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Grant Project: Seeding Regenerative Agriculture

2019-11-02 3:56 PM | Anonymous

Regenerative agriculture--which works with natural cycles by maintaining living root systems, minimizing disturbances, keeping soils covered, maximizing biodiversity, and considering local conditions--can prevent topsoil loss (Wall et al., 1991), address climate change by capturing carbon in soils (Sherrod et al., 2003; Lal, 2004) , increase soil water infiltration and water retention (Dlamini et al., 2016; Toosi et al., 2017), reduce the need for inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides (Litsinger and Moody, 1976; Scott et al., 1987; Brown et al.,1993; Ochsner et al., 2010), while increasing profitability for farmers and ranchers through increased yields and/or reduced input costs (Ziyomo et al., 2013). 

To help promote the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices throughout New Mexico, Cruces Creatives was awarded a $30,000 grant from the Thornburg Foundation and McCune Charitable Foundation, with the primary goal of developing a comprehensive theory of change that could be implemented through a follow-up grant that would provide significantly more funding. 

Over the course of the planning grant, which ran from January to October 2019, Cruces Creatives and its partners achieved the following results:

  • Created initial Seed Groups (localized networks for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and support) with representatives from 4 ranches and 11 farms
  • Conducted in-depth interviews with the 15 initial Seed Group members on their experiences in regenerative agriculture
  • Documented 35 obstacles to regenerative agriculture/desired technologies (see Appendix A)
  • Constructed over 30 Johnson-Su composting bioreactors, which cultivate beneficial soil microbes, with Seed Group members
  • Hosted 13 distinct workshops and field days with Seed Group members, each followed by a meal that offered further networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities (see Appendix B).
  • Expanded Seed Groups with participation from 38 guests beyond Seed Group members, representatives from two farms that were compensation with bioreactors, and confirmed interest from an additional three farmers/ranchers who intend to apply as Seed Group members if the next phase of the project is funded. 
  • In consultation with Seed Group members and project partners, selected five target technologies for further development: wikis and other knowledge-sharing systems for how to implement regenerative agriculture under specific, local conditions; refinements for Johnson-Su composting bioreactors; inoculation systems for the microbes from Johnson-Su composting bioreactors; cloud-connected soil temperature sensors; and grain cleaners for amaranth and other small-seeded, drought-tolerant plants.
  • Further developed cloud-connected soil temperature sensors that are both more affordable than systems currently on the market and that share data by default, advancing scientific research and the well-being of regional agricultural systems
  • Created an adjustable grain cleaner for amaranth and other seeds, improving on open-source designs to quadruple processing capacity without requiring more power/suction
  • Developed follow-up grant proposals to the Bess Spiva Timmons Foundation, the Ittleson Foundation, and the McCune Charitable Foundation
  • Advanced scientific work on regenerative agriculture:
  • Developed a baseline soil testing plan with the Sustainable Agricultural Sciece Center at Alcalde
  • With Seed Group partners at Synergia Ranch in Santa Fe, installed a twelve-thermistor temperature monitoring system in a Johnson-Su composting bioreactor. Dr. Starrlight Augustine has begun data collection, and upon compost maturity, she plans to characterize larger microorganisms, such as nematodes, that may play a role in nutrient availability. 
  • Are in the process of developing a Healthy Soils Act proposal for the expansion of a successful initial experiment on the impacts of Johnson-Su compost on the growth of hemp plants
  • Built new partnerships with the Healthy Soil Working Group, El Calvario Methodist Church, and Arrowhead Center
  • Conducted post-event surveys of Seed Group members, finding that almost 90% were able to learn more about regenerative agriculture, expand their existing regenerative practices, and also implement new regenerative agricultural practices on their farms or ranches. 75% were able to make new connections for business, and almost 80% were able to make new connections for research. 100% would be interested in continuing as Seed Group members if the project receives further funding.
  • Established the Seeding Regenerative Agriculture Project as its own 501(c)(3)

We were also able to identify several significant obstacles to the spread of regenerative agriculture, obstacles that we could address in future work. 

