From the farm to the restaurant, how people are investing in regenerative agriculture

Group of farmers with laptop standing in a field examining soybean crop
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Group of farmers with laptop standing in a field examining soybean crop.

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Anthony Myint vividly recalls the moment he encountered the idea that would shift his life’s path. In 2014, the San Francisco chef and his wife and business partner, Karen Leibowitz, visited California carbon ranching pioneer John Wick at Nicasio Native Grass Ranch in Marin County.

"He had a bunch of whiteboards out and he was just wrapping up a talk with some U.N. people," Myint recalls. Wick had been working on the Marin Carbon Project, the now well-known collaboration with University of California, Berkeley scientist Wendee Silver that examined whether several "carbon farming" practices — such as managed grazing and adding a thin layer of compost to the land — could in fact pull greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Wick talked about the difference between durable carbon — deposited and locked into the ground for up to centuries by plant roots and decaying and dead microorganisms — and carbon that routinely circulates from above to below ground. Hearing of the work the couple was doing helping restaurants offset their greenhouse gas emissions, Myint recalls, Wick "told us we weren’t thinking big enough." Atmospheric carbon wasn’t just something to avoid emitting, or to pay others to scrub from one’s environmental footprint, Myint and Leibowitz now understood: Farming itself could regenerate the land.

That day, Myint and Leibowitz joined a much larger movement to bring regenerative agriculture to the mainstream and help farmers, chefs and eaters understand the value of healthy soil. "We’re in the midst of a massive cultural change in response to global warming, and farming and healthy soil are probably the most practical and biggest solutions we have," says Myint. "Imagine if there were a fuel additive that made burning gasoline no-emission — or actually pulled it out — and it cost almost nothing, say 5 cents per gallon. Everyone, corporations, governments, would be racing to scale that up. That’s the opportunity food and farming and soil offer." It’s a solution, he adds, that’s "massive and non-invasive."

Restaurants are only one piece of a growing puzzle. In the wake of the United Nations' latest report on climate change — which urged rapid shifts in the way we manage land and source food amid increasing climate-related flooding and drought events — a regenerative agriculture ecosystem built around healthy soils is emerging. Efforts range from federal, state and local government initiatives to nonprofit and private sector ventures. But it remains to be seen which ones will work, and how fast they will take effect.

Engaging diners

Myint and Leibowitz have spent the last five years figuring out how to help the competitive, thin-margin, high-burnout world of creative chefs, restaurants and their fickle diners play a role in regenerative agriculture. Their first effort was the nonprofit Zero Foodprint, which helped restaurants offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Their recently shuttered restaurant, The Perennial, sought to serve food produced regeneratively and educate consumers about the role food plays in absorbing carbon.

"We assumed people would be excited about optimistic solutions, and would line up for the Tesla of food," says Myint. But the public wasn’t ready. They learned that "we couldn’t rely on one consumer, one chef at a time to create system change." They needed, as Wick encouraged them, to think bigger.

Now, under their nonprofit The Perennial Farming Initiative (PFI), Myint and Leibowitz have started laying the groundwork for a program, Restore California. Participating restaurants add an optional "1 percent for healthy soil" surcharge to customer tabs. PFI already has signed 30 restaurants up for the Restore California surcharge; if 1 percent of the state’s restaurants follow suit, the group estimates it could generate $10 million per year in funding for healthy soils.

The project is a collaboration among the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and PFI; when it is fully up and running, proceeds will go directly to farms and ranches working to improve soil health as a complement to the state’s Healthy Soils program. CARB, which administers the state’s cap and trade system, low-carbon fuel program and other efforts to fight climate change — most of which are transportation-related — embraced PFI’s creative idea for direct funding of healthy soils. "This was a unique opportunity to put our name out there on another way of getting greenhouse gas reductions, so we’re all pretty excited about the idea," says Dave Clergen, a spokesperson for CARB.

