How regenerative research practices spur market incentives and carbon credits
Entomologist and agroecologist Jonathan Lundgren launched his agricultural research career by following the traditional ways of studying farmers’ and ranchers’ issues through scientist-led protocols.
However, nearly a decade ago, he caught sight of a research mission for a new day in agriculture.
“I wanted to change agriculture through grassroots collaboration between farmers and scientists,” he says. “Farmers are better at farming than scientists. I wanted to stop being the ‘expert’ and become instead a servant of farmers.”
His unconventional vision led him to start Blue Dasher Farm, a privately owned, for-profit demonstration farm near Estelline, South Dakota. He also founded Ecdysis Foundation, the research arm of Blue Dasher Farm. The joint mission of the two entities is to use research, education, and demonstration to support regenerative agriculture.
“With both our demonstration farm and nationwide research we’re trying to show that regenerative farming works no matter what you’re growing and where you’re growing it,” he says.
His timing in launching research endeavors focused on regenerative farming and ranching couldn’t have been more perfect. “It’s insane how both farmers’ and consumers’ interest in regenerative agriculture and soil health has just exploded,” he says.
“For instance, it’s commonplace now to see farmers winter grazing livestock on cover crops. Ten years ago that was unheard of.”
On the food-supply side of agriculture, he says, manufacturers and consumers alike are interested in looking at the effects on both society and the environment of prospective supply chains potentially driven by regenerative agriculture.
“There are emerging economic incentives to producers who are practicing regenerative agriculture,” he says. “I think there is a general marketing perception for supply chains that many companies want to be viewed as ‘regenerative,’ and the word is gaining steam from consumers. This positive perception is prompting a lot of companies to make claims about their regenerative status. When shopping locally, consumers recognize and like regenerative products.”
Regenerative farming practices typically build soil health and sequester carbon in the soil in the process. Thus, selling carbon credits in the carbon marketplace is an emerging potential source of revenue for farmers making a recent transition to regenerative practices.
While Lundgren’s launching of Blue Dasher Farm and Ecdysis Foundation may have been timely, it was also bare-bones.
“I packed all my chips into starting this, and it was pretty scary,” he says. “Six years ago, we were a small team of three graduate students, a few summer helpers, and myself and family. We were trying to turn a milking parlor into a laboratory and trying to turn some patches of lawn and perennial grass into a farm.
“I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to cover salaries from one month to the next,” he says. “At one point, our bank account was empty, and payroll was due in a few days. I went to the mailbox and found that a beekeeper had sent us a check for $10,000. That money floated us until the next check arrived.”
Funding and research grew from there. Today, six doctoral-level researchers and three graduate students conduct studies and analyze data for Ecdysis Foundation’s farm-based, systems-focused research. Some of these scientists are headquartered at Blue Dasher Farm and some are off-site.
During summer months, the staff grows to 20 people gathering and studying field data for research projects “from Saskatchewan to Kansas and from Alabama to California,” says Lundgren. Some staff members also care for Blue Dasher Farm’s sheep, poultry, honey, and crop enterprises. (See “Blue Dasher Farm Enterprises.”)
The heart of Ecdysis Foundation research is empowering farmers and ranchers to provide grounding for the research. The scientists gather data from producers in western Canada and across the United States who are practicing regenerative agriculture. Ecdysis researchers then compare this data with information gathered from neighboring conventional farmers who have agreed to participate in a regional comparative analysis of the two agricultural systems.
“Efforts to define regenerative agriculture have risen to a fever pitch in society right now, with reviews of the scientific literature trying to determine how scientists and others are defining regenerative food systems,” says Lundgren. “Ecdysis Foundation has been generating actual data that can be used to describe regenerative cropland and rangeland from around the U.S. The end result is a scoring system that we think will really help guide the dialogue on what regenerative farming systems are from a practical point of view.”
For the purposes of comparative analysis of cropland in their studies, practices Ecdysis researchers consider regenerative include “the elimination of tillage, maintaining ground cover through planting cover crops or fostering resident vegetation, planting hedgerows, and the use of organic amendments such as compost, manure, mulch, or compost teas, as well as grazing,” says Lundgren.
Cropland practices the researchers consider conventional include tillage; maintaining bare soil; and spraying synthetic insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, along with using chemical fertilizers.
In one comparative study including Upper Midwest cornfields, researchers looked at the response of a variety of variables to both regenerative and conventional practices. They analyzed soil carbon and organic matter, soil micronutrients, water infiltration rates, soil microbial communities, plant community structure, invertebrate community structure, pest populations, yields, and profit.
“Regenerative outcomes were strongly correlated with our approach to farm scoring,” says Lundgren. “Soil organic matter, fine particulate organic matter, total soil carbon, total soil nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, and sulfur all increased alongside regenerative matrix scores in the cropping system. Along with improved water infiltration, soil bacterial biomass and Haney soil health test scores were also higher as cropland incorporated more regenerative practices. Along with that, invertebrate species diversity and richness were positively associated with regenerative practices in corn.”
The researchers found similar correlations in rangelands and almond orchards managed by regenerative practices.
Blue Dasher Farm Enterprises
Beyond housing the research headquarters for Ecdysis Foundation, the 53-acre Blue Dasher Farm at Estelline, South Dakota, supports for-profit farm enterprises.
Its chicken flock provides eggs and meat to local consumers. The farm caretakers, including farm founder and researcher Jonathan Lundgren, also supply the local community with lamb, pork, and fruit. They sell products at farmers markets as well as directly to consumers at the farm.
Because half the farm remains in wetlands and unbroken prairie, native grasses and wildflowers abound. The farm supports an apiary that supplies honey to local consumers and on its website, and the grassland yields native grass seed for commercial sale.
Proceeds from farm sales contribute to the financial needs of both the farm and the research foundation. Corporate and philanthropic grants also provide funding, along with private donations.
Besides being linked to their local community through food production, researchers and other staff stay connected to local farmers and ranchers through discussion groups. These provide ideas for grassroots-led research projects. The ongoing development and testing of a cover crop interseeder emerged from these discussions, as did the idea for a simple design of a cover crop roller-crimper.
“By becoming farmers ourselves and by focusing our research on operating farms, we’ve gained a better understanding of what farmers experience,” says Lundgren. “That’s totally changed our approach as scientists and helped us to stay relevant to the real world of agriculture.”
1,000 Farm Initiative
To broaden the impact of these findings, Ecdysis Foundation has launched the 1,000 Farm Initiative. By 2023, researchers will gather data from 1,000 regenerative farms located throughout the United States and Canada.
“We will generate full-site inventories of soils, water, microbiology, plants, invertebrates, birds, and socioeconomics,” says Lundgren. “The focus is on major ecoregions and dominant cropping and livestock systems that can drive change in regional food systems.
“The goals of this data-gathering effort are to validate established regenerative systems relative to conventional counterparts, and to develop road maps for farmers who are transitioning to regenerative systems,” he says. “Our programs will also provide growers with tools and resources, such as monitoring kits they can use to assess the health of their farms and to determine whether their decisions about adopting regenerative approaches are succeeding.”
Beyond demonstrating to farmers and ranchers the beneficial effects of regenerative practices, the Ecdysis Foundation research will also help to inform the decisions made by policy makers, consumers, and supply chains.
To participate in the Ecdysis Foundation’s initiative, producers can register with the Ecdysis Foundation’s 1,000 Farm Initiative at its website, ecdysis.bio.
“This is an amazing time for hope and change in agriculture,” Lundgren says.