Digging Deep: Business’ Role in Regenerative Agriculture and Food System Change
July 9, 2019
By Joanna Lyons
Joanna Lyons received her Masters in Business Administration and Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley in 2019.
The food system in the United States faces deep problems. While it may surpass production aims, it falls short from public health, environmental, and economic perspectives. From our nation’s alarmingly high rates of chronic disease, to the reality of climate change, to farmers nationwide struggling to make ends meet, it is clear the status quo is not sustainable. A solution exists, however, that addresses such problems in a meaningful way: regenerative agriculture.
Far from a new approach, regenerative agriculture draws on traditional farming methods to enrich soil health. Using regenerative techniques, farmers and ranchers can produce soil that pulls atmospheric carbon back into the ground, effectively reversing climate change. Furthermore, healthy soils serve as the building block for more biodiverse systems and may ultimately be able to feed people more nutritiously.
For reasons related both to corporate self-interest and dedication to the greater good, the private sector is stepping up to drive regenerative forward. For my Masters of Public Health capstone project, I explored the unique approaches of three private sector entities seeking to bolster the regenerative movement—Carman Ranch, a 5,000-acre cattle ranch in eastern Oregon; Patagonia Provisions, Patagonia’s food arm; and Annie’s, a division within General Mills. What I discovered about the opportunities and challenges each faces may serve as guidance for the future of the regenerative movement.
For Cory Carman, owner of Carman Ranch, the daily grind of operating a large-scale ranch home to grass-fed cows, pigs, and chickens, serves her ultimate aim of rebuilding a healthy regional food system in the Pacific Northwest. The ranch survives on a low margin, but, as Carman says, “If we’re not in this to maximize profit, then we have to be in it for some shared vision.”
That shared vision—that regenerative ranching can support soil carbon sequestration, increase farmer profitability, raise the economic well-being of rural communities, and support better health for all—is a complex story to tell to a consumer with competing priorities and limited time to make food-purchasing decisions. While the difference between regenerative and conventional agriculture is stark, unless taste, health, environmental benefits are clearly conveyed—and perhaps even if they are clearly conveyed—a consumer may not be able to get past the price difference. For example, Carman Ranch sells its flank steak for $13.95 per pound on its website, while conventional flank steak is sold for $6-$8 per pound at Sam’s Club, a national retail warehouse chain owned and operated by Walmart.
Another challenge Carman faces pertains to the lack of regional infrastructure for sustainably harvesting and processing meat, especially for mid-size producers. To solve that problem, Carman has worked to establish The Redd, a co-packing space for regional meat producers in Portland, OR, offering mid-size producers scale-appropriate services such as cold storage, aggregation, packing, and distribution. This regional-orientation is top of mind when Carman thinks about scale and future goals. “Regional businesses networking with each other is what the scale of the future looks like,” she says.
Patagonia Provisions is tackling many of the same problems. The company, whose products include a variety of regeneratively-sourced proteins and grains, understands that current processing in our food system is not set up for regenerative growers. To attempt to remedy this problem, Tin Shed Ventures, Patagonia’s venture arm, has invested in a buckwheat flourmill to support farmers in the company’s supply chain, as well as a mobile harvesting unit to support Wild Idea Buffalo, which supplies meat for Provisions’ buffalo jerky.
The company is looking beyond its own supply chain as well. Together with Dr. Bronner’s, the Rodale Institute, and others in the private sector, Patagonia is leading the formation of the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), an independent new standard for regenerative products, overseen by third party NSF International. Provisions may serve a small market compared to larger food companies, but with ROC (now in its pilot phase, and available soon to consumers), it hopes to have an outsize impact.
Compared to Provisions, Annie’s, an organic foods brand based in Berkeley, CA, has even greater reach, having been acquired by consumer-packaged goods (CPG) giant General Mills in 2014. Annie’s 2018 release of limited edition, regeneratively-sourced snacks and boxed macaroni & cheese paved the way for more offerings advancing regenerative agriculture, now available nationwide. Notably, Annie’s serves as a testing ground for the rest of General Mills. “Within our Triple Bottom Line Operating Unit, which includes Annie’s, we’re excited to test out innovative ideas that challenge the current agricultural paradigm. In this way, Annie’s and other brands in our Natural & Organic portfolio act as accelerator brands to help us explore what’s possible at the General Mills enterprise level,” said Christina Skonberg, sustainability analyst at General Mills who works on Annie’s. In March 2019, General Mills announced it would work to advance regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030. To accomplish the goal, the company is investing in soil health academies and one-on-one on-farm training programs, through which growers will receive support in implementing regenerative practices and addressing farm profitability. It plans to start by working with North American growers in regions that supply oats for Cheerios, Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Nature Valley, and Blue Buffalo.
Each entity I studied has an important role to play in the regenerative movement. Whether rebuilding a regional food system, setting a high bar for others, or scaling products that advance regenerative agriculture nationwide, Carman Ranch, Patagonia Provisions, and Annie’s each have the potential to contribute meaningfully to the cause. Given the scale of the public health, environmental, and economic problems we face today, companies—and consumers—must act quickly to create a more sustainable, healthy food system for our people and our planet. As Cory Carman says, “there aren’t many beautiful stories of solutions out there, but regenerative is one of them.”
 “Vegetable Systems Trial.” Rodale Institute, www.rodaleinstitute.org/science/vegetable-systems-trial/
 NSF International is an independent organization that develops public health standards and certification programs around the world. It serves as the oversight body for ROC, which remains in its early stages. There are currently 19 enterprises in the ROC pilot program. The Regenerative Organic Alliance aims to conclude pilots by summer 2019 and open general ROC applications by September, 2019 (www.regenorganic.org/pilot/).