Restore California also offers the state a timely boost in its efforts to meet former Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, and coincides with current Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pledge to put $28 million into healthy soil funding in this year’s budget. That healthy soils funding counts for barely a drop in the bucket of the nearly $1.4 billion in state cap and trade revenue invested in climate solutions; the program’s initial $7 million provided capacity for just a half-dozen carbon farming operations. Still, the state’s pledge is a starting point, and a program such as Restore California can only help support the growth of healthy soils programs. "We know that to really achieve on aggressive timelines it helps to have additional reductions from the private sector, and to leverage what existing programs we have," Clergen adds.

Myint notes that during the "pre-launch" phase of the optional Restore California surcharge, many restaurateurs will have questions, but is optimistic that "once it becomes more well known that increasing soil carbon can solve global warming, and that these funds are actually going directly to solve the issue, then adoption will scale up."

PFI’s operations also got a major boost in July, when Myint was awarded the 2019 Basque Culinary World Prize, a $110,000 award from the Basque government and the Basque Culinary Center. Leibowitz says the prize from this tight-knit, global circle of Michelin-starred chefs served as validation for the work the couple has been doing, and has encouraged other donors. It will allow them to hire staff, build up the program and lay the groundwork for expansion to other states. PFI is also applying for a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant.

Jury member Joan Roca, superstar chef of Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca, noted that Myint stood out for his commitment to addressing climate change and "involving different actors from the gastronomic world." Joxe Mari Aizega, general manager of the Basque Culinary Center, says that the center and its digital gastronomy innovation lab are looking at how it can implement PFI’s programs, as are each member of the jury’s restaurants.

Other healthy soil models taking root

Myint and Leibowitz’s efforts to give restaurants and their patrons a way to directly fund healthy soils is just one answer to a problem that many public and private initiatives are grappling with: how to fund the shift from extractive to regenerative agriculture? Among public programs, California’s soil health initiatives have led the way. Four states (Vermont, Illinois, Nebraska and New Mexico [PDF]) passed healthy soils legislation in 2019, and at least 20 more are working on similar initiatives for 2020.

Presidential candidates are talking about the potential roles farmers can play in sequestering carbon (several mentioned it in the recent Climate Town Hall). At the county level, California’s Santa Clara County next year will launch a $220,000 agricultural resilience pilot project that operates on a reverse auction basis and farmers will bid for funds for pre-approved practices. "The lowest bid for the highest public benefit — not only carbon sequestration but other ecosystem services that improve regional resilience, like improved aquifer recharge — will be awarded," explains Michael Meehan, the county’s senior planner and agricultural plan program manager.

"The sense of emergence" in the regenerative agriculture space, "the kind of grassroots, decentralized awakening from the ground up, has been explosive," says Phil Taylor, founder of Colorado-based Mad Agriculture. Since 2015, the Colorado-based organization has worked to help farmers "break out of the agricultural industrial complex" by tailoring carbon farming programs to fit their land. Taylor’s organization, like PFI’s Restore California initiative, tries to "leverage existing and trusted networks for financial and technical resources to de-risk the transition to regenerative agriculture," Taylor explains.

He offers technical expertise, helping farmers to gain access to the millions of dollars available from the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), the arm of the USDA designed to help farmers and ranchers on the land. Taylor connects them to a network of other farmers and ranchers who have made the transition. By working with companies such as Minnesota-based Pipeline Foods, he also helps connect them to improved supply chains. "I don’t want them to sell to grain elevators, where the commodity value of your blood, sweat and tears has to compete with China and Argentina," Taylor says. "We work hard to de-commoditize, find premium markets and diversify the farm so that the farmer gets paid as much as possible."

Often during the transition from commodity market model to regenerative, farmers and ranchers face a period of financial instability because they’re putting in more labor and investing in new systems. One way for them to help bridge that transition is to access healthy soils programs such as California’s, or to get involved with the growing number of organizations and private companies that put a value on ecosystem services. In the case of the Canadian nonprofit organization ALUS, those might range from establishing native grasslands to launching a rotational grazing program or restoring wetlands. Launched in 2008, ALUS includes close to 1,000 farmer members and covers about 24,000 acres in 25 Canadian communities, says CEO Bryan Gilvesy. ALUS determines payments at the local level, which can range from $30 to $152 per acre yearly.

