The Relationship of Soil and Water – Interview with Regenerative Organic Alliance
The new year is here, 2020 is behind us, and the world looks to 2021 to produce better fortunes. Percolating up through the web of important topics are ESG movements and corporate commitments, sustainable investing, the need for climate reporting, more efficient resource management practices, and collaboration.
Floating around in news articles, social media, conversations, and more have been calls to action, many of which carry the common sentiment of, “build back better.” Fitting words to pivot into a hopeful leap from the whirlwind that was 2020.
As such, AQUAOSO thought it would be beneficial to publish a little hope, with the help of some friends of ours, the Regenerative Organic Alliance. A team of water experts, we are wildly passionate about working toward global water resilience and have our eyes trained on accelerating further toward that reality going into 2021. Our methods involve helping businesses – people – make the right decisions around water through aggregated, granular, geospatial data. Collaboration is also a founding pillar of AQUAOSO and is a catalyst for real business and water solutions. In agriculture, ideas for improvements in water management rarely miss our gaze, and one solution that caught our eye is regenerative organic agriculture.
With water stress and drought increasing, seeing a practice that can promote water resilience against long odds is more than welcome. Among a trove of benefits, regenerative organic practices help conserve water quantity and promote water quality in agriculture, thereby adding value to the stakeholders throughout the agricultural supply chain.
We talked with the expert team at Regenerative Organic Alliance and asked them some questions about what it means to become Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™), how regenerative agriculture helps operations become more water-sustainable, and what this means for their bottom lines.
So, going into 2021, should the industries and businesses that are touched by water be hopeful, despite the water problems that are both present and growing? The answer is yes. Solutions to water problems are there and are becoming more plentiful. These solutions can be adopted. As professionals, we can protect our businesses and contribute to the trend of “building back better” simultaneously.
Here’s the big reveal: the two are one and the same. Here’s what our friends at Regenerative Organic Alliance have to say about soil and water:
Use these bullets to navigate to:
- The mission of ROC
- Industry feedback on the work ROC has been doing
- How the well-being of soil and water are intrinsically connected
- The viability and profitability – in the eyes of ag lenders, investors, and farmers – of becoming certified
- Comments on a Guidelight Strategies/Patagonia report about the barriers to adoption
- Success stories of farms that prospered from regenerative organic practices in terms of soil and water.
- The role of collaboration in agriculture
- The future of regenerative organic practices and water sustainability
- Beneficial steps that agriculture lenders and investors can take
AQUAOSO (AO): Can you explain the mission of Regenerative Organic Alliance and Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™)?
Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA): “The Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), exists to promote regenerative organic farming as the highest standard for agriculture around the world. We promote farming practices that restore and build soil, ensure animal welfare, and end unfair conditions for farmers and farmworkers. We exist to heal a broken system, repair a damaged planet, and empower farmers and eaters to create a better future through regenerative organic agriculture.
The ROA established Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) because regenerative organic agriculture has the potential to address many of today’s pressing problems, including the climate crisis, factory farming, and fractured rural economies.
Industrial agriculture and the factory farming of animals are top contributors to climate change. In turn, climate change is making it harder to farm. Our conventional farming system has degraded our soil to dangerous levels around the world.
Farmers and farmworkers are too often exploited, and rural economies in the U.S. and around the world are suffering. We need to make clear, calculated changes to our food and fiber systems to make regenerative organic the new model. If we adopt regenerative organic practices on more farms, we’ll see improvements to soil health, the well-being of animals, farmers, workers, and the climate itself.”
AO: How is Regenerative Organic Certified making that mission actionable and what has the feedback been thus far?
ROA: ROC helps consumers connect with farmers around the world using ethical, humane, and climate-friendly practices. The businesses and brands working with us have made a push to reinvest in their supply chains, finding ways to work with their supplying farmers, growers, and ranchers to implement the ROC Framework.
One of our certified farms told us that: “The impact ROC has had on Tablas Creek Vineyard has been profound in too many ways to mention. The most immediate impact is that, because of the ROC criteria, our communication with our crew has changed drastically. Instead of assigning tasks, we now talk about the “why” behind our tasks and solicit input from each individual in the crew (which we now call the Leadership Team). There is a newfound sense of pride in and amongst our team that has greatly increased the efficiency and quality of our work.
So far, the response has been extremely positive. We are seeing farms, processors, brokers, and brands of all sizes express interest in ROC.
While we have seen lots of interest from the food industry, we are also seeing substantial interest from the wine and textile/apparel industries.
Many companies are looking at ROC as a way to address multiple issues within their supply chains, such as the climate impact and labor concerns. ROC also ties in nicely with companies’ UN Sustainable Development Goal commitments.
AO: Can regenerative farming practices help water quality and quantity? How do soil and water health interact? How does soil health contribute to water sustainability?
ROA: Yes, regenerative organic farming practices can help with water quality and quantity. Water and soil health are intrinsically linked. The healthier the soil the more efficiently it uses water and the more capacity it has to store water.
