Producer Perceptions of Regenerative Agriculture
Producer Perceptions of Regenerative Agriculture

Producer Perceptions of Regenerative Agriculture

Adopters and Adversaries



As major food companies direct farmers and ranchers across the globe towards regenerative agriculture (RA), it could easily be assumed that regenerative agriculture is becoming commonplace. However, the prevalence of RA is highly dependent on the regulations used to determine what exactly RA is. Given those major food companies, such as Nestle, focus on all six principles of RA (discussed in this series’ RA overview blog), and producers must follow the same principles to supply these companies. Despite this, the footprint of RA remains rather small. In Canada, less than 100 farms were fully integrated into RA in 2022, relative to the 193,500 farms operating in Canada. In the US, only 1.5% of 900 million farmed acres are under RA production. While the concept of regenerative agriculture has been around since the 1970s, it appears growth has been slow until most recently. This raises the question: is regenerative agriculture growing as a farmer success story, or merely an advertisement propelling strong commitments from those furthest downstream in the supply chain?

If RA is to be adopted as a consumer-approved solution to food security while quelling the flames of climate hysteria, farmers and ranchers must be on board. Despite the multitude of well-advertised farm-level success stories, such as Cumpson’s farm or Dirt to Soil, it appears farmers have been reluctant to adopt RA on a broad scale. Considering that RA is acclaimed for providing improved profitability, drought tolerance, carbon sequestration, and soil health, it would be expected that broad adoption would have occurred in the past 50 years. This blog will explore some of the successes of RA while further delving into why many are reluctant to adopt RA in their operation.


High Risk, Delayed Reward

When examining the list of benefits associated with RA for a producer, instant gratification most certainly does not make an appearance. As with many soil-bound processes, the benefits of a change in land management practice accrue slowly in the years immediately following the change. For example, cover cropping does not produce noticeable soil improvements until year five. The upfront cost of cover cropping is not insignificant, either, essentially doubling requirements for both seed and seeding labour in each production cycle. As a result, economic returns follow a similar pattern as soil, taking up to 5 years for cover crops to break even. While these are blanket prescriptions and results may be better depending on soil type and climate, the inverse is also true. That is, farmers considering factors beyond their control – adverse weather or market volatility – may be reluctant to adopt RA, despite claims that it improves resiliency to both factors.

Furthering the cover cropping example in a Western Canadian context, if the primary cash crop uses all precipitation and much of the present residual soil moisture, a subsequent cover crop may be unsuccessful. This may severely limit the returns experienced by farmers. Additionally, particular crops and agricultural methods will have greater success on different soils, depending on the climatic region. A producer in southeastern Saskatchewan operating on heavy clay with high water-holding capacity may experience ideal moisture conditions for no-till production, whereas a producer in Manitoba may receive too much rain to eliminate tillage from their operation. One must question if a cover crop would use and remove enough soil moisture to eliminate the need for tillage.

Like all agricultural practices, cover cropping and other RA practices do carry some risk to adoption. Another important consideration is that agricultural technology has not been stagnant over the past 50 years; in fact, it has been anything but. Some widely adopted technological advancements include herbicide tolerant crops, no-tillage seeding, variable rate input application, and vastly improved livestock genetics, to name a few. As such, it can be said that farmers adopt new technologies when the processes involved and their benefits are clear even when risk is involved; however, this is not something RA can claim in the current state of research on the topic. One barrier to the adoption of RA is the requirement to adopt a set of practices – as opposed to a single practice – which requires monumental change of practice and greater bearing of risk.


Barriers to Adoption

In the current state of production agriculture in the developed world, many of our problems have solutions although they are often accessible and effective. Consider cattle diseases such as Bovine Respiratory Disease, broadleaf weeds, or lack of soil nutrients; each has come through scientific advancement in the last several decades. On the contrary, RA often does not have a prescribed solution to each problem. As such, farmers are left to experiment with how to control disease, weeds, and nutrient deficiencies all without vaccines, herbicides, tillage, or inorganic fertilizers (all tools to which modern agriculture has become accustomed). That is not to say solutions do not exist in RA, but rather that they may not be as effective or timely. Undoubtedly, solutions to the problems posed in RA systems mimic the systems themselves, being slightly different for each operation. As such, both production risk and production variability may be increased, especially in the initial years.

