Regenerative Ag Transition Tips and Resources for Conventional Farmers
Transitioning from conventional farming techniques to regenerative agriculture seems easy on paper, in board meetings and movie screens. In the reality of farming life, it’s less so.
Economic, technical and cultural challenges have undoubtedly slowed regenerative agriculture adoption, and nobody knows how many farmers have or are working on transitioning to regenerative practices, partly because there is still debate about what regenerative agriculture is?
Robert Rodale defined regenerative agriculture in 1983 as…
One that, at increasing levels of productivity, increases our land and soil biological production base. It has a high level of built-in economic and biological stability. It has minimal to no environmental impact beyond the farm or field boundaries. It produces foodstuffs free from biocides. It provides for the productive contribution of increasingly large numbers of people during a transition to minimal reliance on non-renewable resources.
Some argue that U.S. regenerative farmers represent even less of the population than organic farmers, themselves
only 1% of the U.S. farming population.
Others would include no-till farmers as regenerative, farmers that eliminate or significantly reduce tillage, even though no-till farmers may (or may not) use chemicals in their practices.
No-till cropland represents 21% of all U.S. farmland.
Yet recent studies make a strong economic argument for regenerative agriculture.
Low-input, regenerative farming systems in corn production reduced yields by 29%, but returned
78% higher profits than conventional corn systems because of the savings in input costs.
And regenerative farms have proven themselves to be more resilient to climate shocks. Practices like cover cropping, conservation tillage, crop rotation and intensively managed grazing of livestock improve soil’s water-holding capacity, reduce soil erosion and increase moisture retention during drought.
So, what key strategies can conventional farmers deploy to move toward regeneration?
Each grower will regenerate in their own unique way and follow their own unique path.
Success isn’t measured by checking off a list of practices but through outcomes, things like increasing soil organic matter, a reduced need for pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer inputs, lowered soil erosion, improved water-holding capabilities, increased diversity of plant and wildlife biodiversity, and communal wealth and wellbeing.
Regeneration Mindset Take-Aways
Forgo yield as a measure of success; measure success through communal wealth and wellbeing
Embrace diversity of crops and systems.
Reconsider ALL components of your farm, including personal and family goals.
Explore how your farm interacts with your surrounding environment.
Embrace Your Farmer Independence (Aka, the Regeneration Mindset)
Many conventional farmers feel trapped by the system they are in. They are price-takers, not price-setters, with little to no control over fundamental aspects of their business. The way to spring that trap is to approach the problem from a new perspective.
A regenerative mindset takes a holistic approach to your farming systems. It looks at everything you do and questions, why?
• Does this crop or practice promote increasing vitality for my soil?
• My farm business?
• My well-being and health?
• Where do I want my farm and farm business to be in 5 years? 10? 50?
• Is the system I’m engaged in supporting the local economy, environment and
access to healthy food?
A regenerative mindset also understands that regeneration is a journey, not a destination.
The goal of regenerative agriculture is to create more ecologically sound farming practices and financially and personally more satisfied farmers. But, it is no secret that the benefits of moving from a conventional to a regenerative system can take time to see.
Gabe Brown, a well-known North Dakota regenerative rancher and farmer, says that
“Over 20 years of using regenerative principles his soil organic matter increased from 1.9 percent to 6.1 percent and his water infiltration rates increased from ½ inch per hour to eight inches per hour.
But there is no hard and fast rule on how long before a farmer will start to see improved soil health and the benefits that come with it. Some report significant improvements within a year; others say it took four years to see change. A survey of 746 farmers found that it took two years to see soil health benefits from a new practice of planting cover crops.
How fast your farm benefits from regeneration can depend upon the amount and types of system practices engaged in and changed as well as indigenous soil types and climate conditions that farmers have no control over. Financially weathering the time between the start of transition until the soil-health benefits kick in takes strategic thinking.
Start by measuring soil organic matter, topsoil, species diversity, water infiltration and watershed quality. A good baseline of the ecological health of your farm when you start will serve as proof points of the benefits not just for your knowledge but for potential new income streams or incentives.
Resources for testing and certifying your farm’s regenerative health
Haney Soil Test
An unique soil test that measures the quantity of soil nutrients available to feed soil microbes. For more information –
Healthy Farm Index
A tool for monitoring biodiversity and ecosystems services specific to the actions taken on a farm. For more information –
Regenerative Organic Certification
A certification process for organic certified growers that want to verify their regenerative processes. Managed by a non-profit alliance. For more information –
Regenerative Ag Certification
A privately-developed regenerative certification process to validate healthy soils producing healthy food. Offered by Soil Regen. For more information –
Seek out alternative markets that may pay you more for your crops and offer more secure partnerships or other benefits not found in traditional markets. Maybe that’s joining a direct market buyers group or contracting with a food company looking for conservation and regenerative farmers.
Consider signing a carbon contract. There are increasing opportunities in the carbon farming marketplace through public and private venues, especially for farmers with significant potential to increase their soil carbon levels. Also, alternative financing for regenerative farmers is growing as ESG investors see long-term financial benefits in regenerative practices.
Regenerative Ag Transition Financial Strategies
• Seek out alternative markets.
• Consider a carbon contract.
• Look for alternative financing.
• Take advantage of conservation programs and incentives.
Seek out Knowledge
One of the biggest barriers to regenerative transition is knowledge. Where do you start? What practices should you change? What equipment do you need? What regenerative practices would work best for your climate and farm?
Luckily, as the positive aspects of regenerative agriculture have caught on, there are many more regenerative ag resources for farmers to tap into, whether that’s federal programs like NRCS or the many universities, private consultants and non-profit organizations with regenerative ag emphasis.
But when it comes to making change, there’s no better teacher or inspiration than a fellow farmer! A farmer that has forged this path before you understands your challenges and concerns at a level no policy-maker, enthusiastic supporter or agency employee can match. If you can’t find a regenerative farmer locally to talk to, multiple social media groups have a vibrant regenerative ag support network. Some food companies are also supporting regenerative farming educational support programs.
Check out Farmer’s Footprint’s Meet a Farmer features including Gail Fuller, Rick Clark, and Adam Chappel to learn more about fellow farmer’s journey of transition and see our resources list below to seek our regenerative farmers and regenerative farm networks.
Strategies for Overcoming the Regenerative Ag Knowledge Barrier
• Tap into regenerative ag resources.
• Find mentors and network with fellow farmers in transition to regenerative.
• Ask if your buyers support regenerative ag education.
Regeneration Starts Where YOU Are!
Regenerative agriculture is a philosophy and way of being, and the act of regeneration is the journey. It is possible for every farmer or rancher, no matter where they are when they start or what type of farmer they have been (or would like to be).