Is the Future of Big Dairy Regenerative? | Civil Eats

Is the Future of Big Dairy Regenerative?

Some of the world’s largest dairy companies are betting on regenerative ag to produce the grain they feed their animals. Critics say their practices could preserve the industrial approach—and lead to greenwashing.

A rancher on a dairy farm leading cattle to be milked.

Fourth-generation Kansas dairy farmer Ken McCarty is all in on regenerative agriculture. He’s planted cover crops, reduced tillage, and fosters biodiversity by creating wetlands and planting trees on the land where he grows the crops that feed his animals.

“We’re young and we’ve really staked our future livelihoods on these regions and their resources sustaining us for the next 20, 50, 100 years,” McCarty told Civil Eats. “Taking care of the assets that sustain you simply makes economic sense. And there’s a moral obligation . . . regenerative agriculture is the right thing to do.”

And yet, unlike many of the regenerative farmers who have been in in the spotlight in recent years, McCarty isn’t a small- or medium-scale farmer. His is one of two conventional operations that make up the MVP Dairy partnership, a company that owns a total 26,000 cows, including 13,000 milking cows, holds all its cows in barns, and grows grain—predominantly corn—on approximately 9,500 acres in two states.

Three years ago, MVP Dairy joined a new regenerative dairy program sponsored by Danone North America, the company behind Dannon yogurt and Horizon organic milk. Danone’s program has allowed the farmers to measure the impacts of their practices, further refine them, and publicly talk about improving soil health, a chief goal of regenerative agriculture, said McCarty.

Ken McCarty of MVP Dairy, standing in front of his dairy herd.

Ken McCarty of MVP Dairy.

And dairy farms like his may be the future of regenerative ag—a fact that could signal an important transformation to a struggling, often controversial industry.

Danone, General Mills (maker of Yoplait yogurt and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, among other big dairy brands), and yogurt maker Stonyfield have all recently launched soil health programs specifically aimed at dairy producers. The voluntary programs, which offer training, tech support, and financial assistance, are seen as key to transforming dairy farms—a major source of emissions—into “carbon sinks,” allowing Big Food companies to reduce their carbon footprints and open up new avenues to market their products.

And they’re coming at a time when many dairy operations are struggling, milk consumption continues to decrease, and the market share for plant-based milks has been on the upswing, leading the dairy industry to focus on other products (cheese and yogurt consumption is up, for instance).

“There’s a moral obligation . . . regenerative agriculture is the right thing to do.”

“Food companies have a tremendous amount of influence on their farmers. So if they are actively promoting these practices, that speaks volumes to the farmers,” said Allen Williams, a co-founder of regenerative agriculture consulting firm Understanding Ag and the Soil Health Academy coach hired by General Mills. “It signals to them that companies are getting serious about regenerative agriculture and maybe the farmers should, too . . . otherwise they won’t want to buy from them. It’s an impetus that can help drive this movement more rapidly.”

But it remains unclear whether regenerative agriculture can actually deliver on its promises of significantly reducing emissions and helping to reverse climate change. And while experts say it’s possible that corporate dairy programs can help accelerate the transition to regenerative production, they also take issue with large confinement-based dairies like McCarty’s entering the fray.

At a time when a number of multinational food corporations are working to control the narrative around concepts like sustainability and agroecology, these dairy companies will also help define how consumers see the term regenerative in the years to come—a vision that includes some sustainable practices but works to ultimately preserve an industrial food system.

“It should be clear and transparent what companies are doing along that [regenerative] spectrum so that it does not mislead people to think that they’re doing more than they are,” said Urvashi Rangan, co-chair at Funders for Regenerative Agriculture (FORA), a national initiative of funders and investors.

Conventional, Organic Dairies Welcomed

Over the past decade, as regenerative agriculture has exploded from a niche movement to a global sustainability trend focused on combating climate change through carbon sequestration, Big Food companies have been jockeying for a place on the stage. Myriad agribusiness giants—from Cargill to PepsiCo and Nestlé—have made public commitments to help finance farmers’ adoption of regenerative practices. The world’s largest retailer Walmart, Bayer, and even fashion brands have also joined in. Locking carbon in farmland is also a key piece of President Biden’s plan to combat the climate crisis, as the administration works to support an agricultural “carbon market.”

