Welcome to the reboot of The Undark Podcast, which will deliver — once a month from September to May — a feature-length exploration of a single topic at the intersection of science and society. In this episode, join journalist Eilís O’Neill and podcast host Lydia Chain as they investigate the environmental and economic claims made by proponents of a new farming method called regenerative agriculture.
Eilís O’Neill: In July 2003, Doug Poole was broke.
Doug Poole: Wife called and said, “The house insurance went up $250 a month.” And I said, “Well, how much is in the checking account?” And she said, “$53.50.” And I said, “Well, that’s a problem.”
Eilís O’Neill: Poole was working as a wheat farmer not far from Chelan, and it had been a bad year.
Doug Poole: And the prices were so bad … poor, poor prices. Just nothing was going right.
Eilís O’Neill: The day Poole’s wife called to say they only had $53.50 to their names, he was out in the fields with his dad.
Doug Poole: I drove out across the field to my dad, and I said, “I’m done.”
Lydia Chain: This is the Undark Podcast. I’m Lydia Chain. A new way of farming called regenerative agriculture is touted to be better for the soil, better for climate change, and more profitable for farmers. And it’s starting to get some serious attention from major players. Bills before Congress seek to put public money behind regenerative agriculture. At the UN Climate Action Summit last September, 19 companies including Danone, Mars, and Nestlé created a coalition to protect biodiversity in their agricultural activities. One of the coalition’s three pillars? Scaling up regenerative practices.
And, in the spring of 2019, General Mills announced that it’s planning on shifting nearly a quarter of its supply chain to this kind of farming. That means your Cheerios, your Annie’s Mac and Cheese, they could soon include ingredients grown “regeneratively.”
Here’s the catch: Everyone agrees regenerative agriculture has to do with soil health and carbon — but there’s still a debate about what exactly is or isn’t regenerative, and what this form of agriculture can accomplish — and what it can’t. Reporter Eilís O’Neill headed out to a Washington farm to pick up the story.
Eilís O’Neill: Doug Poole is a third-generation farmer. His father and grandfather before him also grew wheat. In 2003, Poole was farming the way his dad taught him — the way farmers across the country have largely been farming since the invention of the tractor.
He tilled his fields, dragging a sharp tool behind his tractor that broke up the weeds and the detritus from the previous crop, turning over the soil and digging rows to place his wheat seeds.
Doug Poole: This ground has been tilled since probably the ‘20s and the ‘30s. It has seen wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat. And maybe a spring wheat.
Eilís O’Neill: Winter wheat after spring wheat after winter wheat, season after season. That wheat sucked nutrients from the soil: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium… And, after generations of farming this way, the soil had turned to sand.
Doug Poole: We fed it a diet of macaroni its entire life. And so the soil was starving for some diversity, a little salad.
Eilís O’Neill: Poole says, all through the valley, farmers had dusty, sandy soil like his. He says you should be able to see town from his farm, but …
Doug Poole: When I grew up, you couldn’t see town most of the time. In May and June, when we get some decent winds, this was all in the air.
Eilís O’Neill: That is, the dusty soil choked the valley. To keep growing wheat in this sandy ground, Poole had to add more and more fertilizer. To buy the fertilizer, along with renting land to farm and making payments on all the expensive tractors and harvesting equipment he needed, Poole went into debt. He was always one harvest away from financial ruin.
He worked night jobs, and even quit farming for a time to provide a more stable life for his family. But the farm called him back.
Doug Poole: I grew up on the farm. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I was going to come back.
Eilís O’Neill: So, in spring 2011, Poole told his wife, Tina, he wanted to try again. This time, he was determined to make it work.
When he first got back to the fields, he farmed the way he always had, but, within a year, he started changing things up.
First, he stopped tearing up the ground with his till.
Instead, he used a special no-till drill that drags a disk along the ground to puncture all the detritus, drops seeds in, and then covers the seeds with dirt.
Doug Poole: My dad was not a fan and told me I would go broke.
Eilís O’Neill: And Poole’s dad wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of naysayers. Many of the farmers in the area gather for their morning coffee at a fertilizer supplier in town, and they told Poole the same kinds of things his dad did.
Doug Poole: This is the reason why I don’t go to coffee.
