Bringing science to regenerative food systems.
Create a network of research hubs that can transform agricultural science to support a revolution in regenerative food production.
The vision for transforming agricultural science
Community building is a central piece of our vision, and we have hosted hundreds of farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers from all over the world. They come to Blue Dasher Farm to see something they have never seen before.
Our vision is not attainable without our wonderful and rapidly growing staff of young, enthusiastic scientists that are trying to change the world.
Our first research center is in South Dakota, but we have active projects in 8 states and 2 Canadian provinces, providing scientific support to farmers that are pushing our food system into new frontiers. We take what these farmers are doing, and make it scalable and transferable to make it easier for the next generation of farmers to adopt these methods.
Annual crops like Hubam annual sweet clover (grown for seed and honey), a diversified orchard, sheep, chickens for eggs and meat, and pastured pork give us first hand experience with an integrated food system, while producing a profitable farm.
At Ecdysis Foundation and Blue Dasher Farm, the scientists must have first hand knowledge of regenerative food production. Here, staff is welcoming our pastured pigs.
An aerial shot of Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota, where we have a research facility and operating regenerative farm.
To save the bees, we must heal the soil. Here are some of our girls here on the farm. Stopping the honey bee decline is an important research focus for us.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Ecdysis Foundation and the Blue Dasher Farm Initiative. Ecdysis Foundation is our 501c3, and Blue Dasher Farm is an LLC operating farm.
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small NGO (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
We have partners in many states and countries that are supporting this transformation of our food system
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Estelline, South Dakota
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
The Northern Prairie State of South Dakota. The area is approximately 200,000 km2. Ultimately our vision is national in scope.
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
My connection to the prairie and its people exists on an emotional, spiritual and professional levels. If you have ever sat in an unbroken prairie and just let the life surrounding you fill your soul, you would understand why this land has been so special for so many. And why we need to fight for its survival.
The Prairie is my home. I grew up and received my education here, and spent the past 15 years raising my family in South Dakota. It was here with the USDA that I was named one of the top young scientists in the country, receiving a presidential prize from President Obama in the White House. With time, it became increasingly clear that large monocultures of corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa were hurting farmers. I used my science to validate farmers and ranchers that were developing successful regenerative systems in this region. Simultaneously, the beekeepers told me that pesticides were killing their bees (the Upper Plains are home to the majority of the nation’s bees), and my research supported these observations. With data in hand, I tried to change food production from within the federal system, and it resulted in a string of scientific suppression and retaliation that culminated in me filing a whistleblower suit and leaving the USDA in 2016. To change agriculture, science needs to be separated from the current infrastructure.
Through all of this, the beekeepers and farmers of the prairie supported me. A crowdfunding campaign funded the creation of Blue Dasher Farm, the first in our national network of research hubs in regenerative agriculture. To become a better scientist and gain first-hand experience in these systems, I became a farmer and a beekeeper. Quite simply, without the beekeepers and farmers of this area, I could not have generated the experiences that led to my vision of a cultural and agricultural revolution in food production and applied science. The community that has grown around Blue Dasher Farm and this movement is truly inspiring.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The people of this region are hardy, proud, and independent. Their wish is to maintain their rural way of life, and our vision will help to attain that goal.
The prairie region of North America has some of the most fertile soils on earth, but little of the prairie is left. Our vision will restore these natural areas, reconnect people with the land, and support a resurgence of the prairie landscape.
Much of the northern prairie is characterized by gently rolling hills and flat areas. The sky here is remarkable, and every sunset and sunrise is a work of art. Long straight roads create a grid over the land. The fertility of the soil exceeds that of most places on earth, and crops have grown well here. As you head west through the Dakotas, the rainfall becomes more scarce, and the Missouri River acts as a dividing line between crop production and more arid rangelands. The winters here are severe, and strengthen the people while giving them a rest for contemplation and planning. This climatological transition zone makes the northern prairie ground zero for exploring regenerative rangelands and croplands, as well as how these practices affect honey bees.
The people of the northern prairie are fiercely independent, hardy, proud, and generous. Conservative traditions with strong emphases on family and faith abound in the small communities that pepper the landscape. No matter the size, nearly every town has at least one steak house and church. Agriculture is the dominant trade in the Dakotas; beef, corn, soybeans, and small grains are the foods produced. If something breaks on the farm, they “farmer it back together” using their ingenuity and pieces and parts on hand to get things done. As a result of their upbringing, farm kids from this region are renowned around the country as excellent and honest workers. Ethnically, the population is largely white, with a growing Latino population. Some of the largest Native American populations in the country are found here, and native language, imagery, and ideas pervade the culture of the Dakotas.
