Team D: Transition to Regenerative Agriculture
This page is for instructional purposes only and the scenario described below is fictional.
This page was developed as a hypothetical report written on behalf ofRevision Agriculture Consulting Firm
Matt Provost, Major in Landscape Architecture
Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Results | Limitations | Conclusions | Citations | Acknowledgements | About the Authors
We own a regenerative agriculture consulting firm called Revision Agriculture focusing on helping farmers transition their conventional farm business into one that promotes environmental and community health, while increasing economic well-being.
Our agricultural communities are in a state of distress, particularly in the Midwestern United States where farmer debt is rampant, commodity crop prices are erratic, and suicide rates continue to rise. As farmers are pushed to increase yields, environmental and public health quality associated with conventional agriculture systems decrease. The result is communities that lack robustness, are economically unstable and suffer from poor ecological conditions such as contaminated drinking water. Regenerative agricultural systems can be used to rebuild agricultural landscapes and communities through farm management practices that give back to the land while still allowing farmers to be profitable. Our consulting firm, Revision Ag, aims to identify best practices for helping farmers meet their sustainability goals. We hypothesize that regenerative operations not only improve the health of the soil, they have positive impacts on the communities and on the health of those who live there. In this paper, we analyze methods and solutions to smooth the transition from conventional to regenerative farm businesses.
Agriculture exists as an industry that stretches far beyond a means to feed animals, ourselves and provide economic gain. Its forces reflect on society through impact on the environment and human health. Conventional agriculture refers to high input processes that include considerable fertilizer and pesticide application, intensive soil management practices and heavy machinery to maximize efficiency and profit. This type of farming has rippling effects that are presented in the current crisis of Midwest farms, including widespread damage to our environment and communities (Wender, 2011). Air and water pollution, poor soil quality, economic instability, broken communities and declining farmer health and well-being are all associated with the modern farming methods that have dominated since the mid-20th century (Harney, 2019). Smaller farmers trying to keep up with large-scale producers fall victim to volatile prices of crop and livestock products (Li et al., 2017) and may ultimately go out of business.
Regenerative agriculture has emerged as a solution to reconnect ecological and social values to farming. It is a system of land use and agricultural practices that work to improve the quality of soil, water, biodiversity and the community. Regenerative agriculture aims to exist within the natural cycles, not to work around them. Comparative research studies on conventional and regenerative agricultural systems show that conventional systems produce high yields but at high environmental costs (Wachter et al., 2019). Regenerative farming practices such as diversifying the kinds of crops planted, integrating crops with livestock systems, using cover crops, and forage and perennial crops can improve soil health while reducing financial risk, maintaining or increasing yields, and eliminating many negative environmental impacts that are not included in the cost of agriculture to our planet.
Regenerative practices can also improve the health of a community and the social dynamics that are part of the rural landscape (Ranjan et al., 2019). How food is grown and distributed is important to the health of the individual as well as to the health of the community and its community development goals (Green et al., 2019). For farmers who are interested in getting off the treadmill of conventional farming, alternative operations can allow them to continue in the business and remain profitable.
Growing food at both the small and large scale comes at the farmer’s expense because of impacts on the personal health of the farmer that can lead to occupational injury (Donham 2019) and mental health issues (Bjornestad, 2019). Regime shifts from conventional to regenerative can be part of a systems shift that engages more than just agriculture and the technical components associated with farming (Gosnell, 2020). It includes incorporating the individual’s cultural norms, worldviews and mental models into these changes. We need to better understand what farmers’ adaptive capacity is to influence their decision-making (Gardezi and Arbuckle, 2019).
Although regenerative agriculture has shown to have better ecological outcomes, not much attention has been given to the socio-economic benefits that result from transition to these practices. Revision Ag consulting firm takes a systems approach to evaluating farms and using both qualitative and quantitative data, we will examine individual health, population health, and economic stability of farm communities in order to find the best regenerative solutions to your farms. We hypothesize that farms that are considered regenerative will have better overall health, more robust community structures and are more resilient to a changing climate
Regenerative Pathways Towards Ecological Resilience
Agriculture is the second leading cause of climate change in the world. Growing crops and raising livestock emits carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Furthermore, agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation and these land use changes account for a significant increase in carbon dioxide emissions (World Bank, 2007). Climate change is projected to cause a significant decline in crop yields, ergo it will be increasingly difficult to feed a growing global population using these same resource intensive methods that rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The pasture based beef farm we interviewed had seen evidence of climate change effects already. They are concerned about longer periods of saturated soils and ponded water, more frequent extreme rains, heat stress on animals and extreme cold snaps. Locally adapted regenerative agriculture is the answer. Regenerative agriculture is capable of restoring and enhancing the resiliency of natural systems thus making it more resistant to the negative effects of climate change. Carbon sequestration and increased water retention in the soil are some of the beneficial ecosystem services it can provide (Gosnell et al 2019).
