By Joel McNair
Organic and grassfed production practices have done great things for thousands of farmers and ranchers. Millions of consumers have benefited, too.
But looking at this from a broader perspective — and I think most organic and grassfed people do look at things this way — there’s a big problem here:
Very few acres are being farmed and ranched as organic and/or grassfed.
The things we want to achieve in terms of bettering people and the planet aren’t getting done. Indeed, by most reports the overall picture here is getting darker by the day.
I can barely hazard a guess as to how many acres are being grazed under management systems that build soils and improve watersheds rather than damaging both. No doubt it’s far below 10% of total acres being grazed in this country.
As for organics, reality doesn’t match the consistent flow of press releases touting vast increases in acreage. According to USDA’s latest survey, just 5.5 million acres were in organic production three years ago, or well below 1% of total farmland acres in the U.S.
So, two decades since implementation of USDA’s organic program, organics is doing almost nothing for the landscape.
From an individual standpoint this might be fine, as fewer organic and grassfed acres means less competition for those of you who are making a living off those attributes.
Yet in broader terms of helping lots of farmers and saving the planet, the overall numbers amount to a near failure of what we’ve been doing for quite some time now.
We’re about to see whether Regenified can change the situation. Regenified is a company launched this past winter by a group of regenerative agriculture advocates, including Gabe Brown and Dr. Allen Williams. Gabe and Allen are also founders of the regenerative consulting firm Understanding Ag, although Allen says the two companies are completely separate.
In a nutshell, Regenified aims to vastly increase the amount of land being farmed and ranched under regenerative practices by linking verified producers with processors and marketers to forge supply chains that can channel food carrying the Regenified logo to a much broader base of consumers than are currently purchasing organic, grassfed and other value-added foods. Producers supplying these products would be paid an added-value price.
If you haven’t noticed, “regenerative” is the hottest term in non-conventional agriculture these days. And big companies have been noticing, with General Mills in particular wanting access to food commodities that can be promoted using the term. General Mills, which invested in a huge South Dakota spread a few years ago and has had some problems converting it to organic production, is not alone in this interest.
“Many of these companies have made public announcements that they will be ‘carbon neutral’ by a certain date, and they need a way to be legitimate,” Allen told me in a recent telephone conversation that also included Ben Katon, Regenified’s CEO. He said these firms are frustrated by the slow progress being made in converting acres to organic, and they are not happy with the costs involved in following organic practices.
Meanwhile, the companies are starting to see that farming practices that minimize tillage and enhance soils can sequester carbon without being certified as organic, thus offering hope of actually achieving their carbon-neutral pledges.
“We have been asked to do this for several years by multiple entities” including food companies, branded programs and farmers/ranchers, Allen said. “We turned (those requests) down for quite a while, but they kept coming and they kept intensifying.”
Eventually, he said his team saw an opportunity, citing what Allen described as the lack of a “truly comprehensive, practical, realistic verification program.”
He said a problem with USDA Organic is that it is not practical for many producers who need to scale their operations. “We’re not saying we’re better (than organic), but look at the reality,” Allen explained, noting the acreage numbers I’ve already described.
“That’s not enough acres. It hasn’t moved the needle. We need to look at other options.”
How it works on the farm
While the two companies are legally separate, Regenified’s verification is based on Understanding Ag’s “6-3-4” regenerative program. (Six principles, three rules and four processes. Allen has written about them extensively in Graze.)
At the farm level, the program includes five ranking tiers, starting with an initial evaluation, soil testing and completion of an accredited educational program.
The ensuing tiers represent progression up the regenerative ladder based on a variety of factors that include written management plans that are being followed, soil testing, monitoring of biological processes and regular evaluations to ensure progress, including a requirement that increasing percentages of the operation’s land base and feed inputs follow approved regenerative practices.
While it’s too much to include here, a good way to state this is that enrolled producers must implement and prove they are following the regenerative principles and practices that Allen has discussed at length in Graze. (Check out regenified.com for a more comprehensive summary.)
While saying that producers who are happy with their organic certification should certainly stay with it, Allen sees a few advantages for Regenified. “It offers farmers and ranchers a much more practical entry point,” he said. “The food companies and the farmers can progress together.”
Second, “We are correcting some of the weaknesses in the current NOP (National Organic Program) standards,” Allen asserted. “The original (NOP) intentions have gotten watered down a little bit.”
