Can Regenerative Agriculture Regenerate the US Food System?

The conversation recently made its way to Washington, DC — where the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee of Oversight and Reform discussed calls to reform federal policies that unjustly favor corporate agribusiness, often at the expense of family farmers.

Can regenerative ag regenerate the US food system? Kara Brewer Boyd
thinks so. The farmer and rancher of about 1,500 acres in Southside,
is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe and founder and president of
the Association of American Indian

“Being an Indigenous person here in North America, I highly value food security
and resilience — as we’ve always grown and produced food to feed our families,
tribal communities and others,” she says.

Kara Brewer Boyd, Founder and President, Association of American Indian Farmers; and husband John W. Boyd, Founder and President, National Black Farmers Association | Image courtesy Vanguard Renewables

Indigenous people were utilizing regenerative farming practices — from
and companion

to crop rotations and pollinating buffer strips — well before many other
segments of agriculture. And they have done so by making decisions with
forethought of the next seven generations: “Take some, leave some; and there
will always be some for future generations.”

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As we reported a year
the agricultural community is taking a new look at these old practices in hopes
that we can use nature’s proven, time-tested principles to help mitigate climate
change and feed a growing population more sustainably.

The conversation recently made its way to Washington, DC — where the
Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee of Oversight and Reform
held a

about calls to reform federal policies that unjustly favor corporate
agribusiness, often at the expense of family farmers.

Boyd was one of several farmers who testified. The benefits of regenerative ag
are manifold, she said. It can take large amounts of carbon out of the
atmosphere as well as build back soils, which can be depleted at a rate of 5.6
tons of topsoil per acre each year. It can restore water cycles and replenish
underground clean water sources, lessening the impact of droughts and
alleviating flooding. It can help hold nutrients in the landscape, thus
preventing nitrates and phosphates from entering watersheds.

The gains are not just environmental, she added. Regenerative

can make farming and ranching profitable by reducing reliance on inputs, making
farmers less susceptible to shifting fertilizer markets. It can also help
revitalize rural communities by diversifying farm production.

“Building back soil health is the most cost-effective federal investment we can
make at this time. From risk mitigation to farmer prosperity, to human health,
to carbon sequestration — it is a win-win for all,” Boyd said. “To ensure local
and national security in the face of domestic and global disruptions, we must
make the effort to rebuild our soils.”

Investing in soil

So, what level and type of investment is needed?

Boyd testified that farmers wishing to transition to more regenerative

may struggle to do so. Small-scale farmers often face limited options for
diversifying their operations and participating in local markets; and it may not
be economically feasible to incorporate managed livestock grazing if there is no
local processing or infrastructure.

“Without access to local processing, regenerative farmers and rural America
don’t stand a fighting chance,” she said.

Dr. Rachel Schattman sets up irrigation field trials for a SARE-funded research project to see how crop yield, quality and nutrient run-off is affected by different irrigation practices | Image credit: USDA

Rachel E. Schattman,
Assistant Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Maine,
agreed that a holistic approach is needed — supported and sustained by federal
policy and investment and complimentary community and state resources.

“This means heavily investing in agricultural research, especially at land grant
universities — including historically black colleges and universities and tribal
colleges; and expanding education programs, technical assistance and financial
assistance for farmers,” Schattman asserted.

She also emphasized the need for equity in the system.

“In addition to climate change being a matter of science, it’s also invariably
a racial, gender and economic justice

— as the negative effects of climate change will fall disproportionately on
those who can least afford it,” Schattman asserted. “We must ensure that federal
agriculture programs are available to all who steward the land.”

Boyd suggested that the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program
which provides $1.2 billion annually to help farmers deliver environmental
benefits, dedicate 80 percent of its funds to practices that rebuild soil health
and ecological function, reduce emissions or sequester carbon — rather than the
current ~20 percent; and that the Conservation Stewardship Program
be converted into a “Climate” Stewardship Program that primarily rewards good
climate stewards and prioritizes support for small-scale farmers.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Chair of the
Subcommittee on Environment, said he was committed to supporting regenerative
agriculture by listening to farmers and paying them for the practices that they
think are best for their soil: “We must fully fund the USDA’s conservation
programs and reform them to provide farmers more flexibility to do what they
think is best, as opposed to being dictated by corporate executives who may have
no actual experience in farming.”