Although regenerative agricultural systems are necessarily unique to place and will look and function differently based on the ecological opportunities and constraints of each particular location, there are four unifying principles: low or no tillage, eliminating any instance of bare soil at any time and place in a year, fostering plant biodiversity, and an integration of livestock and cropping systems (LaCanne CE, Lundgren JG. 2018). Importantly, these principles serve to align agricultural systems much more closely with how natural systems work, as opposed to large and unnatural monocultures that require heavy inputs to maintain.
Eliminating tillage and bare soil events have well documented positive effects on soil structure and health, but increasing plant biodiversity on farms is something that is not yet widely implemented. There are an estimated 7,000 plant species being cultivated throughout the world, yet only about 30 species make up the vast majority of the average person’s diet . And, modern agriculture increasingly selects and improves upon existing species and cultivars rather than introducing new, thus decreasing overall genetic diversity in agricultural systems (Hammer et al., 2003). Plant biodiversity is essential because it increases resiliency to pest damage and extreme weather events, both of which are predicted to increase because of climate change (World Bank, 2008).
One regenerative solution that is gaining momentum in the midwest is agroforestry. Agroforestry is a term that describes agricultural systems that integrate trees with crops and/or livestock (Keeley et al., 2019). There are several ways to implement agroforestry practices on one’s farm (see figure 1). One such method of agroforestry is alley cropping, where farmers plant rows of fruit, nut, or timber crops and in between those rows they can raise row crops. Another method is silvopasture, where farmers pasture cattle under the canopy of trees. Both of these systems increase biodiversity, hold soil in place, diversify the farmer’s income stream, and, if selling locally, have the potential to diversify people’s diets (Keeley et al., 2019).
Figure 1: Agroforestry Practices (Matt Provost)
Some challenges to fostering plant biodiversity on farms include the cost of introducing new species, a knowledge gap in how to cultivate new species, and finding markets for novel crops (Shelef et al 2017). As consultants, our job will be to help farmers identify new crops that will thrive in their locale and find creative ways to market these plants that will ultimately increase the profitability of their farm. Furthermore, increasing plant diversity on farms can be achieved through the planting of native grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees that may provide habitat to beneficial insects. These could be native pollinators or predatory insects that can decrease the pest pressure on farmers’ commercial crops (Mader et al 2014). Helping farmers find the right locations on the farm and funding streams to implement these non producing plants is another task we concern ourselves with.
Socio-Economic: Benefits and challenges
A main concern for our clients is the economic viability of their operations. Because when it comes down to it, the farmers will not transition to regenerative practices if it does not put food on the table for their families. Oftentimes farmers are misinformed on these practices and their ability to be profitable. They perceive the lower yields of regenerative farms as lower profits; however, in a study of corn farmers in the North Eastern United States, profitability was related with soil health, not yields (LaCanne CE, Lundgren JG. 2018). Research found that regenerative fields had 29% lower yields, but saw 78% higher profits than traditional corn fields. Within conventional farms, most costs are attributed to high seed costs that are GMO, fertilizer and herbicide application as seen in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Relative costs and revenues of conventional vs regenerative agricultural systems (LaCanne CE, Lundgren JG. 2018)
These costs can be reduced significantly with the introduction of regenerative practices such as mixed species cover crops, never till, no insecticides and grazed livestock. Although the common finding is that yields are lower in the regenerative system, some farmers have found that yields actually increased. A United States Department of Agriculture sponsored case study of farmers across the US transitioning to regenerative methods found that yields increased an average of 12% (NRCS, 2019). Switching to practices such as no-till, cover cropping and nutrient management greatly improved soil health and organic matter resulting in higher yields. The findings also show that farmers who implemented these practices received an average of a 207% return on investment. This is further evidence that profitability is linked with soil health. One family of farmers included in the study are fifth-generation soybean farmers in Iowa who adopted no-till and cover cropping. They have also started grazing livestock in their fields of cover crops which has reduced the cost of feed. This much is clear, that less inputs leave farmers with less costs, better soil quality and more resilient to volatile market prices making them more profitable.
Regenerative farmers in both studies reported high rates of direct marketing and received a premium for their organic product which led to higher profits than conventional. We will implement a process for our clients to identify direct to consumer markets and networks for selling their products locally. When speaking with regenerative grass fed beef farmers, a big barrier for them was finding the necessary infrastructure for selling their beef to consumers. When they transitioned from conventional dairy farming to beef production in the early 1990s, grass fed beef was a relatively novel idea. They carved a market out for themselves with direct to consumer sales and sourcing their meat to community members via word of mouth. We understand that the context for every community is different, but we assure our clients that we can identify the markets available to them when transitioning to regenerative agriculture. Figure 3 shows some avenues we use for finding a market for our clients’ products.