As revealed in interviews with Seed Group members, surveys of farmers and ranchers involved in the MESA Project, the statements of expert regenerative agricultural practitioners and consultants (such as Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, and Rudy Garcia), and a review of business and marketing literature, a central obstacle to the spread of regenerative agriculture is the lack of knowledge about how to apply the general principles of regenerative agriculture under specific local conditions. In interviews, Seed Group members identified the lack of such knowledge as the primary obstacle they face, a finding that was mirrored in surveys of MESA Project participants, for whom the lack of localized knowledge was the most commonly cited obstacle (Appendix C). All Seed Group members reported having to experiment significantly with regenerative agricultural techniques and technologies; the techniques don’t simply work. Expert consultants such as Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, and Rudy Garcia confirm that this is the normal state of affairs. As Rudy Garcia attested at the Soil Healthy Workshop in Las Cruces on October 22, “The principles are universal. The tricky part is . . . context.”

The need for regenerative agricultural practices to be reinvented locally is slowing the adoption of regenerative agriculture even among producers who are willing and able to invest in the experiments required to get regenerative agriculture to work under their specific conditions: each and every technique must be reinvented, and progress at that can be slow. As Gabe Brown advised would-be practitioners at the Las Cruces Soil Health workshop, “You will fail.” Success requires a long process of experimentation and learning. Worse, scientific literature from the fields of business and marketing suggest that, until regenerative agricultural techniques simply work—without the need for experimentation or trial-and-error—regenerative agriculture will not spread beyond the small subset of producers who have the interest, time, expertise, and capital to experiment (Moore, 2014, pp. 24-26, 56, 58, 62). For practices and technologies to succeed in the mainstream market, they have to just work.

Technologies that support regenerative agriculture are also, for the most part, at an early phase of development. Farmers and ranchers report that regenerative agricultural technologies, like regenerative agricultural principles, generally require experimentation and an ongoing learning process.

From scientific literature and the testimony of producers in Seed Groups and the MESA Project, social pressures are also a barrier. Regenerative agriculture is not a normal practice within the agricultural sector, so it faces the same obstacles that confront any deviation from a largely homogenous social system—socially, norms are supported, and counter-normative practices are suppressed. In a further impediment, sustainable/regenerative/organic agriculture are associated with liberal political values and beliefs. Since most farmers and ranchers are not politically liberal, producers may not adopt alternative practices even when there are no knowledge barriers and the alternative practices are more profitable (Press, 2014).

On the topic of politics, policies may deter or fail to adequately promote regenerative agriculture. The New Mexico Healthy Soils Act was a significant step in the right direction, but producers still report frustration with many policies, which often were not developed with regenerative agricultural practices in mind. 

The relative unusualness of regenerative agriculture also introduces challenges in market development, from regulatory issues to supply chain creation and management. In conventional systems, marketing processes and channels are known; in regenerative agricultural systems, producers often need to develop not only new agricultural practices, but also new marketing and distribution systems.

It is important to note that, although regenerative agricultural principles are interconnecting and mutually reinforcing, regenerative agriculture is a continuum. It is possible to implement one or several regenerative agricultural principles without implementing others. This fact makes it possible to productively target solvable obstacles to particular regenerative agricultural principles, producing incremental progress toward the mainstream adoption of regenerative agricultural principles as a whole.

To address these obstacles, Cruces Creatives has applied for follow-up funding from the Thornburg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Over the course of two years, Cruces Creatives and a team of partner organizations would work to address the obstacles to regenerative agriculture, focusing especially on helping regenerative agriculture thrive within concentrated socio-geographic areas. 

Our plan for change, in essence, is modeled on how beneficial adaptations can originate and spread through ecological communities: a small group, well positioned for change, adapts; the adaptation proves beneficial; the adapted individuals interact with other individuals; and the adaptation spreads. In many instances of social behavior, groups follow “tipping point” theory, and once a small, critical mass of practitioners has been reached, a new behavior can quickly spread through an entire group. Our goal is to build regenerative agriculture in New Mexico toward its tipping point, starting from socio-geographic areas concentrated around the Seed Groups established in the planning phase (centered, roughly, within a radius of about an hour of driving time from Santa Fe and an hour of driving time from Las Cruces). We will work to make regenerative agriculture the dominant practice within socio-geographically defined market segments, from which regenerative agriculture can spread.