Much of the interest and support has focused on crop farmers, but dairy farms may be the new frontier in part because their operations have a sizable carbon footprint.

Agriculture contributes about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and dairy farms are an important source, due to both livestock and crop cultivation. As they digest food, cows constantly belch methane, a greenhouse gas that is nearly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And their manure is a significant source of methane and nitrous oxide—a gas with 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. And the feed crops such as corn, alfalfa, and soy are typically grown using practices that lead to the use of massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, also significant sources of emissions.

The new regenerative dairy programs include a small number of farms for now, though they already encompass thousands of cows and tens of thousands of acres of farmland focused on growing animal feed. Danone, which four years ago became the first to launch such a program, is now supporting the transition to regenerative practices on 80,000 acres managed by 34 dairy farms. Twenty of those farms are conventional dairies that together manage 52,000 acres of land; the rest of the land is managed by 14 organic farms, members of Horizon Organic, the largest supplier of organic milk in North America.

Danone—which buys milk in the U.S. directly from approximately 700 farms, more than 600 of them organic)—considers dairy farmers key to slashing its emissions in half by 2030 and to becoming net zero by 2050. Its brand, Horizon, intends to become the first carbon positive dairy brand by 2025.

“Nearly two-thirds of our corporate footprint is tied to our upstream agriculture sources. So regenerative practices are a critical opportunity for us . . . to reduce our carbon overall,” said Deanna Bratter, Danone’s head of sustainable development.

Stonyfield Organic is also betting on regenerative practices to help it cut emissions by 30 percent by 2030. It launched a pilot program with five dairies in 2020 and has since expanded to include 10 of the milk producers it works with in the Northeast. The pilot includes more than 5,000 acres—mostly pasture and hay land. Though Stonyfield has not adopted a specific definition of regenerative agriculture and says its program is focused on managing climate change and going beyond the federal organic standards, the company is helping dairies improve soil health and other ecosystem services.

“We’re hoping to get climate benefits and increased carbon sequestration,” said Britt Lundgren, director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield. And she said that dairy farmers also get soil that is more resilient in the face of flooding and drought, higher yields, and they end up spending less on inputs like fertilizers. “Regenerative agriculture can potentially impact their bottom line,” added Lundgren.

Also small in number for now, the new regenerative dairy programs encompass thousands of cows and tens of thousands of acres of land growing animal feed.

General Mills, which buys its milk from dairy suppliers and co-ops, not directly from farms, launched the most recent regenerative pilot program last year with three dairies in Michigan’s Great Lakes region. This year, the company added six more dairies, for a total of 17,000 acres in the pilot. The company already runs two other regenerative pilot programs for oat growers in North Dakota and Canada and wheat growers in Kansas. The company says the three programs are part of its commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030, at which point General Mills hopes to reduce its absolute greenhouse gas emissions across its full value chain by 30 percent (compared to 2020). The company hopes to achieve net zero by 2050.

Although Stonyfield intends to pay dairy operators to take up regenerative practices, Danone and General Mills are offering other forms of support instead. The promise of higher profits and opportunity to get a foot in the door in the regenerative supply chain—for products that will don regenerative labels in the future—also draw farmers in. However, because most farmers don’t see a return on investment for around four years, said Nicholas Camu, vice president of agriculture at Danone, “what we try to do is bridge those four years financially.”

Giving Farmers the Tools to Make the Transition

The three companies’ regenerative dairy programs have different focal points and approaches. Danone’s main focus is on helping farmers assess their practices, providing on-farm support, and unlocking financial resources to cushion the transition. When a dairy farm joins Danone’s program, it undergoes a full farm audit using the Cool Farm Tool, an online greenhouse gas, water, and biodiversity calculator. The assessment offers an accounting of the farm’s CO2 footprint and helps farmers develop action plans by showing how their fields would respond to specific practices. Then, each farmer receives an improvement plan with a list of best practices and a baseline for monitoring progress, including soil carbon, biodiversity, water retention, and animal welfare.

