Home Restaurant Soil Proof: The Plan to Quantify Regenerative Agriculture

Soil Proof: The Plan to Quantify Regenerative Agriculture


It’s an unseasonably warm February day near Turlock, California, and farmer-researcher Jonathan Lundgren is handing out tiny white balls of clay. A group of us have gathered at the edge of the almond orchard at Burroughs Family Farms, a 400-acre organic, regenerative farm in the San Joaquin Valley, for a field day. Lundgren, who is visiting from South Dakota, has invited us to replicate an experiment that he and the scientists he works with use often.

He asks us each to take a mealy worm, attach it to our ball of clay with a pin, and place it somewhere in the orchard, adorned with a bright pink ribbon so that we can find it later. After we’ve tromped through a lush green carpet of grasses and other cover crops, he explains the goal. The worms are bait; in half an hour, participants will count them to determine just how many birds, insects, and mammals are in the regenerative orchard, waiting to descend. The scientists have done counts like this on a range of conventional, regenerative, and transitional farms around the country as a way to measure biodiversity or, as Lundgren puts it more simply: life.

A clay ball with mealy worm attached. (Photo by Twilight Greenaway)

And life, quite frankly, is rare here. In this part of California, conventional almond orchards cover thousands upon thousands of acres in mind-numbing succession and—aside from the trees’ abundant blooming and fruiting, their root systems shaped by irrigation—growers and farmworkers toil to keep all other living things to a minimum.

But Lundgren, an entomologist who left a role at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service as a whistleblower in 2015 to found the Ecdysis Foundation, is embracing an approach that breaks the sterile, monocropping mold—on farms like Burroughs, where sheep graze between the trees and beneficial insects abound.

The foundation has taken an unusual approach to scientific research—carrying it out on its own working farm and others. For years, Lundgren and the team at Ecdysis have been studying and documenting the impact of regenerative practices—everything from reduced tilling to compost applications, cover crops, and prescribed grazing. Now, they’re embarking on a national, 10-year study they’re calling the 1,000 Farms Initiative.

For years, Lundgren and the team at Ecdysis have been studying and documenting the impact of regenerative practices—everything from reduced tilling to compost applications, cover crops, and prescribed grazing.

“For years, success stories about regenerative food systems and their potential for carbon sequestration, water retention, promotion of life, and profitability have been dismissed because critics insisted on data to ‘validate’ the impact of regenerative agriculture at a mass scale. This is that study,” Lundgren said in a January press release announcing the research.

Indeed, while the hype around regenerative is nearing a fever pitch—and the need for solutions to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss is more pressing than ever—the science, particularly on its carbon storing potential, has been slow to unfold, despite some very big claims.

If the field day at Burroughs Family Farm is any indication, a growing number of farmers and scientists are ready for more hard science on the subject. More than 200 people including organic and conventional farmers, members of the California Almond Board trade group, and experts form Chico State, University of California, Davis, and University of California, Merced, among others, gathered to learn from the latest research in the space.

Lundgren spoke about the study Ecdysis scientists have done over the last two years comparing regenerative and conventional almond systems (including the Burroughs orchards) in California. Published last August, it found that the regenerative orchards had 32 percent more total soil carbon, much more diverse plant and invertebrate communities, and more nutrient-dense almonds. But perhaps most important to the farmers in attendance that day—who are weathering what scientists have determined to be the worst drought in 1,200 years and will likely receive no water allocations from the Central Valley Project’s network of reservoir canals this year—the soil in the regenerative orchards allows more water to infiltrate faster, and hold it there longer once it’s there.

“In 2020, we were scrounging, trying to find farmers to take part in the [almond] study,” Lundgren told a the larger-than-expected crowd. “And look at where we are now.” His hope with the 1,000 Farms Initiative is to bring this kind of evidence to bear all across the nation. In the first month, he says 750 farms registered to take part.

Civil Eats spoke with Lundgren recently about the work he sees ahead for the new study, the promises and challenges it holds, and the need to balance scientific rigor with the urgency inherent in this moment.

How does the 1,000 Farms Initiative fit into the larger body of work that you and others at your foundation have been doing for the last six years?

“We’re trying to find out whether regenerative works no matter what you grow or where you grow it. We’re working with established regenerative farmers and folks that are transitioning.”

When I was at the USDA, I started to meet farmers doing things that science said couldn’t be done. And it wasn’t called regenerative agriculture very often back then. They were focusing on soil health, no-till, cover crops, planned grazing, that kind of stuff. In visiting with these folks, it became clear to me that there was something real going on; it wasn’t just anecdotes. And science needs to be done differently if we were going to capture that. So, I quit, and we started the Ecdysis Foundation here on an operating regenerative farm in the middle of South Dakota.

The idea is that scientists have to be farmers to connect with our issue because that’s how to change the metrics of success. That evolution has driven our scientific and research programs ever since. We don’t do research on experiment farms [like most academic ag scientists]; we work with some of the top producers in the world all over North America. And we are simply trying to capture what the leaders and innovators are accomplishing on their own farms to show that [regenerative agriculture] is replicable and there are predictable outcomes that we can see.

researchers preparing a soil carbon study. (Photo courtesy of the XX)

Ecdysis Foundation staff measures plant diversity and biomass in a California almond orchard. Photo courtesy of the foundation.

We’re looking at full systems that cross disciplines, that cross geographic borders and soil types . . . to conduct the largest experiment that has ever been attempted. We’re ready to deploy scientific teams out to 1,000 farms across the U.S. to gather systems-level data.

What do your existing relationships with farmers look like, and how will they expand as part of this effort?

We’re trying to find out whether regenerative works no matter what you grow or where you grow it. We’re working with established regenerative farmers and folks that are transitioning.

In order to know what’s attainable, we have to find those champion farmers who have been doing this for a while. It gives us an idea of expectations. And then the other component is how quickly we can get there. Early adopters are often the first to admit that it took them a long time. They say, “If I was to have a do-over, I’d be able to get here much quicker.” And because they were on the bleeding edge, they didn’t necessarily practice optimal transition strategies. Those are things we’re learning right now.

In the established systems, we run out to the farms with our team of scientists and try to capture what’s special about them—and put it into data. In the case of those transitioning farms, we’re going to spend multiple years revisiting them to see how things change. We’ll be visiting in years one, two, three, five, and 10, and so we envision there being sort of this hump to our scientific efforts, where over the next three or four years, it will be an intensive sampling scheme that ends up starting to have a longer tail toward the end.





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