Meanwhile, Seattle-based Nori is preparing to start a new carbon-removal marketplace, based on the idea that farmers need financial incentives to draw down carbon while corporations are increasingly looking for ways to offset their own carbon footprints. The blockchain-based marketplace depends on increasingly sophisticated methods of forecasting carbon drawdown using tools such as COMET-Farm, a farm and ranch carbon and greenhouse gas accounting system used by the NRCS.

In the pilot stage, Nori is working with Maryland farmer Trey Hill, who will be the first to have his carbon drawdown measured and awarded carbon removal certificates, which he then can sell. He’ll be seeking at least $10 per ton, says Christophe Jospe, Nori’s chief development officer. At the company’s broader market launch next year the price will be determined by market demand. Independent verifiers will vet each farmer’s carbon removal claims; eventually, Nori hopes to be able to conduct "desk verification" using satellite imagery, tillage reports and other tools.

While companies such as Nori and Indigo Ag’s Terraton are focused on monetizing the tantalizing potential of carbon drawdown, Los Angeles-based Land Core is more concerned with the need to establish soil health as a critical tool for helping farmers become more resilient, especially in the face of drought and flooding.

Noting the variability of carbon drawdown on a single piece of land over time and the difficulties that still exist in accurately measuring it, Aria McLauchlan, Land Core co-founder and executive director, points to the possible pitfall of excessive "carbon exuberance" in the emerging rush toward drawdown. She says healthy soil also helps mitigate risks, and will help farmers and ranchers access "a wider range of economic incentives, such as corporate supply chain integration, preferential bank loans and crop insurance that recognizes soil health outcomes" [if the latter were put in place in the next farm bill]. Land Core also lends its expertise to politicians working to add regenerative agriculture to their own agricultural policies.

Whereas companies such as Indigo Ag hope to amass private data about the farms they work with, the newly launched OpenTEAM is the first open-source technology system to address soil health. Funded with more than $10 million in public and private funds, the group has a goal to aggregate practice-based feedback from farms around the world, interpret field observations, and share this knowledge with farmers ranging from small holders to large-scale enterprises.

The goal is to create a connected platform where farmers can get help measuring carbon, improving soil health and managing their digital records, among other things. "It’s a little like a Google account for farm data," explains Dorn Cox, research director at the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment. "It’s a prototype of how to collaborate in a new way, on a global scale," he adds, comparing the project to international scientific efforts such as the human genome project or the building of the Large Hadron Collider.

By studying people and practices in place at a large enough scale to draw conclusions, Cox adds, "We farmers in this part of the world might find more affinity with farmers in Northern India and Argentina than we do with Iowa." This way of working, he explains, also signals a shift from slower-moving, peer-reviewed forms of scientific research to a more active, participatory science of continual improvement. "If we can share knowledge faster, we can capture carbon faster," he adds.

OpenTEAM tools can be freely modified and expanded with a Creative Commons or similar license, and large databases (for weather, plants, inputs and soils, for example) also will be freely available. Individual farm, ranch or business data belongs to the entity that generated it, so sharing of this data is on an opt-in basis. OpenTEAM’s software (which includes web-based tools such as LandPKS, FarmOS and Our.Sci) is being trialed by thousands of farmers around the world, says Cox.

Cox points out that pivoting from a highly competitive agricultural marketplace to one that scales through collaboration, sharing and creativity contains an element of fun. "That’s easy to discount, but it’s a key advantage as to why it works," he adds.

The emerging public/private rush to carbon drawdown in some ways resembles a digital-age gold rush. Global players are jumping into the fray, many in hopes of pulling in big profits along the way to saving the world. But Cox sees a more utopian vision of information sharing, and an agricultural system united in regenerating ecosystems. Referring to Myint and Leibowitz’s work, he says, "I love that restaurants have a role to play in this … There’s joy in pulling all these pieces together."

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