Soil Proof: The Plan to Quantify Regenerative Agriculture | Civil Eats

Soil Proof: The Plan to Quantify Regenerative Agriculture

With the 1,000 Farm Initiative, Jonathan Lundgren will spend the next 10 years studying the potential to draw carbon into the soil and bring life back to farm fields.

Jonathan Lundgren on a field overlooking regenerative agriculture project

Jonathan Lundgren on Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota. Lundgren is spearheading a massive effort to study regenerative agriculture over the next decade.

It’s an unseasonably warm February day near Turlock, California, and farmer-researcher Jonathan Lundgren is handing out tiny white balls of clay. A group of us have gathered at the edge of the almond orchard at Burroughs Family Farms, a 400-acre organic, regenerative farm in the San Joaquin Valley, for a field day. Lundgren, who is visiting from South Dakota, has invited us to replicate an experiment that he and the scientists he works with use often.

He asks us each to take a mealy worm, attach it to our ball of clay with a pin, and place it somewhere in the orchard, adorned with a bright pink ribbon so that we can find it later. After we’ve tromped through a lush green carpet of grasses and other cover crops, he explains the goal. The worms are bait; in half an hour, participants will count them to determine just how many birds, insects, and mammals are in the regenerative orchard, waiting to descend. The scientists have done counts like this on a range of conventional, regenerative, and transitional farms around the country as a way to measure biodiversity or, as Lundgren puts it more simply: life.

A clay ball with mealy worm attached. (Photo by Twilight Greenaway)

A clay ball with mealy worm attached. (Photo by Twilight Greenaway)

And life, quite frankly, is rare here. In this part of California, conventional almond orchards cover thousands upon thousands of acres in mind-numbing succession and—aside from the trees’ abundant blooming and fruiting, their root systems shaped by irrigation—growers and farmworkers toil to keep all other living things to a minimum.

But Lundgren, an entomologist who left a role at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service as a whistleblower in 2015 to found the Ecdysis Foundation, is embracing an approach that breaks the sterile, monocropping mold—on farms like Burroughs, where sheep graze between the trees and beneficial insects abound.

The foundation has taken an unusual approach to scientific research—carrying it out on its own working farm and others. For years, Lundgren and the team at Ecdysis have been studying and documenting the impact of regenerative practices—everything from reduced tilling to compost applications, cover crops, and prescribed grazing. Now, they’re embarking on a national, 10-year study they’re calling the 1,000 Farms Initiative.

For years, Lundgren and the team at Ecdysis have been studying and documenting the impact of regenerative practices—everything from reduced tilling to compost applications, cover crops, and prescribed grazing.

“For years, success stories about regenerative food systems and their potential for carbon sequestration, water retention, promotion of life, and profitability have been dismissed because critics insisted on data to ‘validate’ the impact of regenerative agriculture at a mass scale. This is that study,” Lundgren said in a January press release announcing the research.

Indeed, while the hype around regenerative is nearing a fever pitch—and the need for solutions to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss is more pressing than ever—the science, particularly on its carbon storing potential, has been slow to unfold, despite some very big claims.

If the field day at Burroughs Family Farm is any indication, a growing number of farmers and scientists are ready for more hard science on the subject. More than 200 people including organic and conventional farmers, members of the California Almond Board trade group, and experts form Chico State, University of California, Davis, and University of California, Merced, among others, gathered to learn from the latest research in the space.

Lundgren spoke about the study Ecdysis scientists have done over the last two years comparing regenerative and conventional almond systems (including the Burroughs orchards) in California. Published last August, it found that the regenerative orchards had 32 percent more total soil carbon, much more diverse plant and invertebrate communities, and more nutrient-dense almonds. But perhaps most important to the farmers in attendance that day—who are weathering what scientists have determined to be the worst drought in 1,200 years and will likely receive no water allocations from the Central Valley Project’s network of reservoir canals this year—the soil in the regenerative orchards allows more water to infiltrate faster, and hold it there longer once it’s there.

“In 2020, we were scrounging, trying to find farmers to take part in the [almond] study,” Lundgren told a the larger-than-expected crowd. “And look at where we are now.” His hope with the 1,000 Farms Initiative is to bring this kind of evidence to bear all across the nation. In the first month, he says 750 farms registered to take part.

Civil Eats spoke with Lundgren recently about the work he sees ahead for the new study, the promises and challenges it holds, and the need to balance scientific rigor with the urgency inherent in this moment.

How does the 1,000 Farms Initiative fit into the larger body of work that you and others at your foundation have been doing for the last six years?

“We’re trying to find out whether regenerative works no matter what you grow or where you grow it. We’re working with established regenerative farmers and folks that are transitioning.”

When I was at the USDA, I started to meet farmers doing things that science said couldn’t be done. And it wasn’t called regenerative agriculture very often back then. They were focusing on soil health, no-till, cover crops, planned grazing, that kind of stuff. In visiting with these folks, it became clear to me that there was something real going on; it wasn’t just anecdotes. And science needs to be done differently if we were going to capture that. So, I quit, and we started the Ecdysis Foundation here on an operating regenerative farm in the middle of South Dakota.