Figure 3: Methods for getting farmers’ products to the market (Hamm, 2008)
A study of local food systems in New Mexico and Arizona found there is significant opportunity for small regenerative farms to be profitable in local food production. Small and midsize farms made up 95% of local food sales(Flores et al., 2018). Community Supported Agriculture has grown to nearly 13,000 programs in the US (USDA, 2014). CSA has been seen as a way to connect farmers to their communities and people to their food. Individuals can “subscribe” to a CSA program, providing an upfront membership fee in order to receive a part of the farmers’ harvest during the season. This promotes healthy foods within the local community. Rather than exporting their product across the world, farmers send their harvest just down the road, while providing economic stability to farms. CSAs have also been proven to combat the food deserts that exist in both rural and urban communities (Hinrichs et al., 2008). However, there are significant barriers that prevent farmers from transitioning to regenerative farms.
The biggest determinant if farmers adopt practices or not is their opinion of the practice itself (Bechinhi et al., 2019). These opinions of practices were studied in a group of Italian dairy farmers to discover what behavior led to the choice of adoption. This process of study used the theory of planned behavior to identify beliefs and intentions of introducing regenerative practices. The theory of planned behavior shows most farmers' decisions are made based on a combination of attitudes, social pressures and beliefs of success towards implementing. All these factors can act as motivators or barriers in adoption of methods. To measure intentions of adopting practices by farmers, researchers asked questions in semi-structured interviews to determine how likely farmers would be to adopt. They calculated this into a single intention number ranging from 1-5, 1 is least likely to adopt, 5 is most likely to adopt. Researchers analyzed a number of practices they dictated as the best management practices, including crop residue incorporation, green manure, rotation with meadow grass, rotation with legumes, sprinkler and drip irrigation and nutrient management plan seen in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Data of preferred best management practices of Italian dairy farmers (Benichi et al., 2019)
This shows that crop residue incorporation, nutrient management and efficient irrigation were the most widely adopted. Responses to questionnaires determined that both financial and social barriers existed within the decision making process for farmers. Indirect and direct costs such as new equipment or diesel to run equipment were a large barrier in the way of adoption. Advisors, consultants, family members of farmers known as referents, were also a driver or barrier towards applying these practices. For instance, green manure, better known as cover cropping, was the least adopted and least likely to be adopted practice and was found to have been negatively impacted by farmers’ perceived cost and attitude towards the practice. However, green manure has shown to be an effective method to increase nutrient retention of the soil and production of organic matter, while reducing soil erosion (Rayns et al., 2010).
Better education and communication with farmers may lead to higher adoption rates of practices such as green manure. For our farmers we interviewed, their journey to regenerative agriculture started with pasture walks led by their extension agent and learning from neighbors how pastured beef could be a viable alternative for the farm. They get most of their education on farm practices from their county extension agents, NRCS staff, FSA, and from reading farm newspapers. The family said there are plenty of scouts still pushing chemical products onto farmers; however, there are also groups telling us to use less application and use non-GMO seeds. Those people have shown that reducing the input costs can make their farms more profitable. The beef farmers recognize that transition is risky, so an "Incentive system can be the key in helping farmers shift production." Giving financial incentives to handle risk would be money well spent. Economic incentive will certainly help in this process, but will need the attention of policy makers to enact legislation that will help with this transition. Further adoption from farmers will happen once they see other farmers having success on their regenerative operations as well as for the community.
Adoption of regenerative agriculture has widespread health benefits for the communities of the Midwest. Increased emphasis on ecological impacts of farming relate to better health outcomes. By transitioning to regenerative practices, there are reduced impacts of pollution in the water and air. Substituting cover crops and green manure for fertilizer eliminates nutrient runoff into streams and bodies of water which contributes to poor water quality and in turn poor community health. Air pollution from nitrous oxide is alleviated as well after stopping use of fertilizer. The results are similar with insecticide and herbicide which have detrimental effects on the health of farmers and their communities because of the toxic chemicals they contain. For example, high rates of cancer are a trend in agricultural communities that spray chemicals on their fields. The farmers we spoke with know that a lot of the people up and down the road who suffered from different kinds of cancer and those in generation before them used to mix pesticides with the seed mix using their bare hands and no kind of protection. They are particularly impacted by the pesticide drift from the neighboring farm. Any type of exposure to such chemicals are dangerous to the health of individuals. The beef farmers were also concerned with chemical drift and runoff affecting their drinking water. They test their well water regularly and it has always been safe, but their neighbor has had high nitrates in their water in the past. Adopting regenerative practices would greatly reduce the negative public health impact from chemical applications on the farm.
