Taking you inside my diligence process with regenerative agriculture experts (part 1)

Interview with Ph.D. and Climate Farm School founder Laney Siegner

In my last post I teased that I have decided to pursue a business model that will enable more farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture and overcome the barriers to doing so:

  1. Access to capital 

  2. Access to midstream processing 

  3. Scale

  4. Uncertain carbon markets

I’m not quite at the sharing point yet, but I’ve decided to invite you into my diligence process and share the conversations I’ve been having with experts, and the feedback they are providing. This is the first of six interviews with a variety of professionals and experts in regenerative agriculture. 

Our first interview is with Laney Siegner. Laney is the Director of Academic programs for the climate school Terra.do. She has a Ph.D. in Climate Education and Food Systems from the U.C. Berkeley Energy and Resources Group. Laney and I met through Terra.do and have a shared passion for regenerative agriculture. She is advancing the cause of regenerative agriculture by launching The Climate Farm School, a 4-week program for getting your hands dirty on a working farm and learning about the climate impact of and solutions within food systems. 

  1. What is your background and how did you get involved in regenerative agriculture?

I have always been interested in spending time outdoors, and in awe of Nature as an artist. I have a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies and International Relations from Tufts University. My professional life started with teaching middle school in south Boston for 2 years, where I learned that I love teaching and educating, especially about the topics I am passionate about: environmental stewardship and justice, climate change, and growing your own food. I went back to graduate school in 2014 to get a Master’s and Ph.D. at Berkeley in the Energy and Resources Group, and that’s when I first got involved in regenerative agriculture. Working on several small scale diversified farms was my “aha” moment that this kind of food system, rooted in soil health, land stewardship, and positive human-community-nature relationships, was what we needed more of in the world. 

  1. What is your definition of regenerative agriculture? 

“Food production, on the land or in the ocean, grounded in understanding of and respect for the natural resources and processes involved in yielding the food that we humans eat, while sequestering more carbon in the soil than is released by the production process” 

In more detail, that means photosynthesis and water and carbon and Nitrogen cycles on the process side, and soil, water, non-edible plants, trees, animals, insects, fungal networks and more on the resources side. 

While these practices are often advertised as “new,” they are ones which indigenous communities have practiced for millennia. Growing food in a way that respects and restores the natural resources and processes involved, and ensuring that they continue to exist and thrive for generations to come, is key to regenerative agriculture. This means specific things like keeping soil covered, minimizing soil disturbance, feeding the soil life to feed the crops we are specifically interested in harvesting (not relying on off-farm chemical inputs for fertility), incorporating biodiversity, and incorporating animals, whether grazing animals and their manure, or invertebrate animals like earthworms. 

  1. What do you see as the fastest way to create 60 new regenerative farms in the next 3 years? 

Climate Farm School courses! I am launching pilot versions of the Climate Farm School, a program model I dreamed up in grad school that centers around getting more adults and young adults out onto working regenerative farms to live, learn, work, and spark ideas together with existing innovative farmers. Through this kind of educational experience, paired with a land ownership model that is different from dominant private property/individual ownership models today, we could get a lot more regenerative farms up and running in the next 3 years, and I would hope/expect a lot of these new operations to be cooperatively run, owned, and managed.

It takes a lot of human capital to run a successful regenerative farm of any scale, from 3 to 3,000 acres, and it would be my vision that new farms, in order to have the best chance of success, are based on partnerships between farmers, business managers, communicators, artists, educators, and event planners. I have so much respect for farmers like those partnering to host the first Climate Farm School courses, and feel like pairing up their years of accumulated land-based wisdom with the energy and innovation in the climate tech and education space will bear (literal) fruit.    

  1. What do you see as the biggest challenges to adopting regenerative agriculture? And the biggest misconceptions associated with it?

The biggest challenge is the entrenched system of conventional agriculture which is supported by federal and state policies (Farm Bill and beyond), the overwhelming incentives that federal crop insurance engenders which make mono-cropping the most logical decision for most farmers, and the time, money and labor it takes to transition to regenerative agriculture. 

