What are the obstacles farmers face when transitioning to regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is one of the more promising solutions to the environmental crisis, however there are still many obstacles farmers face when transitioning away from conventional farming
Regenerative agriculture (or RegenAg) is a farming practice that leads to farmland and surrounding ecosystem regeneration. It is seen as adjacent to other frameworks such as agroecology or permaculture. Organic agriculture (which is more well known) ensures there is no use of chemicals in the process. RegenAg goes beyond that to ensure that practices lead to regenerating not only the soil of the land but also the surrounding ecosystems (in line with the goals of the UN regenerative decade). Given that the food system is by far the largest contributor to biodiversity loss and the transgression of many other planetary boundaries it is seen as one of the key solutions to environmental problems.
The particularity of RegenAg is that it is outcome-based and not dogmatic about practices, even though some are common. These outcomes are mostly focussed on soil health and surrounding ecosystems. The advantage is that it gives freedom to farmers to choose practices that make the most sense in their climate and with their desired crops, however on the downside the definition of regenerative agriculture remains broad and that there is no clear prototype or model farmers can set as a final goalpost when transitioning.
This is one of the many challenges farmers face when looking to transition. Yet alongside these challenges come many opportunities to define how the shift in our food system is going to happen.
Once a farmer has set their mind on becoming regenerative, what obstacles do they encounter and what can be done about it?
First of all, it is important to illustrate how challenging this farmer journey can be. To a farmer, their farm is everything. It is their family heritage and tradition, it is their business, it is their livelihood, their identity. A farmer is who they are. The connection is intimate, deep and emotional, and to choose to take the business in a completely different direction takes entrepreneurial vision, courage and skill. A redefinition of who they are.
These farmers walk a fine line where they have their entire community — their neighbours, consultants, suppliers, distributors — quite possibly turn their backs on them. This week we met a few regenerative farmers who claimed they were seen as the “crazy guy” in the village. No-till? Allowing weeds to grow? It can be difficult to be taken seriously when adopting practices which directly contradict what everyone else was taught for generations. Supermarkets will probably not want their products on their shelves as they will make the next product look bad, as it is made using soil-degrading pesticides. Consultants will advise them against the transition as they have a commercial relationship with input supply (pesticides etc, that regenAg does not use).
They will walk a lonely walk unless they have a community awaiting them on the regenerative side. They will completely have to leave their own world to join a new one. Irreversibly so.
What can be done?
If a farmer transitioning means they are often rejected from their community then they need to easily land in a new one. The networks in the regenerative communities are very tight and collaborative but they will still grow and a lot can be done on this front; transition partners, knowledge-sharing platforms, support groups, etc.
Farmers will completely have to leave their own world to join a new one. Irreversibly so.
It is known that the finances of farmers are often not in good shape. In fact due to financial pressures, the farming profession is one that exhibits one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Farmers in Europe are gridlocked into a system of subsidies and financial dependencies, and their margins are ever shrinking with the increased pressure of decreasing yields coming from soil degradation (mostly felt in drier / warmer climates).
The issue is that when you are in burnout you cannot perform a career change before actually taking time off to reflect. It is very known farmers rarely leave their farm for more than a couple of days. So finding the time to think of transitioning, let alone developing a vision when standing in crippling debt can be tricky. Picture yourself having to repair an airplane engine as it is nosediving. I am aware this depicts a fairly grim picture, yet this is the reality for many.
Transitioning itself requires a large investment. Farmers will carry out a lot of experiments with methods they are not experts in so they need to be ready for short-term crop yield decreases. Some methodologies such as agroforestry will not show their benefit for 10–20 years, the time for the trees in the system to grow to become productive. Farmers will also need new machinery and equipment for all of the processes they will insource.
Lots of farmers insource their bio-fertiliser production and develop a whole production chain to close some of their input loops. This is because there is a limited market for regenerative inputs, but also because the reason many transition is they do not want to depend on a global supply chain.
The toughest part of finances is quite possibly the supermarkets turning their backs to them. This means as a regenerative farmer I need to find a new distribution channel directly to customers who will value me for my practices. As one might expect, the regen distribution channels are considerably limited in comparison to the larger ones. They need to answer the question who will buy my regenerative products? The market is still bare, but growing rapidly.
What can be done?
Farmers need transition investors, and they need investors who are aligned with their vision and goals, whom they can trust. They also want investors who do not restrain them in their vision, as often farmers who transition want to free themselves from a gridlocked system that pushed them in the wrong direction in the first place. The real question is how can we offer farmers a viable financing solution which still leaves them in the driver’s seat to fulfil their own vision.
Farming is complex but regenerative farming even more so. From increased crop diversity, to agroforestry lane cropping, to biodiversity barriers, via enhanced soil maintenance — the regenerative farmer has to be versed in stewarding their entire ecosystem and not just their produce. They need to be much more knowledgeable about their soil, and feel comfortable with a much wider range of crops (bear in mind many farmers only grow 2–3 crops!). It is a rethinking of the profession at its core.
Moreover they need to be working closer to the edge of experimental practices and keep up with the latest knowledge. This is much riskier than working with methods that have been around for decades.
Oftentimes farmers need to get creative by learning from peers living in other regions and climates. This has very much been an avenue for agricultural innovation throughout time, however there is no guarantee that something that works in Costa Rica will function in Northern Europe. It is hence until now very much a pioneer learning approach.
The farmer bears the experimental risk, and this lack of experience will certainly cost them money.
What can be done?
Farmers do not have time to proactively knowledge-share. They also do not always have the skill to necessarily document it. There are quite possibly many opportunities to knowledge share in and amongst the regenerative community. It is known that conventional farmers are more reluctant to learn about novel practices than new farmers, this is why the latter is an interesting demographic to focus on.
It is a rethinking of the profession at its core.
According to the EIP-AGRI 160,000 farmers are due to retire in the next 3 years, and there are not enough people to replace them. Therefore opening up the avenue for new farmers is an attempt to actually save the profession.
This is the best opportunity to push for farmers to adopt regenerative practices from the start. It is probably much easier to convince a new entrant to adopt these rather than convert an old-timer, even if they are taking over the family farm.
What can be done?
Many businesses are acting as business incubators for new farmers, leasing out land, helping with education, financing and all aspects that have to do with onboarding into the profession. It would be great to push these farmers into the right habits for ecosystem and planet health. The question here is; how might we best usher new entrants into a regenerative mindset whilst supporting them in bearing the risks of novel practices?
It is a long road to becoming regenerative and the list of obstacles given here is far from exhaustive (e.g. government policies, market demands, business models, pressures from suppliers, etc).
However, it is important to note that the biggest barrier of all is a mental one. The gridlock into the old system (policies, finance, knowledge, business model, etc) translates into a mindset gridlock, which is the hardest to overcome.
Once it is, a whole set of challenges are to be encountered for pioneering farmers. Yet it is clear that this is the way things must head and many entrepreneurial farmers know this. It is only a matter of time before the late majority will notice the pioneers were right. The more risk averse farmers are simply waiting until the model is more robustly proven, and that the transition is easier in all aspects.
This is why these are precisely the bottlenecks which need to be unclogged so that every iteration of the journey becomes easier and easier until it becomes a no-brainer.