The farmers trying to restore life to America’s stressed soils as climate change bites

8 minute read

North Dakota rancher Gabe Brown is one of the leaders of the regenerative agriculture movement in the U.S.

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  • General Mills, Unilever, PepsiCo and Nestle have pledged large-scale support for regenerative agriculture practices, which avoid the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
  • Of 900 million arable acres in the U.S., only about 1.5% is being farmed regeneratively
  • High upfront costs, concerns about low yields, and difficulty in getting crop insurance are major barriers

September 13 - “Soils should look like black cottage cheese,” says North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown. Brown runs a 5,000-acre farm and ranch, but he is far from a typical midwestern farmer. A pioneer of the regenerative agriculture movement in the United States, Brown is on the road “280 days a year”, he tells me in a recent interview, doing talks, liaising with other farmers and stakeholders, and imparting what he knows to anyone who will listen.

Of which there are growing numbers. According to a new report by the non-profit Forum for the Future, the regenerative agriculture movement in the U.S. has “never had more momentum”.

General Mills, Unilever, PepsiCo and Nestle are among the major food companies pledging large-scale support for this type of farming, which emphasizes soil health, biodiversity and avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Amazon-owned Whole Foods called it the number one food trend in 2020.

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An aerial view of a combine harvester as it harvests soybeans in Deerfield, Ohio, U.S., October 7, 2021. Only 1.5% of U.S. agriculture is farmed regeneratively. REUTERS/Dane Rhys

Of those food conglomerates recognizing the value of more nature-based production, General Mills has been particularly vocal. It has pledged to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres globally by 2030, an area that represents approximately 25-35% of its worldwide sourcing footprint.

So far, more than 200,000 acres are enrolled in programs they support, farmland located mostly in the Northern Plains, Southern Plains and Great Lakes regions of the United States and Canada, according to a spokesperson.

General Mills is a founding member of the non-profit Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC). It runs an Eco-Harvest market program, giving credits to wheat, oat, corn and dairy farmers in the U.S. and Canada for “improved ecosystem services” achieved through techniques such as using cover crops and reducing tillage.

Started in 2020 as a pilot with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, General Mills has now invested $3 million to scale up the program, which quantifies and verifies carbon, greenhouse gas and water outcomes on farms through independent third parties.

General Mills is also partnering with tech firm Regrow Agriculture to monitor 175 million acres of farmland via remote sensing in North America, Europe and South America. “A key to scaling regenerative agriculture across any region hinges on measurement,” says the spokesperson, adding that the partnership with Regrow will enable them to get a more accurate picture of the impact of regenerative practices and their net effect on emissions. Basically, they will be able to see if all of this is working.

In 2018, General Mills approached Brown’s consultancy, Understanding Ag, to help teach oat farmers in the Northern Plains region of the U.S. about regenerative practices. “General Mills does not buy directly from farmers. They buy from grain terminals,” says Brown. “But they saw the value and resiliency to their supply chains (that could result) if they educated farmers.”

General Mills, whose brands include Cheerios, is founding member of a program that provides credits to farmers in the U.S. and Canada for 'improved ecosystem services'

It all sounds very altruistic, but what’s the true scale of this movement? According to Dr Kristine Nichols, a soil microbiologist and regenerative agriculture expert, of the 900 million arable acres in the U.S., only about 1.5% is being farmed regeneratively.

The Forum for the Future report says that there have been some positive shifts in the last few years, “around policy change, valuation of ecosystem services, alternative types of financial flows, demonstration of the business case and coalition-building amongst farmers”, but these shifts are still nascent.

Nichols and Brown both point to crop insurance as a major sticking point. If farmers want to receive crop insurance for something that happened in the growing season, they need to have followed certain rules, she says. “Meaning you had to have treated with an herbicide, or if you had a cover crop, you had to terminate that cover crop by a particular date; you had to have added the recommended amount of fertilizer.”

Whereas conventional agriculture is practiced in a very prescriptive way, regenerative is “almost limitless”, with regard to the cultivation and management options it might encompass, she explains.

Another barrier to the transition is upfront cost: seeds for cover or companion crops need to be bought, new harvesting or storage equipment procured, livestock potentially integrated. This same type of transition-centered investment is faced by farmers thinking about converting to organic.

