmer education and incentives for farmers and that’s still really valuable even if we don’t necessarily get quantification. If they are helping farmers change practices, I still think that’s a benefit and if farmers are able to get incentivized in proper ways, maybe in a way that the federal crop insurance program doesn’t allow at this point, then it’s beneficial.

What is preventing some farmers from adopting regenerative agriculture practices, or from expanding them?

There are a lot of barriers to adopting these practices and labor is one of them. It requires additional human power in some cases. It can also be concerning if you are changing something about your production. If you have a reliable way of doing things, change is always going to be a risk.  

I remember being at a conference and people were talking about how farmers are risk-averse, but they are actually risk saturated. They deal with risk all the time and they have so much risk on a daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual basis that introducing new risk doesn’t make sense oftentimes because they are already at such high-risk from things that are out of their control. 

Any time you are asking people to change how they are doing something, you have to provide resources and education to do that and in some cases, traditional incentives are just backward for that. Crop insurance is an example. There are great groups working to get more data and support efforts to put soil health improvement as a risk mitigant in the federal crop insurance program.

Also, to some degree, there’s an overload of new tools and new hot things. How do farmers really know what is going to work? How do you have confidence in the efficacy of some of these brand new innovations? That’s why it helps to have a coop or someone who can serve as a touchpoint for these new tools and who can say, “Hey, we’ve tried this and we have confidence in this new tool” instead of someone just trying to sell farmers something. 

How do consumers fit into this dialogue about increasing the adoption of regenerative agriculture principles?

To my mind, reaching consumers and getting consumers is just a huge challenge. The organic label is one label that seems to have broken through and I know people want a new label for regenerative agriculture but it is so hard to compete on a package with all the other information that is on there: nutrition facts, branding and marketing, ingredients. Sometimes it can just lead to more confusion.

Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary and COO of the USDA, has said some smart things about strengthening the organic standards instead of creating a new label and having to force consumers to educate themselves all over again. But ultimately, you do need to reach consumers and I think that’s where you see things like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods reach consumers. They’re getting into major markets like Burger King and other chains with major market access. Overall, I think it will take some time to get to consumers.

Where does animal agriculture fit into your view of regenerative agriculture?

Animal agriculture is complicated. It’s complex. We feel like there isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all solution to protein. Everyone doesn’t have to go plant-based. Also, it doesnt make sense to us to say let’s transition everyone to plant-based and stop innovation in animal agriculture. There’s a huge amount of land and resources in animal agriculture and we have to find ways to make it better. We believe in looking at food as a system. To us, animal agriculture is part of a food and land use system that can be beneficial.

There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about some of the different protein sources, health impacts, different protein needs at different life stages. One scientist talked about the weaning period and how protein needs and the source of protein might need to be different, or later in life when the bioavailability of nutrients might be different. We need to look surgically at different sectors and where there are opportunities to reduce natural resource use. Obviously no one wants to be in a situation where animal agriculture is causing us to burn down the rainforest, but there is plenty of room for innovation in animal agriculture.

Can you tell us about your next challenge?

We are working on the protein challenge now and building the framework for that. It will launch formally in October. We are really looking across the protein space to make sure that we understand the scale of the problem, the different sectors including animal agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries, plant-based, and cell-based protein sources as well as algae, fungi, and insect proteins. There are so many opportunities both globally and locally for solutions.

Obviously there are some areas of the protein sector that have been highly invested in and have received a tremendous amount of attention from the market and consumers. But we want to look at additional areas that aren’t as flashy or public-facing related to animal health, feed management, and making sure we are innovating in those areas too, and not just investing in replicated or new meat analogs.

*We’re co-hosting a Regenerative AgTech meetup with Food+Tech Connect and WeWork FoodLabs next month. Join us here!*

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