Relationships key to expanding regenerative agriculture

EDDYVILLE, Iowa — Farmers in central Iowa have strong ties to Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). For more than a decade, the specialists at PFI have worked with farmers, advising them on timing, nutrient management, and connecting them to resources. The established trust and relationships make it easier to meet farmers in their fields, discuss their current perspectives and challenges, and help them change practices to improve environmental and economic outcomes. 

For the past two years PFI has connected farmers with financial and technical support to add small grains and legume cover crops into their crop rotations through a program administered by PepsiCo and Unilever, members of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative who source corn and soybeans from the area. The program, which pilots innovative cost share and market-based mechanisms to increase adoption of small grains and reduce nitrogen application, has expanded to 5,000 acres thanks to support from HSBC Bank USA. The funding enables the program to recruit more farmers and grow the number of cover-cropped acres. 

PFI staff have reported that their continued presence in the region has made it easier to recruit farmers to participate and adopt these practices.  

In the second year of funding from HSBC, 35 new farmers were enrolled into the program and trained on adding small grains and legume cover crops into their rotations, a rise from 14 farmers the year prior. To train farmers in, PFI offered shared learning calls, published newsletters, and hosted field days. 

Companies like PepsiCo and Unilever have set ambitious goals to reduce their emissions and impact on the planet by improving environmental and rural resilience and restoring ecosystems. Farmers in the supply chain play a key role in these efforts because agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of U.S. emissions and storing carbon in the soil can be an effective way to remove emissions from the atmosphere. Reducing nitrogen and other fertilizer applications can also improve water quality and save farmers money. 

“It’s a win-win situation for farmers, companies, and the environment,” said Steve Schultz, senior partnership manager at Environmental Initiative, administrator of MRCC. “The cost share program also reduces the upfront costs and risks for farmers adopting new practices.” 

For farmers, making the move away from the status quo is not easy, especially because adding a cover crop rotation can be costly, take time for benefits to establish, and is not yet a standard practice on acres where cover crops would be a good fit. 

As MRCC members continue to test innovative solutions and expand regenerative agriculture in the Midwest, implementing partners such as PFI are key to making this happen. Through the HSBC-funded work, PFI is modeling the climate, water quality, avoided sediment loss, and biodiversity impacts of using cover crops to keep fields covered for more of the year. 

The data can inform future work and help make the case for more farmers to make the change.  

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