The idea is that scientists have to be farmers to connect with our issue because that’s how to change the metrics of success. That evolution has driven our scientific and research programs ever since. We don’t do research on experiment farms [like most academic ag scientists]; we work with some of the top producers in the world all over North America. And we are simply trying to capture what the leaders and innovators are accomplishing on their own farms to show that [regenerative agriculture] is replicable and there are predictable outcomes that we can see.

researchers preparing a soil carbon study. (Photo courtesy of the XX)

Ecdysis Foundation staff measures plant diversity and biomass in a California almond orchard. Photo courtesy of the foundation.

We’re looking at full systems that cross disciplines, that cross geographic borders and soil types . . . to conduct the largest experiment that has ever been attempted. We’re ready to deploy scientific teams out to 1,000 farms across the U.S. to gather systems-level data.

What do your existing relationships with farmers look like, and how will they expand as part of this effort?

We’re trying to find out whether regenerative works no matter what you grow or where you grow it. We’re working with established regenerative farmers and folks that are transitioning.

In order to know what’s attainable, we have to find those champion farmers who have been doing this for a while. It gives us an idea of expectations. And then the other component is how quickly we can get there. Early adopters are often the first to admit that it took them a long time. They say, “If I was to have a do-over, I’d be able to get here much quicker.” And because they were on the bleeding edge, they didn’t necessarily practice optimal transition strategies. Those are things we’re learning right now.

In the established systems, we run out to the farms with our team of scientists and try to capture what’s special about them—and put it into data. In the case of those transitioning farms, we’re going to spend multiple years revisiting them to see how things change. We’ll be visiting in years one, two, three, five, and 10, and so we envision there being sort of this hump to our scientific efforts, where over the next three or four years, it will be an intensive sampling scheme that ends up starting to have a longer tail toward the end.

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We’re not interested in saying, “This is the way that you need to be farming.” What we’re trying to say is, “The farmers are the leaders, and the scientists were excellent at science, but we’re not farmers. We need to pair our expertise and provide that service for farming.”

That’s a lot of data collection in a short period of time. How many scientists are involved?

“Life is the currency that drives carbon sequestration. That’s the way the planet works. If we’re not measuring life, then we’re missing out.”

We’re trying to do this with minimal resources. We’ll try to standardize and automate things and collaborate as often as we can. For this initiative, we estimate we’ll need probably 45 to 50 staff members. Right now, we have nine doctoral-level scientists, and depending on when you visit, our staffing swells or ebbs depending on seasonality. We’re trying to locate more people around the U.S. So far, we have a scientist stationed in the Central Valley and another up in the Pacific Northwest.

We’re seeing an explosion of interest in private carbon markets, which allow the carbon stored in farms’ soil to count as offsets for big companies. How much is the emphasis on soil carbon for those purposes influencing this study?

We must be thinking about systems. If carbon is the gateway drug to get people changing their practices, to adopt regenerative systems, [it has value]. But if we make this a dialogue only about carbon, then there are going to be cheaters that come in and exploit the system in ways that don’t change the entire system the way that it needs to.

We’ll be measuring deep carbon down to around 60 centimeters (variable depending on the system) as well as surface carbon levels. And we should be able to calibrate what kinds of carbon levels farmers are putting back into the soil, using our management practices. But, to us, life is the best bioindicator of success in regenerative systems.

Say more about that.

We measure plant life as well as the numbers of invertebrates, insects, birds, mammals, and humans. Life is the currency that drives carbon sequestration. That’s the way the planet works. If we’re not measuring life, then we’re missing out.

Researchers in the field studying regenerative agriculture

Ecdysis scientists collect data, including insect abundance and water infiltration rates, in a regenerative California almond orchard. Photo courtesy of the foundation.

We were working with folks like General Mills on their supply chain in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and we saw the life resurge on these [transitioning] farms very fast. In year one, 25 percent of the caterpillars we were putting out there were eaten by predatory insects within one hour. By year two, 50 percent were gone. By year three, 75 percent have been eaten. This is a good surrogate for insect pest dynamics. These farms just came alive over a very short window of time. And at that point, they became regenerative systems where the farmers don’t need [pesticide and synthetic fertilizer] inputs. Life is doing what your inputs used to do.

Let’s talk about the difference between organic and regenerative. Some folks want to see them practiced in concert, but regenerative farmers oppose tillage while organic farmers oppose all use of herbicides. What are your thoughts about the tensions that have arisen between people practicing the two approaches?

Regenerative is not all that different than the philosophy that drove organic, or the concepts behind organics back when it was starting. But it’s connected to what I said about carbon markets. If you establish [a label] that’s not outcome-based or systems-focused, there will be cheaters that can come in—and that’s what’s happened with organics. We have to be really careful as regenerative comes online.

