5 Regenerative Ag Trends for Earth Day

By Nate Birt April 21, 2021

Sustainable Agriculture

5 Regenerative Ag Trends for Earth Day

By Nate Birt April 21, 2021

Carbon markets for U.S. farmers renewed focus on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and novel new agricultural practices make this year’s list, according to Nate Birt, Vice President of Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative.

Now in its 52nd year, Earth Day presents an annual opportunity to spotlight this big blue ball all of us call home. And because we’ve only got one, it’s particularly important to the world’s farmers, ranchers, and growers who depend on its natural resources to grow the food, fuel, and fiber that powers our lives.

At Trust In Food, we often look for opportunities to step back from the farmgate and look down the gravel road to where the U.S. food and agriculture industry may be headed. As I recently discussed in a Regenerative Agriculture webinar with global experts convened by EarthDay.org, this year represents a unique moment for advancing this year’s Earth Day theme, Restore Our Earth™.

In no particular order, here are five regenerative ag trends that will make this year’s Earth Day one to remember:

Trend 1: Carbon Markets For U.S. Farmers Are Accelerating

As my colleague Rhonda Brooks writes on AgWeb.com, quoting one Iowa farmer, the “wild, wild west” of carbon markets continues to build momentum. It’s exciting for producers because they could finally get credit—and make money—from the ecosystem services they provide, such as sequestering soil in farmland and rangeland.

On the other hand, it’s daunting because farmers have heard plenty of empty promises about all kinds of whiz-bang ideas in the past that didn’t hold water. No one knows exactly where we’re going, but it’s clear the Biden administration sees a role for USDA in the carbon space, as do many private sector organizations working on various links of the carbon market value chain.

Trend 2: Remembering And Celebrating The Indigenous Roots Of “New” Regenerative Practices

Despite the recent wave of articles, social media posts, and documentaries lauding the marvelous attributes of healthy soil, don’t be fooled: This hype is merely elevating knowledge we’ve had, in many cases, for thousands of years – at least among indigenous communities that too often have been marginalized. Check out this National Farmers Union post for some great examples of the rich regenerative agriculture legacy of Indigenous Americans or this collection of essays compiled by USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) on the countless contributions of Black Americans.

The science of soil continues to improve, and organizations such as American Farmland Trust and Soil Health Institute are dedicating themselves to advancing our knowledge of how to preserve and build this precious resource. In making such progress, we recognize we wouldn’t be here without those cultures that have preserved and grown our knowledge of regenerative over millennia.

Trend 3: Continued Expansion Of Conservation Approaches To Encompass Systems And Organizations

The recent announcement that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has developed new frameworks to address conservation needs on western U.S. rangelands is just one of many examples of how government agencies are partnering with state and local stakeholders to advance stewardship. This should be cause for excitement among people like me—wildlife aficionados who love natural spaces and are eager to contribute.

USDA’s announcement signals broad interest in collaboration among many organizations with different specialties and interest areas for a shared good: preserving and building the resilience of ecosystems that create stronger rural communities, wildlife habitat, and overall ecosystems.

Trend 4: Novel Conservation Practices Beyond Cover Crops and No-Till

It used to be that cover crops and no-till were all the rage in conservation circles. They still are—and they both have an important role to play in building soil health and reducing erosion. Yet organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy also are working hand in hand with farmers to emphasize edge-of-field practices such as vegetated riparian buffers and wetlands.

Not to mention that perennial grains in development by organizations such as The Land Institute could continue benefiting farmland year after year while providing scrumptious alternatives to your dinner plate.

Trend 5: Renewed Focus on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Ahead of this year’s United Nations Food Systems Summit, organizations such as mine at Trust In Food are taking a new look at the Sustainable Development Goals (commonly called the SDGs) and exploring how these worldwide aspirations can unlock new market opportunities for U.S. farmers.

As my colleague, Jay Vroom, chair of our Advisory Board, shares in this post, goals such as improving water quality and reducing hunger are squarely priorities of the American farmer—not to mention consumers—and can serve as lenses for further honing the sustainability of working farms and ranches to meet the demands of global food buyers.

Is there another regenerative ag trend you’d like to see me write about in future posts? Email me at nbirt@farmjournal.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

The Bottom Line

This list by no means captures the many regenerative agriculture trends underway for the U.S. food and ag system. I hope it has expanded your thinking about the great possibilities associated with regenerative—and gives you something to think about as you’re shopping for your family’s next meal.