The Danone dairies use a Return on Investment calculator to assess the financial impacts of the regenerative changes each farmer plans to implement. The tool was developed in collaboration with Kansas State University and Sustainable Environmental Consultants and their management platform EcoPractices, a third party that’s working closely with the dairies in the regen program. In addition, the company is helping them connect with new sources of financing to help with the costs associated with changing their practices, including government funding.

In the case of its Horizon dairies, Danone has established a $15 million Farmer Investment Fund that allows farmers who institute regenerative practices to access low or no-cost loans. But it’s unclear how committed Horizon is to its farmers’ regenerative pursuits: At the end of August, the company announced it would terminate contracts with 89 Northeast organic dairies, effective next year. Danone cited “growing transportation and operational challenges in the dairy industry” as the reason for the terminations and told Civil Eats that it had “onboarded more than 50 producers new to Horizon Organic that better fit our manufacturing footprint.” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts told the Associated Press that the company planned to “focus on larger farms in Midwest and West.”

“It’s really important that our farmers don’t feel like the transformation toward regenerative agriculture is a burden,” said Danone’s Bratter. “We’re not just coming with education opportunities, we’re also helping them assess the economic benefits and investments needed. And then we’re working to unlock resources and funding.” Danone has also formed several cross-industry partnerships to advance regenerative agriculture, including One Planet Business for Biodiversity and Farming for Generations.

Stonyfield’s pilot, in its second growing season, is focused on developing the right technology and digital tools to help dairy operators easily integrate regenerative practices and measure outcomes, including improvements to soil health and carbon sequestration. To this end, in 2019 the company helped develop and launch OpenTEAM, a collaborative, open-source agricultural management technology platform for farmers across the world. Its goal is to help farmers enter data, track it, and run agronomics forecasts to improve practices and apply for organic or regenerative certification, incentive programs, or even carbon credit opportunities, said Stonyfield’s Lundgren. And they can regularly measure their own carbon on the farm, without having to send soil samples to the lab.

Testing soil health and soil carbon as part of Stonyfield's pilot program.

Testing soil carbon as part of Stonyfield’s regenerative dairy pilot program.

While farms in Stonyfield’s dairy pilot will conduct core sampling and lab testing—an expensive and cumbersome process—the company is also helping to calibrate two new on-farm sampling tools that give instant readings of carbon content. The tools, Quick Carbon and Yard Stick, are both hand-held spectral analysis drills featuring cameras that “read” the soil’s carbon content based on its color. Several Stonyfield dairy operators will take up to 50 samples per farm this season using the drills, and the company plans to compare their readings with lab samples to see which gives the most accurate results, Lundgren said.

“We’re looking for the tools to make it easier to participate,” she said.

General Mills’ approach includes comprehensive group and individual education and one-on-one coaching/technical assistance over a minimum of three years, coupled with a train-the-trainer program that has the potential to expand regenerative practices on a regional scale, well beyond the company’s supply chain.

The company pays Williams, the consulting trainer from Understanding Ag, to work with the dairies. The idea, said Jay Watson, General Mills’ head of sourcing sustainability and regenerative agriculture, is to first help dairy operators understand how a regenerative system works. This includes teaching the principles of soil and ecosystem health and how to restore natural cycles that are broken in the current agricultural system. Based on this knowledge, dairy operators build a management plan that’s unique to their farms.

“Once the dairy producers embrace a different mindset, that’s when we see a greater propensity to try new things,” said Watson.

Because intense education and coaching are expensive and difficult to scale up, Watson said, General Mills plans to keep the number of dairies it brings into its regen program small. But it plans to pay others, such as nonprofits, conservation groups, and crop advisors to train and support hundreds of other dairy operators in their regions. An early example funded by the company is the Sustain our Great Lakes initiative, which seeks to increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture in the Great Lakes region, improve soil heath and water quality, and enrich fish and wildlife habitat.

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“We believe we will have a more significant impact on our supply chain if we’re investing in the system around it,” Watson explained by email.

