Regenerative agriculture has been gaining popularity in pockets of farming over the last several years, but now Cargill Inc., the world's largest agribusiness, is pushing the phenomenon.
The Minnetonka-based company on Wednesday said it will help convert 10 million acres of row crop farmland in North America over a decade to regenerative practices, which are designed to improve soil biodiversity and reduce erosion and runoff.
Cargill joins a growing list of U.S. corporations, including Golden Valley-based General Mills, that are backing regenerative agriculture as a solution to climate problems and depressed rural economies.
"When we invest in soil health we get what we call 'stack benefits' where we have the opportunity to reduce carbon, but also improve water quality or water-use efficiency, even other things like wildlife diversity," said Ryan Sirolli, Cargill's director of row crop sustainability. "We see this as being a long-term benefit economically for the producer, independent of any of the market incentives."
Regenerative agriculture is a different approach from the mainstream system that relies on intensive chemical use on farms. It is a long-term commitment to improving the land but one that puts greater risk on farmers, who often can't afford to suffer a failed planting season by experimenting with alternative methods of weed control and cover crops.
Cargill executives said they aim to help farmers lower that risk, a needed step if regenerative agriculture is ever to reach the scale to significantly improve the environment.
"We really believe the [regenerative] system itself really is an economic benefit to the farmer," Sirolli said. "So for us, it is about helping them get through those first few years where the risks are higher. So helping them get to that point where they reap the benefits. Anybody who goes into this has to be thinking about it long term."
Cargill has supported a number of regenerative agriculture pilot programs in the past few years, but Wednesday's announcement is the largest public commitment to the concept yet.
Even so, with 1.1 billion acres of cropland in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Cargill's goal is still relatively small. But the company estimates that converting 10 million acres to this farming method will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million tons, the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.
The initiative will focus primarily on row crop rotations including corn, wheat and soybeans in North America. Cargill said they will give whatever support farmers need, whether its knowledge, training or market-based incentives.
By enlisting the help of soil's natural biology — using cover crops, reducing chemicals that kill earthworms, minimizing disturbance by eliminating tillage and employing crop rotations — regenerative agriculture is believed to help take carbon out of the atmosphere.
Advocates of this farming system said it is one of those rare solutions to agriculture's impact on climate change that is win-win for everyone.
Al Klein has been growing corn and soybeans near Freeburg, Ill., for 40 years. He experimented with cover cropping — one of the pillars of a regenerative system — about 12 years ago, but failed to see the benefit.
"There's a learning curve on cover crops. It's not as simple as it looks," Klein said.
He continued to struggle with severe erosion on the 1,800 acres he farms. So about seven years ago, he gave cover crops another try. After switching up the type of clover he planted over winter, he was shocked to see what happened next.
"I never expected to have these results so fast. It's really exciting to have a shovel full of worms. That's what it is all about — the living stuff in your soil," Klein said. "All those worm holes are taking that water down into your soil rather than running across your field and into the streams. It's kind of exciting. I wasn't a big believer. It is a bit of a slow process. But I'm trying to do it just for soil health."
Successful cover cropping has also saved Klein $50 an acre in reduced nitrogen use.
There's plenty of skepticism in the farming community, a stigma and fear Klein and others have had to overcome.
"First of all you have to make money to stay in business," he said. "If you ask my wife, it has been the most stressful thing on me. When you try something new, people are watching to see if you fail. You've got landlords and bankers and you can't fail. It's just the opposite way of how I've farmed the last 40 years."
With about five years to go before he retires, Klein is thinking about his legacy. He's interested in some of the other principles of regenerative agriculture, like reduced tillage or eliminating pesticides and herbicides. But after losing a lot of money two years ago when he planted the wrong type of clover for his particular region, he doesn't want to figure it all out on his own.
"Now I am looking for knowledge. There aren't many people doing it in my part of the country. What works in Minneapolis will not work here," Klein said.
That's where Cargill comes in. By pooling resources, research and other farmers' experiences, Cargill hopes to connect all of the dots for farmers to advance the practice.
Klein has already eliminated the use of anhydrous ammonia and is hoping Cargill can help him get away from nitrogen entirely.
"It's my last hurrah to improve my land, to make it better for whoever gets it next. What's keeping me going is the cover crops, it's got me pumped up," Klein said. "Once I saw the erosion improve, the soil health improve and the weed control, I really jumped on the bandwagon. Because it is completely different from what I've done my whole life so it is kind of exciting."
This new regenerative agriculture commitment is intentionally open-ended because Cargill's direct relationship with the farmers means it is taking a more "farmer-led" approach.
"As farmers adopt a new method, we will look to model the actual carbon improvement and water improvement of that farmer," Sirolli said.
Cargill has many critics who said efforts such as its outreach in regenerative agriculture amount to a form of marketing called "greenwashing," or the appearance of environmental stewardship even as its profits from the growth of farming and practices that are sometimes harmful.
But as the largest company in the food-supply chain, Cargill is in a unique position to pull together various groups in any innovation in agriculture, said Jill Kolling, Cargill's vice president of global sustainability. For example, last month it helped launch a five-year soil health project in Nebraska with McDonald's, Target and the Nature Conservancy, an NGO active in advancing regenerative agriculture.
Steve Groff, a lifelong farmer and author of a new book "The Future-Proof Farm," said he is cautiously optimistic about Cargill's new commitment to a system he has been practicing for years.
"I am supportive of this, but cautious. Some farmers are skeptical because history in agriculture is that typically corporations do not have the farmers' best interest in mind. They offer you a carrot, then you take the carrot, but then there are all kinds of strings attached," Groff said. "But just the fact that these big boys are doing more than just placating, more than just talking about it, they're going to do something about this, that alone helps."
Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767