Eilís O’Neill, on tape: You started no-tilling even though your dad had tried no-till and it had not gone well. What gave you the conviction that no-till would work for you?
Doug Poole: I just knew there had to be a different way.
Eilís O’Neill: Poole decided to stop tilling because he read that that was a good way to make the soil healthier. Poole was driving his wheat combine between one field and another when he told me he thought, if he could stop buying so much fertilizer and spending as much money on fuel for his tractor and time on tilling, and not go into debt, the farm would be more financially stable.
Doug Poole: And so that’s kind of what made the whole soil health thing attractive to me.
Eilís O’Neill: It’s something other farmers across the country were starting to do, too — no matter what everyone around them was saying about whether or not it would work.
Doug Poole: I just love it when someone says something won’t work. Well, darn it, then we’re going to try it.
Dave Montgomery: A lot of the farmers I interviewed were cut from that same cloth.
Eilís O’Neill: That’s Dave Montgomery, talking about farmers he met as he traveled the country, doing research for a book about regenerative agriculture.
I met Montgomery at the Oxbow Farm, a regenerative farm in a Seattle suburb. He was there to play with his band for Oxtoberfest.
[Sound of band playing]
When Montgomery isn’t giving concerts, he’s a geology professor at the University of Washington. He studies farming and dirt.
Montgomery’s first popular book about agriculture looked at how, historically, farming’s had a big problem.
Dave Montgomery: Farming practices degraded land in civilization after civilization around the world.
Eilís O’Neill: Over the past decade or so, some farmers have started trying something else. Montgomery and others call it regenerative agriculture.
Dave Montgomery: It’s agriculture that improves the quality and health of the soil as a consequence of farming.
Eilís O’Neill: Montgomery says, all over the country, these farmers’ neighbors thought they were crazy.
Dave Montgomery: Because, you know, the crazy people doing like no-till with a diverse rotation next door — you know, surely, they were going to go broke.
Eilís O’Neill: To be clear, Doug Poole didn’t ever intend to become a regenerative farmer. He just kind of stumbled into it, as he took one step after another to experiment with ways to be more profitable.
As more and more farmers have started farming in this way, proponents have started making bigger and bigger claims about what this form of agriculture can accomplish. They say it can not only increase farmers’ profits but can also improve soil health, produce more nutritious crops, and maybe even solve climate change.
Indigo Ag Ad: What if I told you that the most promising technology we have to address climate change is growing on 3.6 billion acres across planet Earth?
Eilís O’Neill: That’s from an ad for Indigo Ag. Indigo Ag is one of a bunch of companies trying to figure out ways to pay farmers for regenerative practices. But detractors say these claims are way overblown and some techniques could even be harmful. And scientists, policymakers, and big brands don’t just disagree on what regenerative agriculture can accomplish; they can’t even agree on what exactly it is.
Here’s what it looked like on Poole’s farm. First, he stopped tilling. Then, he added in higher value crops. Here’s Poole on his combine again.
Doug Poole: I can find a crop that’s more profitable, and that’s where canola has come in.
Eilís O’Neill: Canola, oats, sunflower seeds. Then, he started planting cover crops. Those are crops that farmers don’t plan to sell. Instead, they plant them because they can help improve the soil’s fertility. Legumes, for example, form relationships with microbes that live in the soil, draw nitrogen from the air, and fix it in the dirt, where plants can use it.
Typically, farmers would use a tractor to churn cover crops into the soil at the end of the season, but Poole needed another way to turn those crops into compost.
He called up his neighbor, a rancher.
Doug Poole: They were the cowboys, and I’m the farmer, and we kind of have a marriage made in heaven because of course they’re always looking for feed, and I’m looking for soil health.
Eilís O’Neill: Cow manure is a great fertilizer, so letting cows graze a field lightly can improve soil health. And cover crops don’t just cut down on how much fertilizer farmers need to use. They can also reduce the need for pesticides. That’s because, when farmers plant the exact same crop season after season, pests and pathogens can settle in, guaranteed their favorite food source. When farmers switch things up, they can starve out those pests without having to use pesticides. That’s what Poole saw on his farm.
Doug Poole: We began to take pest problems out of the system … weed pressures that we had always had in wheat.
