At S2G Ventures, we are moved by the urgency of our climate situation. We believe that food and agriculture has an important role to play in bringing forward solutions. With the right technology, incentives, and partnerships, the industry can play a major role in mitigating, and one day perhaps reversing, the warming of our planet.
Soil health is a critical component of the climate solution. Healthy soil regulates water, sustains plant and animal life, filters and buffers potential pollutants, nourishes plant roots and stores, transforms and cycles carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus(1). In fact, a recent Rodale Institute report, makes the case that if regenerative practices are employed across the globe on both grasslands and arable acreage that we can sequester more than 100% of current Co2 emissions and achieve a rapid drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide.(2)
“Healthy soil gives us clean air and water, bountiful crops and forests, productive grazing lands, diverse wildlife, and beautiful landscapes”
- Natural Resources Conservation Service Soils
Interest in soil health and regenerative agriculture is growing. That’s a good thing. We need more collective action to turn our industry from being a contributor to the climate problem to being part of the solution. However, as awareness grows, it is important to be clear on the terms we are using and ensure the conversation stays focused on incentivizing tactics that are better for the environment, human health and farmers.
A Spectrum of Agricultural Systems
The industry has work to do to align around what it means to be regenerative, organic or regenerative organic and to develop standards and certifications that embody the values we are currently associating with those terms. The current ambiguity has the potential to confuse consumers and have trickle down implications for family farmers who should be compensated for growing food free of pesticides, building healthy soil and capturing carbon.
And in the excitement about regenerative, let’s not forget about organic. The modern organic farming movement has been underway since the 1940s. It was started by J.I. Rodale, founder of the Rodale Research Institute and Organic Farming and Gardening magazine, in response to widespread industrialization of farming and a surge in use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Since that time, organic food has grown to a $50B market in 2019, supported by nationally recognized certification standards.
Organic farming is the foundation of rebuilding our soils. Years of research by the Rodale Research Institute has shown that organic farming builds healthier soil, releases 40% fewer carbon emissions, uses 45% less energy, places no toxic chemicals into waterways and at the same time helps farmers earn 3 - 6X greater profits.(3) Rodale released a certification for Regenerative Organic agriculture that builds on the already established standards for organic. Regenerative Organic places additional emphasis on soil health and adds specifications for animal welfare and social fairness.
Despite all the momentum about the potential of healthy soils to sequester carbon, current agricultural incentives do not align with that vision. Federal payments to farmers are projected to hit a record $46 billion this year up from $22 billion in 2019.(4) While these payments are important to support growers in the short term, ultimately they do not incentivize them to adopt practices that have the ability to make a positive impact on the environment or help them transition to a higher margin farming system.
Making the Transition
If transitioning to organic or regenerative organic was an easy process, we would already see broader adoption across the nation due to the higher prices consumers will pay for these crops. Navigating the transition from traditional agriculture practices to organic or regenerative organic has risks. It requires investment, a time commitment, a long term vision, new incentives and a change in mindset. Farmers and producers need partners to help finance the transition, provide new technologies - including new genetics, new fertility and crop protection and digital tools - and support from peers who can provide education, advice and support along the way.
So how do farmers overcome these risks and transition to more sustainable production within a system that currently incentivizes them to do the opposite? To answer that question, we looked to the team at Clear Frontier Ag Management who have built their company around this challenge.
Clear Frontier was founded on the principle that to make a lasting climate impact, farmland investing needed to change. Their strategy is to partner with farming families and support them through a transition to sustainable land management for the mutual benefit of the family farmer, the environment, and their investors.
Underpinning Clear Frontier’s strategy is a focus on soil health and organic certification. Clear Frontier believes organic certification is a stepping stone growers can use to enter into more sustainable farming practices. By removing all synthetic chemicals and fertilizers soil health receives a benefit, but also becomes a priority as the sole substrate in which to grow healthy crops and sequester carbon. Organic practices also remove an often overlooked large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – the production of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers.
The Clear Frontier team is led by Justin Bruch – a 5th generation Iowa Farmer. Collectively, the team has built farmland portfolios totaling more than 400,000 acres, and currently owns and manages over 3,000 acres of farmland across 6 family farms that are in various stages of transition to organic and regenerative organic farming.
Clear Frontier’s goal is to take a balanced, holistic systems approach that will make a positive impact upon the environment. They view all farming systems as falling across a spectrum of climate impact - from least impactful (degenerative) to highly impactful (regenerative) and work with family farms to define a transition plan that will work for their specific region, climate, and crop rotations. They work with family farmers to first remove the use of chemical fertilizers, and help them through the transition to organic certification. They focus on techniques such as adding crop diversity and utilizing cover crops, reducing tillage, and implementing technologies to both improve productivity and overall soil health.
