How to transition to regenerative agriculture

A review of the support services and ecosystem players out there

Why regenerative agriculture?

The problem: I started this newsletter to document my personal journey to learn more about climate change and what we can do to reverse it. Along the way I found that tons of investors and entrepreneurs were doing great work in solar energy, electric vehicles, grid modernization and many other important areas. Then, in late February I stumbled upon agriculture, an area that so far has received far less attention from “climate tech”. I now believe decarbonizing agriculture to be the biggest opportunity in climate tech and the one that remains shockingly under the radar. US agriculture is directly responsible for 9% of annual US GHG emissions; globally, the category of Food, Agriculture and Land Use (FALU) is responsible for 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not just the greenhouse gas emissions that are of concern. Our current agricultural system has produced a plethora of negative externalities highlighted in detail below which are not being addressed.  

The solution: The good news is that there are really simple solutions to these issues. Regenerative agriculture refers to a set of land management practices which reverse all of the negative externalities of conventional agriculture by focusing on soil health. Regenerative agriculture is better than a triple bottom line business, it’s a sextuple bottom line business. In regenerative agriculture farmers make more $, store carbon in the soil, save water, improve human health, rebuild soil productivity and increase ecological diversity. Taking carbon emissions as just one example, did you know that by implementing regenerative agriculture principles worldwide we could drawn down 22 gigatons of carbon over the next 30 years and store it in the soil?

The current food system is broken

Our current food system has left us with a set of negative externalities that are finally catching up with us. 

Regenerative agriculture turns those negative externalities into opportunities

What is regenerative agriculture? 

I covered this in greater detail in a previous post. At a high level “regenerative agriculture” encompasses the 5 principles shown below: 

What are the major differences between “organic” and “regenerative” agriculture

  • No-till vs. limited chemical inputs: regenerative systems do not till the soil so as to preserve root structures, while organic often requires heavy tillage because the organic certification prohibits the use of chemicals like glyphosate and instead relies on tillage to control weeds and pests; while regenerative discourages the usage of chemicals, it generally prefers very limited chemical usage to any tillage. 

  • Crop and livestock diversification: the defining characteristic of “organic” is the elimination all all synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, however this is misleading as there are a number of allowed organic fertilizers and pesticides; while regenerative also discourages the use of chemical inputs, its defining characteristic is the integration of multiple crop types (“cover crops”) and livestock to provide natural tillage, fertilization and pest and weed control.

Why it’s important in this context to understand both “regenerative” and “organic”

  • With the massive rise of the “organic” label over the last two decades the process for “transitioning to organic” has become fairly standard and many private equity funds have emerged to buy land and transition it to “organic”. The process takes 3 years, during which the farm will typically lose money because it takes several years to wean the land off of a dependence on chemical inputs and 3 years before the food grown can be certified organic by the USDA and earn the organic premium. This 3 year transitional time period is often referred to as the “valley-of-despair”.

  • There is no at large “regenerative” food label today; thus most transitional financing programs focus on transitioning farms to certified organic, due to the pricing premium that the certified organic label commands. Yet many of these programs also attempt to implement some regenerative practices given the long-term benefit to the productivity of the soil.

  • In the coming years it is very likely that the “organic” standard will evolve to be “regenerative organic” and thus “organic” conversion is a decent proxy for regenerative conversion. In fact there is currently a Regenerative Organic label which the Rodale Institute is championing.

Not one size fits all

There is absolutely no one size fits all prescription for how to transition from conventional growing practices to regenerative ones. Making the change is intimidating, challenging and unique to your soil (how high is your clay content?), precipitation (do you get 6 inches of rain per year or 30 inches? Is your land irrigated or not?), topography (is your land hilly or flat?) and climate (how long is your growing season?) to name just a few key factors. Here we explore some of the resources available to growers interested in adopting regenerative agriculture practices. 

No finger-pointing

Those of us who have taken the green pill and now worship at the altar of regenerative agriculture oftentimes appear to preach and to act with condescension towards “conventional growers”. That is a mistake. Farming is hard. Really hard. For proof of that fact you need to look no further than the consolidation in the sector from 7 million farms in 1945 to 2 million today. Our current agricultural system is the product of government policy, consumer demand for increasingly cheaper food and the market power of the big agribusiness companies to whom farmers are beholden for their inputs and access to markets. Suffice it to say that many of the “conventional” practices that the regenerative community has started to push back on are ones that have been so aggressively marketed and subsidized that it’s a miracle anyone has tried anything different. 

What are the support systems available for adopting regenerative agriculture? 

The below is a constant work in progress, and highlights some of the service providers that growers looking to transition to regenerative agriculture should explore:

Ecosystem services and regen agronomy

One of the most encouraging signs that the regenerative revolution is in full swing is the many logos missing from this section. Every day I feel like I learn of a new organization dedicated to helping growers adopt regenerative practices. 

  • Ecosystem Services: This is a key term in the regenerative movement which refers to the many benefits provided to humans by natural ecosystems that have not traditionally been ascribed an economic value (think soil health, water retention and ecological diversity). There are non-profits like the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) and for-profit startups like Nori. While the business models differ, what these entities have in common is that they work to pay growers for the ecosystem services they provide - for example the ESMC has partnered with The Nature Conservancy, Land O’Lakes and a number of municipalities in Minnesota to measure and generate soil carbon and water credits for growers.

  • Regen Agronomy: To understand “Regenerative Agronomy” we first have to unpack traditional agronomy. I really struggled to find the right analogy for just what the agronomist means to the farmer. Imagine a coach, a friend, a scientist, and a salesperson all rolled into one and you’ve largely captured the role and importance of the agronomist in today’s agriculture. 