Eilís O’Neill: So Poole was fumbling his way toward regenerative agriculture: not disturbing the soil, rotating crops, adding in livestock. And things were going brilliantly. A field that had never yielded more than 32 bushels of wheat per acre yielded 55.
Doug Poole: A lot of the stuff that you follow and read says that you can’t see the results that we’re seeing as fast as we are. And so that kinda tells me just how marginal and how degraded the soil was. To see these kinds of results, that kind of keeps you going. That makes it worth getting up in the morning.
Eilís O’Neill: In 2016, Poole learned the term “regenerative agriculture.” That’s when he realized: He wasn’t the only one making changes like this. Farmers all over the country were trying to make their farms better, more productive — trying to regenerate them.
What Poole was doing and finding mapped pretty closely to what geology professor Dave Montgomery found as he toured the country, visiting regenerative farms. Eventually, neighbors who’d thought they were crazy had to concede: these regenerative farmers …
Dave Montgomery: In like the fourth or fifth year, where they’re making more money than you. You start to go over there and go, “Hey, what are you doing? Can I, you know, maybe can you teach me how to do this?”
Eilís O’Neill: Here’s the thing: what exactly they’re doing varies from farmer to farmer. You know when farmers are organic because they have a stamp that says so: there’s a set of rules they have to follow — pesticides they can use and pesticides they can’t, for example — and a USDA inspector drops by every year to make sure they’re following the rules.
With regenerative agriculture, there’s no such thing. Farmers are regenerative if they say they are. Everyone agrees that healthier soil is the goal, but no one agrees on the rules.
Take General Mills. Last year, the company announced that, by 2030, it would have one million acres of regenerative farmland in its supply chain. That’s about a quarter of the company’s total agricultural supply chain in North America.
Steve Rosenzweig is a soil scientist the company hired to help achieve that goal. Rosenzweig says, for General Mills, regenerative agriculture has to do with improving soil health and farm profitability and increasing biodiversity. The company has an online tool that farmers can use to see how many regenerative practices they’re using on their land.
But, when asked if he’d like there to be a certification for regenerative agriculture the way there is for organic, Rosenzweig said …
Steve Rosenzweig: Regenerative first and foremost is a mindset. It’s just a different way of thinking about, you know, the farm as an ecosystem. And so I think, you know, that idea has to stay clear, and it shouldn’t get … I think we run the risk of having that kind of mindset get muddied if we tried to clearly define what is and what is not regenerative.
Eilís O’Neill: In other words, General Mills is trying to transition one million acres of land to a form of agriculture it isn’t in a hurry to see defined more clearly. And the current state of things is pretty muddy.
Some farmers who call themselves regenerative don’t till the soil at all; others till rarely. Some plant cover crops between cash crops; others alternate which cash crops they plant; others plant mixes of crops in the same field. Some regenerative farmers include livestock; others don’t.
In 2018, a group of organizations introduced the “regenerative organic” certification. And there are other, smaller organizations that offer certifications — Poole has one for being no-till. But none of these certifications has really taken off yet. Some farmers are excited about certification and others are resistant to the very idea of having to fill out paperwork and prove their practices are improving soil health.
Montgomery has tried to clear things up by distilling regenerative agriculture to three main rules.
Number one: don’t disturb the soil.
Dave Montgomery: So stop tilling, stop plowing. … When you plow a field, it’s highly disruptive. Think, you know, if only of what it does to the worms in the soil to plow them up.
Eilís O’Neill: Number two: always be growing something — anything.
Dave Montgomery: Keep a living root in the ground at all times — so no bare soil. Don’t farm naked.
Eilís O’Neill: And number three: Switch up what you grow. Plant diverse crops in rotation, or even at the same time.
Dave Montgomery: That combination is the recipe for building up soil organic matter, building up life in the soil.
Eilís O’Neill: In addition to boosting soil health, these rules also work as a weed management plan. No-till farming often gets a bad rap for using a lot of herbicides, since farmers can’t churn weeds into the soil to kill them off.
But regenerative farmers like Poole say, by keeping their soil covered at all times, the plants they want growing crowd out the weeds, so they don’t need to use much in the way of herbicides.
