The 99 counties of Iowa will lead the next great agrarian revolution centered around regenerative organic agriculture.
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.
To understand Iowa, we must first go back to the beginning. Imagine standing on the native prairie, vast acres of untouched grasslands. Black soil deeper than any settler had seen on the trip west. Many homesteaders knew this place, now called Iowa, held a future. They likely didn’t realize the importance of soil biology, micronutrient or mineral value. They surely didn’t know the crop suitability rating of the land they farmed. But they knew that this place was alive, rich with animal and plant life. So, they unloaded the wagons, claimed their stake, and called it home.
That precious sod was broken, acres by the thousands turned from lush green to black gold. That black gold provided wealth for decades and main streets began to bustle, merchants, and craftsmen thrived. More sod was broken, and the soil provided. Churches, schools, butchers, blacksmiths, and livery stables all found a home in this Place. That beautiful sod was torn and ripped, over and over, and it provided. The food that sod created became plentiful and seeds were sown by the millions, sprouted and grew tall and bountiful. Food was not an afterthought as it has become today. For these early pioneers it was sacred, prized, and hard fought. Food was hunted, gathered, and cultivated. Buffalo and wild game ran wild and made their way to the dinner table, but small herds of cattle were introduced and integrated as well. The soil fed the grass, the grass fed the ruminants, and the ruminants fed the Iowans. There was a deep and necessary relationship between soil, farmer, food, and community.
Today, that powerful relationship has lost its roots. The connection to soil has been weakened, if not broken all together. 26,000,000 acres produce only two crops which cover 74% of the land. The majority of the seed is genetically modified and owned by a handful of corporations, the crops rely on chemical applications by way of herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide. The markets are driven by speculators, corporations and politicians. Small towns have felt this consolidation and the once heavy footprint of farming and culture is barely recognizable.
In the infancy of industrial agriculture, through the farmers eyes, the green revolution was not viewed as soil damaging, corporate manipulated or a start to less sovereignty. It was a modern marvel, a magic wand for more yields, less weeds, fewer hours toiling away and an easier path forward. Cultivation, planting, harvesting, and distribution were all easier. The farmer didn’t realize that what he was doing was detaching himself and his fellow brethren from humanity and the natural biology we all depend on for health. The rally cry for “feeding the world” had begun. In the 1940’s, the message was simple, easy to support and spread from coffee shop to coffee shop around the heartland. We had saved the world from the tyranny of WWII, and now we were going to save it from starvation. That grand story however casts a big shadow.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The modern industrial agricultural system has gutted rural America and Iowa is ground zero of the crisis. The health of the whole system is faltering, from the soil, the people and the environment. Iowa is a microcosm of a global problem. How bad is it? Here’s a glimpse. As for soil, 33% of the world's soil is highly degraded. Iowa’s soil is washing away at ten times the rate of replenishment. And it comes at a financial cost, too, with the American economy losing roughly $37 billion in productivity annually from soil loss. On top of extraordinary soil loss, most farmers are growing crops that don’t provide nutritious food for the world. It’s tragic that in America’s most fertile state, almost 100% of crop production is exported to feed animals or cars (i.e. ethanol production).
Global commodity markets for corn and soy are supposed to create economic resilience, but rather dehumanize food, and expose farmers to the brutality of bottom-line production and international trade dynamics. Last year, median farm income earned by a farm household in the USA was -$1,440. Rural Iowa is suffering and being forgotten as more and more people flock to urban areas. Small towns are boarded up and people are leaving in droves. Small to medium sized farms are in sharp decline in Iowa. Record numbers of dairies across the Midwest are closing up shop and selling their cows.
Skyrocketing numbers of childhood obesity and autoimmune diseases are well known and not refuted. Poverty, job insecurity, food deserts, mental and physical health and subsequent health care costs are all simmering away and soon will drastically erode our social fabric and infrastructure. Food has become a macro proposition. Quantity and cheap cost are the drivers, not nutrient-density and organic integrity. The old wisdom of “let food be thy medicine” has long been ignored. Policies supporting processed, sterilized, and adulterated foods are pervasive, especially in schools. The beauty of raw foods from artisan farmers and food makers has been demonized, if not outright banned. Without a change of course, by 2050, we may very well lose our abilities to heal ourselves.
