The transition to regenerative agriculture practices can present a lot of barriers* but perhaps one of the most complex to address is the necessary shift in producer mindset that allows for the openness to and adoption of new practices. In other words, the idea that changing away from the predominant paradigm and mindset – in this case a conventional way of farming that has been with us for decades – is difficult. Last week at the Farm & Food Symposium, a producer-focused event in Spokane, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from large scale growers from across the region who have already made it over the mindset shift hump. They and others shared some of the small and large ways they are already changing the way they approach production. But it got me thinking about the mindset and paradigm shifts that need to happen in other parts of the system to allow for regeneration at scale, and more specifically about those that are needed at the funder and investor level.
Shifting our thinking and approach to production
During the two-day event we heard from diverse voices including large-scale growers and ranchers who have already adopted some no-till and regenerative practices, soil and plant health experts, processors, food companies, and others, including yours truly – who spoke about capital opportunities for growers. As we progressed through the programming, a common theme emerged. Almost regardless of who presented, there was mention of a change in thinking… a shift in the way we have historically thought about or addressed the way we produce food. Here are a few examples of the changing way producers are thinking about farming differently:
We heard from Brent Uhlorn who farms 4,000 acres of cropland in the Camas Prairie in Idaho. At Uhlorn Family Farms they rotate winter canola, winter wheat, and legumes and within this grow sunflower and oats. They have been using regenerative practices for 6-7 years which has allowed them to reduce fertilizer use, cut herbicide use, and eliminate seed treatments, among other things. For their operation, the experimentation with transition was embraced by the team but even an openness to change can still require a shift in how one thinks about and does things. Brent addressed this when he was asked about weeds. The questions was: Are you going to be able to handle (mentally and financially) the weeds that come when you reduce chemical inputs?
He responded with an explanation of how his outlook on weeds has changed: “We no longer look at weeds as problem to get rid of but as what it is that they are telling us?” The majority of farmers today have been trained to keep fields clean of weeds but in reality weeds can serve as a clue to what is going on in your soil. So when weeds appear, Brent and his team consider the specific weed type and what its appearance can tell them about what is going on in their soil. Then they can make soil management decisions based on that.
David Knaus, founder and president of Apical Crop Science – a soil and plant sap testing company – also dug into the idea of re-thinking how we farm, specifically how we nourish our crops. Generally, his work focuses on shifting producers away from the habit of pouring high amounts of fertilizer on crops in an attempt to ensure plants get enough nutrients and to looking at how nutrients interact with each other and what that can mean for nutrient availability. The shift in thinking being a more nuanced approach to managing nutrient relationships that in turn enable better soil and plant nutrition, and often lower input use. (For a snapshot of what he shared, check out this post I shared last week.)
Keith Nantz of Nexus Beef shared about his vertically integrated operation but what caught my attention was a comment he made around a discussion on cover crop termination. He suggested, “Think of cattle as a tool. They will harvest a crop but they are an appreciating tool.” This might not be a solution for every operation but it demonstrates the against-convention way of thinking necessary to create successful regenerative operations.
Keynote speaker and regenerative organic no-till pioneer, Rick Clark of Farm Green, shared perhaps the most important shift in thinking needed when taking on any new project, “There is no such thing as failure – only outcomes we did not expect.” Every experimentation with a new practice or a new product is an opportunity to learn – embracing it as such can make outcomes (no matter what they are) more manageable.
Of course, there are numerous other ways producers adopting regenerative practices and principles are shifting their thinking – from views on yield to crop diversity to farm economics – these all demonstrate the complexity involved in transitioning operations and approaches.
Shifting mentality across the system
Producers are often the focus of attention when we think about the mindset shift that is necessary to move away from an extractive agricultural system. As I listened to the very innovative producers at last week’s event, I started to wonder if we aren’t forgetting that producers are not the only ones that will have to approach things differently. As we seek to change the way crops are grown, we need to also think about what else needs to change… the way we process, the infrastructure needed, the way we market to consumers, and, yes, the way we finance and fund transition. All of this will require multiple stakeholders across the system to shift the way they think about and approach the work they do.
When it comes specifically to making capital investments into regenerative agriculture and food systems, some of these major shifts may include:
- From extractive investments to regenerative… or from returns driven to holistic outcomes driven
- From producer-owned risk to greater shared risk or de-risking by capital providers
- From competitive capital to collaborative capital
What other major or minor changes in the way we approach investing are necessary to successfully fund regenerative agriculture and food systems? Let us know by emailing us here.
*For a complete list of barriers faced by farmers and ranchers, please read on this see this report from Guidelight strategies.
Sarah Day Levesque is Managing Director at RFSI & Editor of RFSI News. She can be reached here.