Montgomery says herbicides helped make no-till farming possible originally, but, since then, regenerative farmers have come up with new ways to reduce their reliance on herbicides. Some of the regenerative farmers he interviewed for his book were using no herbicides at all, while others were using less than a third of the herbicides that their conventional neighbors were.
Montgomery says less than 5 percent of U.S. cropland is fully regenerative, but about a third has gone no-till.
With all this debate about the meaning of regenerative, it’s hard to verify General Mills’s one million acres goal.
Here’s Rosenzweig again.
Steve Rosenzweig: Candidly, we’re still trying to, we’re still figuring that out — exactly what that looks like. … Outcome measurement is really kind of the ideal and hopefully we’ll have a scalable solution for tracking soil health and biodiversity and all this stuff in our supply chains.
Eilís O’Neill: Rosenzweig adds that General Mills doesn’t always know specifically what farm its grain comes from. Often, all the, say, wheat farmers in a region dump their product into one communal grain elevator. In those cases, General Mills is trying to convert whole regions over to a new way of farming in order to say the grain they bought from that region came from a regenerative farm.
Rosenzweig says another barrier is crop insurance. Depending on what county they’re farming in …
Steve Rosenzweig: Farmers can’t get insurance for their wheat if they do some of these regenerative practices.
Eilís O’Neill: Rosenzweig is trying to gather data to help demonstrate to risk management agencies that regenerative farms are as good a bet as conventional farms — or maybe even better.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other non-profits are also advocating for reform in the U.S. crop insurance program.
It’s not just food companies trying to get in on this regenerative craze. New companies are springing up, promising to pay farmers for the carbon they sequester by farming regeneratively.
Here’s how regenerative agriculture theoretically sequesters carbon: As plants grow, they push carbon out of their roots into the soil. As long as the soil isn’t disturbed, that carbon stays there.
That’s why several startups want to pay farmers to leave their soil alone, storing carbon. The details of the business model vary, but most of these startups plan to take money from philanthropic individuals, or even companies and countries trying to offset their carbon emissions, and give that money to regenerative farmers. The startup would get a cut of the fee for making the connection.
We mentioned Indigo Ag earlier in the story. Another example is Nori. They say this could be part of a suite of climate change solutions. Ryan Anderson is with Nori.
Ryan Anderson: We’re outcome-focused on removing carbon and storing it in your soils for at least 10 years. If you can prove to us that you’re doing that and you can commit to it, then you can join our marketplace.
Eilís O’Neill: Anderson says agriculture alone can’t solve the problem.
Ryan Anderson: Croplands are kind of like the appetizer, like where we’re getting started.
Eilís O’Neill: And it’s not just private money that’s moving towards this form of farming. It could soon be public money as well.
Senator Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would pay farmers for regenerative practices, and there’s a bill in the works in the House as well. That money would go towards the cost of transitioning, like buying no-till drills and other new equipment.
But there’s a catch: As more and more resources get invested in it, regenerative ag is still controversial. That’s because a lot of the claims regenerative farmers make — or companies and advocates make on the farmers’ behalf — still haven’t been vetted by scientists.
Paige Stanley: Science is behind.
Eilís O’Neill: Paige Stanley is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. She researches whether — and how much — carbon can be sequestered by regenerative systems that incorporate livestock.
Paige Stanley: I like to think of the farmers and ranchers that I see doing regenerative agriculture as kind of the OG scientists. So I think we as scientists … really owe it to them to finally shift our gaze and look, you know, what are they doing? Are the ecosystem responses that we see in the scientific way mapping on top of what these farmers and ranchers say they’re getting?
Eilís O’Neill: Dave Montgomery, the geology professor, says the reason for that is that most scientists want to look at one variable at a time, and regenerative agriculture is about all the variables working together.
Dave Montgomery: What scientists like to do is take a system and break it into individual pieces and study each one in isolation. But what if it’s the synergistic interaction of all three pieces that’s giving you the net beneficial effect? If you break it into its pieces, it doesn’t work. It’s kind of like, you know, if you take an old-fashioned watch apart. … The individual pieces don’t work anywhere near as well as the watch as a whole, right?
Eilís O’Neill: Montgomery says there hasn’t been much money on the table for funding systems-level regenerative agriculture research, but he expects that to start to change.
Dave Montgomery: We’re going to start seeing a lot more scientists sort of focusing on these systems.