He noted that the organic certification system has its problems, including inexperienced certifiers, multiple certifying groups, and incentives for competing certifiers to approve producers who may not meet all organic requirements. In contrast, Allen said Regenified is a for-profit company that will train its certifiers and control their work as the sole certifier in the field.
“We do not want this verification to be gameable, cheatable, or able to be dumbed down or watered down,” he explained. Producers will not be allowed to stay in any one ranking tier for more than three years if they want to maintain their verified status.
“It’s basically a 10-year runway at the most” from entering the program to achieving top-tier status, said Katon, Regenified’s CEO. Ben, who raises grassfed beef in Arkansas, worked for many years in the financial industry, including a stint as a vice-president with Goldman Sachs.
He said Regenified verification will not amount to a checklist. “The moment something evolves into a checklist, the greenwashing has begun. A certain number of producers will approach it from a ‘what’s the least I can do to keep my certification?’” angle, Ben asserts.
For all its warts, organic does offer premium prices to certified producers. And while Allen said that farmers and ranchers implementing regenerative principles and practices are more profitable even without a value-added market, the question of “what’s in it for me” is certainly legitimate.
It is here that things get interesting. In addition to providing guidance in the fields, Regenified aims to provide market pathways, both for verified feedstuffs moving between farms, and for the finished commodities to wholesale markets.
“In addition to verification, we’re also playing matchmaker,” Ben explained. As an example at the producer level, that will mean connecting verified grain producers with verified livestock operations, with poultry producers an obvious target.
In selling to wholesale markets, the matchmaking will often involve aggregating groups of verified producers to attract buyers. Ben said this is likely to be based on three- to five-year supply contracts with guaranteed markets and price premiums.
Participating companies will often pay the farm-level costs involved in starting and staying in Regenified’s program. (And indeed that’s what’s happening with at least one pilot project Graze has heard about.)
And Ben said Regenified will be providing the companies with farm-level data that they can use to prove their environmental claims.
“We’re working with food companies to help them create programs that will move their supply chains down the regenerative path,” he said. A major goal, he added, is to “create a framework where everyone is winning, including the planet.”
“We’ve got to get out of this adversarial situation that oftentimes has developed between food companies and producers,” Ben asserted. “We wanted to create a new supply chain where everyone’s best interest is being served.”
Down the pike a bit, new technologies are being developed that could measure phytonutrients and nutrient densities in retail food products. Allen thinks such testing might be feasible for Regenified-labeled products within two to four years.
You should check this out on your own if you’re interested. Regenified has its strengths, perhaps most obviously its potential to play a role in reducing agriculture’s negative environmental footprint. But there are some questions, too.
For one thing, do we really need another verified logo/seal in a marketplace that already has too many? Ben noted that judging from what he saw from food companies at a recent trade show, there will be plenty of marketing dollars directed toward Regenified.
“We were blown away by the interest in regenerative ag,” he reports.
A second question involves the fairness and effectiveness of allowing cash grain producers and their large-scale meat/milk producing customers (and fuel and fiber producers) to attain the highest levels of certification and price premiums.
Ben replies, “There is a certain amount of pragmatism that has to enter into this. If our goal is to ultimately heal the planet … we have to acknowledge that there is going to be a continued demand for annual crops.”
He believes Regnified has done a good job of ensuring truly regenerative management on as many acres as possible. That, he said, won’t happen if conventional producers are discouraged by the hurdles being placed in front of them.
And then there’s the market power question. While Ben and Allen say they are working with operations of all sizes, the history of wholesale agriculture tells us that big food companies want to work with large-scale suppliers. I doubt that you’’ll be forced to certify with Regenified to have a market, but I suppose anything is possible.
Aggregating production from many small producers involves more work and more expense, so very likely there will be pressure from on high to deal with fewer and larger sources. In other words, pretty much the same as what’s happening these days in the wholesale organic dairy world.
Optimism for growth
Not that I want to bash Regenified. I’m actually fascinated by the concept, and as a citizen of the planet I hope it becomes a big deal. Smaller-scale producers can maintain their organic and direct-to-consumer markets.
Regenified is already running pilot projects, and its efforts will be scaled up in the coming months. Ben said producer interest is strong, and that the logo is likely to be seen on food packages later this summer.
“I would be very surprised if by this time next year we aren’t seeing north of a million acres verified,” he forecast.
Should be interesting.
Joel McNair is editor and publisher of Graze and has a small farm in southern Wisconsin.