The severity of the landscape has forced innovations in food production that are seldom seen the further east you travel in the prairie. As new technologies for food production have evolved, the Dakotas are often the first adopters as they try to optimize the productivity of their lands. No-till farming, genetically modified crops, cover crops, etc. were quickly adopted in this region of the U.S. Also, some of the most innovative of regenerative farmers reside here, testing their food systems in ways that science says won’t work, and I believe that this area of the country will be where large-scale regenerative farms become widespread first.
One dream of the people in the northern prairie is that their rural way of life continues. Kids are not returning to the farm- industrialized agriculture of commodities has led to a disconnect between humans and the land, and the next generation is fleeing to the cities. Big farms swell even larger with lower profit margins and larger bank notes; the economic bubble is palpable and ready to burst. Add to this the rising health problems associated with this style of agriculture. Change is desperately needed in this region, and regenerative agriculture offers a promising solution.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Somewhere along the road, we decided that to be a good farmer, you needed to farm bigger and simpler. The resulting food system is underpinned by large monocultures that are maintained by an ever increasing array of costly inputs and technologies. As farms became less diversified, the technology and practices used to foster an industrialized food system accompanied complacency in farmers, consumers, and scientists. But the consequences of this culture in food production are evident: increases in pollution, changing climates, human health problems, and diminishing rural communities. Additionally, the simplified food systems are contributing to the widespread loss of biodiversity on a scale that has never been experienced on planet earth before. While food production has contributed to or caused many of these planetary scale problems, our food systems are also the answer to these problems.
Agricultural science is in a self-perpetuating rut that is stifling the innovation of our food system. Metrics that scientists use to measure their own success are unimportant to farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers, and drive scientists to become more distant from the communities that they are trying to help. Scientists are focused on addressing symptoms that are produced by poor-functioning food systems instead of solving underlying problems that produce the symptoms. This results in incremental advances that support a brittle food system, rather than reinventing the food system on a fundamental level. An associated problem is that young scientists only obtain jobs in their fields if they adhere to the current system. As such, systemic change from within the current infrastructure of agricultural science is unlikely; visionary changes like that which are required must come from outside the current matrix of agricultural science. Nevertheless, science is crucial to make decisions as we move toward food systems that support the land and people who live on it.
There are short- and long-term challenges associated with ushering in a paradigm shift in food production and agricultural science toward one of regenerative principles. Proximately for the vision I propose, the culture of agricultural scientists must adapt from one of advising and leading to one of learning and service. We must forge relationships and trust with the end users of science (the farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers), and use science to help them move forward. Once the food system is changed over the next 10-20 years, new challenges will emerge for 2050. At that point, food systems must be incrementally optimized in ways that adhere to the values and principles of a regenerative and diversified society. This will require new cultural shifts that maintain functioning food systems rather than developing a new one. The details of how this approach will affect the six themes of the program will be addressed below.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
The solution to these challenges is to reform agriculture along regenerative principles. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health and increases biodiversity in ways that produce nutritious food profitably. The principles of regenerative food systems are 1) minimize soil disturbance, 2) never leave bare soil/always have a living root on the ground, 3) diversify plant communities on farms, and 4) integrate livestock and cropping systems. Practices used to attain these goals vary substantially among regions and farming operations, but these central principles are always inherent in regenerative farms. Another key component of successful regenerative operations is taking more than one revenue stream off of every piece of ground on a farm. This revolution in farming has been led by the farmers themselves, and often these farmers are developing their successful operations in spite of agricultural science.
My vision is to develop a new model of agricultural science that supports this revolution in thought and practice. Specifically, I propose creating a national network of hubs for scientific excellence in regenerative agriculture. The initial community is based in the Northern Plains but will expand rapidly throughout the continent. At these hubs, scientific staff must become practicing farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers; this makes scientific questions that are explored more relevant, as well as improving the credibility of the research that is conducted and the researchers themselves. A national network of centers is necessary to accommodate the local and regional needs of the producers. What is more is that the science then becomes a part of local and regional communities of change.