Eilís O’Neill: In the meantime, because of the lack of scientifically vetted evidence, there are those that say: the principles are solid, but the claims are crazy.
One of the most vocal skeptics is Andy McGuire, an agronomist at Washington State University. He says there’s good evidence for some of the tenets of regenerative agriculture:
Andy McGuire: The no-till, the cover crops, the incorporating livestock, protecting the soil.
Eilís O’Neill: But he isn’t sold on everything.
Andy McGuire: Some of the claims that it makes kind of fly in the face of our existing scientific knowledge in terms of how fast they can improve the soil, … that if we could get enough regenerative agriculture, we could actually reverse climate change, the claims that you can drastically reduce or eliminate nutrient inputs by stimulating the soil microbes.
Eilís O’Neill: McGuire says a big reason regenerative farmers need less fertilizer is because, over time, they’re growing less food per acre. Farmers say their yields are up, meaning that, when they grow wheat on a field, that field yields more wheat. But they’re no longer growing wheat on that field all the time; they’re growing cover crops, which people can’t eat, part of the time.
The biggest questions revolve around carbon sequestration. McGuire says it’s unclear how much carbon agricultural soil can sequester, and how long it will stay there.
Andy McGuire: I don’t think we’re at the point where we can say, you know, “In this area, we can store this much carbon in the soil,” because it’s highly variable on where you are, what kind of soils you’re working with, what your starting point is.
Eilís O’Neill: But Dave Montgomery, the geology professor, says he thinks regenerative agriculture could help.
Dave Montgomery: The idea that it could completely offset fossil fuel emissions by putting carbon back in the soil … I think that’s kinda overblown. You can only put so much carbon back in the ground before you saturate it. So it’s not a forever solution to fossil fuel emissions. It is something that could help us make the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
Eilís O’Neill: The role of livestock is the most controversial piece of all of this. Cattle emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, so some people argue these animals have no place in any climate policy. But others counter that, when cattle and other ruminants graze, they cause plants to push carbon out of their roots faster — so they help speed up the process of sequestering carbon in the soil.
The crucial question is whether or not that carbon sequestration more than makes up for the methane. That’s the question UC Berkeley researcher Paige Stanley has spent the past few years trying to answer. She found that, in a regeneratively farmed system in Michigan …
Paige Stanley: That system was sequestering enough carbon in the soil to totally offset and then some all of the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by the cattle. But … Michigan is a very temperate system, whereas most grazing is actually happening on semi-arid rangeland.
Eilís O’Neill: That’s why Stanley’s now investigating California to see how much carbon regenerative grazing can sequester in a drier climate. That question of verification — of exactly how much carbon is sequestered, and how to measure it — is a crucial one when it comes to carbon payments. Nori’s relying exclusively on modeling. Farmers enter data like their planting and harvest dates, fertilizer use and yields, tilling, and …
Ryan Anderson: They say, “This is where I’m farming; this is what I did over the last 5, 10 years.” And then they get all those greenhouse gas emission estimates and sequestration estimates.
Eilís O’Neill: Modeling is inherently imprecise, but Anderson argues that it’s more accurate than soil sampling, more scalable, and can help smooth carbon payments over time.
But Paige Stanley says it’s better to pay for practices that are beneficial on average, the way the bills currently before Congress suggest, than to pay for specific outcomes, the way Nori and Indigo Ag are trying to do.
That’s because farmers …
Paige Stanley: Even if they are doing all of the right things, they could be hit by a drought and be emitting more carbon to no fault of their own.
Eilís O’Neill: That could harm farmers planning around a payout — as well as the environment, if, say, a transportation company emitted more carbon thinking it was offsetting those emissions on regenerative farmland.
Back on the farm, Doug Poole says he doesn’t have time to wait for science to catch up.
Doug Poole: I’m going to retire here in 15, 20 years. I don’t have time to wait for WSU or ASU or wherever else to do a 10-year study, have it reviewed for 5 years, and then publish it.
Eilís O’Neill: As he ran his own 500-acre experiments, he had the occasional disastrous failure. Once, he planted a field of canola too early, and nothing ever came up.
Doug Poole: I did that where the landlord had to drive by it every day. It looked as bad as that road, basically. Nothing was growing; it was full of weeds.