To succeed, we must address the obstacles to regenerative agriculture, we have planned a mutually reinforcing, systemic approach that draws on four key areas of intervention: Seed Groups, technology development, Meetings for Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture (MESA) events, and scientific research.

A.    Seed Groups

Seed Groups are geographically concentrated, long-term cohorts of regenerative agricultural practitioners who meet regularly for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, networking, and support. Seed Group members meet, on average, once per month for a workshop or a participant-led field day, followed by a meal.

Grant Project Seeding Regenerative Agriculture, seed group, field day, soil contouring, passive rainwater harvest

Figure 1. Seed Group members at a field day workshop on soil contouring for passive rainwater harvest

The Seed Groups provide multiple benefits for their members and for regenerative agriculture. Within the Seed Groups, which are concentrated geographically, many producers have part of the puzzle for how to apply regenerative principles under local conditions. By bringing these practitioners together into a supporting network of friends and collaborators, we can help producers put their knowledge together and learn from each other about how regenerative agriculture can be implemented locally. In the pilot phase of the Seed Groups, which ran for six months (May-October), over 85% of participants reported being able to implement new regenerative practices, thanks to peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

Thanks to field days, where a Seed Group member familiar with a regenerative practice invites other participants to a barn-raising style event to expand that practice, over 85% of participants were also able to expand regenerative practices that they had already implemented to some extent on their farms or ranches—while teaching other farmers and ranchers how to do the same. Since learning requires spaced repetition, the field days are designed to be iterative, with events of the same type (e.g., filling Johnson-Su composting bioreactors) often spiraling out through participants, who can share what they learn from each iteration.

The Seed Groups also offer social support, since within the Seed Group, regenerative agriculture is the norm. This inverts the social pressures of the mainstream market, creating an environment where positive social pressure supports progress on regenerative agriculture. The resulting social network also provides a rich environment for business and research partnerships, which—like the establishment/expansion of regenerative practices—over 85% of participants reported developing through the project.

The direct goal of the Seed Groups is to create subsections of the agricultural sector, concentrated geographically and socially, within which local practices for regenerative agriculture are known and social pressures support regenerative agriculture. In other words, the goal is to create sectors of the market within which regenerative agriculture is the new normal. These successes, created within the Seed Groups, can then be spread through the larger market through participants’ social networks, through the involvement of neighboring farms and ranches, and through local marketing of Seed Group events.

B.    Technology Development

From the 35 obstacles/desired technologies identified by Seed Group members, we have collaboratively chosen five obstacle/technology pairs to address during the implementation phase: a knowledge-gathering and sharing system for local instantiations of regenerative agricultural principles, easier-to-implement Johnson-Su composting bioreactors, simplified inoculation systems for the beneficial microbes produced by Johnson-Su composting bioreactors, cloud-connected soil temperature sensors, and a grain cleaning system for amaranth and other small grains.

As the technologies are developed, they will be shared with Seed Group members, who can use the technologies to facilitate regenerative agriculture at their sites while also testing the technologies and offering feedback. The feedback from Seed Group members will then be used to further refine the technologies until they are suitable for a mainstream market.

Within the work of the Zone Grant, the technologies will be developed primarily at Cruces Creatives, but lists of obstacles and desired technologies will also be shared with entrepreneurs in the network of the Arrowhead Center, facilitating product development on the open market.

During the planning grant, the Cruces Creatives team was able to develop/improve working prototypes for the soil temperature sensors and the amaranth grain cleaner. If the initial list of 5 target technologies chosen during the planning grant is completed ahead of schedule, we may collaboratively choose additional, even more ambitious technical challenges to address.

C.    Scientific Research

As Seed Group members implement and progressively expand their regenerative agricultural practices, their farms and ranchers will offer excellent sites for scientifically investigating the impacts of regenerative agriculture under a range of localized conditions. The resulting data can offer valuable feedback to Seed Group members and serve as demonstrable, quantitative evidence for farmers and ranchers socially and/or geographically adjacent to Seed Group members, to whom regenerative practices can spread. The results may also develop into publishable findings.