Policy Hurdles and Opportunities
The existing agricultural policy, similar to most public policy in the United States, favors the large industrial system in place. In fact, 26% of the agricultural subsidies from 1995-2017 went to the top 1% of agricultural producers, while 62% of farms did not receive subsidies at all (EWG, 2017). As regenerative agricultural consultants, we are fighting for the interest of the non-conventional farmers who do not see the benefits of most agricultural subsidies. Shifting policy to incentivize regenerative agriculture can be the key to removing barriers for farmers weary of transitioning their operation.
The 2018 Farm Bill included some investment for farmers switching to organic. This provides relief for farmers who experience a few year yield gap when transitioning to chemical free. The farmer we visited recognizes there are opportunities available to help make the transition to regenerative, but would like to see better promotion of grant and subsidy programs that can take some of the risk out of alternative practices. At Revision Ag, we will work to highlight subsidies for farmers looking to make the switch.
Another, promising solution to incentivise farmers has been payment for ecosystem services. Farmers can receive additional revenue for enrolling in programs that preserve parts of their land. The Natural Resource Conservation Service of the USDA has been leading the way in providing incentives for farmers choosing better management practices. The NRCS approves contracts to provide financial assistance to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns or opportunities to help save energy, improve soil, water, plant, air, animal and related resources on agricultural lands (NRCS USDA, 2020).
Figure 5: Ecosystem services provided from reforesting (Agroforestry Network)
This not only helps create economic stability for farmers, but also contributes to greater community well-being. Additionally, there has been increased opportunity for farmers to add income through the carbon trading market. Farmers implementing regenerative practices, such as intercropping, managed grazing and reforesting, that reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emission can be eligible for carbon credits that they can sell on the market. In this context, carbon markets can be promising for sustainability by fulfilling all three components of sustainability, reducing environmental impact, social benefit from food production and reduced public health impacts from lower emissions as well as additional income for farmers and ranchers to maintain their operations (Nile et al., 2013). We will continue to support our clients in getting policy change that promotes the regenerative agricultural system.
Limitation 1: A Productivity Question
Thus far we have shown how transitioning a conventional farm system to a regenerative one can have positive ecological and socioeconomic outcomes. However, we recognize that the outcomes of widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture across the globe is untested and may produce its own series of problems. Chief among these is the basic question: will we produce enough food if everyone does it?
In response to this important question, we argue that, first of all, we have no illusions that every farmer will transition to regenerative. There will always be a variety of food production systems. In fact, a greater variety in types of production (e.g. conventional, organic, regenerative, aquaponic, or a combination of any) may aid in increasing the overall sustainability of the food system. Furthermore, the United Nations Report, Trade and Environment Review 2013, argues that increasing industrial agricultural production is not a solution to global hunger, and instead we must empower the rural poor and enhance local food sovereignty. In essence, that means using regenerative techniques to increase the production of small-scale farmers around the globe.
Limitation 2: Geographical Context
Next, it is important to note that while we are focusing on agriculture in the Midwestern United States; the social, economic, and environmental problems we are seeking to help exist all over the world. However, as stated above, regenerative agriculture is necessarily unique to place, so the practices we are advocating for may not work in other places of the world. This may be due to the constraints of the ecological systems of other areas, or because of the prevalent socioeconomic paradigms in those locales.
At Revision Ag we are deeply concerned with the health of rural communities. This comes down to the physical health of individuals in those communities, which is influenced by the food they eat, the ecological environment surrounding them, and their social connectedness. We have shown here how regenerative agriculture can holistically increase community health by creating resilient food systems. It starts on the farm and affects every part of society.
Regenerative practices use less costly inputs (e.g. fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and genetically engineered seeds) while producing a greater variety of foods that travel less distance to directly feed the nearby communities. While the initial costs of transitioning from conventional to regenerative agriculture may be a burden on farmers, the eventual economic return will make the farm more profitable into the future. Furthermore, because these systems are more ecologically resilient, the farmer can have peace of mind that they will have a consistent return in the face of a changing climate.
One of the biggest challenges we face as consultants is the need to change mindsets. We are necessarily due for a paradigm shift in agriculture away from intensive monoculture systems towards biodiverse regenerative systems, but farmers in particular have social and economic inhibitions towards making such a change. This is further influenced by the agricultural policy of the US Government. However, we believe that as more and more communities adopt a regenerative food system, and we all continue to vocalize this dire need, policy will shift in our favor. This will create a healthy and resilient future for all.
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This project would not have been successful without the contributions of the outstanding students in our Food Systems, Sustainability, and Climate Change class. We would particularly like to acknowledge the wonderful and challenging questions, and the specific knowledge that students with different areas of expertise provided.
Brian Wiedenfeld is a sophomore