What Are the Largest Organic Produce Growers in America Thinking About Regenerative Agriculture?

RFSI’s Director of Business Development, Anthony Corsaro, shares what he learned about this question while at the recent Organic Produce Summit (OPS).

After over a year of thinking, “when are the large players in produce going to make a statement on regen?” I was excited to see an entire education session dedicated to regenerative agriculture at the recent Organic Produce Summit (OPS) in Monterey, CA. Large produce operators have lagged behind livestock, dairy, and row crop producers in terms of advocating for regenerative agriculture practices and defining the “playbook” that works for their production systems and commodities. At OPS, I got an update on how the industry is looking towards the regenerative future of food.

The session Regenerative Ag 101: Is Regenerative the “New” Organic?” was moderated by Shelby Layne, Director of Environmental Social Governance at Bolthouse Farms. The featured panelists were Eric Morgan, VP of Environmental Science and Resources at Braga Fresh Family Farms, T. Bruce Taylor, Vice President of Organic at Taylor Farms and Vernon Peterson, President and Founder, Abundant Harvest Organics.

Regenerative Agriculture Is Here to Stay

There was no debate on whether regen was going to be an integral part of operating for years to come. The group was in agreement that this trend is here to stay, spurred by increasing consumer demand for chemical-free, low-carbon products and by new regulatory pressures.

Shelby Layne opened the session with compelling statistics that have created the momentum behind regenerative curiosity:

T. Bruce Taylor emphasized that Taylor Farms just believes regenerative agriculture is the right thing to do, and their privately held status allows them more freedom to take risks and trial in this arena. He mentioned the lofty sustainability goals of their retail and foodservice customers, which mandate Taylor Farms to provide products with quantifiable sustainability metrics that meet those buyer goals while also satisfying the demands of a younger, more eco-conscious consumer. Taylor shared Nielsen data that “75% of Gen Z shoppers factor sustainability into the brands they purchase.”

Eric Morgan knows the regulatory environment is going to increase the need to adopt regenerative production methods, especially in California, where a majority of the fresh produce is grown in the United States. “With the current inputs that we use to grow conventional and organic crops, with the way things are going in the regulatory environment, things are going to be changing if you want to continue farming. On the conventional side, we are losing certain pesticides. We have four bumblebee species on the California endangered species list. They (the government) are not going to let us use pesticides in a manner that will have an impact on them (pollinators). I do think that regenerative practices are going to have applications to help us meet the regulatory environment in addition to sequestering carbon in the soil.”

For Vernon Peterson and his regenerative organic certified stone fruit operation, regenerative agriculture was a necessary performance enhancer. “We saw that where we had our highest soil organic matter, we had our best production, lowest pest pressure, best water retention, and highest orchard longevity. So we asked ourselves, how do we get more soil organic matter into our orchards?” The answer was what is now being called regenerative agriculture.

The Work Has Begun

Shelby Layne shared that Bolthouse Farms refers to regenerative as “Soil First Farming.” They want to emphasize that “this is not a charitable endeavor” by figuring out how to take these regenerative agriculture practices and incorporate them into their operation profitably. To do this, Bolthouse is trialing regen ag practices on both their conventional and organic fields.

Vernon Peterson discussed how they have implemented “green cover” on all their orchards, which has led to reduced water usage through higher water infiltration and retention. This is in contracts to a conventional mindset of thinking more vegetation would increase water needs for production. Peterson’s operation is focused on continuous improvement, saying, “We try to be better this year than we were last year. And we mess up a lot this year, but we won’t mess up that same way next year.” He also touted the value of certification saying, “We’re certified at the ROC gold level, and that’s a tool I can give to select retailers to not greenwash but to tell a real story that this stuff is the real deal.”

T. Bruce Taylor did not mention specific strategies or trials that Taylor Farms is employing in their regenerative efforts, but he stressed collaboration as necessary to advance regenerative. “If you look at all farmland today only, 1.7% of US farmland is certified organic. I don’t think that’s too lofty of a goal for regenerative. I think that’s an attainable goal, but to get there, we need to work together. You talk about the ‘organic movement.’ The keyword is ‘movement,’ that’s people and companies and industry and communities working together behind a common goal. This is not something that any company is gonna solve independently.”

