Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

The COVID Pandemic and Market Disruptions—What Role Can Regenerative Agriculture Play?

by  Sheryl Karas M.A., CRARS staff

family of sheep

The pandemic-related challenges of the past year have served the double-edged purpose of showing us where our economy is resilient and what vulnerabilities need to be addressed to come back from disaster and weather similar storms in the future. Keep in mind that “resilience” does not mean the ability to bounce back and do things exactly as they were done before. In the business world, there is a saying: “ adapt or die(opens in new window).” Ivey Business Journal author John S. McCallum even quotes Charles Darwin as a role model for what the business world needs in the 21st century: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

The same business journal(opens in new window) more recently posted an article stating that COVID-era business recovery can’t simply rely on traditional tools of crisis management now because in order to adapt to current circumstances a much more holistic strategy is required. And that is exactly what  Fibershed(opens in new window)  executive director Rebecca Burgess said at a recent Regenerative Agriculture Network (RAN) Zoom call event(opens in new window)  through CRARS called “The COVID Pandemic and Market Disruptions for Farmers and Ranchers—What Role Can Regenerative Agriculture Play?”  (It was also one of the key messages relayed at the  NCSE Drawdown 2021 Annual Conference(opens in new window) , held virtually January 5-9, 2021.) 

At the RAN event, Burgess described the devastating impact of the COVID pandemic on the clothing and textile industry, including every step from fiber-growing to manufacturing to retail sales. She said that the price of wool, for example, plummeted 43% just from April 2019 to April 2020 and may have declined even more since then. Some of the most high-quality wool production mills are in Italy near Milan and when the country went into lockdown, the mills stopped purchasing wool. Then the factories in China where the wool is washed, pin drafted, spun, knit and woven shut down. That meant they weren’t buying wool either. Finally, the retail stores in Europe and North American went into lockdown and suddenly there was no ability to market the products made from the wool already on hand, never mind buy more. The supply chain broke down every step of the way until the entire system collapsed. Some of this will, of course, bounce back, but many well-known, well-established companies have declared bankruptcy and others are teetering on the brink. Attempting to do things the same way, knowing that increased vulnerability to pandemics goes hand-in-hand with climate change, would be dangerous going forward, to say the least. 

The latest way of looking at regenerative agriculture is as a systems approach that recognizes the need for stacked practices that work synergistically as a whole. John E. Ikerd, author of the article “ The need for a systems approach to sustainable agriculture (PDF)” and the book “ Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense(opens in new window)”  describes this more holistic approach as one of philosophy rather than specific farming practices or methods. Instead of thinking of a farm as if it was a type of factory with fields, plants, and animals as production units separate from the ecology of the greater environment and local economies in which they reside, Ikerd emphasizes that sustainable agriculture relies on seeing the farm, environment, and society as a mega-organism made up of many complexly interrelated smaller organisms with distinct physical, biological and social limits. The quality of life and well-being of the system as a whole come from these intricate inter-relationships. The raison d'être behind factory farming is increased income and increased consumption and that puts the emphasis on centralization, efficiency, specialization, and mechanized agricultural production. The intent is to remove physical and biological constraints that might hold back increased production as much as possible. But in a holistic sustainable model, the emphasis is on diversification, integration, and synthesis. As Rebecca Burgess puts it, you want to get away from centralization and think more in terms of redundancy so the entire means of production from the farm to consumer is in local communities in multiple locations. If one community suffers a catastrophe, other communities can fill in instead of having an entire food or fiber supply chain completely break down as happened in 2020. 

This also addresses the deteriorating quality of life in rural communities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),   70% of the people in the United States worked on farms in 1840 (PNG).   Today, the USDA reports that  only 1.3% of U.S. population work on farms(opens in new window), and most family farmers need to make part of their income from non-farm sources. Many young people move away for that reason as there are fewer job opportunities outside of ranching and farming in most rural areas. The rate of poverty in rural areas has been higher than in urban areas for multiple decades. According to Brian Thiede, Assistant Professor of Rural Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University,  almost a third of the rural working poor live in extreme poverty(opens in new window), with family incomes of approximately $12,000 for a family of four.  The CDC reports that rates of drug overdoses(opens in new window) and suicide(opens in new window) in rural areas have surpassed those in urban communities as well. But when the means of production for the food and other agricultural products grown in a region remains in the community (or returns) the community can thrive or come back to life. Read about the success  White Oak Pastures(opens in new window) has had with this in Blufton, Georgia.

The idea of a “fibershed”, the name of Rebecca Burgess’s nonprofit, is that the fiber produced on farms for textile making (cotton, wool, flax, hemp, etc.) are processed, woven into textiles, and made into clothing or other products right in the same geographic region. This used to be the norm for both food and fiber production in the United States (and around the world), and it created economies that helped entire communities prosper before centralization and the choice to use poorly paid migrant labor or inexpensive labor in less developed countries tore that system apart. Now COVID has opened this wound anew, revealing the danger these choices have created not only for specific communities but for our nation as a whole. And that has provided urgency among U.S. fiber and food producers to figure out how best to shift their focus to local markets and how to bring the means of production and distribution back home. 

 The RAN event posed more questions than answers as the problems revealed by COVID are still quite new. The current focus is on gathering the players together to brainstorm and come up with solutions going forward. But the clarity gained through this crisis should serve us well. Regenerative agriculture can’t afford to position itself separately from the communities and people where the crops are grown any longer. It has appeared that farmers need to depend on bringing crops to market through the centralized production and distribution channels that currently exist. And certainly, farmers who have been transitioning from conventional to regenerative practices have had to base some of their choices on how to meet the demands of those mechanisms. But when those supply chains broke down, the most successful regenerative farmers pivoted locally by any means possible. Those who were able to either process their raw goods themselves or didn’t need to do so had the most success. Fiber producers, however, have found it extremely challenging to pivot as their goods typically require mills and sewers that are no longer easy to find in this country. Fibershed has started to address the problem by trying to help ranchers band together to market themselves as a unit as well as finding ways to mill their fiber and produce textiles at least on a pan-regional basis. 

The move to re-regionalization seems like a new development but it dovetails politically with answering the cries of the most unhappy people calling out for help in recent years—those that have condemned the practice of sending manufacturing jobs overseas and have clamored to bring those jobs back for decades. Jacqueline Klopp, the co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University was recently interviewed by NBC News(opens in new window) about how the pandemic at least temporarily reduced carbon emissions and pollution in urban areas, but she turned the conversation to economics. She said, “as we move to restart these economies, we need to use this moment to think about what we value,” she said. “Do we want to go back to the status quo, or do we want to tackle these big structural problems and restructure our economy and reduce emissions and pollution [at the same time]?”  

Rebecca Burgess described this as a need for “patient capital” investment. She spoke of a very small movement just starting to build of people who are willing to invest in their regional economies. An example might be a lending institution able and willing to use a much more long-term time scale than venture capitalists looking for a quick return on their investment. Writing this into legislation or building alliances with those promoting “ regenerative economies(opens in new window)” might also be fruitful.

The RAN event went into great detail about the issues facing ranchers and farmers post-COVID, how regenerative agriculture could support climate-beneficial fiber productions, and ideas for moving forward on a pan-regional re-development plan for the Pacific Northwest.   Watch a recording now.(opens in new window)