The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative: Empowering agriculture as a solution

The Midwest is still very much in the grips of winter. Here in Minneapolis, we reached windchills of more than 30 below zero just last week. The warm sunshine of the growing season can feel like a distant memory.

Winter is a time for slowing down, taking stock, and planning for next season. Earlier this month, the steering committee for the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative convened at the PepsiCo offices in Plano, TX, to discuss their theory of change for a more sustainable Midwest row crop system and plans for the coming year.

An innovative partnership aligned to drive positive environmental change on agricultural landscapes in the upper Mississippi River Basin, the Collaborative is comprised of leading businesses and nonprofits that span the full food and agriculture value chain. As it continues to learn and evolve, the Collaborative’s members are clear on their mission: empower agriculture as a solution by tackling key systemic barriers that must be addressed for the Midwest row crop agricultural system to shift to a new model that is part of a healthy environmental ecosystem and economically viable for all in the value chain—one with healthy soils, that protects water, that addresses the factors contributing to climate change, and that supports farm families.

The Collaborative has identified a set of key systemic barriers that hinder the adoption of more sustainable, regenerative farming practices

  1. Financial and non-financial risks to farmers in making the transition
  2. Lack of technical and social networks supporting the transition
  3. Insufficient demand and ability for the supply chain to source commodities or small grains produced using these practices

As a small, focused group of companies and NGOs, members see the role of the Collaborative as incubating and testing solutions for removing these barriers. They’ve identified five systems change pathways to overcoming these barriers and unlocking change in the system.

1. Conservation finance

Transitioning to new practices may require up-front capital expenditures and several seasons of farming differently before the full economic benefits are realized. Providing access to new lending and other financial products that support farmers through the transition offers one potential mechanism for enabling a broader transition to good farming practices.

2. De-risking practice adoption for farmers

In addition to financial risks, producers can run up against obstacles that no amount of lending will overcome. Approaches are needed to reduce and share these risks, be they technical, social, or financial. This might include creating new economic incentives, such as sharing investment in new practice adoption across multiple players in the value chain.

3. Engaging agricultural retailers to support and promote practice adoption

Producers rely on the knowledge and expertise within their network of trusted advisors, whether their neighbor, agronomist, or agricultural retailer. Agricultural retailers can play an important role as trusted advisors on good farming practices and can serve as a link to a network of conservation experts.

4. Innovation to create demand for commodities produced with soil health and water stewardship practices at scale

Farmers raise crops in response to demand from the supply chain. Members of the Collaborative can demonstrate supply chain sourcing practices that leverages multiple parts of the supply chain to support demand for agricultural commodities produced using regenerative, more sustainable practices. Companies need to continue building this as a capability in order to send clear market signals to farmers.

5. Engaging consumers on conservation and regenerative agriculture

The demand signal sent through the supply chain begins with the consumer. Increased consumer demand for products produced that benefit both the environment and the farmer can stimulate companies to share risk and expand conservation and regenerative projects at scale.

True to the nature of systems change, none of these pathways alone will unlock the system to enable a broad shift. Progress in one pathway can help to pave the way for faster progress in another—for instance, by creating more consumer demand for products made that support soil health practices, it is an easier business case for supply chain companies to figure out how to source these commodities. The pathways to systemic change have to be pursued in concert by the members of the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative.

Catalyzing scaled adoption through shared learning

Genuine progress will require a collaborative effort. Within these systems change pathways, members of the Collaborative are stepping up and taking leadership roles to jointly develop, fund and implement a variety of innovative programs and pilot projects designed to test approaches that can accelerate new solutions.

The Collaborative recognizes one crucial, cross-cutting barrier—a lack of shared knowledge on the WHY and HOW of adopting good farming practices. All of the work that members do together serves a larger purpose: to demonstrate and share project successes, barriers encountered, and lessons learned to inspire action.

While projects will track their direct impact on practice adoption and farm health, the Collaborative recognizes its more important catalytic role in enabling broader change throughout the agricultural value chain. Members hope that by openly sharing tools and lessons learned, they can empower action by many more actors in the agricultural system.

Accelerating impact in 2020

The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative moves into 2020 with a renewed sense of purpose and energy for accelerating its work, buoyed by strong member engagement and the election of new Chairs from Unilever and The Nature Conservancy. Members are eager to roll out innovative projects across the systems change pathways and find ways to share their learnings.

Among other opportunities, plans are underway for unique learning forums later this year focused on both policy and consumer engagement, following the success of last year’s Forum on Conservation Finance in Agriculture, as well as the launch of a new quarterly newsletter.

As the Collaborative continues to accelerate its efforts, we are looking for strong corporate, NGO, foundation, and government partners aligned with our mission to remove barriers to shifting to a more sustainable and regenerative Midwest row crop agricultural system.

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