Heifers on Ted Krauskopf’s perennial pasture in Madison County, Illinois
Ted Krauskopf is preparing for the arrival of some new heifers on his 202-acre farm in Madison County, Illinois. The yearlings don’t know it, but they have an important job to do. Krauskopf, who practices rotational grazing, enlisted the young cattle to pummel his perennial pasture area with their heavy hooves and distribute cow droppings far and wide.
It’s all part of a bigger mission: Cow manure adds invaluable nutrients to the soil that support the growth of forage grasses, whose roots store carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. And all that heavy trampling? “It creates a residue mat to feed earthworms and protect the soil from runoff,” says Krauskopf, 69, a third-generation farmer. “And that’s so important because the land here is highly erodible, with some of the topsoil washed off right down to the gravel and rock.” By rotating the grazing areas and planting covering crops to further shelter the grass, he’s doing his part to preserve the resource.
Krauskopf is part of the Pasture Project, an initiative that was started to improve groundwater in the Mississippi River Basin, which was badly contaminated by synthetic fertilizer and farm pesticides. The program is funded partly through the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation (RAF), a three-year-old nonprofit based in San Rafael, California, which aims to transform agriculture by supporting the land’s stewards: farmers, ranchers and tribes.
Regenerative agriculture, in fact, has been called the fastest-growing movement in conservation. It has surfaced in campaign rhetoric and even got a shout-out during the second round of Democratic debates from Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Climate change—which has ushered in severe droughts, flooding, super-storms and wildfires—has added urgency to the movement. For many people who work the land for a living, regenerative agriculture also offers a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak economic landscape.
“Rural America is really hurting, and it has been for a long time,” says Kevin Boyer, the founder and director of the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation. “They’ve suffered from decades of disinvestment, depopulation, the best and brighter often being siphoned away, and increasing difficulty making ends meet. Add climate change to all that, and it’s like a perfect storm. At one of our recent conferences on regenerative agriculture in the Midwest, hundreds of farmers showed up.”
Boyer explains that regenerative agriculture goes a step beyond the more common and better-known practice of sustainable agriculture. In addition to preserving the land, regenerative agriculture seeks to heal it. “When you think of farmland that is already degraded, with degraded water, degraded communities, and a broken carbon cycle, sustaining that system just isn’t that attractive,” he says.
Key elements of regenerative agriculture, Boyer notes, include keeping the land covered with crops or grasses and clover year-round (“cover cropping”), composting, rotating crops and using no-till farming to build healthy soil, encourage biodiversity, prevent erosion and get carbon out of the air and into the soil (aka carbon sequestration). Not surprisingly, some environmentally minded philanthropists are throwing their weight behind the cause. RAF counts among its foundation and investor donors the Cedar Tree Foundation, Armonia LLC, The 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation, and the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation (run by billionaire presidential candidate Tom Steyer and his wife Kathryn “Kat” Taylor, who own the Pescadero cattle farm TomKat Ranch).
“We want to change the way people think about working lands,” Steyer has said about his own regenerative grazing ranch. “I mean, if we can show scientifically in the real world that this stuff really works and agriculture doesn’t have to be destructive, that would be priceless.”
Birth of a foundation
Boyer became acquainted with TomKat Ranch Educational Fund when he worked at the 11th Hour, a foundation deeply interested in climate change and agriculture. Boyer isn’t from a farming family himself, but he grew up in California’s Tulare County, an agribusiness capital heavy on fruits, nuts, rice and vegetables. He recalls an uninspiring farm landscape of crop dusters, tractor-trailers, and row upon row of monoculture crops stretching to the horizon. “It wasn’t until I got to the Bay Area and got involved in the ecology movement that I saw how transformative agriculture could be,” he says.
As part of his personal transformation, Boyer interned at Marin Organic on its organic school lunch program a few years after he graduated from Trinity College with a master’s degree in philosophy. He went on to work nearly five years on healthy soil and regenerative grazing initiatives at the 11th Hour Project, whose programs focus on energy, food, agriculture and human rights. With the foundation’s blessing, he then branched out on his own to start the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation.
RAF is not yet a full-fledged 501(c )(3), although it has applied for and is awaiting its tax-exempt status, so it serves as a fiscal agent for applicants. Boyer says the foundation tries to be strategic because its grants tend to be fairly small, with an average grant size of $75,000 and a budget of $2 million. In 2018, it distributed $800,000 in grants.
RAF has a three-pronged approach, working closely with donors, communities and nonprofits to build capacity for change. To that end, it funds such groups as the Pasture Project, Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, and the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota. “We’re small, so we work hard to be effective,” Boyer says. “We try to meet farmers where they are and really engage them. And it’s working: Farmers know better than anyone that the soil needs to be replenished.”
RAF joins a dinner hosted by the Savory Institute on a bison ranch in Colorado as part of the Slow Food Nations conference (image courtesy of Kevin Boyer)
RAF’s support “can’t be top-down,” Boyer adds. “Farmers are among the most creative people I know, so our support is basically freeing them to solve their own problems. I learn more every time I visit them.”
Pastures of Plenty
The Pasture Project has attracted enthusiastic support from farmers. The initiative began with the goal of combating runoff from agriculture polluting the Mississippi River basin and contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, but it soon became clear that water pollution was just a symptom of the larger problem of degraded soil and unsustainable practices.