“All farming systems are highly biodynamic and variable processes. Farming systems vary from region to region, grower to grower and even on a yearly basis for the same grower. If your end goal is to be both profitable and make an impact, categorizing systems and putting them into black and white boxes may not be the most effective way of reaching your goal. We tend to view systems as falling across a spectrum of overall environmental integrity and impact, “ said Bruch, “Our core mission here at Clear Frontier is to not only move farms that fall on the left side of the spectrum into the right (under organic certification), but to work with and incentivize growers (already certified organic) to continually push each piece of the system towards more regenerative organic practices year after year.”
Case Study: Silver Reef Organic Farms
Silver Reef Organic Farms is a great example of how Clear Frontier works with family farmers to implement organic and regenerative organic farming practices in a way that is advantageous to the farmer. Silver Reef Organic Farm is a 1,700-acre organic farm family owned and operated by Greg Scheiner in Wellington, Colorado. Greg, a serial entrepreneur having founded and sold multiple companies throughout his career, fulfilled his childhood dream of owning a farm in 2013.
Silver Reef Organic Farms is a certified organic farm that produces a variety of crops including superior grain, dry edible beans and fodder feeds. Through his partnership with Clear Frontier, Greg is building upon his existing organic practices to add more techniques that build healthy soil, sequester carbon and ultimately work toward regenerative organic certification.
Greg has applied his entrepreneurial approach to managing Silver Reef. He takes a data-driven, test and learn approach to optimizing his yield and improving soil health - implementing new technologies and testing new production approaches, gathering data, and optimizing with each growing season. Greg shared with us a few of his best practices.
Minimizing passes on the field
One of the first improvements that Greg did was to switch from cow manure to chicken manure minimizing the total amount of manure that must be applied to the field. “If you think about cow manure to grow corn, you need 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre to grow 200 bushel of corn. If you take cow manure that has five pounds of nitrogen per pound, we're going to need 40 tons of manure to put on that soil to get a 200 bushel crop. Chicken manure has 80-89 pounds of nitrogen, so we're putting on two tons, maybe two and a half.” Greg said, “ So, if you think about climate change, we have less trucks on the road, less fuel, less labor, less passes”.
Cover crops suppress weeds, control wind erosion and create nitrogen offsetting the amount of manure that must be applied to crops. Greg planted 400 acres of radishes in August. Radishes are great because they act as a form of bio-tillage. They grow several inches in diameter as well as put down deep tap roots that are great for breaking up compaction and helping build soil structure. Other cover crops are great for adding additional nitrogen to the soil. Greg shared that, ”Cover crops will create about 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen, free. And that's the big word, free. Because, you're actually building your soils.”
One of the challenges of organic production is weeds since organic farmers do not apply pesticides. Greg shared his perspectives of how to handle weeds, “I think what we're finding is that every organic farmer should go to an alfalfa mix at some point. We put a farm four years ago into alfalfa, we sequestered the carbon, we've been taking off the weeds and the alfalfa. It's a very clean field now after three years. It's really a good production.” After three years of alfalfa production he rotated the field to corn which was just harvested last week. His corn yield averaged 238 bushels per acre, going as high as 258 bushels per acre in some areas, which is significant given the USDA estimates average corn yields at 161 bushels per acre for conventional and just over 100 bushels per acre for organic.
Safety and Team Camaraderie
Regenerative organic agriculture principles go beyond just a focus on the environment to also include principles for animal welfare and social fairness. The health and safety of his team has always been top of mind for Greg. “We do have a huddle every morning, where everybody talks, we go over the schedule, we stretch, and afterwards everyone gets in safety vests,” Greg said, “I truly believe that my role is to make sure everybody goes home to their families every night. And so, safety, safety, safety is everything that we do.” Beyond the farm, Greg and the Silver Reef Organic Farms team are involved in the Wellington and Fort Collins communities, taking an active role in Chamber of Commerce hosted activities and events.
The team at Clear Frontier, along with their family farmer partners like Silver Reef Organic Farms, are leading the way in organic and regenerative organic farming. Their model looks to transform agriculture in such a way that sequesters carbon, protects our water and builds up our rural communities through more profitable farming. As carbon markets mature, Clear Frontier offers a solution for investors looking to meet ESG goals through carbon offsets. We look forward to continuing to back and support Clear Frontier as they work to transform agriculture for the mutual benefit of family farmers, investors and the environment.
The realities of climate change are ever more apparent. From record numbers of fires on the West Coast, rising sea waters in the Great Lakes, to a derecho in Iowa and unprecedented hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. We cannot ignore the signs that we are at a critical moment in time. Responsibility sits with us all to take action.
At S2G Ventures, we believe the food, agriculture, oceans and seafood sectors, with the right entrepreneurs, technology, incentives and partnerships, can mitigate, and one day perhaps reverse, the warming of our planet. We see our future vision coming to life through the hard work of entrepreneurs and innovators every day. This month we share some of their stories and deep dive into the climate solutions which give us hope for a better future. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to hear more.