Sustainable solutions

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) expressed his concern
that farmers be burdened with additional regulations and bureaucratic red tape.

“We need to let farmers farm, not shoulder them with burdensome regulations and
huge tax bills. As most farmers tell me, get the bureaucracy, get big government
out of the way and just let them do what they were born to do,” Norman said.

Brian Lacefield
Executive Director of the Kentucky Office of Agricultural Policy and a
former university extension worker, banker and crop input retailer — noted that
there will be no one-size-fits-all solution; and that practices must be
sustainable, both economically and agronomically.

Kentucky farmers have been pioneers and early adopters of conservation and
regenerative practices, he said, with terrace and no-till farming practiced
commercially for decades. A further shift took place in 1998, when the Tobacco
Master Settlement Agreement
prompted the diversification of Kentucky
agriculture — with tobacco producers declining from 50 percent to 1 percent.

Part of this was achieved through elective incentives — such as a menu-based
cost-share program covering investment areas such as beef improvement, forage
quality, technology and markets. Each producer can find items suited to their
operations that are based on research and best management practices; and there
is a producer education component, as well as a requirement to have a water
quality plan.

“Many of the items available for cost-share participation are consistent with
several of the principles of regenerative agriculture — including enhancing and
improving soil health, improvement of water quality, and optimization of
resource management,” Lacefield said. “It is a purely optional plan and great
distinction has been built in to be the ‘economic carrot’ as an incentive to a
best management practice and not a subsidy.”

Another novel solution is OpenTEAM — a
collaborative effort to create an interoperable, open-source agricultural
technology ecosystem that supports farmers in their transition to regenerative
ag systems. Started in 2019, the farmer-driven community of farmers, ranchers,
scientists, researchers, engineers, farm service providers, programmers and food
companies is creating a suite of tools to help land stewards manage soil health,
optimize data collection, and share knowledge across an ever-expanding network.

At several research & development sites, ranchers and farmers are informing the
development of these tools. Stonyfield Organic,
for example, is working with organic dairy farms in its direct supply chain to
test the use of tools such as PastureMap to track
rotational grazing and pasture forage, and
SoilStack to measure carbon levels in the
soil with a handheld spectrometer.

Monthly grazing discussion group meetings with both technical experts and fellow
Stonyfield farmers enable OpenTEAM participants to learn how to utilize the data
and observations they are collecting to create positive changes on their own
farms and the climate at large. Projects such as the Digital
— which is being
developed by another OpenTEAM participant, Our Sci — and an embedded social
coordination platform will allow participants to benchmark and compare their
data to better understand what might be considered a ‘good’ result.

“These farmers have always managed their land to support animal and soil health
outcomes; but changing pasture management to increase soil carbon sequestration,
specifically, is less familiar,” said Dana Bourne, Sustainable Agriculture
Manager at Stonyfield, who helps lead the OpenTEAM pilot. “The Digital
Coffeeshop will allow the producers to search the system — filtering to
determine ‘where are farms like mine?’ according to things like herd size,
region or soil type; then reach out to learn what those farms have been doing
differently to improve soil health. It’s a new way to build peer learning.”

Bourne is also excited about development of the OpenTEAM Ag Data Wallet — a
central data-storage platform that aims to streamline data collection. The goal
is for farmers to enter data once and be able to leverage that data for multiple
uses — including GHG accounting, organic certification, and eventually for
ecosystem service markets.

The hope is that OpenTEAM’s open-source technology ecosystem will also help
increase equity in access to knowledge and markets. Currently, tools to measure
and monitor soil carbon and other ecosystem services are expensive; and in many
cases, are not developed with a diversity of farmers and farm systems in mind,
she added.

Watch the hearing and read full testimonials here.

Read and comment on H.Res. 1234: ‘Expressing support for regenerative agriculture and other conservation practices to support more sustainable and resilient agriculture, and compensating farmers for providing environmental services’ here.

Read the 2021 OpenTEAM Progress Report.

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