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The Path to a Regenerative Farming Revolution

Luke Woodard, Ethan Watters | July 18, 2022


Sustainable meat is not just our future, it’s here now

Not long ago Gina Asoudegan, Applegate’s VP of Mission & Regenerative Agriculture, was a panelist at a food industry conference when she encountered one of the most common arguments against regenerative ranching. The argument came from another meat industry executive on the panel who said essentially this: Regenerative meat production, a process that uses ranching techniques to improve soil health and sequester carbon, is realistic for only the one percent of the consumer market that could pay extra prices to small-scale farmers operating outside the mainstream of the industry. Regeneratively raised meat, in other words, was just for wealthy foodies and would never break through to a wider consumer market.

Asoudegan, who is one of the most sought-after speakers on the future of sustainable meat production, had heard similar arguments many times before and never agreed. She has long argued that regenerative practices can be achieved at scale. At this particular panel, she had a new fact to prove that this was indeed possible: A few days before the conference, Applegate had inked a deal to sell its new regeneratively-raised Do Good Dog in 1,100 Walmart stores across the country. Regenerative meat was going to be on sale at the most egalitarian of retail outlets — in the form of a good old American hotdog — in time for the summer grilling season.

“Really, if there was a food that represented the democratic ideal of America, that we are all in this together, it would be the good old-fashioned hotdog,” says Asoudegan. “To have the Do Good Dog on the shelves of Walmart sends such a strong message that regenerative agriculture isn’t going to fall into the culture wars. This is a change that everyone can participate in.”

Do Good Dog

The Do Good Dog from Applegate

The idea that meat production might be one of the solutions to environmental degradation and climate change may seem at first counterintuitive. Because traditional cattle production contributes to climate change, some call for a future where meat is replaced in the human diet by plant-based and lab-grown alternatives. The regenerative farming movement offers another option: a set of farming practices that revitalize depleted land and repair ecosystems — leaving the land and soil healthier with each passing year. In addition to improving soil health, increasing biodiversity and sequestering millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere, regenerative farming techniques help ranchers produce high quality meat rich in nutrients while offering their livestock a high quality of life.

Asoudegan is the first to acknowledge that the Do Good Dog is just the first step and there is still a long way to go. Meat production in America is uniquely complex and efficient. To change to regenerative ranching requires committed partners at all levels of the process. Ranchers, of course, have to be on board and committed to fundamentally changing the practices that have dominated the industry for the last 100 years. But for them to stick to those changes requires that brands like Applegate and Epic meats and other CPG companies bring affordable products to the mainstream market. Other manufacturers can take part too. Shoe and clothing manufacturers who use leather as well as pet food makers can help create and market regenerative products. Retailers have to be convinced that those products are worth putting on their shelves. And, at the end of the day, consumers have to understand what “regenerative” means and believe that those brands are worth seeking out.

If any of those steps don’t happen, a new regenerative system won’t survive given the already narrow profit margins of ranching and farming. Given the value that regenerative agriculture could bring to the health of humans and the environment, there is a lot at stake. Talking to Asoudegan you can sense the weight of responsibility she carries. Her tone says: “We have to get this right. We have to prove to everyone in the system that this change is possible — and soon.”

Of all the links in the chain necessary to make regenerative meat production a success, one is the weakest. According to Asoudegan, consumers just aren’t yet aware of the value and meaning of “regeneratively raised” meat. Shoppers generally understand labels that specify “organic,” “gluten free,” “antibiotic free,” but ask the average consumer on the meat aisle what “regeneratively raised” means and you are likely to get a blank stare. “It’s clear that consumers, particularly young consumers, care a great deal about environmental issues,” says Asoudegan. “But currently very few understand the value of regenerative practices. We have to change that.”

Meet a Regenerative Farmer

Jamie Ager, a farmer from North Carolina and one of the suppliers of beef for Applegate’s regeneratively raised Do Good Dog , knows there is one sure way to convince consumers of the value of regenerative agriculture: Bring them out onto the farm.

“We’ve done so many farm tours here where people come away convinced,” says Ager while taking a break from his daily chores in the shade of his barn. “Once they’re on the farm and feel the richness of the dirt, see the health of the cows and the biodiversity of the grasses, it changes the conversation.” Those kinds of simple, tactile connections, he believes, are vital to understanding what regenerative agriculture is about.

Like many people associated with the regenerative movement, Ager is passionate about the topic. He’ll happily spend hours discussing the nuances of soil composition. Regenerative practices, he says, help farmers adapt to whatever nature brings them. “Nature is dynamic, so a big part of the regenerative mentality is having dynamic people on your land, people who are able to pay attention and have that dance with nature.”

