Widespread adoption of large-scale conventional agricultural production over the last century -- including single crop production, heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and intense tillage -- has contributed to substantial greenhouse gas emissions as well as a decline in soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. At today’s rate of soil degradation, some scientists predict the world’s topsoil could be destroyed within 60 years.
In contrast to conventional production, regenerative agriculture is a holistic system of practices and principles that seek to improve, not degrade natural resources. Some of the most common practices to achieve this outcome include cover cropping, minimal tillage, long crop rotations, intercropping, rotational grazing, and incorporation of animals. Regenerative agriculture could play a key role in solving the climate crisis, offering a possible avenue to sequester carbon while securing food and water supplies. To unlock these benefits, widespread investment is needed to catalyze the development of regenerative agriculture markets at scale.
Applications for the 2021-2022 round of projects in the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative is now closed.
As tree planting programs gain international interest, financial support, and bipartisan political traction in the United States, many policymakers and scientists have proposed that tree planting projects be established alongside new or existing agricultural systems. WRI reports 15 billion trees could be planted on agricultural lands through silvopastoral systems and cropland agroforestry production in the United States. Yet, there are major research gaps about how such projects would be implemented while supporting agricultural yield and maximizing carbon sequestration and storage.
Currently, the feasibility of tree planting initiatives is the subject of academic and political debate. However, even though the responsibility to implement agroforestry systems would fall to agricultural practitioners, their perspectives and expertise are missing from the national conversation. If international programs, such as the Trillion Trees Initiative or COVID-19 economic stimulus packages specific to tree planting/climate resilience, are to be successful, the myriad of barriers to adoption needs to be explored in various regions in the United States.
Our project seeks to bolster natural climate solutions policy that promotes agroforestry integration with the perspectives and insight of practitioners across the Northeast region of the United States. Our research will explore the relationship between large-scale tree planting initiatives and agroforestry, the gaps between policymakers and practitioners, and the types of policies that would be necessary to ensure the successful integration of tree planting at-scale in the Northeast.
Soil health is defined as “the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans” (USDA NRCS). In the United States, we lose approximately 996 million metric tons of soil to erosion and 4.4 billion pounds of nutrients degradation on agricultural lands every single year. Regenerative agriculture promotes the improvement of natural resources through agricultural principles and practices, many of which increase soil health. Healthy soils hold nutrients and soil moisture, promote nutrient cycling, support ecosystem biodiversity, and sequester carbon. These benefits are important to a diverse coalition of stakeholders, including agricultural producers, conservation organizations, water managers, and climate organizations.
The creation of strong healthy soil and regenerative agriculture legislation across the country supports the on-the-ground work of farmers and practitioners and enables adoption and implementation of regenerative practices that are better for soil health than conventional agricultural practices. Several states already have or are in the process of creating policies to support and advance soil health management practices, including California, New Mexico, and Colorado. Coalitions in other states, such as Nebraska, Montana, and Kansas, are interested in building on the work of successful collaboratives. Our project team will conduct interviews with a variety of experts in coalition-building, soil health, funding, stakeholder engagement and more to explore best practices for creating community-driven soil health policy or programs at the state. These findings will be compiled into a practical guidebook outlining the potential pathways and resources available to the broad range of stakeholders interested in soil health.
In November 2021, this research culminated in the release of the guidebook Soil Health Policy: Developing Community-Driven State Soil Health Policy and Programs. This new resource provides practical advice for developing community-driven, state-level soil health policy and programs.
This year, the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (RAI) conducted a landscape analysis of ongoing efforts to accelerate regenerative markets in the United States. Informed by interviews with more than 60 leaders in the field, including farmers, investors, food companies, nonprofits, and regulators, the team uncovered four main barriers to the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture: insufficient farmer training programs, the cost of farmland, nascent markets for regenerative products, and the current crop insurance system. A year-long process of research and analysis has yielded a four-part article series to address each key barrier.
A special thank you to Steve Wood of The Nature Conservancy and David LeZaks of The Croatan Institute for advising on this project.
In addition, we would like to acknowledge all of the stakeholders who took the time to be interviewed for this project: Esther Park at Cienega Capital, Benneth Phelps and Jacob Israelow of Dirt Capital, Alex Mackay of Iroquois Valley, Phil Taylor of Mad Agriculture, Betsy Taylor of Breakthrough Strategies, Jeff Goodwin of the Noble Research Institute, Meaghan McGrath of Plenty, Tina Owens of Danone, Erin Eisenberg of Funders for Regenerative Agriculture, Debbie Reed of Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, Chelsea Carey of California Healthy Soils Initiative, Jen Werbitsky of Armonia, Chris Larson and Spenser Shadle of New Island Capital, Emily Oldfield of Yale, Jacob Holzberg-Pill and Grace Oedel of Dig In Farm, Dominck Grant BioCarbon, Jen Molnar of The Nature Conservancy, Andrew Rose and Kathi Levin of MidAtlantic Farm Credit, Anna Johnson of The Center for Rural Affairs, Deborah Atwood of Meridian Institute, Holly Rippon-Butler of National Young Farmers Coalition, Paul McMahon of SLM Partners, Mike Sesko of Frontier Farmland, Steele Lorenz of Farmers Business Network, Luke Smith of Terra Genesis, Emma Fuller of Granular, Kellee James of Mercaris, Christopher Jospe of Nori, LaKisha Odom of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture, Tom Hockenberry and Steven Rosenzweig of General Mills, Keri Hayes and Sarah Levesque of the Regenerative Food Systems Investment Forum, Caitlin Colegrove of Target, Gabe Brown of Understanding Agriculture, Pete Nelson of AgLaunch, Sarah Carlson and Sally Worley of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Kelly Bryan of Village Capital, Linsday White formerly of the USDA-NRCS, Lauren Ashbrook of Indigo Agriculture, Kristine Lang and Carl Rosier of Rodale Institute, Mary McCarthy of Forum for the Future, Tim LaSalle and Cindy Daley of Chico State, Liliana of Tin Shed Ventures, Alex Cordova of the USDA, Matt Zieger of Village Capital, and Sara Eckhouse of FoodShot, Eric Jackson of Pipeline, and Dan Kane of Yale.