The regenerative agriculture movement is accelerating, with huge implications for soil conservation and carbon sequestration, too. Adding to the attraction is the emerging field of agrivoltaics, which enables some degree of farming to occur within a solar array. The big question is who’s gonna pay for all that, and the answers are beginning to come flying in from all directions.
Regenerative Agriculture: Follow The Solar Farming Money
Regenerative agriculture is based on Indigenous practices that conserve soil for future generations, rather than dosing it up with chemicals and exposing it to erosion. The influential organic farmer and entrepreneur J.I. Rodale promoted soil conservation as a key element of organic farming in the 20th century, and the Rodale Institute continues to carry on his work.
New agrivoltaic practices have provided farmers with another foot in the regenerative agriculture door. Leading solar developers like Lightsource bp and Solar Ranch, for example, are offering solar-plus-farming lease packages with a regenerative angle.
That depends on what the developer means by regenerative. In some cases it simply means planting a low-rise ground cover under the solar array and taking the land out of cultivation for the lifespan of the project, about 25 years or so, during which time the soil can restore itself and go to work as a carbon sink.
Removing land from cultivation may not be what most people think of as “farming,” but it is consistent with decades of US agricultural policy. The focus on conservation stepped up in 1985 after passage of a law that established the Conservation Reserve Program under the US Department of Agriculture.
The program pays an annual rental fee to farmers who remove certain types of environmentally sensitive lands from cultivation and commit to an initial contract of 10-15 years. Re-enrollment is encouraged, which brings the duration of the conservation period up to parity with the lifespan of a solar array, or even longer.
USDA describes the Conservation Reserve Program as “one of the largest private-lands conservation programs in the United States,” and it is still growing.
Last week USDA announced that it has accepted more than 1 million acres into the Conservation Reserve Program during this year’s annual sign-up period, including a considerable number of new applications along with re-enrollments. More signups are on the way under specialty branches of the program and an additional rolling signup period.
Beyond The Regenerative Agriculture Basics
Some solar developers are going a step farther into actual farming territory by incorporating grazing or pollinator habitats into their projects, or both. That’s a step in the right direction, but harvesting solar energy is still the main focus of projects like that.
Last year, the University of Arizona issued a report, funded by the US Department of Energy, which found that yields are far higher for cauliflower, cabbage, and other shade tolerant crops in an agrivoltaic array. Berries, grapes, and fruit trees also overperformed in an agrivoltaic scenario.
Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?
New financing opportunities are also beginning to bubble up for farmers who want to engage with regenerative agriculture, but without the emphasis on solar development.
Last year, writer Krisy Gashler of the Cornell Chronicle described a new regenerative agriculture program spearheaded by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability at Cornell University in New York State. The program is exploring ways to remunerate farmers for ecosystem services related to water, soil, and biodiversity. The idea is to create a verification system for regenerative agriculture credits, which could be marketed under the umbrella of carbon credits.
“The financing will support farmers who engage in regenerative agriculture practices – like minimizing tillage, growing cover crops and integrating livestock. Those practices offer many benefits for farmers and ecosystems, but financing them can be a challenge for farmers,” Gashler observed.
The program has fostered a partnership between the Cornell team, the New York State Corn and Soybean Growers Association, and the Great Lakes Protection Fund, to pilot new financial platforms with individual farmers. The verification and assessment platform is being developed by the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund, to cover biodiversity, habitat protection, water quality, carbon sequestration and soil health among other areas.
In an interesting twist, Gashler notes that the project has its roots in an earlier grant to Cornell Atkinson from the Great Lakes Protection Fund. That project focused narrowly on reducing phosphorus fertilizer runoff. Two years of research and outreach lead the Cornell team to advocate for a more holistic solution to the runoff problem.
The team is also exploring the use of transition loans and crop insurance to support regenerative agriculture operations.
Private Sector Interest Is Beginning To Stir
The investor community is already taking notice. One example that recently surfaced on the CleanTechnica radar is the financial firm Steward, a certified B-Corporation that specializes in flexible loans to “human-scale” regenerative agriculture operations, including ranches and fisheries as well as crop-raising.
To back the loans, Steward enlists lenders who are scouting for opportunities to support regenerative agriculture operations. The loan program is run through a crowd-sourced campaign format that enables the lenders to select specific projects. The firm’s Steward Regenerative Capital branch also provides a portfolio-based opportunity to support regenerative agriculture across multiple operations.
“Regenerative agriculture is a scalable climate solution, enriching soil for increased carbon capture while making crops more resilient to shifting environmental conditions,” Steward notes.
Among the individual campaigns listed on the firm’s website is a loan of $2,863,800, fully subscribed as of June 15, to finance Saturn’s Return, a soup-to-nuts regenerative agriculture operation in Washington State that incorporates multiple ecosystems.
On the other end of the scale is a $16,000 loan under the Steward Regenerative Capital umbrella, assigned to Rose Mountain Farm in North Carolina. The funds will support an irrigation pump and a small solar array to run equipment for the farm’s high tunnel system. High tunnel systems are designed to extend the growing season. They can complement the soil conservation aims of regenerative agriculture and they are promoted by the USDA.
The USDA is also stepping up its interest in regenerative agriculture. Last fall the agency launched a new program called Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities, aimed at encouraging carbon-sucking soil conservation practices. The program includes a financing branch along with other tools.
The Climate Smart Commodities program has already swung into action with funding for 41 projects in 53 US jurisdictions, and counting. The additional muscle for regenerative agriculture is illustrated by a matching grant of $20 million to the fresh produce brand Elevated Foods, which will bring its land stewardship model to hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland with a focus on small and underserved producers.
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Image (cropped): Regenerative agriculture gets an assist from the US Department of Agriculture (courtesy of USDA).
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