Beyond limiting the solutions available to farmers, a multitude of other barriers exist that limit the potential of farm-level adoption. Namely, the specialization of agriculture – the separation of livestock and crop production – in developed economies hinders the ability to integrate livestock within cropland. Social norms play a role in this, with perceptions of a “good farmer” being tied to those who follow the practices and principles set out by the generation that came before them. Changing this opinion is undoubtedly one of the keys to renewing integrated systems. However, integrated systems add management complexity, with many producers feeling as though introducing livestock to their land would add too much and hurt the performance of all aspects of the farm. For example, attempting organic production and using manure as a sole fertilizer source is often suboptimal, with a substantial volume of manure having to be purchased or leaving land nutrient deficient. Other biophysical limitations include greater susceptibility to adverse weather in the case of integrated systems; that is, concerns about how both too much and too little moisture will limit the availability of grazing on land that is primarily used for row cropping. Finally, and arguably most importantly, are the financial barriers to integrating crops and livestock. Often, specialized crop production fields do not have fences or water infrastructure, generating substantial upfront material and labour costs. These metrics, along with the delayed benefits associated with RA, deter the adoption of these practices. However, many farmers have experienced momentous gains from RA practices.


High Risk, High Reward?

Despite the concerns surrounding upfront investments and opportunity costs, the practices outlined in RA will undoubtedly benefit soil health metrics in most, if not all, cases. After all, RA planted its roots in restoring and improving soil health nearly 50 years ago, aiming to advance two of the most critical aspects of agriculture in any era: plant available water and soil organic matter. In doing so, the system can operate cyclically to improve metrics such as soil carbon content, water infiltration rates, water holding capacity, and soil quality for improved long-run yield, efficiency, and overall profitability of both crop and livestock enterprises. These are the promises of many advocates of RA, and many of them have evidence of how well a regenerative management strategy has worked for them.

Some of the touted improvements to the livestock industry include insecticide-free parasite management, weed control in pastures, and direct nutrient cycling. In combination, these factors are capable of fostering significant gains for the economic and environmental sustainability of the livestock sector. Further, the management of weeds and direct deposition of nutrients from animal waste provides an ample environment for cash crop production in subsequent years. One Ontario farm has used livestock to control weeds, cycle nutrients, and “build soil” over the past few decades; their approach has allowed them to vertically integrate their operation all the way through to spelt flour production.


Concluding Remarks

Though my discussion of the hurdles involved in RA far outweighs that of the benefits I am neither a proponent nor an adversary of regenerative systems. The discussion of adoption barriers – and the perceptions of producers regarding these barriers – is one of greater importance when considering regenerative agriculture. As with many great innovations, positive outcomes are not guaranteed, and some degree of failure is to be expected. Examining the rationale behind a reluctance to adopt RA systems sheds light on why it has yet to broaden its grasp on agriculture. Inherently, there are risks associated with these systems that are not prevalent in modern conventional agriculture. As a result, producers are unable to bear this additional risk if they cannot generate a monetary premium for their products. Currently, RA markets, including carbon markets, are still in a state of infancy. Markets for verified RA goods must be established; however, until consumers are ready to pay for RA products on grocery store shelves, RA will not be adopted on a broad scale.

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  1. Harry Siemens

    Thanks for explaining it. It sounds a bit like it was too good to be true. Yes, some producers can do it on a small scale, but can we feed the world using it on a large scale? That’s my question.

    1. Judson Christopherson

      Hi Harry,

      Thanks for your interest in this topic. I agree it can be done on a small scale, but to answer your question, no I do not believe it is the solution to feeding our world.

      Anecdotally, I would say RA could be implemented across much of the globes agricultural land base and it would perform relatively well. However, our world may not be able to adapt to the changes that would come with RA on a broad scale. Here are three reasons I feel it would not work.

      1. Human Capital Constraints: RA systems would likely be more labour-intensive than our current specialized systems. Given the current agricultural labour shortage, it is unlikely we would be able to recruit enough labour to operate these systems.

      2. Nutrient Constraints: Annual crop yields in production systems that rely purely on organic fertilizers, primarily manure, will most likely be lower as it is difficult to a) produce enough manure to adequately fertilize cropland, and b) meet all nutrient requirements with organic fertilizers. This may place global food security in jeopardy.

      General efficiency losses: The gains to agricultural specialization (i.e., we have many operations that focus solely on crop or livestock production, not both) have been momentous over the past seventy years. Moving back to mixed production would sacrifice many of these gains for multiple reasons, including the two listed above.

      3. Consumer willingness to pay: If RA is to be broadly adopted, the vast majority of consumers must be willing to a premium for food grown using RA methods. If increased demand for RA products does not manifest, producers will not be incentivized to adopt these practices on a broad scale.

      As a young agricultural producer, this may seem a bit skeptical of me; however, without evidence that RA systems can work on a broad scale I have a difficult time supporting it. I believe the many of the principles of RA may be beneficial if they are adapted to our current systems; however, broad scale adoption of the entire doctrine of RA is a risk laden endeavour that not many agricultural producers are currently willing to entertain.

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