Consumers have latched on to a new-to-them concept that puts soil health front and centre — regenerative agriculture.
“For farmers, (regenerative agriculture) is nothing new, but now we’re starting to see consumers use the term,” said Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing in Toronto.
“When we look at it, we see it potentially becoming the next generation of organic for consumers.”
It’s the next stage of an evolution largely driven by a shift — that started in the ’80s with organic — toward more values-based purchasing, said McArthur.
“It could become shorthand for a lot of things that consumers care about,” she said. “Right now, we’re starting to see a lot of labels on the front of products — certified humane, organic, non-GMO, food justice certified.
“We’re seeing all these different labels come up, and regenerative agriculture is sort of an umbrella label that covers all those different things.”
The term, in consumers’ minds, is still rather nebulous, but they’ve been influenced by wildly popular documentaries such as “Kiss the Ground” and “The Biggest Little Farm,” which “make soil the hero” and link soil health to both climate change and nutritious food.
“It’s definitely becoming part of the consumer conversation,” said McArthur, whose agency named regenerative ag as a top trend to watch this year. “We’ve even started to see it mainstream into consumer packaged goods — General Mills has actually added regenerative agriculture as part of its mission statement.”
The pandemic has also played a role, focusing attention on issues such as food security and sustainability.
“Most consumers have never been on a working farm, and farmers tend to be good with that — ‘you stay in your lane, we’ll stay in ours,’” said McArthur. “But during COVID, that curtain fell, and consumers started looking at how their food actually gets to the shelves… Consumers want to understand where their food comes from.”
But it’s not just the general public jumping on board.
“We’ve really seen in the last few years there have been more and more farmers including regenerative agriculture in their practices,” said Gabrielle Bastien, founder and co-director of a four-year-old non-profit called Regeneration Canada.
“We’ve felt the momentum in terms of awareness and enthusiasm, especially in the last two years.”
There’s no data on how many farmers are using regenerative ag practices, and some of them are hardly new.
A 35-year journey
For father-and-daughter duo John and Tanis Cross, though, regenerative agriculture is less about appealing to changing consumer demands than it is about building healthy soil for the future of the 135-year-old A7 Ranche near Nanton.
“We’re a grass operation — not a cattle operation,” said Tanis. “We’re focused on soil health and grass, and we use cattle as our harvesting tools.”
That approach started when John took over the ranch in 1986, moving away from his father’s “range science approach.” That included giving the land plenty of rest, but he found he had to tweak that strategy to address the shallow, horizontal root systems that came with it.
“Through some holistic management training, we’ve learned there’s more tools in the tool box than just rest — like timing, stock density, grazing periods, and recovery periods,” he said. “If we change that up by increasing the density and shortening the grazing period, the roots turn vertical and go deeper, and we get better water infiltration… When I took over the ranch in 1986, it had maybe a dozen fields and pastures. Now, we have 130 fields and 62 water sites.”
Recently, they shifted their entire herd to yearlings to improve their efficiency even further.
“We’ve found the productivity to be beneficial for our grass, cattle, and soil health,” said Tanis. “You can see the difference in the soil health.”
And as commercial cattle producers, that productivity is ultimately what they’re after.
“The cattle are worth 15 per cent of the total operation if you include the land. That’s sort of where you should spend your time — on the land that’s worth 85 per cent,” said John.
“The cattle are like combines. They’re just there to turn the grass that grows into a salable product. They’re part of the business, but they’re not the business. The business is how well the sun and rain fall on the land and what you convert that into.”
It’s a shift in thinking, but one that makes sense for the ongoing sustainability and success of their operation.
“This drives down costs and increases profit,” said John. “There’s investment to be made up front, which is not insignificant, but it provides a much more stable operation for the next generation to participate in.”
Work smarter, not harder
That’s one of the reasons Becky and John Doherty started Stonepost Farms, a regenerative farm near Wildwood, five years ago.
“For us, it’s important to have a healthy landscape,” said Becky Doherty. “What’s left for future generations is something we really need to start thinking about. We just wanted to do better and knew we could do better.”
The couple moved from an acreage to their new farm in 2016, but the land was badly overgrazed and “in pretty rough shape.” But having a diverse operation — including grass-fed beef; pasture-raised pork, chickens and turkeys; a market garden; and an apiary — is bringing the land back to life, she said.
“We started implementing these things and seeing the benefits of it. It kept snowballing from there. We now have nice, healthy soils with a really robust microbial life, which in turn produces really nutrient-dense, delicious food.”
For Doherty, regenerative agriculture is more than a buzzword.
“It’s kind of about working smarter, not harder,” she said. “We have 12 different enterprises that we run. We don’t want to be babysitting a whole lot of them. So for us, it comes down to reduced inputs on our end.”
That ‘do more with less’ philosophy seems to have resonated with their customers as well.
“The customers that we attract are ones that really have that ‘want to do better’ (attitude) and be sustainable,” she said. “They want their foods to be produced in natural ways, where we’re not using synthetics. They want these animals to be treated well and to essentially have a happy life. That’s what they like to see.”
And they really like to see it with their own two eyes, Doherty added.
“We allow people to come out and tour the farm to actually see what we’re doing, which is something they typically don’t get from the commercial side of things. We’ve got really loyal customers for that reason, and they’re willing to pay the little bit extra that it costs for us to be able to produce that product.”
Food system spotlight
For some consumers, price is always going to be No. 1, so commercial agriculture isn’t going anywhere. But these food trends highlight a growing number of consumers who are willing to pay more to shop their values, and farmers have a chance to capitalize on that.
“We all tend to stay in our little bubbles, but because that curtain is down now, I think there is going to be more of a spotlight on the food system,” said McArthur.
“Farmers deal with a lot longer lead times than anybody else in the food system, so it’s even more important for farmers to look ahead and see what some of the trends are so they can pivot to make sure they’re maximizing their profitability.”
But a key piece of that is making sure producers get paid, she added.
“For the trend to really take root, farmers need compensation for what they’re doing,” said McArthur. “If a farmer is sequestering carbon in the soil, they should see some kind of remuneration there.”
That’s starting to happen in a bigger way, with a growing carbon offset market and new governmental policies around compensating farmers for carbon sequestration in the United States. But farmers who want to make the transition from conventional to regenerative farming need more incentives and support.
“Regenerating the health of the soil is so foundational to the health of an agricultural system. It means building more resilience so that, in the end, the whole system is more profitable,” said Bastien of Regeneration Canada. “But currently there is a lack of support and incentives.”
For some farms, the transition requires a cultural shift as well.
“When farmers’ parents and grandparents have been implementing certain practices for generations, it’s hard sometimes to change these mentalities,” she said. “Sometimes these cultural factors play a really important role.”
While there isn’t any data on how many farmers are using regenerative ag practices, their numbers are growing, said Bastien.
Those who have got on board have a long-term vision for their land, she said.
“This is a way to sustain agricultural systems for generations after us — and even more than sustaining. It’s a way to improve the ecosystem,” she said.
“There’s something really beautiful in thinking that we could leave our agricultural land in a better state than the state we inherited it in.”