Regenerative Farming Gets a Grassroots Policy Push from SiX | Civil Eats

These State Lawmakers Are Collaborating on Policies that Support Regenerative Agriculture

Progressive state legislators often find themselves in a David-and-Goliath battle against the conventional ag industry. One organization is equipping them with resources to support producers using regenerative practices instead.

A farmer tends a mobile chicken coop at Letterbox Farm, a diversified, organic farm in Hudson, New York. (Photo credit: Preston Keres, USDA)

A farmer tends a mobile chicken coop at Letterbox Farm, a diversified, organic farm in Hudson, New York. (Photo credit: Preston Keres, USDA)

On a crisp weekend this past fall, 30 state legislators from across the nation descended on TomKat Ranch, an 1,800-acre ranch focused on regenerative agriculture in Pescadero, California, an hour south of San Francisco. In addition to learning about regenerative farming practices, the diverse group had gathered to understand how state-level agricultural legislation can bring about climate resilience, food security, and social equity.

As Georgia state senator Kim Jackson began her welcome speech, she instructed the group to look around the room. “We are female; we are male. We are queer; we are people of color; we are Indigenous. We are rural, urban, and suburban,” she said. “Now raise your hand if this is what your [state’s] ag committee looks like.” Despite all hands staying down, “this is exactly why we’re here,” she continued, “because we all have a stake in ag.”

The two-day workshop, which was organized by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a nonprofit, non-partisan national policy, resource, and strategy center, highlighted the power of states to drive progressive change in food and agricultural policy. Against the backdrop of a carefully managed perennial pasture, the gathering focused on legislative approaches to promoting regenerative farming and ranching practices, which the group believes can galvanize support across partisan and rural-urban divides.

The national farm bill often “sucks a lot of the wind out of the room,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, the senior director of agriculture and food systems for SiX, making state-level initiatives seem like “the little sibling of federal policy.” But local and regional actions can counter the country’s “highly centralized and dominant” industrial food and farm system, she adds, and lay the blueprint for transformative large-scale measures.

Packed with experiential learning sessions with experts and advocates, field walks, and farm-to-table meals featuring ingredients sourced from nearby growers, the forum in Pescadero was primarily designed to connect lawmakers, says Kimbirauskas. Reinforcing the network can arm legislators with the resources needed to tackle “tough decisions” in their State Houses, she adds, and expose them to perspectives outside the typical ag lobbying groups on abstruse measures and less-obvious implications of bills.

Attendees at the TomKat Ranch tour organized by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX). (Photo courtesy of SiX)

Attendees at the TomKat Ranch tour organized by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX). (Photo courtesy of SiX)

And because agricultural policy is typically shaped by large agribusiness interests, advocates say efforts to foster greater inclusivity is paramount to changing the status quo. “This,” proffered Jackson, a Black urban farmer from a multi-generational farming family and Georgia’s first openly gay senator, “is how we raise our collective voices.”

Power of State Policymaking

The Cohort for Rural Opportunity and Prosperity (CROP)—a subset of SiX’s Agriculture and Food Systems program—currently includes elected officials from 43 states who are positioned to advance socially and ecologically responsible rural, agricultural, and food policy.

When it comes to deciphering rural and farm-related issues, progressive legislators often face a steep learning curve, says Kimbirauskas. Many tend to hail from urban areas and are better versed on issues such as public health or education; even those with farming roots may not have direct field experience. As a result, they may lack the capacity to be “champions for food and ag policy,” she notes, despite the broad impacts of farming legislation on cities, the environment, and the larger food system.

Historically, that space has been dominated by state level farm bureaus and the larger federal, Kimbirauskas says. Heavily backed by large agriculture trade groups with deep pockets, the nation’s most powerful agricultural lobbying group is, generally speaking, the sole voice leading those conversations at the state level. “The corporate ag lobby absolutely knows the power of state policymaking,” she says. “That’s why they have a stable of lobbyists in every state house across the country.”