All three companies are also working with the public sector to advance policies and programs to help farmers. Danone, for example, says it advocates for policy changes, including government targets to protect and restore soil health and strong incentives that encourage farmers to adopt regenerative practices. General Mills’ senior agricultural scientist has testified before a U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry about the need for more public research on regenerative agriculture. And Stonyfield recently contributed comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding how the agency could better engage in agriculture that fights climate change.

Can Grain-Based Operations Really Be Regenerative?

Despite all these laudable ideas and plans, some experts say that truly regenerative systems of animal agriculture must be based on pasture, and it is incongruous to consider dairies focused on confinement feeding as regenerative. And while the animals raised on organic dairies must be on pasture for at least 120 days every year, regenerative dairies should go beyond these standards, they say, to rely on year-round, managed (or rotational) grazing as the key to both soil and animal health.

In the case of both the General Mills and Danone pilots, most participants are conventional operations with herd sizes that range from several hundred to several thousand cows held permanently in large barns, with no access to pasture.

“If we’re really going to use regenerative agriculture as a pathway to unlock carbon reductions, we’ve got to … do it in conventional farming systems.”

Both companies say that helping conventional confinement-based operations transition to growing and sourcing grains grown with regenerative practices is crucial. “The reality is that 1 percent of acreage in the U.S. is organic. And so if we’re really going to use regenerative agriculture as a pathway to unlock carbon reductions and transformation of our systems, we’ve got to be willing to take the steps to do it in conventional farming systems,” said Bratter.

KFAR HAROEH, ISRAEL - MARCH 30: Dairy cows feed on fodder at the Jacobs' family dairy farm on March 30, 2008 in Kfar Haroeh, central Israel. World food prices are soaring in the face of what some analysts are describing as a perfect storm of circumstances; increasing demand from developing economies in Asia, rising fuel prices, severe weather impacting recent harvests and an economic shift to biofuel production. All this leaves the consumer paying more for basic staples such as bread and milk and is likely to have its hardest impact on poorer nations. (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)

Dairy operations holding animals in confinement cannot be considered regenerative, even if they engaged in other beneficial practices, said Randy Jackson, a professor of grassland ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He worries that the dairies in these programs will call themselves regenerative without truly accounting for the way they produce feed, the fertilizer and other emissions-intensive inputs for that go into it, and how animals are transported, to name just a few.

“The point of regenerative is that it’s regenerating. There’s got to be more [natural resources] there after you’re done with it, or at least the same amount. But if you’re taking more than you’re leaving behind, it’s still extractive,” said Jackson, who leads a research project called Grassland 2.0 that aims to help Midwestern farmers convert from growing row crops to managing perennial pastures. “Just because they grew some cover crops on the corn they feed the cows, they’re not regenerative. It’s less bad, but still bad.”

But Danone and General Mills both contend that large, conventional dairies can still be regenerative —animal welfare figures prominently in both companies’ regenerative policies.

Danone points to MVP Dairy, the large, multi-state operation mentioned above, as an example. The two-family partnership feeds all its cows in freestall barns featuring misters, fans, sand bedding, and cow brushes. They’re certified and audited for animal welfare. The families have been using a slew of practices in the regenerative playlist for years and the company regularly publishes reports on its sustainability practices.

According to McCarty, one of the big changes the dairy has made since joining Danone’s program, is to focus on conserving the amount of water it draws from the declining Ogallala Aquifer. By further cutting back on tillage and adding more cover cropping, it has reduced a great deal of the erosion and water loss it was seeing before it took those steps. And last year, the dairy secured a low-cost loan through a new partnership between Danone and rePlant Capital to install moisture probes on its cropland. (The financial services firm will invest up to $20 million to support Danone’s farmers in their conversion to regenerative or organic farming.) McCarty said all these changes combined will allow MVP Dairy to save a billion gallons of water over the span of five years.

Stonyfield and Danone’s Horizon Organic farms already focus on grazing—but both companies said there’s room for improvement when it comes to sequestering carbon. Stonyfield’s pilot focuses on improving dairies’ rotational grazing techniques, by rotating animals through a series of smaller paddocks, or pastures. Dairy operators will also bring in an expert to help farmers improve their pastures and seed a greater diversity of perennial plants with improved nutrients, Lundgren said.

