How Key Lessons for Regenerative Farmers Can Be Applied to the Regenerative Food System Funder

Peer-to-peer learning and technical expertise are two keys to increasing farmer adoption of regenerative agriculture, which makes events like last week’s Regen Rev all the more valuable. The third-year online event, which I had the privilege of hosting again this year, is produced by Advancing Ecological Agriculture (AEA), Kind Harvest, and Tainio Biologicals, and is designed to help farmers and others from around the world on their journey into regenerative agriculture and toward a regenerative mindset. But while geared toward producers, I found the underlying themes that came out of this event, to be relevant to stakeholders across the system.

The programming included an opening keynote from John Kempf, a deep dive into soil biology by Dennis Warnecke and Steve Becker of Tainio Biologicals, and a look at the new regenerative paradigm from David Knaus of Apical Crop Science, as well presentations from growers Rick Clark and Kyle Rasch and others – including one from me on regenerative agriculture market drivers. Together our presentations painted a picture of the opportunity that regenerative agriculture presents, some of the foundational principles that can make it work on-farm, and some of the gaps that still exist in building the system. But some of the biggest farmer take-aways from the event, I found can also be applied to the way we approach funding and investing in the space.

Four key lessons from the gathering are:

  • the need for a more robust definition of regenerative
  • the depth of paradigm shift that will be required
  • the importance of learning and doing, and
  • the power of collaboration and connection beyond traditional communities

Let’s take a look at each of these and consider how they apply to both producers seeking to adopt regeneration and the funders and investors seeking to invest in the space.

The need for a more robust definition of regenerative

John Kempf opened the program with a challenge for the audience, “Whatever we want the regenerative market to look like, we will need to define it in the next 12-18 months,” or others will for us. He went on to argue that by defining regenerative by the six principles of soil health is too narrow, that regenerative agriculture should also be about human health, stewardship capacity, and regenerative supply chains. These three themes came up over and over again throughout the program. The human health connection came up when Dennis and Steve described the relationship between healthy soil and healthy humans; David Miller of AEA explained his experience as an educator seeing how food quality determined children’s ability to learn; and I outlined the societal costs of a health system built around conventional agriculture. Stewardship capacity, was an underlying theme of several presentations and Apple farmer Kyle repeatedly emphasized the importance of farmers including regeneration of self in their regenerative agriculture journey. And we repeatedly highlighted the critical need for markets and supply chains that are designed to maintain the integrity (and value) of regenerative products.

 “Whatever we want the regenerative market to look like, we will need to define it in the next 12-18 months” or others will for us. -John Kempf

The call for a more robust definition of regenerative agriculture and the supporting arguments from all speakers at the event calls to attention the complexity of building regenerative food systems and the diverse opportunities that capital coming into the system can address. Yes, regenerative agriculture should be defined by soil health principles and practices – and there are many ways funders can invest in this, including biological inputs that can ease farmers’ transition away from chemical inputs, technology to better understand and manage soil health, land that can be transitioned, and working capital to help farmers adopt new crops and practices, to name a few. But regenerative agriculture is more than this and so is investment into it. For example, it can also mean investment into:

  • research to better understand nutrient density in food and the role of on-farm practices in determining this
  • bringing nutrient dense foods to market through regenerative brands
  • processing infrastructure for regenerative grains and livestock, and
  • technology to connect regenerative farmers directly to consumers and other end-users

Only with a holistic definition of what regenerative agriculture is, can we appropriately approach building and funding the entire system.

Dramatic paradigm shift will be required

In his presentation, David Knaus, founder and president of Apical Crop Science laid out the challenges of the current agricultural paradigm and the agronomic steps to building a new one. David described a current agricultural paradigm that centers around traditional soil management, NPK, crop plans designed around commercial interests, and bare ground that leads to erosion, leaching and waterway issues, among other things. He also explained what was missing from this paradigm, including farmers’ long-term well-being, consumer well-being, environmental stewardship, an exit strategy to get off the treadmill of applying costly inputs and profits and nutrition, and what he called true soil health.

As I listened to a very well-structured outline of the transition from one paradigm to a new one, I reflected on the simultaneous paradigm shift needed in the agricultural finance and investment space. The current paradigm centers around maximizing returns, reducing risk for the investor/financer, incentivizing convention, and measuring monetary returns only. What is missing from this current paradigm is farmers’ and other entrepreneurs’ long-term well-being, consumer well-being, risk-sharing, accounting for non-monetary returns, and patience.

As farmers are wrestling with their own paradigm shift, those in the agriculture finance and investment space must also jump into the ring and fight a shift of their own. The risks associated with not shifting both paradigms are mutually applicable: declining soil health, crop productivity, and on-farm profits, as well as the increasing systemic costs of declining environmental, climate, and human health. In short, there are massive systemic benefits that can come from a new agricultural paradigm supported by a new agricultural financial paradigm.

The importance of learning and doing

The experience and expertise necessary to take on new regenerative systems can seem daunting. Even if the why is there and well understood, the heavy lift of learning and applying new practices can seem too much given all the other responsibilities most farmers must already bear. But the advice from presenters at Regen Rev? Just do it.

A suggested first step toward this came from David Miller of AEA, “Evaluate what you are doing currently that is most hurtful to the system and take deliberate steps to reduce or eliminate it.”

Dennis and Steve of Tainio Bio made it even simpler, “Learn what you can and apply it to your operation.”

“Evaluate what you are doing currently that is most hurtful to the system and take deliberate steps to reduce or eliminate it.” – David Miller

An approach we’ve heard repeatedly over the past few years from farmers who transitioned but weren’t ready or able to do it all at once: take a small plot of land and try it. See how a new practice or a new crop does, learn from that, then try again, maybe this time on more land.

Just as learning new production practices can seem arduous, so too can learning new investment landscapes – like regenerative agriculture. Objections to investing in regenerative agriculture can often sound like this: the space is too nascent, we need more data, we are waiting for deal sizes to get bigger.  Yet, I can’t help but think – the above pieces of advice to farmers could just as easily be offered to those hesitant to finance or invest in regenerative agriculture and food projects. If converting entire portfolios seems too dramatic, then take a small amount of capital and do some pilot investments, learn from these, and grow your impact and returns from there. 

The power of collaboration and connection beyond traditional communities

A resounding theme from all the Regen Rev speakers was the importance of connection and collaboration. Dennis and Steve encouraged farmers to utilize the people out there to learn. Farmer Kyle advised that farmers collaborate with others on their journey, and Ryan Slabaugh of Think Regeneration reminded the audience that the regenerative agriculture community is second to none in supporting each other along the way.

My departing words for our Regen Rev attendees – the advice I would offer as they begin or take the next step in their regenerative journey – is to not just collaborate with those closest to you but be open to connect with those outside your existing community. There is an entire ecosystem being built to support the development of and fund the transition to regenerative – people from far beyond the farm – and each one could open new doors of opportunity. Specifically, I encouraged farmers to trust that there are and there will be more and more people and organizations from the financial sector open to learning and supporting a whole collection of positive systemic outcomes from regenerative agriculture.

Of course, this advice holds true for those in the agriculture investment and finance space, as well. Look outside the traditional suite of stakeholders you typically work with. Instead build connections and learn with others across the regenerative agriculture ecosystem who can inform successful activation of capital for the expansion of a regenerative food system.

…And always, always remember to talk to a farmer.

Sarah Day Levesque is Managing Director at RFSI & Editor of RFSI News. She can be reached here.