By Elizabeth Reaves and Hal Hamilton
The comment about hitting targets but missing the point came from one of the founders of sustainable agriculture programs in the corporate world. So, what point might we be missing?
The most common science-based targets are for greenhouse gas emissions, and of course these targets are important. But other goals are also important.
Elizabeth remembers a drive across North Dakota in February 2019. A “super moon” was setting on one side of the prairie and the sun rising on the other, while agronomist Jay Fuhrer told a story of no-till changing the hydrologic cycle in counties with a high rate of adoption. The rain came back, he said. He then used the word biotic pump, and I imagined a heartbeat of the land pumping water (life) through the rolling hills stretched out in front of us. Here this water cycle is illustrated in a simple animation.
In this example of reducing tillage and keeping the soil covered, “the point” is continuous life. Water is necessary but not the goal by itself. It is part of a web of natural cycles. We are not suggesting any definitions or standards for regenerative agriculture, but we are suggesting that “the point” is a healthy system of interactions. Wendell Berry once said to Hal, “I think organic farming is good, Hal, but what I’d much rather talk about is good farming.”
We, at the Sustainable Food Lab, have the privilege of working with many organizations that are making investments and achieving momentum in support of farming with reduced net emissions. Because of the urgency of climate change, we can do things right now that weren’t possible just a few years ago: carbon targets, carbon disclosures, carbon calculators, carbon markets. It isn’t wrong, but if we think about farmers as stewards, and then we try to fit the complexity of farming into the linear accounting model of carbon, make the necessary rules to avoid greenwashing, and accurately reflect what is happening in the atmosphere, we quickly get tied in knots, and then what? We also need targets for water and biodiversity, for sure, but is a growing list of verifiable targets sufficient?
One next step is balance clarity about outcomes with respect for those who already care for land.
The environmental movement polarizes itself from the farming community when farmers are seen as part of the problem and not as stewards with the capacity to produce more than just crops. Farmers are in relationship with the land, they care for it even when they till it. As we know, farmers don’t wake up wanting to pollute; multi-generational life on the land is one of the ways they measure sustainability.
Another step is to think of farming as part of a landscape with rivers, forests, grasslands, weather patterns, and people doing many different things.
Clarity about goals requires thinking in systems and the courage to be relentlessly curious, to refuse to be satisfied with tools or the shiny silver bullet solutions of the moment, to keep probing for what might make the biggest difference, even when you can’t see very far ahead.
Interlude: A story of someone looking for their keys.
You are walking home after dark. Ahead, under a streetlight, you see someone kneeling and searching for something. As you approach, you ask, “What are you looking for?” The person answers, “My keys. I dropped them.” You respond with a further question, “Was it here that you dropped your keys?” “No, I didn’t drop them here. I think I dropped them over there, near the door, but I can’t see there. Here the light is better.”
Our mentor Donella Meadows wrote this story in the beginning of a book on different types of models, each of which is an attempt to approximate reality and generate mathematically validated answers. Donella’s title for the book was Groping in the Dark.
As we think strategically about what would need to be true to achieve our goals, we can start in two different places. The most common is to look under the streetlight of targets and metrics, to start with what we already know can be measured. All food companies face scrutiny from investors and critics, so measurable, achievable targets are important. But there’s so much about regenerative agriculture that is beyond the streetlight of what we already know how to measure: the interaction of landscape changes, rainfall patterns, and nutrient cycling, for example.
Our best scientists and farmers embrace this complexity. They are achieving resilient crop yields without nonrenewable resources and in the face of volatile weather. These leaders are beyond groping in the dark, but their insights are not yet operationalized in mainstream institutions. The “movement” for regenerative agriculture is still figuring out strategies that bridge vision and pragmatism. If dreams are not doable, we might as well wake up. If what is doable does not solve for underlying causes, then let’s figure out what else we should be doing.
If hitting our targets is missing some important points, we have more work to do, more conversations to have. And, above all, we need to learn to think and act in systems. Regenerative agriculture is intrinsically about regenerative farming landscapes. Early attempts to scale regenerative agriculture usually include a choice of two or three farming practices, on specific fields, out of a menu of six or eight practices. This focus on field-level practices is a reasonable beginning. If it’s also the end, it has missed the point.
Instead, we might think about “the point” as a set of principles applied as practices in a place-specific way. We already have such principles for regenerative farming practices, including minimizing tillage, keeping the ground covered as much of the year as possible, and making sure that crop rotations generate diverse roots under the surface.
Nevertheless, no list of farming practices on specific fields will result in regenerative farming landscapes, so our principles must go beyond the field and beyond carbon to encompass biodiversity and water. Do we expand this set of principles to social dimensions such as farmer livelihood and rural community health? We think so. Scope-creep can erode focused action, but just focusing on nature can miss the social underpinnings of stewardship.
Interlude: A story about belonging and resilience.
Elizabeth is the board president for a non-profit childcare center in her hometown. The center offers after-school and vacation care for working families, and the philosophy of the care is about supporting children to know their place in the community. One of the other board members is a child development specialist. Elizabeth asked her what we can learn from child development that can be applied to climate resilience. She said, attachment. When children feel they belong, and are connected to caregivers, they are better able to develop resilience strategies, adapting rather than reacting to stress.
Elizabeth thought about this experience with childcare, and how important relationships are in farming communities, which might include neighbors helping to bring in hay, or plant cover crops during the busy harvest times, jumping in when a neighbor is sick. Having a trusted advisor that one can call to help trouble-shoot a problem or just reassure a farmer that those soybeans are going to come up through all that residue, even if they are shorter than the neighbor’s right now. This is resilience and why we want many farmers, not just a few big farmers, and why we need many advisors, not just a few.
We can celebrate progress with our work so far, and still need to help each other to look for the keys to next steps. Some next steps are already clear, under the light, and some require groping in the dark.
For more on the projects and community of relationships that underlie our thinking here, see the Scale Lab materials here.