“The farms are doing well from a carbon perspective because the land is already in permanent cover, but they also have a lot of room for improvement,” she added.

When Is a Dairy Regenerative?

There’s also the question of when, exactly, a farm becomes regenerative enough that its products can be marketed using that term. Stonyfield doesn’t have plans to use the word “regenerative” on future dairy product labels and both General Mills and Danone declined to specify either way. But multiple General Mills brands, including Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, EPIC, and Muir Glen, already tout the benefits of regenerative agriculture from crop farmers. And Danone has begun to message its “carbon positive” commitment for its Horizon Organic brand on its milk cartons.

“General Mills continuously listens to consumers to . . . identify ways to showcase the ability of agriculture and the food system to be a part of the solution to climate change,” company officials told Civil Eats.

Dairy cows grazing on a snowy field. (Photo courtesy of the Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment)

(Photo courtesy of the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment)

Experts point to the potential for green-washing and misleading consumers because Big Food companies’ definitions of regeneration are not uniform, their dairies aren’t required to follow any specific federal standards (as is the case with organic) and the current certifications in the market such as Regenerative Organic Certified or Land to Market are strictly voluntary. (The three companies said they did not plan to ask the dairies in their regen programs to get certified. A single General Mills brand, EPIC Provisions, has one of its meat protein bars certified through Land to Market.) As a result, farmers may adopt one or two practices such as no-till, cover cropping, or grazing management and stop there.

FORA’s Rangan says that shouldn’t be enough to warrant a regenerative product label. “The challenge is that you can’t just check a single box and call yourself regenerative,” she said. “It is a systems approach, a full accounting of everything you’re doing. . . We don’t want people to make claims if they are not fully there yet.”

The companies echoed Rangan’s systems approach vision of regeneration. Danone officials called it “a journey and a process with ultimately the goal is to nourish the land.” Leaders at General Mills described it as “a long-term process of restoring and improving farm ecosystems with cumulative benefits to the environment and economics,” adding that it’s never “done.”

“You can’t just check a single box and call yourself regenerative. It is a systems approach, a full accounting of everything you’re doing.”

But while their visions may align with the regen movement’s highest aspirations, it’s unclear whether or how companies will hold farmers’ feet to the fire if they don’t follow through on the journey. And the companies’ benchmarks for actual carbon sequestered are still in the works. That lack of clarity could create loopholes, much like it has in the past with other marketing terms not backed by regulation.

Both General Mills and Danone emphasize that their pilot programs are focused on measuring outcomes and are non-prescriptive, meaning the dairy producers don’t need to follow specific practices.

For instance, General Mills plans to take soil samples every three years to measure soil health and carbon sequestration, as well as monitor impacts to water quality and usage, animal well-being, farm profitability, and plant, insect and bird biodiversity. Many of the measuring tools and protocols are still in development by the company’s small in-house science team, which is working in collaboration with university researchers and conservation groups, including on a comprehensive insect survey by the Ecdysis Foundation. Beyond such measurements, the pilot relies on modeling.

“We feel very strongly that we need to measure regeneration, otherwise we could mislead,” said General Mills’ Watson.

Danone plans to measures the same metrics as General Mills. The dairies tested soil samples in 2017, over the course of year one, and will retest the soil in 2022. In the meantime, Danone has rolled out a soil health scorecard that serves as a guide in helping the company and its farmers to track progress over time.

Stonyfield also plans to measure the total farm emissions and changes in soil carbon over time. The goal is for its entire dairy supply to be carbon positive by 2030, meaning the dairies will collectively sequester more than they emit, Stonyfield’s Lundgren said.

Both Jackson and Rangan recognized the difficulties large dairy companies face in moving their farmers to regenerative practices. But, they said, companies should not use the term “regenerative agriculture” on their labels until the farmers in their supply chains shift their entire farms to pasture-based, fully regenerative systems.

Assortment of milk in the dairy aisle of the grocery store

“It’s going to be confusing for consumers,” said Jackson, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor. “I don’t want to ascribe nefarious motives. But consumers don’t care about such nuance.”