    • Traditional Agronomy: Agronomy is the science of soil management and crop production and those who practice it are known as “Agronomists”. There are only about 13,000 people technically classified as Agronomists in the US, although it could be argued that the ~20,000 sales representatives for the seed and agri-chemical companies could be included here as well. The agronomist is typically a well respected member of their community and a trusted advisor to growers. The agronomist advises farmers on what crops to grow (which seeds to use), when to plant, and what fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to use. The agronomist has the benefit of having seen practices across multiple farms and can thus pattern match and share with growers what he has seen work elsewhere (I say “he” because agronomists are overwhelmingly male, not to say that there are not or won’t increasingly be more female agronomists). The agronomist has typically received their education from a land-grant university whose research and best practices are heavily influenced by the agri-chemical companies who are major donors to these universities. I’m not about to spew conspiracy theories, however with names like the Monsanto Auditorium at the University of Missouri or the Cargill Auditorium at Western Iowa Tech it’s clear that the big agri-chemical companies have at least some level of influence over what budding agronomists are taught.

    • Regenerative Agronomy: Since traditional agronomists are typically not trained in regenerative practices like holistic land management or how to utilize legumes as an alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilization, many “regenerative agronomists” have emerged to help growers make the transition. These take a variety of forms:

      • For-profits:Understanding Ag LLC, which is led by Gabe Brown (the face of regenerative agriculture from the popular documentary Kiss the Ground), provides hands on support to growers to create and help implement a specific plan for how to transition away from chemical inputs to regenerative methods

      • Non-profits:Regeneration International which provides educational videos and how-to articles on regenerative agriculture techniques

      • Complements to other products:Mad Agriculture (“Mad Ag”) deploys capital from its $7M Perennial Fund to invest in farmers transitioning to regenerative. Alongside that capital Mad Ag assists growers in creating a new 5-year plan using regenerative practices and provides access to new markets

CPGs with regenerative commitments

Large Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies have noticed that the word “regenerative” resonates with consumers and as a result  they want to be able to market that term to consumers. Interestingly, most of the largest CPGs have announced commitments to fund the transition of more acres to “regenerative”. What this actually means in practice is that these brands will seek out farms that practice regenerative agriculture and contract with them at a premium for their crops. There is a healthy degree of skepticism from the regenerative community as to whether or not the regenerative label will be diluted by scale, however the early reporting from companies like Danone suggests that actual progress is being made:

Regenerative distribution:

There really is no such thing as a pure play distributor for regenerative agriculture today. The way I would characterize this grouping of logos is places where regenerative growers can receive a premium for their goods and / or have access to markets that would be otherwise hard to  sell.

  • 4P Foods and Good Eggs: Farms that adopt regenerative agriculture have a story to tell that resonates with consumers looking for food that is produced more sustainably and with fewer chemical inputs. Additionally they are often sub-scale and cannot profitably sell into grocery store channels. 4P Foods based in Virginia and Good Eggs based in the Bay Area provide a direct to consumer channel for these growers.

  • Pipeline Foods: This company emerged in 2017 to help growers through the aforementioned valley-of-despair in transitioning to organic. Specifically, Pipeline works to help growers obtain a premium for their products even before they are certified organic or have completed the transition to regenerative. 

  • Planet FWD: Provides distribution for regenerative farmers by building direct-to-consumer brands for climate-friendly snacks. 

Financing

Farming is a very capital intensive business. Land, tractors, seeds, fertilizers, trucks, irrigation, the list goes on and it all requires money. Most farms are already heavily indebted and if they are to transition to a different model of growing it may require some financial support. I’ve grouped the current options into 3 buckets:

  1. Traditional: Most farmers work with their local bank or credit union for operating loans to finance their on-going needs. As is to be expected, traditional bankers are conservative, and as a result, when asked for a loan to finance a transition away from the status quo of mono-cropping and chemical inputs to more “natural methods” you can just imagine their response.

  1. Private Equity: As an asset class, farmland is an incredibly safe and recession proof investment. Since 1991 farming has only had 1 negative quarter (-0.01%) and even in the doldrums of the 2007/8 financial crisis it still returned over 7%. Many private equity firms have emerged to capitalize on this trend. These funds are often structured as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) which purchase the land with debt and earn a return by leasing the land out to farmers. As long term investors these funds have seen the long term value of building soil health through regenerative practices and the higher returns offered by the organic label. As a result, many of them structure their lease terms to require practices which improve soil health.

  2. Startup: Given the growth of both regenerative and organic agriculture a number of new companies have emerged to capitalize on this trend, I would characterize them into two groups:

    1. Crowd-funding platforms: Traditionally investing in farmland has only been available to large institutional investment managers, companies like FarmTogether and Steward have emerged to allow individuals (accredited investors) to invest in farmland. These investments are typically on a project basis which allows investors to specifically invest in farms where they know what type of growing practices will be used or in specific farm projects which enable more regenerative practices. 

    2. Regenerative Agronomy + Transition Finance: The best example of this model is the previously mentioned Mad Agriculture based in Boulder Colorado. Startups like Mad Ag focus on providing not only capital but access to both expertise on how to adopt regenerative farming practices as well as access to buyers for those products.  

Insurance & Government

This post has gotten long enough and this topic alone warrants a standalone post - so I won’t cover it in any detail here. Suffice to say that the role of government subsidies and loans which is interwoven into federal crop insurance is vital to understanding this space. 

#RegenerativeRoadTrip

I’m excited to share that this Sunday I’ll be flying to Montana to start a month-long road trip to visit 30 farms and ranches across the American Heartland! I’ll be sharing my journey on both Instagram (@cgebersol) and Twitter (@cgebersol). Please drop me a line if I’ll be passing through your town or by your farm so that we can get together!