The biggest misconception is that regenerative agriculture is a cookie-cutter climate solution that can be rolled out basically anywhere the same way, like installing a field of solar panels or converting a fleet of buses to all-electric. Regenerative agriculture solutions are as complex as mother nature, and require site-specific considerations and adaptations wherever they land; this can be paralyzing for some people in the “how to scale this up” conversation. However, we can scale it up by democratizing knowledge, increasing access to information, and empowering farmers to learn by trial and error without needing to reinvent the wheel on every farm or community food hub. 

Another major misconception is that regenerative agriculture “training” is just for farmers. In fact, training other food ecosystem participants on how to farm regeneratively is key to building a system where regenerative agriculture can be cost competitive with conventional agriculture.  

Enabling and scaling the transition to regenerative agriculture might look like installing a regional bean processing plant for dry beans, working to legalize and set up a mobile processing facility for animals in a 100-mile radius, or helping find ways to pay farmers to rest their fields for a year while cover crops regenerate soil nutrients. There are all kinds of activities that require farmers and non-farmers working together (not just farmers and policymakers, but farmers and tech workers, marketers, comms people, sales experts, chefs, artists, storytellers, educators, researchers, investors, and more).  

  1. What do you see as the best way to improve alignment between landowner and farmer, in the cases where the land is rented?

The biggest opportunity for improving alignment between landowner and farmer is to identify shared values and create incentive alignment between landowner and farmer. Most leases are typically structured as year to year and as such do not encourage long term thinking and planning by either party. The landowner is concerned with generating the highest yield on the land by charging the highest rents, and as a result the farmer is forced to focus on the crop-plan with the lowest risk and highest 1-year upside, which most often leads to mono-cultures.

If both landowner and farmer could agree on a shared set of values and have contractual alignment towards maximizing the economic and ecological productivity of the land they would be more likely to invest in the long-term planning  and capital improvements needed to allow for a more diversified, resilient and regenerative operation. This will ultimately result in greater profitability.

A great way to ensure that landowners and renting farmers will have a chance to identify shared values is for both to participate in a workshop or training together, like the Climate Farm School course or any other soil carbon, carbon farm planning and how-to-workshops. These workshops teach farmers how to implement some of the principles of regenerative agriculture with tools like a roller/crimper, no-till seed drill, electric tractors, rotational grazing plan or any other techniques to build soil health and add profit. 

  1. Are you a believer in soil carbon markets (and if so how big of a climate mitigation opportunity do you believe it to be)?

If we can figure out reliable, low-cost ways to measure and validate soil carbon storage, taking into account soil depth, seasonality and other complicating factors, and pay farmers to do it properly, it could have a large potential impact. The technical potential of regenerative agriculture to absorb atmospheric carbon has been modeled to show that it can soak up as much as the entire annual global footprint of fossil fuel combustion

However, I am deeply skeptical that the current measurement protocols are robust enough to be trusted. And this concern is backed up by research like the “buyer’s guide to soil carbon offsets'' published by the leading carbon removal non-profit research firm, (carbon)plan

That said, it is important to note that soil carbon markets are not the only way to compensate farmers for carbon storage and other ecosystem services. There are actually a number of successful programs offered by the National Resources Conservation Service (“NRCS”) such as the EQIP working lands program which will compensate farmers for adopting multi-species cover crops, and often at higher rates that the current soil carbon price.

  1. There are many smart investors and scientists who believe that in 50 years most of our vegetables will be grown in indoor vertical farming warehouses and most of our meat will be produced in a lab. Do you think there will continue to be a place for meat, produce and grains that come from nature and not from a lab?

YES! There will always be a big place for nutritious food produced in healthy, fertile, carbon sequestering soil in the food systems of tomorrow. Producing meat, vegetables, grains and other nutrient dense products with a primary focus on building healthy soil is an intimate and essential act of connection and acknowledgement of humans being part of Nature, not ‘other’ from Nature. The second you start talking about exclusively producing the food that we eat from a lab or indoor warehouse you will deeply and morally offend those making their living on the land right now. Despite the many well documented destructive environmental impacts of the conventional agricultural system, there are thousands of people working to repair that damage by growing food in a way that ALSO protects biodiversity, water and air quality, resulting in carbon sequestration and habitats for birds, pollinators, and worms. These people see their work as essential to repairing our human relationships with each other and with Nature, and so do I. This work of humans on the land must continue, and I can’t imagine a world where we retreat into cities, labs, and factories to live and grow food, without participating in and celebrating what the natural world offers to us and other species in terms of nourishment, for our stomachs and souls.