Soil and water are directly related.
Because healthy soil can retain more water than degraded soil, it’s less likely to wash away during a heavy rain event. Currently, there’s an issue of sediment buildup as chemically treated soil “runs off” into nearby bodies of water, both stripping vital topsoil and polluting resources. Topsoil erosion is a global issue that poses a threat to the future of agriculture and humanity.
Regenerative methods create healthy soil that binds together and absorbs higher amounts of water, which can then sustain plants during dry events. Building healthy soil results in more organic matter and increased porosity, increasing overall water retention. Healthy soil is also better able to filter water before it becomes groundwater or enters rivers.
One main area in which farming impacts water quality is through the persistent use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and pesticides. The Gulf of Mexico has suffered the downstream effects of the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers for years. The excess of nutrients flowing off conventional farms into the Mississippi River causes an annual excess of nutrients resulting in a massive algae bloom and a hypoxic region, known as a “dead zone.” The area is so void of oxygen that fish cannot survive in it.
This has impacts on the overall health of the Gulf and its ecosystem but also impacts the economic viability of the fishing community in the region. Pesticides also negatively impact riparian areas and wetlands.
By switching to regenerative organic production, which prohibits the use of synthetic and toxic chemicals, those chemical inputs become unnecessary. Healthy soil increases plant productivity and resilience, reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Biodiversity, which regenerative organic methods foster, can suppress pest pressure and eliminate the need for toxic pesticides. Additionally, regenerative organic agriculture requires the preservation and restoration of riparian areas and wetlands, which are essential to the health of regional watersheds.
Beyond the impact that regenerative organic practices and soil health can have on water, implementing regenerative organic practices for animal production can also have a huge impact on water quality.
Conventional concentrated animal production (factory farming, or CAFOs) results in high amounts of concentrated animal waste. While manure can be beneficial to rebuilding soil health, just like anything in excess, large quantities of concentrated manure pose a threat to water sources and air quality. Water supplies near concentrated animal production are often contaminated by manure runoff and when waste lagoons leak, they can contaminate local groundwater and threaten downstream water resources as well.
AO: Does becoming Regenerative Organic Certified benefit farmers financially – their bottom line? Why should farmers adopt regenerative organic practices and why should investors and lenders invest in them? Is it profitable?
ROA: The ROC criteria require that buyers pay a premium for ROC crops, so there is a financial benefit to farmers. The demand for organic foods has been increasing in double digits (15-20%) every year for the last 20 years. Demand outstrips supply, compelling companies in the US to import far more than we produce. Transitioning more farmers to organic, then ROC, will result in higher premiums and more stability to farming communities. But there are also other areas for financial gain. Farmers typically greatly decrease their input cost by transitioning to ROC practices. Some farmers can generate additional income streams through new crops planted to meet ROC requirements for crop rotations.
There is also a long-term potential for financial stability, as regenerative organic practices reduce the need for expensive inputs and may make farms more resilient to pests and extreme weather events, preventing or mitigating crop losses.
One thing to note is that investors and lenders interested in regenerative organic agriculture shouldn’t expect quick returns. There is a great need and demand for patient capital in agriculture. Investing in agriculture can be a safe investment, but it won’t carry big, fast returns. We need investment for farmers who are trying to transition away from conventional. There is typically a gap of three years during the transition period from conventional to organic where farmers take a loss, discouraging many from beginning at all. Investment is also critical to help regenerative organic farmers purchase necessary land to implement these practices.
Sustainable agriculture investment, in fact, has been on the rise. Climate reporting and the ESG movement are increasingly discussed and noteworthy. New standards may soon be realized, which would cause a shift in what is demanded of stakeholders and shareholders, and therefore ag lenders, investors, and farmers.
AO: We saw that Guidelight Strategies and Patagonia recently released a report about the barriers that inhibit the adoption of regenerative organic best practices. Any comments on that report?
ROA: We are huge fans of the work that Guidelight Strategies and Patagonia did to research the barriers that inhibit the adoption of regenerative organic best practices. In order to help farmers transition and shift agriculture, we must all fully understand what is currently prohibiting that transition. The report definitely informs the work that we do and our future plans as well as our larger efforts around funding accessibility and shifting federal agricultural policy.
The report is correct that farmers often experience a short-term reduction in farm revenue after they transition to a new production system. Transitioning to organic (the baseline for regenerative organic) requires a three-year transition period, during which farmers often experience a decrease in yield but aren’t yet able to earn the organic premium, which makes up the difference and more.
During the transition period, there is also a shift happening in the soil. On conventional farms, the soil is often depleted and thus dependent on synthetic nutrients for fertility. Those same farm systems typically have little to no natural defenses against pests (like provided habitat for native predators) and therefore are still dependent on synthetic pesticides.