Depending on the state, legislators may be severely under-resourced and overworked—nationwide, their salary averages less than $44,000, with state lawmakers in New Hampshire and New Mexico working as volunteers, requiring many to hold second jobs.

“The corporate ag lobby absolutely knows the power of state policymaking. That’s why they have a stable of lobbyists in every state house across the country.”

State budgets can also hamper in-house agricultural knowledge. Less than half a percent of Hawaii’s annual budget, for instance, goes to its department of agriculture, thereby limiting the robust collection of crop statistics and other data critical to making industry decisions. Recently, the state also slashed 20 percent of university extension staff.

As an “organizing vehicle” designed to help “disrupt the legislator-to-lobbyist pipeline,” CROP equips progressive leaders with robust support and expertise to fill these voids, says Kimbirauskas. Rather than relying on ag industry lobbyists to shape boilerplate legislation—a tactic frequently used by conservative national policy organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—SiX connects lawmakers to policy advocates and agriculture-based organizations to share information and strategies in creating more effective policies.

Although organic practices are federally certified, “regenerative” methods—which hold many commonalities—are not typically strictly defined or certified. However, for the same reason, they are also often seen as more accessible to growers and less divisive than organic agriculture. And when done right, regenerative farming has been shown to have multiple benefits that appeal across partisan, racial, and geographic divides, says Renata Brillinger, executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), an advising partner to SiX.

Along with reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, practices that build healthy soil, for example, make land more resilient to drought, flooding, wildfires, and erosion. And the perks go far beyond the pastures, Brillinger says: “We get cleaner air and water, healthier communities, and a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions” through carbon sequestration.

As the gains become more obvious amid the growing challenges of the climate crisis,“the more conservative champions [can] get on board,” Brillinger adds, “because they [also] appreciate the benefits to the farmer and the farm economy.”

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Since its implementation in 2017, California’s Healthy Soils program—part of the state’s suite of Climate Smart Agriculture initiatives aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change and fostering sustainability across various sectors—has influenced similar policies throughout the country. Last year alone, six states passed bills that advance healthy soil management policies, programs, and funding.

For lawmakers from states short on resources or lagging in support for these measures, frontrunners like California help gauge effectiveness and build momentum for similar measures back home, says Brillinger. Along with sowing the seeds for incentive programs and educational resources down the line, more moderate initiatives can make it possible to collect federal funds.

Last April, Montana took a notable step in promoting good soil practices by designating an official Healthy Soils Week. Rather than laying out imperatives, the state act helps “gently lead people” towards regenerative practices, says the bill’s author, State Senator Bruce Gillespie, by recognizing the benefits of soil conservation and range management, particularly through rotational livestock grazing.

Despite being one of the country’s driest states, agriculture is Montana’s leading industry, “so there’s a big opportunity here” to promote the merits of building and preserving rich soil, adds the third-generation rancher, who was not in attendance at the Pescadero event. In addition to absorbing precious precipitation, he points to the fact that well-managed pastures can capture carbon, harbor wildlife, and become more resistant to erosion.

The “win-win” proposition has the support of Gillespie’s Republican and Democratic colleagues alike, he says, as well as farmers and conservation groups in the region. He hopes that Montana’s actions inspire other states in the grassland region—a sizable area that includes Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas—to adopt similar measures.

In the best-case scenario, state-level initiatives can influence federal policy, says CalCAN’s Brillinger. Congress is currently mulling the Agriculture Resilience Act, which would incentivize farmers and ranchers to engage in climate-friendly practices if its language gets included in the next farm bill. That proposition has been markedly influenced by similar state policies including California’s Converting Our Waste Sustainably (COWS) Act, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through pasture-based manure management.

Laying the Foundation for Change

Nevertheless, in most farm states, the existing legislative structure firmly favors commodity agriculture and the companies it benefits, making even incremental policy changes daunting, says Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA), a Chicago-based nonprofit organization. Built to serve “a massive, complex, and incredibly productive and efficient food system,” its presence, she adds, is unyielding.

