With a focus on renewing soil and working within, rather than against, natural systems, regenerative agriculture is more than just a sustainable way to farm—it is reshaping the production of how food is grown.
At the OPS 2022 ed session Regenerative Ag101: Is Regenerative the New Organic?, leadership from three large-scale specialty crop growers discussed their involvement with regenerative production, including the challenges, future outlook, and how the retail community can manage and market regeneratively grown organic products to the consumer.
Session panelists T. Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms, Eric Morgan of Braga Fresh Family Farms, and Vernon Peterson of Abundant Harvest
Moderator Shelby Layne, director of Environmental Social Governance at Bolthouse Farms, calls regenerative ag “soil-first farming"—a system of principles and practices that seek to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more. Regenerative ag goes above and beyond today’s organic standards to actively regenerate the natural resources used while actively supporting healthy, thriving communities.
According to the Conservation Finance Network, farms with regenerative practices are nearly 80 percent more profitable than those with only conventional practices.
Shelby Layne, Director of Environmental Social Governance, Bolthouse Farms
“This is not a charitable endeavor; you don’t do this on the side. How do we take these practices and incorporate them in a profitable way into our organizations?” Layne asked attendees.
While his company only just started using the word "regenerative," Vernon Peterson, owner of Abundant Harvest Organics, said he has been farming this way for the past 68 years. “Where we had our highest soil organic matter we had our best production, lowest pest pressure, and best water retention, as well as our best orchard longevity. Now I’m asking how I get soil organic matter into all of our orchards so we can achieve that same level of performance?”
“This is not a charitable endeavor; you don’t do this on the side. How do we take these practices and incorporate them in a profitable way into our organizations?” -Shelby Layne
Eric Morgan, VP of Environmental Science and Resources of Braga Fresh Family Farms, was the impetus behind a series of regenerative agriculture trials with a focus on tillage. “What we’ve been seeing with CO2 emissions, nitrous oxide emissions, fertilizer in surface water and groundwater, water availability—all has a tillage component to it,” Morgan said. “We learn from the failures, and we’re invigorated by the process; it’s a glue that brings our company together to work towards a goal we all care about. The consumer is changing, and our retail partners want us to be their steward because they’re busy selling. We’re highly motivated.”
Eric Morgan, VP of Environmental Science and Resources, Braga Fresh Family Farms
Bruce Taylor, VP of Organics at Taylor Family Farms agreed: “We need to be responsible stewards of the resources that we use. Regenerative is an investment into the long haul, in which we use farming practices to actively sequester carbon to lighten our environmental footprint. It’s the right thing to do. The consumer is ready for beyond organic. According to Nielson, 75 percent of Gen Z shoppers factor sustainability into the brands they purchase.”
“We learn from the failures, and we’re invigorated by the process; it’s a glue that brings our company together to work towards a goal we all care about. The consumer is changing, and our retail partners want us to be their steward because they’re busy selling. We’re highly motivated.” -Eric Morgan
Yet the question remains: how do companies use certifications and verifications in this uncharted territory? Morgan said Braga Family Farms is currently exploring a federal standard closer to the NOP and believe there will be value in certification.
Vernon Peterson, President and Founder, Abundant Harvest Organics
Abundant Harvest Organics has gone through the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) process administered by the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA).
“Intentional consumers want to be intentional about what they do. They want assurance that their food is coming from a place where they take really good care of their people, and that’s where the EFI [Equitable Food Initiative] certification comes into play,” Peterson said. “They also want to know that the food they buy is coming from a place that takes care of the land, and the ROC gold level certification accomplishes that. These are tools that I can give to select retailers, not to greenwash but to tell a real story that this stuff is the real deal.”
T. Bruce Taylor, Vice President of Organics, Taylor Farms
Taylor said consumers have different priorities, with some wanting a more sustainable brand, some wanting organic, and others seeking value or flavor. “We like to have multiple tools in our toolkit for multiple brands and multiple product sets that will help us accomplish our goal of increasing consumption of healthy fresh produce, and good practices naturally migrate across the board. We use a lot of organic principles in our conventional plots, and we expect that to happen with regenerative in the future,” he said.
“We need to be responsible stewards of the resources that we use. Regenerative is an investment into the long haul, in which we use farming practices to actively sequester carbon to lighten our environmental footprint. It’s the right thing to do.” -T. Bruce Taylor
Session participants Shelby Layne of Bolthouse Farms, T. Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms, Eric Morgan of Braga Fresh Family Farms, and Vernon Peterson of Abundant Harvest Organics
Braga Fresh Family Farms was awarded a $100,000 Healthy Soils grant, which has allowed them to transition conventional farmland into organic farmland using regenerative principles. Morgan says new regulatory burdens in California are shifting the landscape towards regenerative practices, and that it won’t be long until we are relying on regenerative practices to comply with regulatory standards that emerge.
“The practices and principles of regenerative agriculture will be essential in all markets if we are going to be sustainable. Our consumers want it; they’re different than they were 30 years ago. Is it the new organic? Yes, and its elements will be the new conventional, too. To survive it has to be,” said Morgan.