When you remove those chemical inputs, it takes time to rebuild the soil microbiome to increase natural fertility and time to implement the sort of crop rotations and pollinator habitat that can eliminate the need for synthetic pesticides. Regenerative organic farming requires more complex management than industrial-chemical systems; it takes time to put regenerative systems in place.
Once farmers get through the initial period of adoption, there is great potential for increased farm revenue and more resilient farms less susceptible to crop damage and loss.
That’s why it’s critical that farmers are incentivized to transition and are supported when they do. Lenders and investors, or policy, can provide support so that farmers can weather the financial burden of lost revenues caused by transition. Once that initial transition time and investment have run their course, all stakeholders – investors, lenders, and farmers stand to benefit.
AO: What are some ways that the proper management of water has played into success stories of farms you’ve worked with?
ROA: Apricot Lane Farms, featured in the film The Biggest Little Farm, is an incredible example of the impact that proper management has on water. They were implementing regenerative organic practices before the certification existed. They participated in our pilot program and are now a Regenerative Organic Certified™ farm.
They took a farm that looked like a desert with soil that was cracked and hard, and through proper management, they were able to return life to the soil and re-establish an ecosystem. They saw firsthand how management practices completely shifted the farm’s relationship with water.
They were making these changes during the historic five-year drought in California. The fact that their farm fared well during such a drought is a testament to the regenerative practices they had implemented.
In a region like California where droughts are common and rain events can be few and forceful, proper management of soil and water is essential for creating farms that can manage such drastic extremes without dependence on imported water to irrigate. In California, we move water from the northern part of the state to the central part, the Central Valley, in order to produce fruits and vegetables. Implementing regenerative organic practices throughout the Central Valley farming region could have huge implications for water use in the state.
AO: From a regenerative organic perspective, how does collaboration – in terms of industries, organizations, and people – play into creating positive change in agriculture. Where is the value, in your eyes, in collaboration?
ROA: Collaboration is essential and a founding principle of the ROA and ROC. The ROA was developed in collaboration with Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, the Rodale Institute, and several other like-minded organizations. The ROC Framework was tested on the ground through our Pilot Program, which was the result of brand and farm collaborations around the world. The ROC Framework was then adjusted and improved by a series of task forces and advisory boards representing different points in the food production chain, and based on feedback from farmers on the ground.
The reality is that agricultural production is complicated and varied, the wants of brands might not align with the on-the-ground realities of farming. Only through collaboration will we figure it out. When we operate in silos, we fail to effect real change.
Part of collaboration requires accepting that you won’t always be right and that someone else may have the answer. That’s why the ROC Framework is adaptable to different crop production systems, climate regions, and cultural situations. It’s why we ask farmers in their “Regenerative Organic System Plan” (a central document for certification) what unique and successful methods they have implemented on their farms that the ROC framework may not yet include. The Framework will always be a “living document,” regularly updated over time as we learn more.
AO: Going forward, what role do the Regenerative Organic movement and water resilience have together? What should people watch for in terms of soil and water?
ROA: There are currently a few different groups looking at how to address the climate crisis through agriculture and they are providing all sorts of solutions. But one challenge is that oftentimes they are looking at the carbon cycle and soil health as independent from all the other problems we face. There is a water crisis as well and a need to address long-term water resilience and water access. Regenerative organic takes a holistic approach to address all of these issues collectively and considers agricultural production and soil health as part of a larger ecosystem.
Implementing regenerative organic agriculture is essential for ensuring that there is water for future farming.
We are currently depleting groundwater resources, such as aquifers, at a concerning rate. We know that it can take centuries to refill those water areas, and we are drawing out water faster than we can recharge the aquifers.
AO: What are the next steps to creating positive change and profitability around water and soil health?
ROA: There are a number of steps that banks, lenders, investors, and farmers and take to help create positive change and action. Banks, lenders, and investors can start to reexamine their investing priorities and policies to better support and provide financing and investment opportunities for this type of agriculture production.
We are already seeing a shift in consumer demand that will cause farmers and ranchers to switch to regenerative organic practices and require lenders and investors to fund those farms. In addition, an important area that needs to be addressed is providing access to financing to BIPOC farmers who have historically been limited in their access to financing. Part of ensuring diversified production systems is supporting a diverse set of producers.
For farmers they can start taking advantage of some of the finance options that are available. There are platforms like Farm Raise that are making it easier to access funding opportunities such as grants. There is quite a bit of funding via government programs like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that may not specifically support regenerative agriculture, but rather do provide support for many of the individual practices that make up regenerative agriculture.
It is important for there to be a key indication of farmer demand for these programs. In order for there to be an increase in government funds, there needs to be clear indication that the current programs are not meeting the demand.
Both financial institutions and farmers also have opportunities to influence state, local, and federal policy. In order for larger-scale change to happen, there must be changes at every level where policy is made.
Policymakers need to hear about the demand and interest in seeing shifts towards and support for regenerative agriculture and interest in prioritizing soil and water from all parties that operate in these fields, including investors, financers, and farmers.
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