Regenerative agriculture isn’t technically sustainable.

April 4, 2019

It’s not intended to be. And that’s a good thing.

With regenerative agriculture, the goal is not to sustain resources. The goal is to do much more – regenerate land by improving soil health, specifically through practices that restore carbon. Healthy soil equals healthy plants, reduced water run-off, restored biodiversity, and increased yields. That’s just to name a few.

natural products expo west farming

Regenerative agriculture includes a range of practices, evolving as I write (and you read) this.

  • When soil is tilled, it is exposed to air and carbon is released. No-till is the practice of growing crops from season to season without tilling the soil. Leftovers from the previous crop break down naturally, providing protection and nutrients to the current crop.
  • A cover crop is planted to protect the soil and avoid erosion. Farmers often plant a variety of cover crops; each provides a different nutrient or benefit, like pushing out weeds, for example.
  • Cover crops often aren’t the “cash crop,” or the crop a farmer planted with the intention to sell. But, like cover crops, the practice of crop rotation of cash crops provides nutrients back into the soil. By rotating (sometimes up to seven or eight different) crops, a range of nutrients, including nitrogen, is replaced in the soil.
  • Farmers who practice regenerative agriculture use minimal synthetic fertilizers. Instead, compost and manure increase the fertility of the soil.
  • Diversity is a repeating theme of regenerative agriculture. Farmers use agroforestry, which is the intermingling of trees together with crops to increase the carbon in, and the productivity of, land. Trees are integrated into raising livestock through silvopasture, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.
  • Grasslands in our country evolved with herds of grazing animals. Holistically managed grazing mimics the migratory movement of these herds. There are a few techniques used, but the goal is to find the sweet spot of time animals graze on a pasture with how long the pasture “rests” before animals graze on it again.

Why Food Makers and Marketers Should Care…
If you are in the business of food – raising or growing food, manufacturing food, selling or serving food – you need to care about soil. Which means you need to care about regenerative agriculture. Good thing there are a slew of opportunities to lean into healthy soil initiatives. And a slew of benefits. Doesn’t matter your size or scale, if you are niche mission-based or a global company serving “the masses.”

Regenerative agriculture can help meet impact goals tied to your supply chain. Many companies have ambitious emission reduction goals related to water use (healthier soil holds water; less water runs off with irrigation). With regenerative agriculture, your supply chain becomes the way you not only make progress against your goals but also do good by improving the land that makes your business possible to begin with.

From higher yields, lower input costs and reduced risk from an increasingly resilient operation, regenerative agriculture can improve profitability. But, it does take some time. And, there are investments needed upfront to switch to or increase the breadth of regenerative practices.

The best regenerative agriculture approach for any given supply chain requires testing and one-to-one engagement with suppliers. Practices that have a positive impact in the Southwest might not have as big of an impact in the Northeast. This is because not only does soil type vary by region, but different crops respond differently to different practices. But there are many organizations there to help. For example, the Soil Health Institute identifies gaps in, and conducts research with, farmer participants with the goal of results sharing and adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.

To help encourage suppliers, financial incentives can be impactful, as well as partnerships with NGOs or other industry collaboratives. The recently signed 2018 Farm Bill includes on-the-ground conservation programs funded at $25 million per year. And, soil health is now a part of the description for these programs, suggesting there will be more opportunities for public-private partnerships.

Regenerative agriculture can help you meet consumer demand for products that do good and, while it is a message point to help them feel confident about the food choices they make, it is more than that. It’s an investment in the future of your business. By investing in soil, you are helping to ensure you can meet consumer demand for years to come.

My job at Ketchum is to help brands, companies and organizations share their regenerative agriculture efforts in an authentic way. We offer everything from narrative workshops to define your story so it will break through, to counsel on the right influencers to work with as a vehicle to broaden your reach. We are trained to help you develop annual reports against the GRI framework (recognized as an industry standard), or help you determine the best approach for reporting if you are getting started.

Paige Graham, Vice President, Food Agriculture & Ingredient
email: paige.graham@ketchum.com

Paige’s passion lies at the intersection of all things food production and environmental sustainability. She has over eight years of experience translating supply chain and environmental sustainability issues for consumers and media. In the CPG and retail world, she helps clients establish food and environmental policies, from antibiotics and animal welfare to waste and emission reduction. Her corporate communications experience has focused on placing client narratives in existing influential venues and events, as well as creating bespoke moments for influencers, consumers, media and the NGO community to experience a client’s story.