In past decades, the large-scale consolidation of the food supply chain has reduced processing, aggregation, and transportation to a handful of companies. As a result, smaller producers often face greater hurdles in adopting any practices that sit outside the mainstream. Without access to markets and appropriate infrastructure (think: organic grain elevators and slaughterhouses) growers can’t fetch added premiums for sustainable practices. “It’s hard to do the right thing,” notes Stelk, “if you’re getting paid the same as your neighbor who doesn’t do anything extra.”

“It’s hard to do the right thing if you’re getting paid the same as your neighbor who doesn’t do anything extra.”

Several Western and Midwestern states, however, have managed to promote conservation-minded practices through modest incentives. The Illinois-based Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources (STAR) Program sets standards for regenerative practices such as crop rotation, tillage, and nutrient applications. Based on their level of stewardship, the voluntary grading system awards farmers with one to five stars, with “pay-for-performance” incentives based on their rating.

Created in 2017, STAR programs have spread to more than 10 states, and a national organization was established earlier this year. As momentum builds throughout various regions, it has spawned wider discussions about incentivizing other parts of the supply chain for regenerative producers, says Stelk.

‘Context Is Everything’

Although the weekend workshop in Pescadero revealed many approaches to strategic state-level governance, it also exposed stark differences in the operational landscape. “Context is everything,” says Hawaii State Representative Amy Perruso, whose state’s plantation history has resulted in a distinct political and agricultural landscape. Big ag continues its outsized presence on the islands in the form of seed companies—GMO seed corn is Hawaii’s top cash crop—so the power they exert “is a big obstacle to systemic change,” she says.

Yet exposure to the broad implications of regenerative farming was eye-opening, says Perruso, in understanding the larger framing of agricultural policy. In the aftermath of her state’s devastating recent wildfires, the effectiveness of policies that promote managed grazing—which reduces fire risk by increasing soil moisture and keeping invasive grasses in check—seem self-evident, she notes.

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In addition to bolstering climate resilience, many regenerative practices are also the cornerstone of Native Hawaiian farming systems, which prioritize soil and water stewardship. And because propelling these efforts can impact food sovereignty, it also carries “strong political implications,” she adds.

Perruso’s insight also underscores the importance of considering the diversity of stakeholders invested in regenerative farming. And Indigenous perspectives are especially relevant to shaping effective state-level food and agricultural policy, says Yadira Riviera, associate director at the nonprofit First Nations Development Institute (FNDI).

As a presenter at the Pescadero workshop, Rivera reminded lawmakers that Native farmers, ranchers, and food producers—including foragers and harvesters—hold deep-rooted, traditional expertise. Their insight is essential to creating sustainable, culturally sensitive, and region-specific policies, she says.

Soliciting input from a broad pool of stakeholders also helps lawmakers formulate more effective policy, says Riviera. Funding for fencing, for instance, may not have obvious regenerative benefits, but for farmers and ranchers practicing managed grazing—which requires rotating livestock between multiple fenced paddocks—it’s an absolute necessity.

CalCAN’s Brillinger believes that building a more resilient food and farming system is in everybody’s interest, so collective action is imperative to shoring up effective policies. And unlike the drastic climate solutions needed in the energy and transportation sectors, many agriculture- and land-based strategies don’t require expensive, high-tech approaches, she notes, and can be easily implemented—given the political will. “The benefits are just so multifaceted,” she says, “that it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

And finally, the weekend gathering highlighted yet another perk to regenerative farming: “mind-blowing” produce cultivated in rich healthy soil. “It was such an experience eating that food,” says Perruso, of the generous spreads served on the ranch. “I’ve never tasted vegetables like that.”

Civil Eats receives funding from TomKat Educational Fund. We also receive funding from FNDI to support our Indigenous Foodways reporting.

Naoki Nitta is a freelance writer based in Northern California, focused on food and sustainability issues. His work has appeared in Modern Farmer, Grist, Smithsonian Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. Read more >

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