Scientists within this network will be beholden to a new and dynamic set of metrics of success will be applied that can better judge the impact of these members of the agricultural community. Face-to-face contacts with producers, social impact of scientific work, acres changed within our communities, and media interactions are all on a new list of scientific benchmarks. These hubs are also training sites for apprentice scientists that will learn how to conduct science from a farmer’s perspective, as well as in systems-level thinking. The resulting model of agricultural science provides a new foundation of how applied science can be conducted to help inspire change in an agricultural community.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Diversity is a key outcome of regenerative agriculture that would be supported by this revolution in science, and this diversity will be evident in many ways in the people and place. On the landscape, large monocultures of specific crops will be rare. There will be no bare soil. Checkered landscapes with diverse crop mixes and season long cover crops feeding carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. Livestock herds containing numerous animal species will pervade the rolling hills. Birds and insects and wildlife that used to be common will return, and the prairie and plant communities will thrive once again.
From this natural resource base, rural communities will revitalize. Money will stay on the farm rather than feeding large agroindustry. Food and finances will be fed into vibrant rural communities. Neighbors will rely on each other for knowledge and help, and diverse enterprises will support multi-generational family farms as they used to. Nutrient dense food produced will drive down the systemic learning disabilities, food intolerances, auto-immune diseases, and obesity that currently plague the regions’ people. And most importantly, the people will be reconnected with the land.
Scientists will become part of these communities and landscapes again. Trust and respect of science will return as relationships among the scientists and the people they are trying to help are reforged. And knowledge and experiences will be exchanged to help fuel future innovations.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Monocultures of a few species are the central problem facing our region. Corn and soybeans attain high yields, but produce diminishing profits for farmers, and this industrialized model of food production has destroyed rural communities, contributed substantially to changing climates, environmental pollution, human health problems, and biodiversity declines.
Regenerative agriculture conserves soil and promotes biodiversity while producing nutrient dense food profitably, but we need to use science to validate and remove barriers to farmers wanting to change their operation toward regenerative practices
Our research facility is producing award winning scientists and our science is being used to help change our community. Farmers, beekeepers, and ranchers come to us with their research questions and to see how our results can change their operations. We have had more than 21,000 face-to-face contacts with farmers since opening our doors in 2016.
A paradigm shift in regenerative agriculture will require changes in many aspects of the food system of our region. Our hubs combine scientific research, education and demonstration, three legs of a stool necessary to institute change to agriculture, to foster changes toward a regenerative food system. While it is useful to think about the different elements of a successful system, my vision proposes simultaneously considers the complex interplay of systems-level science that links different disciplines, including production agriculture, economics, human health, policy, and engineering. Although we are focused locally first, I envision these hubs around the country that can take advantage of the momentum generated in South Dakota to change agriculture and agricultural science on a national scale.
The role of people in my vision. At every step, the farmers have led a revolution in regenerative farming, and they are currently doing it in the absence of science. Our vision is that these centers (like Blue Dasher Farm) will plant a physical flag that communities can rally around to encourage change in cultures, practices, and the environment. In my former life, I focused on addressing scientific questions in my office and laboratory, with few interruptions. Since implementing this vision, a big (and positive) challenge is that we have a daily barrage of local farmers and beekeepers and community members that stop in to share with us. Furthermore, innovative farmers that were formerly ostracized by the local agriculture community (the coffee shop) have found a support network that they never have had. Our scientific staff created a “soil builder’s coffee club” that provides opportunities for these maverick farmers to interact and swap experiences, as well as coordinate the farmers’ interests into grant proposals to fund equipment and ideas that they never would have been able to do on their own. These farms have become the field sites for our research programs, and these farmers are the force behind the questions that we ask. And it is not uncommon for our staff to be rewarded for our efforts with desserts, a few bales of hay, some meat, or whatever these farmers can afford. The importance of this community cannot be overstated. We would not be here without these producers; they are our reason for everything that we do, as science should be.
Environment. A main premise of regenerative food systems is that we can produce food and conserve natural resources in the same place at the same time; indeed we have no choice. There are two central ways that regenerative agriculture has positive effects on the environment. First, regenerative systems seek to mimic the natural world in how food production works with the land. Replacing agrichemical use with biology reduces pollution. Managing cropland as polycultures approaches natural plant communities more closely than the current monoculture philosophy. Merging perenniality with annual crop production mimics the structure of native plant communities. Using adaptive multipaddock grazing systems to move multi-species herds of livestock in ways that reflect how native herds of wildlife moved through grasslands can promote carbon sequestration while producing healthier food.
My vision is to use science to help farmers that are developing these ecologically intensive systems by removing barriers, developing new ideas and applying existing ideas in new ways, to help increase the resilience of their operations. Dispelling false myths and promoting practices that can have substantial downstream effects on many elements of the environment.
