While regenerative agriculture can (and should) look different for every operation, the business case and value proposition for replicating and growing its adoption is increasingly garnering interest from groups within and beyond the food system. Many now acknowledge its potential to help address several sustainability crises by sequestering carbon, supporting climatic, environmental and economic health and creating employment and business opportunities. However, scaling the practice continues to face many obstacles.
The Regenerative Agriculture Lab (RAL) is using social innovation methodology to create a collaborative platform for those along the agri-food value chain (e.g. farmers, researchers, food retailers) to incubate, test and explore ideas, initiatives, policies and programs that can accelerate the adoption of regenerative agriculture in Alberta.
A Social Innovation Lab is a process that brings together diverse stakeholders to address complex social problems involving research, experimentation, and prototyping of solutions. Labs are convened to generate high-potential interventions by carefully listening to all those affected. They bring research to bear on a problem in order to gain system-level insights that will help redefine problems and identify opportunities for introducing innovation. Labs begin with a focus on defining problems, mapping systems, and gaining a deep understanding of the dynamics that hold systems in place. By supporting multi-stakeholder engagement and prototyping, labs are particularly effective for addressing complex challenges.
Phase 2 of RAL consists of committed producers, industry leaders, food distributors and retailers, academics, policymakers and innovative thinkers working together to learn and take action on initiatives that respond to the question:
RAL participants engage with one another in various formats (e.g. workshops, webinars, breakout groups) to co-create and develop an agreed set of core principles, a shared vision and strategic initiatives to advance regenerative agriculture in the province.
The main goal of RAL is to build supportive ‘infrastructure’ in order to unleash the potential of regenerative agriculture to achieve multiple environmental, economic and social outcomes in Alberta. We are also interested in building pathways to encourage further adoption of regenerative practices.
We refer to this as advancing regenerative agriculture with integrity.
As we’ve advanced through phase 2 of the Regenerative Agriculture Lab, participants have identified five strategic initiatives: Stewardship Ownership, Polycultures/Biodiversity, Train the Healer, Data is Beautiful and Disruptive Distribution.
These areas of focus expanded our understanding of the importance of facilitating transitions to regenerative agriculture. In order to effect change, three essential ingredients have been identified as being significant to enable the shift in practices.
Steward ownership is a way of structuring enterprises for more equitable and sustainable distribution of ownership, power and opportunity. For RAL, this is particularly related to agricultural land and real estate assets. Generally speaking, this idea describes ownership agreements that prioritize and value good stewardship. That means that longevity, sustainability and resilience of the ecosystem, including the communities who use that land for their livelihoods, is ensured. Ownership is an opportunity and a responsibility. As such, steward ownership models ensure that land and business decisions are made by the people who are directly involved with and committed to the mission, values, and stakeholders involved with the land.
The current goal of The Stewardship Ownership group is to design and distribute pitch decks explaining project details and demonstrating how investments can better support the needs of producers. Collaborating on these pitch decks further refines the proposal and helps to achieve a polished final product that is attractive to potential investors.
Biodiversity is a key part of regenerative agriculture but doesn’t mesh well with many standard practices in the wider agricultural industry. This has meant that adoption is low, and education and research are difficult to come by. By leveraging the applied research associations and network of innovative producers, we can support information sharing and utilization of practices that preserve and increase biodiversity across the province.
The aim of the Polycultures/Biodiversity initiative is to create a simple, practical initiative that increases awareness of biodiversity practices and engages Alberta’s applied research and forage associations, stakeholders, seed companies and producers. Similar to the ‘soil your undies’ challenge, this initiative aims to encourage producers to test polycultures in gardens or a corner of a field and share their results. The current goal of the group is to have seed companies donate small packages of a polyculture seed blend for producers to test and share results provincially, via a hashtag or through their local applied research association.
Regenerative agriculture cannot advance with integrity without education. Human nature dictates that we’re hesitant to try new things, especially if it requires a financial investment. However, there is power in seeing others like ourselves succeed when trying something new – “If they can do it, so can I.”
The Train the Healer initiative aims to establish supportive communities for farmers and ranchers who wish to adopt regenerative practices. These communities will offer education and training on implementing such practices, as well as opportunities for farmers to share their skills and knowledge with one another. The initiative is currently working on a field day that will help producers learn about polycultures, including blending suggestions and best management practices. This effort not only promotes understanding of polycultures but also creates a network of producers who actively practice regenerative agriculture and can support others in overcoming their reservations about adopting it.
Healthy soil is critical to a farm operation. In addition to promoting crop growth, nutrient retention, and beneficial microorganisms, it also reduces the need for fertilizers and prevents erosion and nutrient runoff that can harm the environment. While the topic of soil health is becoming more mainstream, there are still many barriers preventing producers from getting involved.
The Data is Beautiful initiative aims to demonstrate the power of regenerative growing practices by collecting and sharing data on soil health with the goal of building confidence in these practices and increasing adoption rates. By bringing together producers, scientists and agronomists (professionals who apply the principles of plant and soil science to enhance agricultural productivity, sustainability, and environmental responsibility) for a field day, the initiative hopes to empower producers to engage with soil health and provide an entry point that best meets their needs.
The Disruptive Distribution initiative aims to generate demand for regenerative agriculture products through the development of a marketing campaign that can be implemented within existing food supply chain systems, thus providing additional support for the wider adoption of regenerative agriculture practices throughout the food supply chain.
Creating awareness about regenerative agriculture can be challenging due to the lack of a widely-accepted definition of the term among consumers. The Disruptive Distribution initiative is working to address this issue by developing and testing a functional definition of regenerative agriculture, with the goal of educating a broader audience about its benefits and distinguishing regenerative products from other agricultural products available in the market.
Tim Wray grew up on his family’s cattle ranch in Irricana, a small town located 50 kilometres northeast of Calgary in southern Alberta. As a child, he always dreamed of following in his parent’s footsteps and one day becoming a farmer, but first he pursued post-secondary education and later studied at a seminary to become a pastor. His first parish was located in a small agricultural community, which put him back in touch with his childhood dream.
“I lived around farmland and was surrounded by farmers,” says Tim. “I was really in tune with the movement of the seasons and the farm cycle—and I enjoyed that.”
Andrew works with natural ecosystem succession: planting berry bushes on broken, exposed soils and making room for pioneer species – like dandelions, for example – and grasses and shrubs. He points out how “weeds” actually have tremendous value in helping to aerate soils, provide shade for other plants, and stimulate microbiology in the soil. Andrew purposely sowed bunch grasses – a grass that would be in the same phase as the haskaps – as opposed to a creeping grass, like a brown grass, or quack grass.