The Pasture Project, run out of the Wallace Center at Winrock International (named for visionary New Deal Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace) works to integrate (or re-integrate) rotational grazing with farmland, promote soil health and remove barriers to environmentally sustainable land management.
“We work with farmers who are leaders and innovators in their own right,” says director Pete Huff. “When it comes down to it, who are farmers going to listen to? It’s usually not funders or university professors or nonprofits: It’s other farmers. So we lift up and share the good work these farmers are doing, adding value where we’re able and encouraging other farmers to follow their leadership.” (Part of that support can include soil testing sent to third-party labs to see how healthy the soil is, which determines in part how well it can hold water and resist erosion.)
Huff says he appreciates the support that the Pasture Project has received from RAF. “Philanthropists are getting involved in regenerative agriculture, but it’s not like we have folks lining up to give us money,” he says. “Many who are interested in the issue are focused on California and the West or East Coasts, and we’re way out here in the Midwest. There are a lot of really innovative farmers out here, but nobody knows their names. So it’s great to have the support and flexible funding from RAF and work on this vision about what the Midwest could be—what it’s becoming, actually.”
Krauskopf, who has worked with the Pasture Project since 2014, attributes his interest in regenerative agriculture to an experience he had after tilling part of his acreage in preparation for planting. It rained shortly afterward, and a nearby creek flooded, sweeping away six inches of topsoil.
“I lost topsoil right down to the depth I had tilled,” he said. “That’s when I realized I couldn’t do tillage anymore, even if the land was flat.”
With some assistance from the government and the Pasture Project, Krauskopf created a 90-acre perennial pasture for rotational grazing. Within a couple of years, soil testing showed that the organic matter in the soil had increased and soil biological material (live matter such as fungi and bacteria that make the soil fertile) had more than doubled; in addition, he no longer had topsoil runoff. He hasn’t used synthetic fertilizer or pesticides for years, and has been gratified to see swallows, hawks, fireflies and other wildlife returning.
It’s especially gratifying since bee-killing insecticides known as neonicotinoids have been a particular problem in Illinois, Krauskopf says. “Along with bees, we’ve seen a huge drop in fireflies, which are one of the main predators for slug larvae,” he says. “Then came an explosion of slugs, which would come out at night and chew off the soybean seedlings. The poor farmers would wake up and not know what on earth had happened.”
Fifth-generation farmer Greg Rebman, whose 1,524-acre farm is in Frederick, Illinois, about 143 miles from Krauskopf, agrees that regenerative agriculture is better for the environment—and ultimately, for farmers. “Around here, things have been shrinking for a long time,” he says. “For food, we’re down to about one grocery and a couple of dollar stores. Farm suppliers are disappearing, too: I needed a livestock watering valve the other day, and I had to order it on Amazon! So it’s not just about the soil and healthy production; it’s about regenerating local economies.” He and his business partner Luke Jones have started a grass-fed beef operation on part of his farm, where cows and sheep graze peacefully on cover crops on land that will later be planted with corn and soybeans.
As the movement gathers force, one problem is that regenerative agriculture has become a buzzword in danger of being coopted by agribusiness. After all, just about any Big Ag company can market itself as promoting regenerative agriculture and healthy soil by, say, planting cover crops to prevent erosion, even if it continues to spray bee-killing pesticides.
“There’s a plethora of meaningless and downright confusing claims flooding the marketplace,” Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group told the online magazine FoodDive, adding that it is crucial to have third-party groups verify food industry pledges. The Rodale Institute, which has championed organic farming since the 1970s, has proposed measuring carbon sequestration in the soil to determine how much is needed to combat climate change. In addition, it has joined Patagonia and Dr. Bronner (an organic soap brand) to propose a “Regenerative Organic” certification label.
Boyer of RAF is well aware of the potential for greenwashing. “We’d prefer there not be a lot of bureaucracy,” he says. “But if there is third-party verification, then it should be as stringent as possible.”
In the meantime, like Ted Krauskopf, farmers embracing regenerative agriculture often adopt the principles of organic agriculture, as well. Rick Clark, a fifth-generation farmer in Indiana, began no-till farming on his corn and soybean farm, and eventually went completely organic. Without expensive pesticides or synthetic fertilizer, “the savings are huge, huge,” Clark told the Indianapolis Star. “We are as naked and low-cost as you can get.” Clark was recently named 2019 Farmer of the Year by the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.
To Boyer, the adoption of regenerative agriculture by longtime farming families is more evidence that farmers are hungry for change. “They see the writing on the wall,” he says.
Like a growing number of foundations, RAF accepts grant applications by invitation only, but it invites anyone wanting to connect to drop a line or attend one of its conferences. (Its most recent conference, No-Till on The Plains, was held on January 28-29 in Wichita, Kansas.) It has also hired Mark Muller from the McNight Foundation as executive director, beginning March 15.
Asked about RAF’s overarching mission, Boyer paused for a moment. “I hesitate only because I’ve been told my goals are a little too lofty,” he said, “but I honestly think that we can rebuild rural America, produce clean water and reduce ocean acidification, increase biodiversity, and provide livable jobs for everyone.” He laughed. “I know that may sound a bit grandiose, but that’s our ultimate vision.”