28 Jun 2021
A small step, or a giant leap? Transitioning from intensive to regenerative farming
Regenerative agriculture saw its rise in grassroots agriculture. It grew from a desire from farmers to break from traditional conventional farming models, and to return their farms to diverse ecosystems rather than an inputs outputs approach to food and fibre production.
As the benefits of diverse regenerative farming systems started to be realised and recorded, the true environmental impact at the other end of the scale of farming was starting to be truly felt and understood. Modern specialised farming has become intensive and, in some cases, entirely focused on one or two commodities. What regenerative systems propose is a level of diversity that to a conventional farm can seem incompatible with their working methods, the round peg in a square hole scenario.
A phrase that is often offered in response to a proposal of transition towards a regenerative system is ‘looks good but wouldn’t work on my farm’ or ‘not on my soil with our weather.’ Completely understandable and legitimate concerns. If you are to look at an intensive cattle feedlot livestock system for example, it is difficult to see how that can be unpicked and re-moulded into an outdoor, mob grazed, pasture raised regenerative livestock system. The two worlds couldn’t seem further apart. These concerns and issues need solutions. Especially as more companies are aligning with net zero goals and ESG targets and are looking to regenerative agriculture to provide the antidote to an environmental toxic food production system.
Scalability of regenerative systems is important, but the economic bottom line of business is still the driving factor and main barrier to larger agribusinesses adopting regenerative practises.
Can regenerative systems scale and still provide a business with a P&L that is in the black? Below are 5 key considerations which will help any large agribusiness scale a regenerative approach.
Do the sums.
Before investing in equipment, livestock, infrastructure, and staff, look at the full farm picture as it currently stands. Consider where adaption rather than investment can be made on farm and look at what the effect of implementing changes would have on your overall business performance. If, for example, you are trying to move your livestock outside for more of the year, what’s the saving on feed and housing vs the potential cost of fencing and rent. Understand the numbers and realising the savings that can be made across the business will spur you on to deliver more change.
Set a baseline.
As the adage goes – if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. Scaling regenerative systems will rely on evidence and proof that the system is having the desired effect. Take a regenagri assessment before you start implementing practises to see where you are now, and which areas are most important for you to improve on. Invest in soil sampling across the business, understanding the soil before you start will help guided you on which practises will best regenerate your land.
Baselines are also important to set so that, when you are reporting back on environmental targets, you can provide evidence of improvement. In the case of regenagri you can go further and become certified or have emissions data verified, to generate carbon credits. But without the initial baseline data, you won’t be able to demonstrate progress
This can be from other members of your business community who have already started to transition their business, or from our team of advisors at regenagri. They can help create implementation plans and provide capacity building services. Everyone is on a journey, and regenerative agriculture is all about continuous improvement, so talking and sharing insights is a great way to maximise the chance of successfully scaling regenerative systems.
Make a plan.
This may seem like an obvious point, but truly regenerative systems can be quite complex and require planning, you are looking holistically at the entire farm not just one aspect. To introduce mob grazing for example, you need to plan the movement of the cattle, the water access and the recovery period. It is important to factor in the realities of change into this plan. Also, demonstrate in the business plan that the first year or two may have unavoidable consequences for profits and yield, but when these figures are shown over a 5-10 year timeline the savings and environmental impact out weigh the initial investment.
Take some time.
Regeneration is a process of continuous improvement; you cannot expect to achieve blistering result in the first year. Biological changes take time. A lot of the changes that are taking place to begin with are under the ground in the soil ecosystem – and so not immediately visible. This time should be factored into your transition plan. As an example, start the first year with converting x% of land to pasture with herbal lays and reduce x% of synthetic fertilisers on cropping fields by implementing legume cover crops, record and measure the impact. The following year you can aim to further your journey with some trial plots of silvopasture agroforestry systems, as an example.
Full stakeholder buy in.
If your business is answerable to board or shareholders, it is important to share the vision and get full buy in from all parties. Regenerative systems can be difficult to understand so break it down in to its simplistic terms. If appropriate host demonstration days on the farm to show the changes in action. The mindset of all involved needs to pivot from yield = profit to holistic management + input minimisation = profit in terms of both monetary assets and natural capital.
Look beyond the field.
Lastly it is important to remember that the focus of regenerative agriculture is not only to help build a resilient and economical viable farming business. It is also to enhance local ecosystems above and below the ground and increase natural capital stocks and the ecosystem services which we can harness. Business can achieve this in many ways, for example planting buffers along waterways to help minimise runoff into public water systems or incorporating regenerative produce into their supply chains. Creativity is the key to a successful transition as there are also additional financial avenues on offer through schemes such as PES (payment for ecology service), carbon credits, insetting and EIB’s (environmental impact bond). regenagri can help organisations access these new market.
Scaling regenerative agriculture across a large agribusiness can at first seem very complex. But it is important to keep in mind that the advantage of having a large system is that there is room for a gradual approach which removes the layers of specialisation at a rate the rest of the business can still support. It is imperative that large businesses look to regenerative systems to ensure we have full supply chain and consumer buy in and can move to a greener, healthier future.
Contact us to find out more about how regenagri can assist you in your regenerative agriculture journey, whether you are the start of a transition or on a continuous improvement path.
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