Diets. Solving current human health problems is contingent on us healing the soil. Food grown on a degraded soil resource has reduced nutrition. Harmful agrichemicals further reduce the available nutrition of our diet, and compromise our ability to digest what nutrition is left in our food. Thus, our current food production model is hurting our diet in several direct and indirect ways, and causing human health problems (auto-immune diseases, learning disabilities, food intolerances, allergies, etc.) on a scale that we have never experienced. By restoring soil health and life to the soil, and largely eliminating agrichemicals, regenerative food systems have greater nutrition than conventionally produced foods.
Research is desperately needed that can fuse disciplines like production agriculture and human health sciences, and we will establish a scientific fellowship that can train a new generation of health scientists in how food production affects human well being. Not only will our science reveal how regenerative farming practices affect nutrient density of farm products, but also in how these changes in food nutrition affect myriad health challenges.
Economics. There is a lot of money being made off of farming right now, but it isn’t by the farmers. A big piece of evidence of the looming financial crisis that modern agriculture is facing is that local banks have become some of the biggest supporters of Blue Dasher Farm’s efforts to change our community. The banks do not want to be the bad guys, forcing farmers to take off-farm jobs and pulling credit lines for farmers who have burned up the equity in their operations. They see regenerative agriculture as a solution to these problems.
By stacking enterprises, growing for local markets, and growing food instead of commodities, regenerative farmers are revealing the profit potential of this approach to farming. Our science is revealing the consistent trends in the profitability of ecologically intensive farming, as well as how soil health and biodiversity are correlated with the profitability of the operation. Furthermore, our vision fundamentally shifts the experimental endpoints to ones that farmers care about (e.g., profit).
Culture. At its core, this paradigm shift in food production is really a fundamental change in culture of many sectors of this community. Most proximately, we are changing the cultures of the scientific and farming communities. The culture of science must change from a reductionist thinking to one where entire systems are considered. Scientists must humble themselves to learn from the farmers rather than rely on their own expertise. They must generate hypotheses based on observation, rather than the current model of sitting behind their desk chasing the latest technological advance to get a grant funded. They must learn to communicate science to the end users, instead of making their science impenetrable to all but a few experts. Most importantly, students must be trained in these principles. Farmers also must change, and in our vision the scientists will instruments that support that change. Ultimately, we are expecting to change the culture of consumers, food distributors, health professionals, policy makers, and beyond. Change is hard; especially changes in the way that we think about food and its role in our lives. We envision this as the biggest challenge to us realizing our vision long term.
Technology. Regenerative agriculture is knowledge intensive, but fuses new technologies in ways that enhance knowledge-based agriculture rather than replacing it. Regenerative agriculture is not simply going back to pre-industrial farming practices. Although there were benefits of this approach to agriculture, it failed for a number of reasons. It was replaced with industrialized food systems that showed us may new potentials for what food systems can generate. But this technology-intensive progress came at the cost of our natural resource base. Regenerative agriculture fuses what worked with both of these systems to produce an ecologically harmonious, profitable approach to food production that has many knock-on benefits. Technologies associated with regenerative agriculture foster the ecology of the system, rather than replacing the functions that life used to perform on farms.
My vision is to use science to help explore the tools that local regenerative farmers have available to them, relying on their experiential knowledge to help determine and evaluate the best ways that farmers are using these technologies to advance the regenerative principles on their operations. These novel, validated tools then are available for local and regional farmers to use as they transition toward regenerative systems.
Policy. Governments follow, they do not lead. Recognizing this, policy will have a place in fueling this active movement, and my vision is essential to effective policy management. Much as science has been used to stifle rather than promote innovation, so too our policies have hindered the evolution of farming systems. Constraints on farm insurance that disallow regenerative practices, as well as processes that expedite and encourage new agrichemicals/GM plants are two examples of policies that are implemented detrimentally. Scientific research is essential for generating informed policies that promote farming communities. Currently, policy makers do not understand how and whether regenerative food systems are important, nor do they understand the degree to which reforming our food system along regenerative lines can solve many social planetary challenges that we are facing right now. Currently, policy makers may see reports of successful regenerative operations, and science can be used to illustrate that these are not simply anecdotal reports, but are generalizable trends that are able to benefit society. Seeing these benefits, we can involve policy makers in creating programs that support these changes to our food system, and remove policies that hinder change for farming communities.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?
Through my support network