By Meriwether Hardie
Every spring I walk through fields freshly planted with an array of diverse seeds. Every summer I watch those seeds become fruit and vegetables that feed families. And in the fall, as storage crops get put away and what is left becomes jams and pickles, I know that this food experience that I have is a tiny fraction of how most humans on the planet interact with and consume food. I also know that how this food is grown represents an even smaller fraction of our planet’s farmland. As I walk through these fields, a question that I spend a lot of time thinking about is, how do we support more farmers to change their practices and grow food with regenerative versus extractive practices?
Our Global Food Crisis
Our food and farming system is in a crisis. Around the globe, we are losing 1% of our top soil a year. Depending on the location, it is calculated that there are only 30-70 good harvest years left. In the US, 53% of our cropland is used to grow just two crops, corn and soybeans, the majority of which is not for human consumption.
We need to urgently transform our food system. In order to do so, substantial investments are needed to support changes in growing practices, influence consumer education and green legislation, increase access to affordable farmland, support research for perennial grains and crops, restore depleted farmland, and develop additional technical training and financial assistance to farmers. It is a long list and many types of catalysts are needed throughout the supply chain. Today, I’d like to focus at the field level.
The Field Level
Providing capital to farmers on fair and equitable terms is one of the key ways that we can support major change in our food system. To date, our society's efforts at supporting local agriculture has centered on purchasing and consuming food from nearby farmers at markets and through CSAs. This is a good beginning but we need a larger disruptive systemic change. Like all businesses, farming needs investment. Yet capital for startup and regenerative farming is hard to secure because farming is inherently risky and it can take years to show a return on investment. Additionally, there is an invisible barrier between the two groups working together – most traditional investors don't understand farming and most farmers don’t understand investment strategies.
We must learn to invest as if food, farms and soil fertility mattered and are a risk worth taking. This is a principle of Woody Tasch's Slow Money movement and I adamantly believe in it for the following reasons.
It takes time and investment to build soil fertility and it can take years of investing in soil before the farm sees that "return of investment" (in terms of increased yields, more nutritious yields, more climate resilient crops, etc.). Capital is needed to bridge the time between investing in improving the soil and seeing the business returns of that investment.
Annual crops comprise 70% of the world’s farming market. Annual crops demand a much higher resource allocation than perennials do (in terms of irrigation, fertilization, soil treatments, land tillage, the need for crop rotations, etc) but annual crops are often harvested within weeks or months of being planted and therefore provide revenue faster. Perennial crops can take years of care and resource input before they provide a harvest and revenue. Most farmers therefore have to focus purely on annual crops and don't have the financial stability to work with perennials.
Most farming is scaled to last season’s performance, meaning that the gross income from last season's crop is what allows for the planning and investment in the next season's crop (seeds, machinery, planning for labor, etc). Therefore most farm planning is shortsighted and doesn’t allow room for longer term investments into the business. Making capital easier to access affords farmers the ability to look forward and plan for future opportunities.
Diversification takes investment. In the short term, monoculture can be seen as more efficient because farmers are able to become experts in one or several crops, and streamline their practices, equipment and knowledge to just focus on several areas. To go from focusing on one crop to diversified farming (with a focus on both soil fertility and a more robust and healthy business), takes investment and time. I believe that with changing climates and other added challenges, that diversification (multiple crops, value added products, agritourism, and other additional revenue models) is going to be one of the most important ways that farmers are able to set themselves up for success. Diversification will lead to more resilient businesses, but it takes time and money.
Lastly, most farmers don't have the financial capacity to try something new and fail. Most successful businesses experience failures, learn from their mistakes, and then pivot before finding success. In farming, there is often no room for failure, and therefore there is no room for innovation, risk taking, and potentially, major breakthroughs.
The Case for Regenerative
I have seen plenty of successful lean farm models, including within my own community of friends and family. But in order to truly change our food system at the scale and pace that change is needed, I believe that making capital easier to access will afford farmers the ability to invest in their soils, provide them with space for innovation and problem solving, allow them to take advantage of tomorrow’s opportunities, and provide financial security when a season is bad or a crop fails.
This is why Bio-Logical is doing the work that we are doing. By designing, implementing and managing successful farm operations, that we can both prove that there is a financial return for regenerative agriculture and help others use the data that we have collected to make the case stronger for investing in this type of agriculture. I don't believe that it is the only answer or the only solution, but I do believe that we are working on challenges that will support real change.
Below is a list of resources that we recommend, whether you are a farmer or rancher looking for funding streams or financial management, or an investor or donor looking to support local food systems.
Slow Money – Look into whether there is a Slow Money Chapter in your area. Slow Money uses a diversity of approaches – from 0% interest micro loans to low interest loans of $100,000 or more – to support local food enterprises.
Kiva Loans – Is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides loans to low-income entrepreneurs, farmers, and students in over 80 countries. Kiva's mission is "to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty." Since 2005, Kiva has crowd-funded more than a million loans, totaling over $1 billion, with a repayment rate of between 98 and 99 percent.
Farm Commons – This nonprofit website is dedicated to providing free legal resources and services to farmers. They cover topics like how to lease or buy farmland, financing through loans, and how to structure your business entity.
ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program – ATTRA is a program developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). The majority of funding for ATTRA is with the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service. This program provides technical assistance in English and Spanish to farmers, ranchers, educators and others involved in sustainable agriculture including resources on marketing, business and risk management.
RAFI-USA – The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) believes in order to ensure a safe, adequate supply of healthy food, we must protect farm workers and encourage environmentally sound farming. They provide necessary resources and grant funding, such as the Agricultural Reinvestment Fund, to invest in future farmers and rural communities.
National Good Food Network – Run by the Wallace Center, The National Good Food Network is bringing together people from all parts of the rapidly emerging good food system – producers, buyers, distributors, advocates, investors and funders – to create a community dedicated to scaling up good food sourcing and access. The NGFN has a massive database of resources covering a range of topics for small farmers including financial planning and risk management.
 D.R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, University of California Press, 2007.
 2015 International Year of Soil Conference, UN Food and Agriculture Organization.