Regenerative agriculture is the new buzzword. Cargill and Walmart have even recently announced plans to try to make their operations more regenerative in the coming years. While most people like the idea behind regenerative ag — improving soil health, mimicking nature’s natural systems, improving labor conditions, and enhancing farmers’ financial stability — scaling it is easier said than done.
“There have been a lot of reports around soil health. For me, it was about looking beyond just the ecological impacts of regenerative agriculture, especially carbon, which are the most often talked about,” Jennifer O’Connor, founder and chief consultant at Guidelight Strategies, tells AFN. “I wanted to really dive into some of the other social and cultural issues that are related to regenerative ag that often get left out of the conversation.”
Guidelight Strategies has issued a report sponsored by outdoor apparel brand and self-described “activist company” Patagonia, outlining what it identifies as the barriers preventing US farmers from adopting regenerative ag practices more widely.
Over the course of a year, O’Connor spent time with various stakeholders across the sector. While some efforts to investigate and map regenerative agriculture skim the surface, she took a boots-in-the-field approach to “meet farmers where they’re at.”
“I think we’re in the process of centralizing our ag system and commodifying it, removing the consumers as far as possible from their farmers and ranchers,” she says.
“Their stories and how hard they’re working on the landscape to provide food every day is not really centered in conversation – and their needs and challenges aren’t, either. That was a big takeaway for me. How do we make the movement producer-lead? If we do that, we will understand their challenges are very unique from place to place.”
Technical service providers lacking
The main barriers that the report identifies include access to land, research and science, regenerative supply chains, strategic communications, and policy reform
But a perceived lack of trusted technical assistance was perhaps the most common complaint that O’Connor heard from farmers. Technical service providers (TSPs) include groups like the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), conservation districts, and university extension offices. According to one farmer interviewed for the report, while some TSPs are keeping pace with advances in regenerative agriculture, in most parts of the country it’s still “the ‘good old boys’ club.”
“TSPs ended up being a lot of the conversation,” O’Connor says. “We just assume we are going to create this set of parameters in our offices that says, ‘this is how you do this.’ But there is no checklist that is going to get a farmer through this process. It’s so unique from place to place that you have to have people on the [ground] who understand that landscape and that community and who are trusted in that community.”
Behavioral, cultural change
The report pinpoints hands-on, multi-day programs led by farmers and ranchers, follow-up consultations, and producer networks as ways to fill in the educational gaps while TSPs catch up.
This likely plays into another issue that’s holding back adoption: behavioral and cultural change. Some farmers have been running their operations the same way for generations. Envisioning a different system can not only be challenging but can brand you as an oddity among your colleagues. As one farmer quoted in the report stated: “The six inches between the ears is a barrier.” Another noted that “there’s a reticence to fully trust the information that’s coming from anyone but other farmers.”
Access to capital and different financial tools is also a major hurdle. As the report notes, money is the most important factor for decision-making on the farm. Producers tend to be highly risk-averse and are already grappling with thin margins and unpredictable market cycles. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the average farm was $1.3 million in debt in 2017 – while average farm incomes have fallen by 50% since 2013. That paints a grim picture.
“By and large, the funding that is available to farmers and ranchers is extremely limited and is designed to keep them in this rat race – a hamster wheel of needing more capital and being in more debt,” says O’Connor. “Certainly there are farmers and ranchers who are well off and have a lot of land. But ag lending is short timeframes, the structures of the loans are really challenging, and it keeps a lot of producers tied to this extractive system.”
NRCS provides financing tools to assist farmers with conservation-oriented projects like designing a rotational grazing plan, or creating water exclusions to protect aquatic habitats. But when it comes to more complex strategies — like drawing down carbon through cover cropping and reducing tillage — a lack of cash to make such changes is a common problem.
“We are starting to see some innovative stuff pop up which is really cool, like the perennial fund out of MAD Ag. They’re going to give producers longer runways on their loans and some more flexible capital – not only for transition, but to support them with operating loans where they need it and land access,” O’Connor says.
“RePlant Capital is another. I think what’s critical is they’re also providing technical assistance capacity in these loans.”
A number of these financing initiatives are working to promote BIPOC [black, indigenous, and other people of color] equality in the food system. The Black Farmer Fund, for example, offers low-interest-rate loans and investments across the food system with the goal of buying land for black farmers.
Another challenge that faces regenerative agriculture is the lack of coherent consensus about what it does or does not include. Some are less concerned about this and more focused on spreading the word, while others hope to prevent large agrifood corporates from greenwashing the term.
“I don’t know if a set of standards is going to get us there. I think producers are pretty weary of certifications,” O’Connor says.
“We’re going to have to have a broader narrative about the multi-benefits beyond carbon. And we have to talk about a lot of these practices being rooted in traditional indigenous wisdom. The more we do that, the more we have a unified narrative. I think that’s when we’ll really see the movement take root.”