Instead, they both said, companies’ programs should be clear with consumers that their farms are in transition, perhaps by using a certification or label similar to transitional organic.

“What they’re doing carries value . . . and we can’t expect a farm to become regenerative right away,” said Rangan. “But they need to be honest about where they are. When companies make big claims and don’t fulfill them, that’s when the bottom falls out. And once consumers don’t trust regenerative, we won’t be able to turn the tide in agriculture.”

In addition to being transparent about the transition process, companies with regenerative programs should also create strategic plans to incentivize farmers to gradually improve their systems, Rangan said. She cited the new Regenerative Organic Certified label, which features three levels and asks participants to phase in more rigorous practices over time.

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“We don’t want companies to come in [into the regenerative agriculture movement] and just sit at the bottom because they can make a buck,” she said.

Early Successes for Farmers, the Environment

Although they’re still new, the programs are seeing early successes, company officials said. Danone says that its dairy operators, now in their fourth season of the program, have thus far planted cover crops on 64 percent of the program acreage and practiced reduced- or no-till techniques on 77 percent of the land. Ninety-three percent of the fields in the program doubled the number of cover crop and cash crop species they grow to promote crop diversity, planted buffer strips, as well as expand wildlife habitats and wildlife boxes.

Danone also says that, to date, its farmers have reduced more than 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and sequestered more than 20,000 tons of carbon through regenerative practices.

As a result, the dairies have reduced soil erosion, improved water retention, and diminished the use of synthetic fertilizers, said Danone’s Camu. They can also now spread manure on fields with less impact to the environment. Some farmers are also changing their crop rotations, or beginning to rotate at all. (Many of the farms were growing corn six to seven years back-to-back on the same acreage, which is detrimental to the soil.)

The main challenge, said Camu, is that implementing regenerative practices takes time and hence requires patience and a certain level of trust–but eventually, the benefits become self-evident.

“In the beginning, we really had to convince our farmers to please join, and today they’re asking us to put more acreage into the program on their farms,” he said.

Peer learning has proved to be one of the most important aspects of the program. Some of the farmers became ambassadors of best practices, and before COVID-19, the company flew participants to farms across the U.S. as well as Belgium, France, and Russia to learn from each other.

“In the beginning, we really had to convince our farmers to please join, and today they’re asking us to put more acreage into the program on their farms.”

General Mills’ dairies are also seeing positive changes in the first year of the dairy pilot, said Understanding Ag’s Williams. All of the dairies in the program have started reducing tillage and experimenting with more complex cover crop mixes, he said. They’re improving their manure management by applying the manure to living plants instead of bare soil. And they’re working to diminish the use of herbicides. Some dairies, which are primarily confined operations, have also started to incorporate grazing on cover crops.

“This is a major, major step forward for most. . . . When you can incorporate regenerative grazing, it rapidly speeds up your soil health progress,” Williams said.

Williams also finds himself encouraging the farmers to stop second-guessing themselves when it comes to breaking with existing industry norms. “We’re there to help with the challenges they face and to ease their fears,” he said. “Because typically, the fear of change can paralyze farmers and they fall back to the same old thing they’ve always been doing.”

Farmers in Stonyfield’s dairy program also praise the support they receive from the company and the access to technology and more efficient record keeping systems.

“We’re getting more stringent and accurate with our data and as a result can measure carbon and organic matter more in-depth and get a broader, better baseline,” said Eric Ziehm, an organic dairy farmer at High Meadows Farm in Hoosick Falls, New York who is part of the OpenTEAM project and in Stonyfield’s direct milk supply program. Ziehm, who grazes 350 cows on 300 acres, said he is experimenting with different cover crops and fine tuning his rotational grazing techniques.

Because changing to a regenerative system takes time, Stonyfield said the company isn’t expecting results from dairies like Ziehm’s for a few years. In 2023, Stonyfield will ask all of its farmers to start reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving soil health. “By 2025, we’ll hopefully start seeing some real results,” Lundgren said.

Cash Incentive or Intrinsic Motivation?

