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Farmers first is the key to regenerative agriculture

Bird's eye view of two fields, one healthy and green, the other red and dead.

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to sequester millions of tonnes of carbon and provide better crops. //Courtesy of Unsplash 

It’s not every day you hear eight Ph.D.s, entrepreneurs or bigwigs at billion-dollar international companies talking intensely about farmers. But during two regenerative agriculture breakout sessions at VERGE 2020 this week, that’s what happened.

"For us, it was critical to actually put the farmer at the center of this conversation," said Robyn O’Brien, co-founder of rePlant Capital, during one conversation. 

These experts knew that to make real change in the agriculture system that would help draw down carbon and make farming more sustainable, the industry must get the farmers on board. According to Jay Watson, sourcing, sustainability and engagement manager at General Mills, you can have the resources, the buy-in from local governments and the cultural support but to unlock a new way of producing, it needs to be a farmer-led movement. 

It’s no secret it’s been difficult to get farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices. The barrier for many farmers to adopting regenerative practices is the costs are obvious, while the benefits can feel vague, confusing and far-off.

"The planting costs happen every single year," said Emma Fuller, director of sustainability science at Granular, during VERGE. "The termination costs for the plants and the costs for these [regenerative] practices are immediate and concrete. The benefits are uncertain in their timing and magnitude."

This whole concept of soil targets is really interesting. Because a farmer can understand where they are and can see what that potential is.

Theoretically, farmers and scientists alike know that regenerative practices can increase water quality, reduce fertilizer need and improve control of weeds, among many other benefits. But it’s hard to provide quantitative numbers on how much and how soon. Those are tough hurdles to ask any business to overcome.

But we are literally standing on one solution to our climate crisis and these experts are figuring out ways to make soil health more accessible for farmers. During VERGE, the panelists highlighted four ways to help farmers unclog the carbon sinks beneath their feet. 

1. Reduce the 'tuition costs'

"The words I hear are 'I’ve been to college, but now I need to go to school for proper tilling,'" said Cristine Morgan, chief scientific officer for Soil Health Institute. 

Many farms are hundreds of years old. The people running them are usually in their 60s. They have been managing the land the same way for decades or even centuries. It’s no wonder many farmers are resistant to change or too exhausted and overwhelmed to learn a new system. 

To reduce these tuition barriers and costs, General Mills created mentoring relationships and peer-to-peer education programs so farmers can teach each other soil health practices with the goal of answering two things: "The question really is how healthy is the soil? And how healthy can soil be?" Morgan said. 

2. Reward sustainable practices with capital  

If uncertainty around the financial gain of regenerative practices is the problem, rePlant Capital’s plan is to create financial instruments that make them certain. RePlant ties soil health to injections of money. The stronger the carbon sequestration, the stronger the water conservation, the stronger the soil organic matter, the lower the cost of a loan is to the farmer.

"Most farms carry a negative farm income," O’Brien said. "The debt levels on any given farm can range between a million [dollars] to up to $100 million. What young entrepreneur, starting a family is going to want to step into that career?"

Farms need capital and tying it to healthy soil is a way for both the farm and the planet to get what they need, while also making the business model more enticing to a new generation of farmers.

3. Use data to accelerate farmer adoption

If farmers want concrete results, let’s give them concrete results. Fuller’s company, Granular, collects data across all practices including yields, fertilizer applications, crop protection and application. Being able to show farmers exactly how regenerative agriculture changes their production is key to getting more adoption. But Fuller said there has to be a value in sharing or farmers will just get more requests for data without any incentive to participate.

Being able to track their own progress may be the key. Many soil analyses need a lab, but a phone application created by the University of Sydney, called Slakes: Soil aggregate stability, gives farmers an at-home method of measuring soil health. 

"This whole concept of soil targets is really interesting," Watson said. "Because a farmer can understand where they are and can see what that potential is."

4. Provide specific assistance 

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to cultivating regenerative agriculture. The techniques will vary by crop and by location. Farmers need help understanding what practices will work for them and bring them the most benefit.

Debbie Reed, executive director of Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, insisted on using conservation programs and funding to deploy technical assistance to farmers. 

"You need to have boots on the ground across the U.S. landscape that is specific geographically and [matched] to the production system of farmers and ranchers," she said. "Because there are no silver bullets. You really do have to tailor these opportunities to the producers." 

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