The other day I got in a good chuckle after reading about a climate entrepreneurs’ trip across the American Heartland to visit a number of farms and find out more about regenerative agriculture and the obstacles farmers are facing with adoption and profitability.
Christian Ebersole — born in Connecticut and living in San Francisco — flew to Helena, Mont., rented the manliest truck he could find, worried about fitting in and knowing the dirt roads he would be facing.
Ebersole traveled across the Midwest and visited 23 farms in all, including No-Till Innovator Award winner Loran Steinlage from Union, Iowa. Steinlage prepared a room for him and brought Ebersole to his daughter’s rehearsal dinner and wedding in Iowa. “I learned the true meaning of “Midwest Nice,” Ebersole wrote.
He also talked about the concept of “Going Full Rick Clark,” as a nod to the Williamsport, Ind., no-tiller often quoted and written about in our publications and frequent speaker at our events for his knowledge of advanced no-till organic practices.
One difficult issue Ebersole brings up, that many of you are sure to relate to, is why more growers aren’t embracing regenerative practices.
“Because it is incredibly risky. Although your farm will almost inevitably be more profitable in the end, you very well might go broke before you are able to transition,” Ebersole wrote. “Achieving the harmonious balance I described can take decades of experimentation and learning and substantial capital which most farmers do not just have lying around.”
Here are 4 barriers Ebersole found were common that keep farmers from going “full Rick Clark”:
- Access to capital: Several growers told Ebersole they’d like to add cattle to their farms but money must be spending on exterior fencing.
- Access to midstream processing: Those looking to add livestock need a local USDA approved meat processing plant. “For those looking to sell heritage grains they need access to local grain elevators and mills which will segregate their product from conventional, non-GMO grains,” he notes. “That infrastructure also does not exist.”
- Scale: Many farmers told him their frustration that the market was not rewarding them with a premium for the unique crops they were producing and the lower carbon footprint they were creating. And they found that the large brands who were interested in their grains were looking for far more volume than they could produce from their farm alone.
- Uncertain carbon markets: Ebersole writes that all growers love the idea of being rewarded for their more regenerative practices but are skeptical they’ll get a fair deal. “Many remember the debacle of the 2000s when this same promise was made and failed to materialize,” Ebersole says, adding that honest carbon markets are a key part to accelerating the transition to regenerative agriculture as they reward regenerative practices.
Steinlage, Clark and Leedey, Okla., no-tiller Jimmy Emmons are among those booked as headliner speakers at our 30th National No-Tillage Conference coming up in January in Louisville, Ky.
It will not only be three decades of no-till knowledge we’re celebrating, but also the 50th anniversary of No-Till Farmer and 60th anniversary of the first no-tilled commercial acre in the U.S. Think about those numbers again. No-till practices faced similar adoption obstacles decades ago as many farmers just couldn’t see how they could make it work. But our industry found a way to persevere.
And I’m looking forward to conversations and ideas to be shared at our event early next year that will hopefully sprout some ideas to address the thorny challenges Ebersole has pointed out.