All of this has come at a huge cost of the environment. Industrial agriculture is threatening all dimensions of ecosystem wellbeing, from local to global scale, witnessed in the acceleration of climate change. Climate change is the greatest threat to human civilization and the ecological integrity of the earth, and represents the penultimate outcome of our modern and imbalanced affair with nature. While agriculture has always been a major driver of climate change, the Green Revolution turned up the heat. Industrial agriculture is not creating a beautiful and vibrant future for all. We must change course. We need a system change. There is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve the current crisis. The system needs re-imagining, re-working, re-creation across all domains, from culture, economy, policy, diet, and technology.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
We need a rebellion to drive the next great revolution in agriculture. The rebellion is regenerative organic agriculture, which reimagines the economy from soil to shelf, from financing to markets, from grassroots to policy. Regenerative organic agriculture inverts the industrial economy, and rebalances the global biogeochemical cycles (i.e. carbon and nitrogen) by shifting the economy of extraction to the economy of giving, and in that reciprocity, nourishing ourselves through the natural outcome of healthy food as a result of investing in healthy soil.
Regenerative organic agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing a heavy premium on soil health with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more. It is a method of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. Regenerative organic agriculture takes a living systems approach to work with nature, rather than against it, with a focus on conservation tillage, diversity, rotation with cover crops and restoration of native ecosystems alongside cultivated systems.
Regenerative agriculture in its deepest essence is founded upon and operates from a different set of values than those that guide the industrial economy. Regenerative economy is being manifested through a shift of values and concepts, from linearity to circularity, quantity to quality, monoculture to diversity, competition to cooperation, short to long view, extractive to regenerative, centralized to decentralized, dominion to inter-being, power to empowerment, withholding to sharing, manufactured to authentic.
In 2050, the health of Iowa, the soil and her people will be realized as one and indivisible. Our vision and work begins with the revitalization of soil. Americans built this country on black soil, and we need to reinvest in it to rebuild our country and reimagine rural economy. Regenerative organic agriculture is the solution for restoration.
Our vision systemically and systematically subverts the modern system of agriculture, without ostracizing any farmer from the future. Everyone is invited. It’s hospice care for the old system, and midwifery for the new. Farmers are sick of the system, but they are trapped, isolated, and in many ways, abandoned and alone. How does a farmer or rancher change? What is the alternative? How does the rebellion begin? It begins with us.
99 Counties is a community-based, grassroots organization with solid partners that have a track record of change making, including Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), Mad Agriculture, The Rodale Institute, Farmer’s Footprint, Regenerative Organic Alliance, Regenerative Future Capital, Tree Range Chicken, Patagonia and Patagonia Provisions and Nori. With these core partners, and 99 farmers across Iowa, we will start a groundswell of regenerative organic agriculture.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
A podcast with Phil Taylor, Founder of Mad Ag, on Love, Capital and Regenerative Ag.
A brief visual description of the Nori marketplace.
Farmer's Footprint, exemplary storytelling.
A quick summary of Rodale Institute and their approach.
A view of Patagonia and Patagonia Provisions, and their approach to catalyzing a regenerative revolution in agriculture.
Nick Wallace speaks on agriculture and Wallace Farms from Keystone, IA, the epicenter of change.
Out of great pain, great innovation occurs. The conditions are ripe for change. A perfect storm of social, environmental and economic factors are aligned for another major revolution in agriculture. While daunting, any system can rapidly reconform with catalytic strategy and investment. The Green Revolution was funded with less than $50M from the Rockefeller, Ford and Kellogg Foundations, as society was primed for rapid adoption of industrialization during post-war economy and the rising wave of technology, mechanization, and corporate control and consolidation, and neoliberal capitalism. Rapid and widespread change can be hard to imagine. How will farms change into something different? Sounds impossible. Yet, it’s happened before! Nearly 99% of Iowa farms are growing the same thing - corn and soybeans - but only for the past several decades.
The question becomes, how? Change happens farm-by-farm, one step at a time. Yet, how does a farmer take their first step? How does a farmer find the off-ramp into a different system without going bankrupt? Here, we outline an action plan for catalyzing a regenerative and organic revolution in agriculture. Our approach is farmer-first, and the first step is finding the right leaders and empowering their vision, design and implementation of regenerative operations that are place-based. Our first goal is to find a regenerative organic farmer in every county of Iowa, all 99 counties, and give each one the support they need to thrive.