In summary, we humans have innate wildness and must nourish that as we pursue economic livelihoods, climate change mitigation and food production. It will become easier to do so if we adopt economic models that value and compensate people for their restorative work on the land.

My takeaways from this interview:

We agree on the definition of regenerative agriculture: Despite the common refrain amongst agriculture circles that “everyone has their own definition of regenerative agriculture”, Laney’s definition is very similar to mine. And frankly it is pretty simple to me. It all comes back to the Five Principles of Soil Health which you have heard me preach time and time again.

We must provide farmers with curated access to the right partners and markets: Laney’s point of view here echoes what I saw time and time again during my #RegenerativeRoadTrip across America in June: the majority of family farms are on an island. Partnerships and access to markets are key to the success of a farmer, but the cows won’t milk themselves and the seeds won’t plant themselves, farmers need the flexibility to focus on farming. The access to human capital needed to scale that Laney referenced needs to be curated for farmers in such a way that makes it more seamless and more affordable to establish key partnerships and obtain access to the right markets. 

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure: I am always excited to see others correctly identify the need for additional meat and grain processing infrastructure! At every single one of the 23 farms I visited on my travels across the midwest, the lack of local meat and grain processing infrastructure was a visceral pain point.  

Granular documentation of best practices by geography and soil + climate type is sorely needed: I agree with Laney that regenerative agriculture is not a copy and paste franchise style business model - in so far as what works in SE Iowa may not work in NW Iowa due to differences in soil types, precipitation levels and topography. However, as Laney also points out, what we can do is document which practices work well under which conditions and start to build up a library of data that will ultimately allow us to plug in the relevant variables (precipitation, soil type, climate, topography) and output a farm plan that gets us 90% of the way there. 

Scale is key: Additionally, as I have written before, the solution to so many of these problems is scale. We must find a way to aggregate multiple regenerative farms together in such a way that they can achieve the economies of scale necessary to influence policy, and amortize the time, money and labor across multiple locations. The key however is to do this while still allowing the farms to retain a level of independence which preserves their autonomy and unique value proposition. 

We must find ways to contractually increase alignment between landowner and operator: In order for the concepts of regenerative agriculture to be of value to the landowner, the landowner must believe that adopting regenerative agriculture will increase the value of their land over time or increase their rental rates. While some landowners may adopt regenerative agriculture for the environmental benefits or in the belief that it will increase the long term value of their land, others will find it hard to see the value without an increase in the income generated from the land. Hybrid lease structures, where the landowner participates in the financial upside of regenerative agriculture via a revenue or profit share are one way to accomplish this. Additionally, it is clear that finding a long term (5-year plus) lease structure that both landowner and farmer are comfortable with would create much more favorable conditions for the adoption of regenerative agriculture. 

The opportunity to get soil carbon markets right is massive: I agree with Laney that the existing soil carbon markets are frothy and untrusted by farmers, however I believe that makes this an even bigger opportunity. Whoever figures out a way to create soil carbon credits which buyers can trust will unlock tremendous value for farmers. I also agree that soil carbon markets are just one way to monetize regenerative agriculture practices and any farm plan should do a holistic analysis to see what all their options are, including programs like the EQIP working lands program or conservation easements. 

I am not the only person who would rather eat food from nature than food grown in a lab :-)! I believe fundamentally that we will never out-engineer mother nature, and in fact our current climate crisis is living proof of that. Regenerative Agriculture is the only solution I have found that can tackle climate change, increase biodiversity and feed the world, all while creating good paying jobs. I am willing to bet my career on the belief that you and I are not alone and that there are tens of millions of people in the United States, if not hundreds of millions who would gladly pay a premium for food grown in the wild and not in a lab.