I had the privilege to attend the first-ever Regenerative Food Systems investment Forum in Oakland, California, last week. The event brought together a wide-ranging group of individuals all dedicated to one goal: making regenerative agriculture mainstream. For two days, the attendees discussed, contemplated, and outright argued (more on that later!) about the best way to advocate for regenerative agriculture.
Here are a few of my big takeaways from the event and my hope for 2020’s gathering.
Regenerative agriculture doesn’t have a definition yet — and that’s a good thing
Many of the presenters touched on the lack of a unified definition of regenerative agriculture, although the Soil Wealth report offers a few approaches to describing this new movement including Rodale organic, permaculture and regrarians, holistic management, regenerative paradigm, and soil profits.
Broadly speaking, people agree that regenerative agriculture is a set of practices that involve regenerating land and natural resources in lieu of conventional farming practices that tend to degrade or deplete soil, water, wildlife, and nutrient-density.
I loved David LeZaks and John Humphreys take on it: it’s like pornograhy – you know it when you see it (adapted former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter’s infamous colloquialism in a court case discussing pornography.)
My sense is that most of us are a bit hesitant to slap a formalized definition of regenerative agriculture at this stage of the game. To define it means drawing clear boundaries but as the movement focuses on proving its ability to achieve scale, we may soon realize that there are too many regional variances or even crop-specific peculiarities to slap a one-size-fits-all moniker on this new methodology. After all, the way I build soil organic matter in the US pasture belt likely varies from how panelist Zachary Jones, founder of Restoration Beef, builds soil organic matter on the land he manages in Montana.
For me, regenerative agriculture is less about definitions and more about principles. Every farmer must find the set of practices that allow her to achieve a regenerative, profitable, and realistically manageable fulcrum on her farm. This exercise, and the relentless balancing act of variables that go with it, are what we must help investors, conventional farmers, and the general public understand. It’s not a simple proposition, which is why it doesn’t lend itself to a simple definition.
The role of data
A common theme throughout the event was the need to provide skeptics and conventionally-minded folks with data to substantiate regenerative agriculture’s promise of producing enough food while regenerating our battered ecosystems. One camp seemed convinced that the only way we will successfully scale regenerative agriculture is by proving its proposition through hard numbers. There have been some studies on the environmental benefits of practices such as the link between rotational grazing and carbon sequestration, while some investors in the room offered statistics on improved yields and land values. But broadscale and long-ranging studies on regenerative practices as a whole are still scarce (although some are trying to change that).
For others, data is a dangerous distraction. Because regenerative agriculture largely encourages a more holistic, ecosystem-wide view of farming, drilling down on hard data alone may cause us to miss interesting intersectionalities between things like soil health and animal health, for example. To distill regenerative agriculture in all its biodiverse and organic matter-driven glory to a set of spreadsheets seemed to undermine the movement’s objectives for the less data-inclined attendees. There’s also the fact that collecting data about regenerative agriculture’s impacts is no small feat.
And while data can paint a pretty picture about whether regenerative agriculture practices are achieving adequate yields while improving key metrics like soil health, seeing is believing. Restoration Beef’s Zach Jones made a strong case for the holistic approach to evaluating regenerative agriculture. For him, the lack of emotional connection that humans have to livestock, agriculture, and nature at large is a challenge that needs addressing. It is important to bring investors to see the land so that they can bond with it instead of simply pouring over spreadsheets and projections. Regenerative agriculture is as much about regenerating soil as it is about regenerating the human relationship, Jones underscored.
Operationally, however, data could be the key to success, according to farmland investor Craig Wichner of Farmland LP. Wichner pointed out that enterprise software, precision agriculture tools and other agri-foodtech inventions are even more important for regenerative agriculture than conventional agriculture. Things like in-field sensors, smart irrigation, and the new class of bio-based inputs, can help farmers not only switch to regenerative agriculture but find the management practices best suited to their farmland and enterprises. Regenerative agriculture encourages farmers to think less about which synthetic inputs to use to optimize yield and more about which practices, crops, or rotations can yield the healthiest soil.
As Tim Crosby at Thread Fund said, however, there are problems with silver bullet solutions, which can take too narrow of an approach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the last four years living in the gun-loving state of Arkansas, but I often suggest that people consider silver buckshot solutions, instead. So, instead of subscribing to Team Data or Team Holistic, I keep one foot in both camps. Data can help tell the story behind the holistic view while the holistic view can often add enriching life to black and white data.
Paying up for nutrition
Mike Oleg, a cherry farmer from Oregon, talked about the challenge marketing his products to consumers. On the West and East Coast, where farmers’ markets are commonplace in parks and squares and local food is an increasingly popular movement, securing premiums for progressively-grown produce is relatively easy. But the average consumer in Oklahoma fCity is likely to be less willing to fork over a premium for Oleg’s regeneratively grown cherry compared to a conventionally grown counterpart bearing a cheaper price tag.
In lieu of chemical agriculture’s plug-and-play simplicity, regenerative agriculture requires operators to think holistically about balancing a wide and ever-changing range of variables. I think most farmers who have dabbled in regenerative agriculture practices would agree that it’s more challenging with more intensive labor management, selecting which seeds to plant and which, if any, inputs to add. This often means regenerative farmers need to charge more. As Sara Eckhouse from FoodShot Global added, there’s also the added cost of education for the farmer about new practices.
Educating disconnected consumers on why the price point can be higher is a challenge, particularly when they’re unlikely to have any foundational agriculture knowledge. What may be more tangible to consumers, however, is demonstrating the potential for regenerative agriculture to provide them with better nutrition.
This was one of the main points that panelist Tina Owens, senior director of agriculture at Danone, underscored during the final panel presentation and a theme explored in David Montgomery’s phenomenal keynote about soil health. Consumers may not understand the additional water holding capacity of healthier soil or how better pasture management sequesters carbon or how cover cropping between orchard rows can drive profits, but they can understand that food produced using regenerative practices equates to better nutrition.
In 2020, let’s bring farmers to the table
Although there were a few farmers floating around the room, several of the presentations seemed to gloss over a very key piece of the regenerative agriculture puzzle. Paul McMahon of SLM Partners highlighted four barriers to investment but the one that jumped out at me read “the scarcest commodity is a skilled regenerative agriculture farmer.”
Over the last five years, I have interviewed countless startups and investors about their inventions and corresponding adoption. A conclusion I often come to is that an invention or idea is only as good as farmers’ willingness to adopt it. Nearly everyone at the conference likely agrees that regenerative agriculture is not only promising but the necessary path forward to resolve many of the current problems in our food system.
But as I skimmed the room full of investors, startups, established food corporates, and various other stakeholders it became crystal clear that we were missing a key contingent of our regenerative agriculture brigade: farmers.
We can craft different investment vehicles, lure mainstream investors, and convince agrifood corporates to change their sourcing practices but that all hinges entirely on having enough men and women who are willing and able to learn an entirely new way of farming.
Finding farmers who are willing or able to spend three days in a conference room can be challenging. But I hope that RFSI 2020 will have more of them. Instead of showing up on their farmland with an army of investors and agrifood corporates demanding that they farm differently, let’s first ask them how the investment community can help them. How can we provide them with education about new farming practices, mid-transition support, access to markets that will pay premiums for their products, and connections to other farmers in their area undergoing a similar switch?
While RFSI was a fantastic event and well worth it for all who attended, there was a certain feeling that all the speakers were preaching to an already converted choir. Let’s also bring a wider variety of stakeholders to the table in 2020 to continue building momentum and achieving scale in regenerative agriculture.
Did you attend RFSI? I want to hear your thoughts about the event. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.