By Drew Slattery

Not Acres, But People

October 17, 2021

Regenerative ag targets aren’t about changing acres – they are about changing people. 

It is no secret that our world faces an immense crisis surrounding climate change and the degradation of natural resources.

Realizing the potential positive impact that their supply chains can have, major companies are making headlines by announcing “regenerative ag” commitments with audacious investments and goals related to improving the resilience and sustainability of American agriculture. 

  • Walmart wants to “protect, manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land by 2030” 
  • General Mills plans to “advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030” 
  • Cargill aims to “advance regenerative agriculture practices across 10 million acres of North American farmland by 2030” and just recently launched a new carbon program for farmers: RegenConnect
  • The Fertilizer Institute plans to “increase the use of 4R nutrient stewardship to 70 million acres by 2030

But, consumer brands and commodity marketers with large and complex supply chains aren’t the only ones setting targets for “acres put under regenerative practices”. There are dozens (at the time of writing at least) fledgling carbon marketplaces doing the same, such as Indigo Ag whose Terraton Initiative aims to transition 12 billion acres to more regenerative management. 

There are also the conservation and environmental nonprofits, like Ducks Unlimited who transitioned over 600,000 acres to more regenerative management in 2020 alone. 

And of course we can’t forget the federal government, with the USDA Secretary Vilsack announcing a new climate partnership initiative designed to create new revenue streams for producers through market opportunities for commodities produced using climate-smart practices. 

It is not hyperbole or exaggeration to say that there is more attention, investment, and work being put into impacting how farmland acres are managed than any other time in human history.

But before getting swept up in the potential excitability around these commitments, and the immense benefits of transitioning millions of American farmland acres to regenerative production practices would provide, let’s pause and consider: what is it we are  talking about here with all of these commitments targeted at impacting millions of acres of U.S. farmland? 

If I say to you “we are going to transition seven million acres into more regenerative management by 2030” (a totally made up goal just for our thought experiment purposes here), what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it dirt? Worms? Cover crops? Maybe a piece of precision agriculture equipment? Carbon? Cows? 

Or is it people? 

Is it the humans who wake up every morning, put on dirty boots, and go to work on one of America’s more than two million farm operations?   

Portraits of American farmers by USDA photographer Lance Cheung. View more here

If it’s not humans…maybe it should be? 

The decisions for how every single one of our nation’s 800+ million farmland acres are managed is made by a person, or by a group of people. 

The bottom line is that this isn’t about changing acres. 

This is about changing people. To transition the management of even just one acre, it means empowering a person (or group of people) to change how they think, feel and act. 

Every person, and every farmer, has their own unique outlook on agriculture – on business – and on life. Driving their behavior and decision making processes, they have their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, fears, and desires. Complicating this is how diverse our nation’s natural resources, ecology, and weather are – each farm is unique as a fingerprint.

Changing the way an acre is managed ultimately means changing the way people do business, years of tradition and cultural norms, personal and brand identities, and so much more. We would do well to remember the people behind the acre, and consider them first and foremost when designing our programs. 

USDA Photo by Preston Keres

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