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Regenerative agriculture hits the mainstream

Big Ag is getting on the bandwagon, but market premiums still aren’t on the table

If you’re a cattle producer, you may already have heard the term “regenerative agriculture.” If you’re a grain producer, maybe not.

But that’s about to change. This spring, General Mills announced a plan to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland in the U.S. and Canada by 2030, and Cargill Canada announced its Sustainable Canola Program.

“We have been feeding families for more than 150 years and we need a strong planet to enable us to feed families for the next 150 years,” General Mills chairman and CEO Jeff Harmening said in a press release. “We recognize that our biggest opportunity to drive positive impact for the planet we all share lies within our own supply chain, and by being a catalyst to bring people together to drive broader adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.”

The Rodale Institute in the U.S. coined the term to describe a kind of organic agriculture that not only maintains soil resources but improves them by limiting soil disturbance, maintaining soil cover, increasing biodiversity, keeping living roots in the ground and integrating animals into cropping systems.

It’s a natural fit for organic and livestock producers, but it can apply to any farm if producers are willing to think differently about the soil.

“It’s been treated like a bank account where you add and remove nutrients,” says Lana Shaw, research manager at Saskatchewan’s South East Research Farm (SERF). “Soils are foundational to agriculture and we’ve been abusing them.”

Saskatchewan’s South East Research Farm research manager Lana Shaw says there’s a trend toward crop and livestock producers sharing land so forages can be included in rotations.
photo: Lois Fever

Shaw says there are different schools of thought about what regenerative agriculture should mean in the field, and they sometimes disagree. In the organic community, regenerative agriculture allows for tillage but not artificial chemical inputs. But some Canadian regenerative producers want access to herbicides in order to practice “extreme zero tillage,” while keeping in mind what impact any tool or technique has on the soil.

“That’s kind of an overarching theme for regenerative agriculture — whatever you’re doing, you’re asking what impacts there will be on the soil. Is (a given practice) worth it or will it harm the ecology of the soil? Soil ecology includes insects, plants and the biological cycling going on in a field,” Shaw says.

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Shift in thinking

Regenerative agriculture requires significant changes from the business-as-usual approach. Keeping living roots in the ground, for instance, represents a big shift in thinking for many producers.

“Normally after harvest if you see something green you would consider that a problem. But the regenerative space is saying that’s actually providing a benefit — you should plant something that will provide you with that benefit and do it intentionally. That’s an obvious way in which producers are breaking with our traditional outlook on things,” Shaw says.

At SERF, her specialization is intercropping research. She calls intercropping an “entry-level on-ramp onto regenerative agriculture,” because it means reduced fertilizer requirements. Because intercrops are very competitive, they reduce the need for herbicide. “So it gets you headed in a direction where you need fewer chemical inputs and you encourage biological activity in the soil, and that’s the basis of a regenerative system,” she says.

For organic producers, regenerative agriculture means changes too. They’ve traditionally thought they should till green manure into the soil, but this is opposite to regenerative principles, which say low disturbance is more effective at increasing organic matter.

Regenerative principles also include putting forages and cover crops into rotations, which is a challenge for straight grain producers. But some grain producers are working with neighbouring ranchers to put cattle on these fields. Shaw is even calling it a “trend.”

Market premiums?

In April, Shaw worked with Joel Williams of Integrated Soils and Sustainable Grain, a consultancy company that specializes in organic and regenerative grain, to host a one-day workshop on intercropping as an alternative to monoculture canola.

Sustainable Grain CEO Brenda Tjaden says she planned the event after news of the loss of the Chinese market for canola. “I was immediately of the view that the market situation was going to get worse before it gets better. My take on the whole situation is that farmers are on their own to develop solutions.”

Although Tjaden sees potential markets for regeneratively grown crops, Sustainable Grain is focusing on education for now.

This is partly because industry hasn’t come to an agreement on a regenerative agriculture protocol, and this means premiums still aren’t on the table for producers who can check regenerative “boxes” on their operations.

Tjaden says General Mills’ regenerative agriculture program could be called a “corporate social initiative” which creates awareness around a set of principles, as opposed to an identity-preserved (IP) program such as certified organic which segregates grain coming off these programs. “If a handler in the supply chain switches back and forth there’s cleanout. None of that is required under most sustainability programs,” she says.

Similarly, Cargill is currently running a Sustainable Canola program to maintain market access for Canadian farmers by helping them verify that the canola wasn’t grown “on land that was forested or wooded; home to rare, threatened or endangered species; wetland or peatland; designated as a protected area; highly biodiverse, or continually forested,” says sustainability director Ryan Sirolli.

Some companies such as Barilla in the U.S. and Maple Leaf in Canada manage combinations of IP supply chains and corporate social initiatives, but so far, “regeneratively grown” isn’t on any labels and producers aren’t rewarded at the elevator. But Tjaden says producers still recognize the value of regenerative principles.

“I think there is no market for regenerative now because there are the beginnings of corporate social initiatives, but there are no IP systems. But the reason farmers are piling on this concept is because it’s good for their soils and because they can save money this year by intercropping, for example.”

Tjaden says that the same “farmers market” values inspire people to buy local produce operate on a global scale, and producers have a responsibility to deliver what buyers want.

“It’s understandable that there’s some confusion over this because we market grain in a commodity mindset culture, and the transfer of payment happens at the grain elevator, so farmers are insulated from the market. Canola and wheat producers are not taking their wheat to the farmers market,” she says. “But we’ve lost markets all over the world (Italy for durum, the U.S. for durum, China for canola, India for pulses) for mainstream crops. There’s no other example in business where you tell your buyer ‘everything is fine and we’re not going to change.’ Guess what — you just lost your market.”

Tjaden says that it’s early days for regenerative agriculture, and even though premiums aren’t yet on the horizon, this doesn’t mean they won’t come eventually. “It took the organic sector decades to develop its market. For regenerative producers now, the benefit comes from lower costs. It will take time to build out a market tier for it.”

Including livestock

Duncan Morrison, executive director of Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, sees corporate awareness-building initiatives as positive reinforcement for producers who already understand the benefits of regenerative principles.

MFGA hosted a conference on regenerative agriculture last fall, and while most attendees were generational mixed farmers, some were crop producers with an interest in making their operations viable in the long term.

“I think it’s very important to continue to tie in the economics for the producers. If regenerative agriculture wasn’t worth producers’ while they wouldn’t be embracing it like they are. When you go through marketing channels there’s no market drive for it, necessarily. These guys are doing it because it works for them and their farms,” Morrison says.

For Matt Van Steelandt, who sits on the MFGA board and runs a cow-calf operation near Melita, Man., a regenerative approach includes an extended grazing season, which means a reduced need for fertilizer. “You have to start small with one field or one quarter and see what you can do with it. It does take time. I don’t think it’s a bandwagon or a fad — it’s the future. We can’t rely on non-renewable resources to provide all of our fertility,” he says.

This year Van Steelandt is working with neighbour Darren Maddess to use planned grazing with a full season cover crop to build soil biology and store organic nutrients on Maddess’ annually cropped land.

Another MFGA member, Larry Wegner, runs a forage-based operation near Virden, Man. He believes conventional producers who want to farm regeneratively don’t necessarily need to work with livestock producers to make the principles work on their farms. The most important change is in mindset, he says.

“We always talk machinery but our number one asset is the soil,” he says. “You have to be profitable first, and then make sure you’re making improvements to your soil so there’s something for the next generation.”

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