Scaling up and ensuring continued improvement are two big hurdles for regenerative agriculture. Stonyfield’s Lundgren said her company is planning to develop a cash incentive program to encourage all of its dairies to participate and continue to refine their systems. For now, farms in the pilot are paid $2,000 per year.

“Everybody recognizes the fundamental challenge is scaling this up,” Lundgren said. “It will get harder as we move out to farms that are less savvy in technology, less interested in electronic record keeping, or not as interested in improving their pasture plan or grazing activity. There’s got to be something more to bring them to the table.”

Neither Danone nor General Mills plan to offer their farmers a cash incentive or ingredient premium. Both companies emphasize that the training and tech assistance are much more valuable and, they say, the economic benefits that result from regenerative farming are self-reinforcing.

Dairy cattle grazing in a regenerative way in a sunny field. (Photo courtesy of the Wolfe's Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment)

(Photo courtesy of the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment)

But Lundgren said one of the reasons a financial incentive might be needed to keep a regenerative dairy program on track is the growing popularity of carbon markets for farmers. The markets pay farmers based on the amount of carbon sequestered and then sell carbon credits to companies to offset their emissions. But Stonyfield wants to be able to count the emission reductions dairy operators make toward its own emission reduction goals (they can’t be counted twice), and hopes that a cash incentive will keep them from trying to enter the market themselves.

“For now we hope that we are providing farms with enough support and incentives that they don’t also need to participate in external carbon markets,” she said. But if the price for carbon becomes high enough, she realizes it could shift.

General Mills has been making it easier for some of farmers it works with to participate in carbon markets, and they say they’re seeing interest in them grow. The company was one of the founding partners of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, a nonprofit that, starting next year, will run a national market for farmers to get paid for sequestering carbon, improving water quality, or generating other environmental benefits. Currently, farms in General Mills’ wheat regenerative program can choose to be a part of the market’s pilot tests—and be one of the first to get paid for storing carbon. But dairies in the company’s regen program aren’t yet eligible to join.

It’s not yet clear how corporate regen programs will impact farms that operate outside of the companies’ supply chains—those who may be competing for the same federal dollars and other support to make the transition to regenerative farming. Given the challenges and costs, relatively few dairies have made the switch on their own in recent years.

Blake Alexandre, who co-runs Alexandre Family Farm, the first regenerative organic dairy certified in the U.S., said he’s glad large corporations are running regenerative agriculture programs to offer additional financial and tech support to farmers who want to make the switch. But, he added, he’s also afraid the term “regenerative” might get co-opted and whitewashed by Big Food, just like “natural” and “organic” did—leaving individual farms like his behind.

“What if big companies take the term, the concept,” Blake Alexandre said, “but they don’t live it . . . and it becomes just a marketing thing?”


This article is part of a 2-part series produced with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. Read the first part here.

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) and follow her on Twitter @GosiaWozniacka. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Mike von Plato
    The looming BIG problem:
  2. Cynthia Gaffney
    So appreciate the depth and scope of the research in this article. Excellent reporting.
  3. S
    We were taught in holistic nutrition school that Horizon was not a truly organic company. Stonyfield always was considered to be a great company at least until Danone bought them.
  4. AUHM (animals under Human management) needs to be shut this 21st century. It s no longer needed and it is cruel. The opposite of AUHM is VEGAN. Vegan is a proven technology for the future. Nobody has ever found anything wrong with vegan. There are many names for ranching, but is still is ranching. Truck farming, not ranching, will be our survival and the planet's survival. --- from the deep woods of Species' Forest, Conway, Massachusetts, 501(c)(3) land trust with an ethical vegan board of directors (Richard Stafursky, Vermont)
  5. Rose B
    Cattle are ruminants, grass-eaters. If you grow a monocrop of corn and feed the GRAIN to the dairy cows, that's not regenerative, no matter how nicely you grow the corn. The only way to make that "regenerative" would be to turn the cows loose in the cornfield so they could eat the whole plant, not just the grain, and they could enjoy the sunshine for their own health, and fertilize the soil with their waste. But it sure doesn't sound like that's what these "regenerative" dairies are doing.

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