Scientific research funded in the implementation phase would be led by personnel from the Sustainable Agricultural Science Center at Alcalde, who would perform baseline testing on the lands of Seed Group members, install monitoring equipment on the lands of Seed Group members, work with Seed Group members to set up simple experimental/control conditions on the land, and train Seed Group members in soil sampling approaches.

Several of the current Seed Group members also have advanced degrees in science and agriculture, and they are well positioned to use Seed Group resources and connections to launch additional scientific inquiries. For examples, see the work of Starrlight Augustine and Rachael Ryan in “Achievements.” 

D.   MESA Events

MESA Events are multi-course gourmet meals, prepared by local chefs drawing heavily on local ingredients, that bring together stakeholders from all sectors of the agricultural system: farmers, ranchers, agricultural scientists, chefs, policy makers, restauranteurs, grocery store and co-op owners/managers, farm supply store owners, etc. At MESA events, anyone who feels they have a stake is invited to “Have a Seat at the Table.” The MESA events began in 2017 as an avenue for networking and knowledge-sharing, and in the planning phase of the Zone Grant, the MESA network served as a valuable recruitment channel for Seed Group members in the southern part of the state. Through further MESA events, conducted in both the northern and southern parts of the state, we would be able to expand the network of Seed Group members.

Through the Zone Grant, we also learned that a large network of agricultural stakeholders, of the sort put together by MESA, can be very useful for policy improvements: as reported by Jeff Goebel, a leader of the Healthy Soil Working Group that developed the successful 2019 Healthy Soils Act, support from the MESA network helped sway the votes of key committee members in the southern part of the state, who ultimately recommended that the Healthy Soils Act move forward. Building on this finding, we plan to use MESA events during the implementation phase to host consensus-driven discussions on possible policy improvements that would support regenerative agriculture. The discussions would be coordinated by staff from the Healthy Soil Working Group. The resulting policy proposals, crafted by consensus among stakeholders from all sectors of the agricultural system, would be able to rally support from stakeholders in all sectors of the agricultural system, increasing the likelihood of successful passage into law.

In an additional benefit, the broad cross-section of stakeholders created by MESA events offers productive opportunities for market development. For instance, through surveys at previous MESA events, we have identified a network of 26 farmers and 15 chefs who are interested in cultivating and cooking unconventional but environmentally friendly crops, such as amaranth. A handful of partnerships has developed independently through this network, but support from a coordinator/facilitator, which proved essential in arranging Seed Group field days, could significantly accelerate market development for regenerative agriculture through the MESA network. In the implementation phase, the project coordinator would therefore work to help interested parties turn their partnership interests into realities.

Works Cited

Brown, R.W., G.E. Varvel, and C.A. Shapiro. 1993. Residual effects of inter-seeded hairy vetch on soil nitrate-nitrogen levels. Soil Sei. Soc. Am. J. 57:121-124. 

Dlamini, P., Ukoh, I. B., van Rensburg, L. D., du Preez C. C. (2016) Reduction of evaporation from bare soil using plastic and gravel mulches and assessment of gravel mulch for partitioning evapotranspiration under irrigated canola. Soil Research 55

, 222-233. 

Enache, A.J., and R.D. Ilnicki. 1990. Weed control by subterranean clover (Trifolium subterraneum) used as a living mulch. Weed Technol. 4:534-538.

Lal, R. (2004). Soil carbon sequestration impacts on global climate change and food security. science304(5677), 1623-1627.

Litsinger, J.A., and K. Moody. 1976. Integrated pest management in multiple cropping systems. In: R.I. Papendiek, editor, Multiple cropping. ASA Spec. Publ. 27. ASA, CSS A, and SSSA, Madison, WI. p. 239-316.

Moore, G. (2014). Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Technologies to Mainstream Customers, 3rd ed. HarperCollins.  

Press, M., Arnould, E. J., Murray, J. B., & Strand, K. (2014). Ideological challenges to changing strategic orientation in commodity agriculture. Journal of Marketing78(6), 103-119.

Scott, T.W., J. Mt. Pleasant, R.F. Burt, and D.J. Otis. 1987. Contributions of ground cover, dry matter, and nitrogen from intercrops and cover crops in a corn polyculture system. Agron. J. 79:792-798. 