Regenerative farmer Jamie Ager

Jamie Ager, Founder, Farmer & CEO, Hickory Nut Gap Farm

As Ager explains, two principal techniques lie at the heart of regenerative agriculture. First, regenerative farmers minimize or eliminate the tilling of soil. Tilling, the preparation of soil by mechanical means, usually by tractor and plow, might be efficient for raising crops in the short term, but the process wreaks havoc on land health over time. Tilled soil eventually loses nearly all of its nutrients and organic matter, the very things that allow the soil to retain water and plants to grow. To compensate for this deficiency, conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers (something that regenerative farmers also avoid) that can leach into groundwater and contaminate waterways.

Rather than tilling, regenerative farmers allow the natural processes of healthy soil to run their course, supporting the soil microbiome by covering the ground with a layer of organic matter that will quickly decompose. In regions where water supply is a concern, abstaining from tillage helps the ground retain valuable moisture and prevents soil runoff during rains.

Ager has been a pioneer of regenerative agriculture for over two decades. Even within that span of time, hardly a blink in geological time frames, Ager has witnessed a remarkable change in the soil. “Our forages are better than ever,” he says. “We’re seeing much more biodiversity in the soil. I remember that around the time when we started letting the grass grow out we had a four-week drought. But when I went out into the field after a graze one afternoon, I could still feel the soil holding the moisture. All that grass was keeping the soil cool and damp and healthy.”

a head of cattle grazing

Cattle grazing on Hickory Nut Gap regenerative farm

A second central tenet of regenerative agriculture relates to how ranchers graze their livestock. For millennia, long before human beings began to cultivate land, large herds of grazing animals roamed the planet’s grasslands, eating their fill before moving on. Animal hooves aerated soil, breaking up compacted earth and their manure spread natural fertilizer. By the time the next herd stopped to graze in the same place, the soil and grass would not only have recovered from the last visit, but the land would be even healthier than before. The key element here, however, is time. When livestock are forced to graze before a patch of land has recovered, the soil becomes depleted.

Now that humans are largely stationary, domesticated animals tend to graze in the same areas over and over again. Even if farmers rotate their pastureland, the rotations rarely leave enough time for regrowth. This overgrazing leads to erosion and eventually desertification.

For a decade or more, regenerative ranchers, like Ager, have managed to get by through sales at farmers markets and to chefs at high-end restaurants. That put the ranchers in the position of being their own retailers and marketers — as if ranching wasn’t a hard enough job on its own. Ager knows that if regenerative practices are going to survive, they need to partner with other players in the food industry. That’s why he’s so excited about the Do Good Dog.

“One of the biggest challenges of scaling regenerative meat practices is making sure you have a place to sell the whole animal, not just the prime cuts that you could sell at a farmers market,” says Ager. “Introducing the public to regenerative farming through the good old American hotdog can help change the conversation about how we raise meat.”

Asoudegan has been pivotal in creating partnerships with other companies — including those from sectors outside the food industry. Footwear and apparel companies like Timberland and Coach, for example, are buying cowhides from the same ranchers producing beef for the Do Good Dog. As for the rest of the animal, several pet food companies have also come on board. According to Asoudegan, these various partners ensure that farmers who make the switch will have customers for the animals they raise. In addition, each one of these products creates an additional opportunity for customers to learn the meaning behind “regenerative ranching.”

A Relationship with What We Eat

Regenerative agriculture is more than a set of techniques and practices. The term encompasses a broader philosophy about the role of humans and animals in our ecosystem. Robby Sansom, CEO of Force of Nature Meats, has built his career upon the belief that human beings are inseparable from the natural world. Prior to founding Force of Nature, Sansom was CFO/COO at EPIC Provisions, a mission-based snack brand known for pioneering regenerative agriculture products, acquired by General Mills in 2016.

“We came from wild places,” Sansom says. “For hundreds of thousands of years, hominids would procure their own food. We lived hand to mouth.” And while the development of large scale agriculture systems has been a boon to humanity in many ways, he believes,we still have an innate desire for that relationship.

For some, finding that connection means eating only what they produce or hunt for themselves, while for others it can mean supporting brands that source from farmers with certain practices. “Not only do people want a relationship with their food,” Sansom says, “they want to know that it’s a relationship based on shared values. People want to be aligned with the brands they buy.”

View of Jamie Ager's regenerative farm

View of Hickory Nut Gap regenerative farm

While taking every American consumer on a tour of a regenerative farm would be a boon to the movement, it’s logistically infeasible. However, there may be other tipping points on the horizon. Chefs have long prized regenerative meat and produce for having a richer taste. However, new research into the added health value of regeneratively raised food may be key to spurring consumer interest. A first of its kind study published in January analyzed the nutrition in crops grown on farms across the country that have employed cover cropping, no-till and crop rotation practices for at least five years. They then compared those crops with those grown or raised on conventional farms.

