Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Building Regenerative Agriculture Policy from the Ground Up

by Sheryl Karas M.A., CRARS staff

Farmer on a laptop Zoom call

On March 26, 2020, Ellen Lee, Water Program Coordinator for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)(opens in new window), gave an inspiring breakout presentation at Chico State’s This Way to Sustainability Conference(opens in new window). NRDC is a nonprofit working to ensure a sustainable planet using data and science to identify the root causes of the problems, create transformative solutions, and advocate for national and international laws and policies. For example, even though regenerative agriculture is seen as a significant potential solution for addressing climate change and food security, there are significant barriers to the adoption of these practices such as the need for financial investment and perceived risk. Ellen used her presentation to show the power of collaboration and creative thinking to address these barriers and talked about several exciting projects that are already starting to be effective.

Incentivizing Cover Crops Through State-based Crop Insurance Programs

Ellen Lee explained to her audience how keeping living roots in the ground and the soil covered helps to nurture healthy soil. It increases water retention, reduces runoff, and helps sequester carbon from the atmosphere in the ground. Unfortunately, leaving the ground bare between seasons has become the norm so NRDC has been working on best ways to encourage ranchers and farmers to adopt more soil-healthy practices. Unfortunately, there are currently significant barriers to doing that on the federal level with the Risk Management Agency (RMA) so they shifted their focus to state-based incentive programs.

One of the first steps was to forge relationships with other organizations with a stake in the outcome. This included creating partnerships in Iowa with Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Iowa Farmers Union. As a result this state became the first in the nation to create a Cover Crop—Crop Insurance Demonstration Pilot Project. Farmers who participate and plant cover crops are eligible for a $5 per acre reduction on their crop insurance premium. So far 1200 farmers have applied to this program and have planted 300,000 acres of cover crops even though the project is just in its third year. All the data collected from this project can also be used to qualify for the federal RMA program i the future.

NRDC also had some success doing something similar in Illinois by collaborating with the American Farmland Trust and other local Illinois groups to help create the Illinois Cover Crop Premium Discount Program for farms with up to fifty thousand acres of cover crops. Because the average farm size in Illinois is around 300 acres, they expect a considerable number of farmers will be able to participate. NRDC is currently working to increase funding for this program and to launch a similar one in Wisconsin.

Soil Health Demonstration Trial

Another area of work has been to advocate for a soil health demonstration trial in the last federal farm bill. This was, again, a collaborative effort, this time with the organization Environmental Entrepreneurs and Senator Ron Wyden, member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. This program is part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)(opens in new window) through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address natural resource concerns. In particular, they provide block grants to organizations that distribute the funds to farmers and ranchers to implement soil building practices. Those producers are required to track and measure the soil health results of these various practices throughout their grant period. This also allows them to track soil carbon so they can participate in carbon markets (another financial benefit for them). The USDA is funding up to $25 million per year for five years for this trial and is now in a second round of proposals. 

Regenerative Agriculture Policy Analysis Project

The goal of this project is to analyze more barriers and opportunities for scaling up and promoting adoption of regenerative agriculture practices in as widespread a manner as possible. Their intention is to build a portfolio of policies NRDC can advocate for to make it easier for farmers and ranchers to take up the cause. Integral to this effort is amplifying the voices of regenerative farmers who already have seen success.

In her presentation, Lee talked of regenerative agriculture as a movement of farmers and ranchers who look at their land holistically and treat their soil, water, crops, animals and, frequently, staff as one system. NRDC recognizes seven regenerative principles they wish to promote. These are 1) relationships—recognizing the interconnection of choices growers make with the land, overall environment and communities they live in, 2) minimal soil disturbance that prioritizes soil biology, 3) soil armor—protecting the soil with cover crops and crop residue, 4) keeping living roots in the soil to foster microbe and plant interrelationships, 5) encouraging and protecting biodiversity, 6) integrating animals, and 7) embracing creativity and innovation. They have also developed a list of specific regenerative practices that support some or all of these seven goals.

The NRDC team started with a literature review so they could determine the kinds of questions to use in interviewing regenerative farmers and ranchers about their experiences. The idea was to use their real-world experience and feedback to draft policy reforms that would benefit them. They also want to prioritize the small and medium size independent growers so often left out of policy decisions. The interviews included questions about their farming history and what inspired them to move towards a regenerative farming model, the technical challenges they have faced and other barriers to success they have had to overcome or still face, what resources they wished they had, marketing and supply chain issues, other financial challenges, cultural challenges from the greater community, and what kind of support they have had or could use from within the regenerative farming community.

So far the team has done over 100 interviews from about 43 states and would like to have representation in all 50 states. The next steps are to transcribe the interviews and tabulate the data they received, looking for repeated themes that could identify key areas for policy solutions to address common challenges. Some of the areas they have identified so far include lack of local infrastructure, lack of consumer awareness, current government policies and a general farmer culture that tends to reward the status quo, inadequate access to the current markets, pricing issues, a great number of financial challenges and worries about risk, and challenges in obtaining bank loans. Eventually, NRDC will be looking at criteria related to determining what they can tackle most effectively and how.

Keys to Taking the Work Forward and How to Participate In Similar Collaborative Efforts

This has been a very ambitious set of projects for NRDC. What they have learned so far that they would like to relay to others is how important sticking to their values, and sticking to the process, has been. Lee emphasized that they had to learn to not be driven or rushed by deadlines and the need for outputs and deliverables. Making sure they have a robust analysis they can ensure is accurate is essential for what they want to accomplish. And none of what they’ve done or hope to do could be done without collaboration. For them “collaboration is key.” It builds trust and it builds respect. Farmers and ranchers are not just producers. Ellen says that through their work they’ve learned that “they're climatologists, they are engineers, they're nutritionists, they're scientists, they grow our food, and they also build our communities.” It’s also important that consumers be educated and vote with their dollars because nothing will happen if there isn’t understanding of the importance of what regenerative farmers do and, therefore, a perceived need and market for what they produce.

If you would like to participate in discussions and action plans to support the flourishing of regenerative farming, you are invited to join the Regenerative Agriculture Network (RAN) Web Forum(opens in new window) through our website at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at Chico State. This is a centralized location for interacting with other members of our community, including farmers, scientists, consultants, agency personnel, foundations, brands, and community activists. It will also be a place to find and share information in regards to upcoming events, ongoing research, project development, peer reviews, etc. 

Learn more about NRDC and support their work.(opens in new window)