In an attempt to overcome those barriers, a group of unlikely allies came together in 2018: the Practical Farmers of Iowa, Unilever, PepsiCo, Cargill and ADM. The non-profit and two food brands plus their suppliers began working together on a regenerative agriculture project after realizing there was overlap both in the region where they sourced soy and corn, respectively, and in their long-term sustainability goals.

In Iowa, as much as 90% of the land is devoted to agriculture, and many farmers produce both soy and corn. By implementing a regenerative agriculture program for farmers who provide crops for Unilever and PepsiCo – the former for use primarily in Hellmann’s mayonnaise – a certain amount of de-risking for those farmers can be achieved.

U.S. President Joe Biden visits a family farm in Illinois. The USDA this year announced plans to double cover crop plantings and $1bn in funding for climate-smart farming practices. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Herrish Patel, nutrition North America general manager at Unilever, says that part of the reason they’ve been able to scale the project up is because of this shared-cost approach, where not only farmers but a network of interested parties, all shoulder the financial risk. “It's a shared cost; you’ve got to believe in it and share that investment,” he says.

And the result? The more than 90,000 acres that were planted regeneratively in 2021 as part of the program meant a 27% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, according to PepsiCo.

Having such proof points is helpful in trying to affect change at a policy level, says Patel. It’s a reference to the U.S. Farm Bill, which is due to be updated next year, although he remains non-specific about what change exactly Unilever is pushing for. “It's too early to share. [But] we will continue to do what we're passionate about, and have a seat at the table and influence as much as we can.”

There are rumblings that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is alert to the need to adapt. Earlier this year it announced a plan to double the country’s cover crop plantings to 30 million acres by 2030 and its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, set out in February, “will provide up to $1 billion for pilot projects that create market opportunities for commodities produced using climate-smart practices”.

Across the border in Canada, the Trudeau government has recently announced increased funding to boost regenerative agriculture, with C$25 million ($192.77 million) earmarked for the cost-shared Resilient Agriculture Landscape Program. Although sustainable agriculture proponents, such as the coalition Farmers for Climate Solutions, had hoped for more, they said there were “many positive outcomes” from the proposed new agreement.

Meanwhile, General Mills is working with charity ALUS on the Growing Roots program, which will support farmers in communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba who are interested in going regenerative. According to Lara Ellis, senior vice-president, policy and partnerships at ALUS, interest from farmers has been high, with waitlists for participation now being compiled.

Cover crops on a canola field in Canada. Most farmers in western Canada practice no or low-tillage of soil. Handout from the Canola Council of Canada via REUTERS

While there is still much to be done to scale up regenerative farming in Canada, Manitoba-based Robynne Anderson, who heads up consultancy Emerging Ag, says certain practices are already widespread. “Most of western Canada, probably about 90%, moved to conservation tillage back in the 90s,” she says.

A company called Flexi-Coil introduced a piece of equipment that allowed for direct seeding: planting via a small burst of air, and the practice was readily taken up.

Back in the U.S. Midwest, adaptation can’t come too soon. Iowa soil, for instance, was once among the most fertile on the planet, but is now rapidly being depleted. The average topsoil depth has decreased from around 14-18 inches at the beginning of the 20th century, to 6-8 inches by the year 2000.

“I have never been on a single farm, including my own, (where the soil) is not degraded,” says Brown. “With the vast majority of farmers we work with, 75% of the carbon that was once in those soils is now in the atmosphere.”

Since transitioning to regenerative methods in the 90s, however, Brown’s farm has quadrupled the amount of organic matter in its soils, which are now able to infiltrate 30 inches of rainfall per hour, up from half an inch per hour. “(That’s) an unheard of amount,” he says.

And as far as infiltration goes, signs do point towards an increased understanding among large companies and government, of the value of agricultural methods that put soil health first. Despite the barriers, that shiny altruism that often pervades corporate sustainability agendas perhaps isn’t as bogus as it can be in other sectors. “There's no ill will amongst anyone working in this space,” says Anderson. Just a diverse group of people working towards a more sustainable agricultural and food future through better soil health: that coveted black cottage cheese.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Sarah LaBrecque is a freelance writer who splits her time between Ottawa, Canada, and Hertfordshire. She writes about sustainable business and ethical living for publications such as the Guardian, Positive News, and for a range of B2B clients.