Corporations nudge farmers to help the environment

A corn field next to Jesse Hall's farmhouse near Arlington, S.D.
A corn field next to Jesse Hall's farmhouse near Arlington, S.D., in October 2018. Hall uses regenerative agriculture practices on his 630-acre corn and soybean operation. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic type of farming that aims to improve soil and watershed health, improve biodiversity and more.
Dan Koeck for MPR News 2018

Two of Minnesota’s biggest food companies are pushing the farmers they work with to grow crops in a way that is better for the environment.

Agriculture is the top source of pollution in America’s rivers and streams, and along with forestry, farming is responsible for 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. New goals from General Mills and Cargill aim to put a dent in those problems by transforming the way some 11 million acres of land are cultivated in the coming decade. But the Fortune 500 companies are letting individual farmers decide exactly how to achieve those goals.

“It’s about outcomes,” said Cargill’s global row crop sustainability director Ryan Sirolli. “How do you engage farmers at a large scale to adopt these underlying foundational principles related to soil health and do so in a way that makes sense for them?”

Cargill has set a goal of transitioning 10 million acres of farmland across the country to more environmentally friendly practices in 10 years. In one pilot project, the company is offering farmers money for making measurable improvements in water quality.

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General Mills is taking a similar approach as it works to bring better environmental practices to 1 million acres of farmland.

"I don't think we want to be in a situation where General Mills is telling a farmer how to farm," said Steve Rosenzweig, a soil scientist at the company. "We would consider a farm regenerative if it's improving certain outcomes,” including the quality of the soil, the water and the climate.

Encouraging farmers to change their practices is a way for the companies to meet their own greenhouse gas emission goals and appeal to consumers who value the environment. But while 11 million acres is a significant swath of real estate, it amounts to only 1 percent of the nearly 900 million acres of farmland in the U.S.

Jonathan Lundgren  holds a sample of soil on his farm
Jonathan Lundgren, director and CEO of Blue Dasher Farm, an Estelline, S.D., research and demonstration farm for regenerative agriculture, holds a sample of soil to show the positive effects of regenerative agriculture.
Dan Koeck for MPR News 2018

Still, the companies’ moves have the potential to expand the use of unconventional farming practices known as regenerative agriculture. The movement represents a fundamental change to the way mainstream farmers manage their fields.

Regenerative principles call for reducing or even eliminating such mainstays of farming as tilling the soil before sowing seeds. Other regenerative techniques include planting cover crops, so soil is never bare; expanding plant diversity; adding livestock to an operation; and reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals.

The system has benefits such as storing more climate-altering carbon in the soil, improving water quality by preventing runoff, and reducing the need for pesticides by increasing insect biodiversity. Research shows it can also make farms more profitable by reducing the cost of chemicals and fertilizer and spreading price risk among many crops instead of just corn and soybeans.

“It’s not just about carbon. It's not just a water benefit,” Sirolli said. “You get all of these different benefits that you stack together that benefit the community, that benefit the planet, while at the same time making sense for the farmer.”

Both companies are investing in research so they can better measure outcomes when farmers apply the regenerative principles.

Regenerative agriculture isn't new. It's been on the edges of ag for decades. In fact, scientists trace its principles back hundreds of years to Indigenous cultures. But for many conventional farmers, it’s a big change, and only a small fraction of them are doing it.

The Biden administration has indicated that it wants to make regenerative agriculture part of its response to climate change. That could mean significant financial incentives for farmers that would drive adoption much faster than even the efforts of large corporations.

Jonathan Lundgren, a scientist who runs a research foundation and regenerative farm in eastern South Dakota, says getting the full environmental benefit from those changes means setting some basic standards.

Jonathan Lundgren, Director/CEO of Blue Dasher Farm.
Jonathan Lundgren
Dan Koeck for MPR News 2018

“You can't be a successful farm by only adopting a couple of regenerative practices,” said Lundgren, who has studied the transition to regenerative agriculture on dozens of farms across the country. “It just doesn't work unless you adopt many elements of that system simultaneously.”

Without a clear definition, Lundgren worries that regenerative agriculture could become little more than a label that corporations and farmers could use for marketing while producing only modest environmental benefits.

"There's a real incentive behind being considered regenerative right now,” Lundgren said. “And that necessitates that we know what regenerative means.”

Lundgren views regenerative agriculture as a holistic set of practices, but other experts view it as more of a buffet, where farmers choose to adopt some reforms and not others.

Mark Muller, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, says the nascent movement needs to grow organically.

“I think all of us are on different journeys getting more regenerative,” Muller said. “Let's be creative. Let's have more ingenuity on the landscape, and figure out from that where to go forward.”

That’s the approach Cargill and General Mills have opted for.

“What we don't want to have happen is we put up artificial barriers that make it harder for farmers to get started,” said Cargill’s Sirolli.

The end goal, he said, is to encourage farmers to take that first step toward being more sustainable.