Sherrod, L. A., Peterson, G. A., Westfall, D. G., & Ahuja, L. R. (2003). Cropping intensity enhances soil organic carbon and nitrogen in a no-till agroecosystem. Soil Science Society of America Journal67(5), 1533-1543.

Toosi, E., et al. (2017). Effects of management and pore characteristics on organic matter composition of macroaggregates: evidence from characterization of organic matter and imaging. European Journal of Soil Science, 68(2), 200–211.

Wall, G.L., W.A. Pringle, and R.W. Sheard. 1991. Intercropping red clover with silage corn for soil erosion control. Can. J. Soil Sei. 71:137-145.

Ziyomo, C., Albrecht, K. A., Baker, J. M., & Bernardo, R. (2013). Corn performance under managed drought stress and in a kura clover living mulch intercropping system. Agronomy Journal, 105(3), 579-586.

Appendix A:

Obstacles to Regenerative Agriculture and Desired Technologies,

as Reported by Seed Group Members

Obstacles (ordered by frequency of reporting, with the most commonly reported obstacles at the top)

  • Difficulty finding knowledge/guidance for locally relevant regenerative agricultural practices
  • Lack of funding to implement practices
  • Lack of water
  • Difficulty controlling weeds
  • Difficulty finding laborers
  • Difficulty filling and operating Johnson-Su composting bioreactors
  • Difficulty accessing/purchasing land
  • Clogging drip lines
  • Adverse social pressure
  • Scarcity of available topsoil/compost
  • Incorrect information from State Extension
  • Oversize machinery
  • Pest species
  • Underdeveloped distribution channels
  • Soil pathogens
  • Regulations
  • Difficulty moving livestock
  • Public ignorance of regenerative agriculture
  • Topsoil loss
  • Lack of meat processing options
  • Difficulty accessing/affording large-scale chippers and shredders to productively manage waste
  • Difficulty integrating cover crops with vegetable production
  • Difficulty creating/maintaining irrigation channels with no-till/low-till
  • Difficulty managing daily care of livestock
  • Scarcity of affordable soil testing labs/resources

Desired Technologies

  • Affordable no-till drill
  • Injection system for inoculum from Johnson-Su composting bioreactors
  • A suitable large-scale black soldier fly (BSF) rearing & pupa collection/composting container for an Urban farm site. 1) Containment: The adults seem to stay near the compost bin, but in an urban garden or backyard most folks would want to contain the adults to the bin somehow 2) Shade: Design the structure to have its own shade (to be self-contained). 3) Odor control: prevent meat and dairy from smelling before composted.
  • Root cellar or other regenerative cold storage system
  • Wash station design
  • Bio-gas system parts and build (converts organic waste into burnable methane)
  • Processing systems for small native grains, like amaranth
  • Seed cleaning machines
  • A compost tea set-up for efficiently bio-inoculating and restoring soils
  • Compostable stickers for produce

Appendix B:

Seed Group Events during the Planning Phase

October 14-16. Waste shredding and bioreactor filling with temperature sensors. 5 Seed Group members, 6 guests.

September 26: Technology selection conference call. 7 Seed Group members.

September 25: Bioreactor assembly. 7 Seed Group members, 3 guests

August 28: Land contouring for passive rainwater harvest. 7 Seed Group members, 7 guests

August 23-25: Scrub oak clearing, waste shredding, rock dam construction, pasture mulching, and pasture re-seeding with native grass mix. 5 Seed Group members, 2 guests. 

August 14: Half-height bioreactor filling: 5 Seed Group members.

July 12: Bioreactor assembly workshop. 5 Seed Group members, 2 guests. 

June 18: Bioreactor assembly workshop. 4 Seed Group members, 8 guests.

June 8: Bioreactor assembly workshop. 4 Seed Group members.

June 7: Northern Seed Group kickoff dinner. 6 Seed Group members, 3 guests.

June 4: Bioreactor assembly workshop. 5 Seed Group members.

June 1: Bioreactor assembly workshop. 12 Seed Group members.

May 28: Drip system design for jujube orchard. 4 Seed Group members.

May 27: Southern Seed Group kickoff dinner. 13 Seed Group members.

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