Eilís O’Neill: But, in general, things have gone really well. He says, after about 5 years, his total operating expenses were down 15 to 20 percent from what they’d been historically, thanks mostly to reduced fertilizer, fuel, and labor costs.
Doug Poole: My yields are up for no explanation other than the system we’ve implemented. There’s the data I live off of. I don’t have the expertise nor the time to worry about how much carbon I’m putting in the ground.
Eilís O’Neill: It took a while to convince his wife things were stable enough that they could move back to the farm — but, now …
Doug Poole: My wife and I, our routine is Sunday afternoon crop tours. We’re well-known for our boxed wine, and so we’ll usually have our couple of glasses of wine as we’re out touring.
Eilís O’Neill: And they drive around in Poole’s truck, drinking wine and looking at the fields.
Doug Poole: It’s fun to see those results of something: just small tweaks, like driving by the neighbor, and I can pick up my soil, it stays in my hand, and his falls through. That’s fun. It’s nice to see her see it, you know. I get to show off for my wife, and she’s excited about it.
Eilís O’Neill: Three years ago, Poole’s son Lane came back to farm with him full-time, with an eye towards taking over when Doug wants to retire.
Doug Poole: I want to leave Lane with something better than I found it.
Eilís O’Neill: So far, he considers 1,700 of his 15,000 acres to be fully regenerative. Another 6,000 are somewhere in the middle of the transition. Poole’s goal is for everything to be on its way to regenerative by the time he retires.
Doug Poole: I try not to ever follow wheat on wheat. I’m going to try to break that — if I just break that cycle, I will have accomplished probably enough — it’s gonna sound funny — to have retired. They say if you go down this road, your farm’s not going to look like your dad’s or your grandfather’s. It’s going to look like your great-grandfather’s. And I love hearing that.
Lydia Chain: Eilís, thanks so much for being here with us today.
Eilís O’Neill: Thanks for having me.
Lydia Chain: So we end this piece by hearing Doug Poole compare his regenerative agriculture methods to his great-grandfather’s farm. What does he mean by that?
Eilís O’Neill: Well, he went on to say that he loved that idea because that would mean he would have a hog and chickens and wheat and vegetables and beans on his land, and everything would be used and nothing would go to waste. It’s kind of like that idyllic scene you’d picture from “Little House on the Prairie.” And it’s still, I think, what a lot of people think of when they think of a farm. And to me, it’s kind of indicative of how big and revolutionary a change these farmers want to make. How big a shift they want to see in what farming in the U.S. looks like.
Lydia Chain: A lot of this story focused on some of the confusing and even conflicting understandings of what regenerative agriculture actually is. Do you see any movement on a consolidating definition?
Eilís O’Neill: I think for regenerative agriculture to get as big as farmers and companies are trying or hoping that it will become, there would need to be some sort of agreed-upon definition of what is, and what is not, regenerative agriculture. And I don’t know if that would follow the model of organic agriculture and be pretty top down from the government, or if it would be more like the regenerative organic certification that the Rodale Institute and others came up with, but there would need to be some agreement on what are we talking about.
Lydia Chain: Right now, regenerative agriculture isn’t the primary form or mode of agriculture in the United States. Where does it go from here?
Eilís O’Neill: I think that what we’re looking at is kind of like the early days of organic agriculture. You know, it’s pretty small right now. Dave Montgomery said less than 5 percent of U.S. cropland. But it’s a growing movement. Lots of farmers are starting to adopt some of the methods that regenerative farmers use. Companies, nonprofits, even the government are starting to put a lot of money behind this. And so yes, there are still a lot of questions that need working out. You know, what is regenerative farming? Can regenerative farmers get crop insurance, what would that look like? Can there be a certification for regenerative agriculture? Should there be a certification? But this form of agriculture really seems on the brink of becoming much larger than it currently is.
Lydia Chain: Eilís O’Neill is a science, environment, and health reporter in Washington State. Our theme music is produced by the Undark team. Additional music in this episode comes from Kevin MacLeod at Incompetech, and I’m your host, Lydia Chain. See you next month.
UPDATE: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this episode incorrectly attributed quotes from Ryan Anderson to a Nori colleague, Christophe Jospe.