The findings were compelling. Crops raised regeneratively had significantly higher levels of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals than both conventional ranching practices and grass-fed animals. This included a whopping 34 percent more vitamin K, 15 percent more vitamin E, and 17 percent more B2. Looking specifically at beef and pork, the researchers found three times the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in regeneratively raised animals. “Our results suggest that farming practices that affect soil organic matter . . . are under-appreciated influences on crop nutrient density,” the researchers concluded, “particularly for micronutrients and phytochemicals relevant to plant health and chronic disease prevention in humans.” Although more research has to be done, the study results make intuitive sense: The more nutrients in healthy soil, the more nutrients in the meat and produce raised on that soil.

Certifiably Beneficial

While proponents of regenerative agriculture agree on the fundamental tenets of the system, the movement has not yet settled on a universal certification system. This leaves some confusion about what exactly can be termed “regeneratively raised.” In Sansom’s opinion, a high quality certification is critical to regenerative agriculture realizing its potential. But he’s not about to start handing out “regeneratively raised” stickers to every company that wants one or to a farmer who used no-till practices for a single season.

“A certification needs a strong definition,” he says. “It needs to mean something. We can’t be focused on what the bare minimum is for something to be considered regenerative, because eventually the standards will become diluted. In reality, the regenerative mindset is about improvement. It’s about raising that bar.”

At the moment there are two leading organizations working to develop what could become this sought-after universal certification. One group, Regenerative Organic Certified, is developing criteria that are rooted in practice, determining if farmers’ techniques are compatible with regenerative principles. On the other hand, the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) is focused on determining whether a farmer’s techniques have resulted in regenerative outcomes for the land. One monitors practices, the other measures outcomes.

While Sansom and his company identify more closely with the latter, he is not entirely opposed to a practice-based approach. “I think there are pros and cons to each,” he says. “Healthy competition is important. My biggest concern is that the standards don’t slip. Nobody wants an organization to get to a point where, in order to stay competitive and keep their certification alive, they start lowering their standards.”

In the meantime, Force of Nature has developed its own verification for all the brands it works with. It’s called the Land Steward Index, and the company describes it as “a mutual pledge committing to honoring regenerative principles of land and animal management and to year-over-year improvement.” Force of Nature is happy to maintain high standards, because it means that every one of their partners is “doing the work that is making a massive impact on the future of our food system, our health, and our environment.”

An Ecosystem of Innovation

Applegate’s Asoudegan expects that public reception of the Do Good Dog will be pivotal for the regenerative food industry. The cattle that supply beef for the product are part of a system that is contributing to the regeneration of up to 260,000 acres of U.S. grasslands. Applegate’s efforts are part of a broader corporate commitment to advance regenerative agriculture at Hormel Foods. The company announced last year its 20 by 30 challenge, a set of 20 sustainability-related goals to achieve by 2030. Among them is a commitment to invest in regenerative agriculture practices. Just this month, Hormel Foods announced a partnership with Target and the MBOLD coalition, led by The Nature Conservancy, to invest in the largest regenerative agriculture project in Minnesota, covering up to 50,000 acres.The pilot project is part of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium’s effort to develop and launch a nationwide marketplace for carbon and water credits by 2023.

DO GOOD DOG™ hot dog

In addition to Hormel Foods, other large CPG companies have made ambitious commitments to scale regenerative agriculture. Cargill has a 2030 target to transfer 10 million acres of farmland to regenerative agriculture. PepsiCo has announced a 2030 goal to scale regenerative farming practices across 7 million acres. General Mills is on track to convert 1 million acres of conventional production to regenerative.

A growing host of ag-tech startups is also focused on regenerative opportunities. Many of those new technologies were the talk of the recent Future of Food conference in Minneapolis, where Asoudegan once again was a featured speaker. Attendees learned about the latest advances in regenerative ranching including feed supplements that reduce the methane from cattle, electronic collars that herd animals without fences, and handheld probes that register the amount of carbon in soil. In addition, they discussed new laser sensors that can identify the type and density of insects flying over farms, and the use of satellite data to identify where regenerative practices are having an impact.

There is another motivator fueling the regenerative ag movement. Public companies are increasingly held accountable by the investment community for their climate commitments. Investors are starting to ask companies to develop and disclose their climate change plans, and cascade expectations down to suppliers and partners. Regenerative practices will play an important role in enabling them to meet their ambitious carbon-reduction targets.

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the American consumer to support this new form of farming.

“We know that consumers care about the environment,” says Asoudegan. “This is particularly true of younger consumers who believe that their buying choices can have as much social impact as their vote. Once they learn that regenerative practices can undo environmental damage — can make things better — I believe they’ll want to be part of this movement.”