Can Adopting Regenerative Practices Save the Small-Scale American Farmer?
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” Good Oak, A Sand County Almanac.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), smallholder farmers produce about a third of the world's food. These farms are typically family, or women-led and include pastoralists, farmers, hunters, fishers, and live-stock keepers.
Conventional ranchers and farmers operate on razor thin margins. At the mercy of severe weather related to climate change, rising input costs, fertilizer shortages, and tanking commodity prices, they’re struggling to make ends meet.
By applying the principles of regenerative agriculture (RA) to their farms, small-scale farmers are better able to develop business plans and strategies to get out of debt and become more profitable overtime. A 2018 study reported a 78% increase in profitability when comparing regeneratively managed corn fields to conventional, despite a slight decrease in yield.
In this study, not only did profits increase, but they also measured higher organic matter in the soil, increased biodiversity, as well as a decrease in pest populations despite not using any pesticides. One Australian farmer who switched to RA estimated his costs were 80% lower after eliminating chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and fuel costs.
Various case studies also underscore the overwhelmingly positive economic, social, and environmental benefits for small-scale farmers around the globe, who’ve adopted a regenerative framework. RA provides a competitive advantage for farmers by diversifying their income streams, reducing input costs, and enabling them to access new markets with their higher value crops and products.
All of this contributes to greater financial security for the people who’re working hard to feed us. As a low-tech and low cost climate solution, RA can help save the small-scale American farm from financial ruin.
Hurdles for Small-Scale Farmers Looking to Implement Regenerative Management
Agribusiness experts agree that sustainability-linked loans, green bonds, and the carbon market favor large producers like General Mills, PepsiCo, and Mcdonalds. While large-scale shifts away from extractive agriculture pose potential benefits, there is no current universally accepted standard for regenerative products; we have to wonder: who’s holding them accountable?
Greenwashing is defined as, “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.” The companies who are receiving the most financial assistance are the ones whose destructive production models got us into this mess in the first place. How will small-scale regenerative farms compete considering this massive discrepancy in equity?
Philip Taylor, executive director of Mad Agriculture, a non-profit which aims to provide expertise and financing for farmers, explained small-scale regenerative farmers are perceived as “risky” by the farm banking sector. Without the same access to financial assistance as large corporations, many farmers and ranchers who are looking to make the switch to RA, find themselves deterred by financial barriers.
However, as the environmental and social benefits of RA have become increasingly obvious, Taylor and others are calling on financial institutions to develop more flexible loans, and rethink the way they see financing from, “short-term yields to long-term risks.”
The FAO estimates the equivalent of a football field of soil erodes every five seconds. Paired with soaring volatility in weather patterns, fertilizers suffocating our waterways, extreme droughts, and numerous other catastrophic concerns, the very real long-term risks of the current system far outweighs the perceived short-term financial risks associated with transition.
Environmental Benefits for Small-Scale Regenerative Farmers
Practiced by indigenous cultures for thousands of years, RA is proven to enhance soil fertility, water and air quality, and ecosystem biodiversity, all while capturing carbon and producing nutritious and delicious foods. It relies on producers cultivating a deep connection to the land, and sharing that knowledge within an interdependent food system.
For most small-scale farmers and ranchers, the issue of land health is personal. Not only do their ranches and farms support their livelihood, but they’re also family homes which have been passed down for generations.
We're improving our agricultural system irrespective of the carbon market. We're doing those practices not because we expect to make money from selling carbon, but because that's the way to better sustain ourselves here … by having more cover, capturing more moisture, taking advantage of what we can in an arid environment (US MT1). - Regenerative rancher (Montana)
With more at stake than large farms, small farmers can’t afford to continue to degrade, poison, and destroy their land. Because context is a key component in regenerative land management, small-scale ranchers are better equipped to understand their unique ecosystem and provide for their communities.
On our regenerative ranches we utilize the Holistic Planned Grazing framework to achieve our financial, ecological, and nutritional goals. To ensure we’re upholding the highest standards of regeneration, all of our ranches undergo Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV™), an empirically based protocol used to measure and assess landscape health.
Verified regenerative, our meat products go beyond regenerating soil health; we provide native bird habitat, support monarch butterflies in their annual migration, mitigate wildfire and flood risks, and boast an impressive range of native plant species.
The environmental benefits of RA allow small-scale farmers to live in connection with their land, attuned to all living creatures on it. As the expert knowledge holders, they have the power to influence the culture around food production, driving consumer demand for localized regeneratively-raised products.
Health Benefits of Small-Scale Regenerative Farms and Ranches
As discussed, small-scale operations are under immense pressure.The strain of toxic synthetic inputs, pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and antibiotics have wreaked havoc on the health of farmers, ranchers, and consumers alike. Alarmingly, American farmers within the current system have the highest rates of suicide, cancer, and Parkinsons disease of any profession in the world.
Our health has declined alongside the health of our soils. Today six in ten Americans suffer from chronic diseases, due largely in part to the plummeting nutritional value of our foods and the toxins we employ in producing them. To put it simply, we’ve sapped our soils of nutrients.
The good news is RA not only restores essential nutrients to the soil, but also revitalizes the health and vitality of our communities. When we design more resilient systems aligned with nature, farmers are better able to withstand and adapt to the ever changing economic, sociopolitical, and environmental conditions on planet Earth.
“In order for us, in order to be happy, literally, you need healthy soil. And I can't stress that enough… where the cows are happy, the soil, you can tell the land is happy.” (US NM3). - New Mexican Rancher
As demonstrated by forest bathing and other studies, the health of our environment plays a major role in our ability to regulate our mental and physical well-being. We can only be as healthy as our environment, and a healthy planet cannot exist without a regenerative food system.
More than 15 million small farmers have already adopted regenerative practices. You can contribute to the regenerative movement by supporting local regenerative ranchers like us, today.
To learn more about the unique nutritional benefits of our regenerative beef, continue reading here.