Braga Fresh Family Farms is using $100,000 healthy soils grants to help transition conventional farmland to organic production with regenerative principles. They have assembled a technical advisory committee and are supporting efforts by Matthew Grieshop at Cal Poly to create a federal regenerative standard similar to existing frameworks like the NOP. Morgan is encouraged about the potential of regenerative agriculture, but he still sees large questions around scale and yields unanswered by their work to date. “I think our biggest challenge at this point is gonna be scaling and actually doing it right. I think of the harvested plantings that we’ve had. And there’s been six, I think we got a good yield on one.”

Morgan and company also emphasized the massive challenge and opportunity in solving for questions around tillage. How do they eliminate tillage or massively reduce it?

Solving For Tillage Is Key

There is a major debate in regenerative circles between conventional and organic growers that mainly centers around a binary argument: whether tillage or spraying chemicals is the better of two evils for production and soil health. The conventional side advocates that their minimal spraying accompanied by low or no-till production systems produce healthier soil. The organic side argues that spraying chemicals kills all soil biology and that cannot possibly produce healthier soil than production methods that may even require tillage. Regardless of where you stand on that argument, we know that tillage negatively affects soil health and releases soil carbon back into the atmosphere. Because of those facts, we know that large-scale produce growers will not scale regen production without solving for reducing or eliminating tillage.

When Morgan started to look at solving for tillage 10 years ago, one of his mentors told him there was nothing he could discover to change the way tillage is widely used. This challenge led to Morgan spearheading Braga’s first trials into regenerative. Solving for tillage is the key to unlocking the regenerative flood gates, with Morgan stating, “If we can sequester carbon in the soil, because we’re not right now, our tillage is moving it, even in organic systems, back to the atmosphere. We’re gonna open up carbon markets as an additional resource for growers and they need that additional resource and income. So we can reduce input costs, we can sequester carbon, we can take advantage of carbon markets, and meet regulatory burdens. But we just have to open our eyes a little bit, start looking around and cooperating.”

Morgan mentioned trials performed with goals of both eliminating and reducing tillage, with trial results now shifting their focus to significant tillage reduction (95%+) versus elimination. Crop rotations, especially the most important cash crops for their operation (spinach & spring mix), affect these decisions. As does direct seeding versus transplanting, where the latter is a much easier process to include than the former in a strategy that reduces tillage. All of these things and more are factored in along with the baseline need for the bed where crops are grown to end up flat, so it can be mechanically harvested.

The industry will need pioneering research and collaboration to achieve the significant reduction in tillage that would enable production at a meaningful scale. This seems to be the biggest hurdle for now, with the conversation last week not even including the topic of animal integration – which has some very tricky challenges in terms of food safety requirements for fresh produce production.

Is Regenerative The New Organic?

Peterson, the lone farmer of the group, certainly thinks the momentum is there. “Regenerative is gaining traction with everybody in soil-based agriculture.” He compared the rapid rise of “humanely-raised” practices and certifications to what we’re going to see from regen in the next decade. He also added, “If regenerative is the new organic, then organic has to be the new conventional.”

Taylor continued to look to parallels between the rise of organic and regenerative. “I think the organic movement had a ton of success, positioning organic as a solution for human health. I think regenerative has that same opportunity to build upon that success and position regenerative as a solution for environmental health.” He also cautioned about the transition to regenerative being a long process, which will only add requirements to brands and farmers. “We already ask a lot of our organic farmers today. There are a lot of competing demands about yield, quality, assured supply, and food safety. So the challenge just gets harder and harder because we’re not swapping one challenge for another here, we’re just layering on additional asks and that’s gonna be tough to scale.”

Morgan, who may have been the most bullish of all participants, sees regen as a necessary part of both organic and conventional production for future survival. “I think the practices and principles will be necessary in all markets if we’re going to be sustainable. Is it the new organic? Yeah, it’s the new organic. And its (regenerative) elements are going to be needed in conventional too – to survive”

Anthony Corsaro is Director of Business Development at RFSI. He can be reached via email here or on LinkedIn.