There’s a good chance that by the time we save the planet using our food system, we’ll call it something other than regenerative. I’m not going to get hung up on the name. But the principles have to be there for this to work.

Once every couple of weeks, I get contacted by another group that is putting together a certification program for regenerative agriculture. It’s getting to be this fever pitch. But none of them are actually putting data behind it or actually testing to find out whether it works. That requires science; unless you’ve got that, it’s hand-waving. I’m not saying our matrix is perfect, but we’re the only ones who have an actual matrix of regenerative practices (that can be shown to contribute to regenerative outcomes) that is in the peer-reviewed literature.

There is a great deal of urgency in play as more companies and lawmakers begin to grasp the full reality of the climate crisis. How do you balance that urgency against the need for this kind of longitudinal data gathering?

That’s why we are starting now. We have to make major substantive changes to our food system within the next 10 years, otherwise, we’re SOL. We’ll need data in hand to make those changes. Science takes a while, and that’s a main driver behind the strategy that we’ve taken both in terms of scale, as well as the questions we’re asking and how we’re asking them.

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Meanwhile, there are other entities within the science realm that are trying to sequester funds for endowments and buildings and programs in regenerative agriculture. And it’s like, “Folks, this isn’t the time for that. We’ve got to have data in hand here, momentarily.” That’s what Ecdysis is trying to do.

Is there other substantive research into regenerative agriculture happening outside the U.S.?

“Driving up and down I-29 six years ago, it was bleak; the soil was constantly tilled. Now, you drive up and down I-29, and you see cows grazing cover crops.”

There’s more and more talk outside of the U.S. But in terms of scientific research experiments? I don’t know of anything else out there. Ecdysis has been approached by other groups interested in scaling the research to a global space. We’ve had farms from Australia, Europe, and Africa register to take part in the study and we’re thinking about how to scale the study up once we have a year or two under our belts on this continent.

Can you tell us about Blue Dasher Farm—the farm where the Ecdysis Foundation is headquartered in South Dakota? What do you all produce, and how do you strike a balance between production and research?

We have a 53-acre farm. Part of that is native unbroken prairie and wetlands. Our major outputs are honey, lamb, eggs, poultry, and pork. And we have a young orchard and a jams and jelly garden. We sell primarily to our local community. But the most important output is homeostasis—life. That’s one of our important outputs, and if a farm is not producing that, then it isn’t going to be around for very long. It’s hard to put a monetary figure on that, unless you’ve got a business plan that accounts for that balance of life. The other thing is the next crop of young scientists.

Blue Dasher farm

Sheep graze on Blue Dasher Farm.

The farm was conventional before you moved there, and it is surrounded by large, conventional farms. How do your neighbors respond to what you’re doing there?

A real chasm has grown between scientists and the people they’re trying to serve. When we embedded a research facility, an “eco farm,” into the middle of what is essentially ground zero of where change needs to happen, the whole point was to plant a flag that people could rally around. The farming community here, it’s changing. We can’t take full credit for that, but I can say that our field days are extremely well-attended. The neighbors who never tried any of this before are talking about grazing pieces of their crop ground this year, and they decided not to spray [pesticides], because they wanted to be good neighbors and didn’t want to spray out our bees. (They didn’t know that they were costing me $20,000 a year in new bees.)

We’ve got a little community that comes for a Soil Builder Coffee Club, where we can be a support network for them. The outputs of that have been a new roller/crimper [a tool that allows farmers to terminate cover crops without herbicide] that we’re building in the community and a new interseeder that people can use. Driving up and down I-29 six years ago, it was bleak; the soil was constantly tilled. Now, you drive up and down I-29, and you see cows grazing cover crops. So, there are changes happening, and it’s bigger than us, but we’re happy to be a part of it.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

People tell me, “We love the idea of regenerative agriculture, but we’re stuck in this current way and what is it gonna cost us to change?” I think, whether we’re farmers or consumers or philanthropists, we all have to change the question and ask ourselves: What is it going to cost us not to change? That is what’s driving our efforts right now. As a scientist, it would have been easy to stay at USDA and count lady beetle spots for the rest of my life and take home a paycheck. But we need action.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Twilight Greenaway is Civil Eats' senior editor and former managing editor. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Frank
    If you do a thorough assessment of the ecosystem first and then find out how to create a balanced ecosystem including Agroecology, Biodynamics and use IPM and diversify the system maybe it will work.
  2. Hunter
    This is precisely the type of program, integrating science and farming with no greenwashing.
    Hope some of the billionaire philanthropists would help fund such programs.
  3. Licensed as the first farmstead creamery in Illinois in 2005, our goats have grazed from day one, all land treated organically, we're transitioning to silvopasture for all 70 acres we own and rent. Both soil science PhD's retired academics, started Environmental Change Institute at UIUC. Want to get the science much more fully developed and implemented, please let me join your effort!

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