The term "regenerative agriculture" has become two of the biggest buzzwords in nature-based climate solutions. But how many farms and food companies can say they follow both regenerative and organic practices?
Canadian cereal and snack company Nature’s Path — the largest organic breakfast and snack company in North America — hopes to get more agricultural organizations focused on the nuances of those adjectives.
In March, its 5,000-acre Legend Organic Farm in Saskatchewan became the largest yet to be certified as part of the Regenerative Organic Certified program, organized by the Regenerative Organic Alliance. It’s one of just 30 farms operating with that label. The company created a limited edition oatmeal to draw attention to the certification, which it started selling on Earth Day.
Because Legend follows organic farming principles, it already practiced many processes often mentioned as regenerative. The main change the farm made over the past two years to receive Regenerative Organic Certified recognition was stepping up its planting and investments in cover crops such as legumes to improve soil fertility and carbon capture, according to Nature Path founder and chairman Arran Stephens.
The idea, at least in part, is to set an example that other farms can follow. "My hope is our farm will become highly successful and will spawn others that want to get in on it," Stephens told me in late April.
Nature’s Path made the decision to seek the Regenerative Organic Certified designation two years ago, both to enrich its soil for the future and to continue differentiating its brand.
My hope is our farm will become highly successful and will spawn others that want to get in on it.
Legend is the only farm that the company owns outright; it is supplied by hundreds of independent farms, who should be able to command a premium from customers such as Nature's Path for following these practices in the future, according to Dag Falck, the company’s organic program manager.
"It’s a great way to communicate that your organization is practicing on the highest level of organic," he said.
Some investments it took
While it takes just one growing season to earn the Regenerative Organic Certified label — unlike the core organic certification, which takes three years to earn — a series of steps are required to participate, notably expanded soil testing capabilities. As part of the program, farms are required to measure levels of Soil Organic Carbon, Soil Organic Matter and Aggregate Stability. Nature’s Path is testing for all of those metrics, along with Active Carbon, Total Soil Carbon and the Microbial Respiration of CO2.
While organic farming shuns the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it doesn't preclude the use of new technologies or tools. Indeed, Nature’s Path is using a number of new information technologies as part of the program that could offer ideas for others. Among the tools that are playing a role:
- Tractors that are autosteered using global positioning satellite (GPS) data
- Satellite maps to monitor growth through the growing season
- Farming implements such as tine weeders and rotary hoes that help with weeding in preemergent phases while keeping the life within the soil; this allows the farm to reduce its tillage frequency and intensity
- A new recordkeeping system that can track specific crops back to the field; this is part of the traceability requirements for the certification
- The company doesn’t currently use precision agriculture technologies, but it eventually could play a role in mapping its soil carbon results, according to the company.
According to the World Economic Forum, the average soil carbon level of most farmland is just 1 percent — far below the 3 percent to 7 percent levels they nurtured before being cultivated. It estimates that raising those levels to the low end of that range could sequester 1 trillion tons of CO2.
Nature’s Path hasn’t disclosed its current soil levels, but is using this first season to establish a baseline. "We can’t say at this point what we have achieved," Falck said.
Currently, soil has to be sent to a lab for test — a "fairly costly" process, Falck said, that can take from five to 10 days. The hope is to make more accurate in-person testing available as quickly as possible.
Nature’s Path, based in Richmond, British Columbia, was founded in 1985 and became the first organic cereal production in North America five years later. The company is on track to achieve climate neutral status by September.