99 Counties is a nascent organization, just launching in 2020, to help farmers and ranchers adopt regenerative organic agriculture to produce healthy food and fiber that restores the earth and creates ecological and economic wealth. 99 Counties is an organization created by Iowan farmers to help Iowan farmers. 99 Counties supports and enable farmers with five levers of system change: 1) Creating regenerative organic farm operations, from vision to design to operation; 2) Revitalizing rural economy from the ground-up, creating grassroots action that shapes new policy; 3) Create new forms of capital to finance the transition to regenerative organic agriculture and food system - soil to shelf - to support it; 4) Develop new, decentralized markets for crops and ecosystem markets; 5) Telling the story of revolution, showing the vitality of regeneration, and inviting others to join.
Lever 1. Creating regenerative organic farm operations, from vision to design to operation, is critical because the farm is the foundation of the food system. Regenerative organic agriculture is not about returning to a nostalgic view of the past, but fully embracing new technology, insights and approaches to farming closer to nature.
Lever 2. Revitalizing Rural Community. There is an old adage that rings true, ‘You become who you surround yourself with.’ Our grassroots theory of change is based on the truth that farmers listen to farmers. Seeing is believing. We need a decentralized network of producers that are the ‘lighthouses on the hill’, ‘beacons of change’, or ‘attractors of adoption’ in their counties. A network of farmers in 99 counties across Iowa provides a human network for sharing risk, experience, markets, financing and learning.
The glue of this network is 99 Counties. 99 Counties and partners will beat the pavement, host the town halls, go to the churches, revive the grange halls and drum up the support, county by county, inviting farmers into the new paradigm of good agriculture. This network of farmers will be connected through digital communities (i.e. Facebook) and through on-the-ground contact via farm field days, conferences, demonstration plots tours. PFI is already the leader in Iowa in these realms, which will be amplified and expanded through Rodale Institute’s new Midwest Organic Center (MOC) launching in 2020.
The Rodale MOC, in collaboration with Indian Creek Nature Center, will serve as a research and education hub that will support a transformed, organic, and regenerative agricultural landscape. The long-term goal of this project is to transform Iowa as the world leader in organic grain production and meet the nutritional needs for local populations through diversified production of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and livestock.
We will use community change to inspire policy change. Bottom up and top down approaches need to work in concert, rather than in exclusion or contrast to each other. The best policy, which is durable and creates public good, is often created in response to the needs and desires of constituents. PFI farmer-members have been leaders in state level policy work in Iowa. Partner organizations, Mad Agriculture and Rodale have played similar roles in Colorado and Pennsylvania, respectively. We all favor a big-tent approach and the development of involuntary, incentive-based programs. Control and command, prescriptive policies, often constrain and frustrate farmers. We are openly sharing our success with similar grassroots groups in NM, KS, NE, MT, MN and beyond.
LEVER 3: Create and Flow Regenerative Capital.
Money is the most important factor for decision-making in agriculture. Most producers operate on thin margins and are risk-averse. Traditional lending institutions lack the appetite to finance the early stages of a regenerative and organic agriculture. Innovation in regenerative supply web is cash limited. Producers are saddled up to debt and insurance obligations that reinforce a broken system. New types of capital are being created to finance the regenerative revolution.
Mad Agriculture just launched the Perennial Fund, a $7.5M organic transition loan program that puts farmers success first. The Perennial Fund offers 4% loan and revenue-based based returns only when the farmers is earning a net profit. The financing comes with deep technical assistance and guaranteed access and off-take agreements with buyers of organic crops and soil carbon offsets. We already have 14,000 acres enrolled across the Midwest, with a focus on Iowa. We expect to raise another $75-100M in 2021, and our efforts will be targeted in Iowa.
Regenerative Future Capital is another radical financing mechanism, which offers scholarships to farmers building carbon-rich, healthy soils. They pay for the projected carbon drawdown for 10 years upfront, enabling farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture in exchange for the carbon credits. RFC is deploying $50M in 2020, and $200M in 2021 and 2022. The Nori soil carbon marketplace is another solution for helping farmers get paid for building soil health. Mad Agriculture works with Nori to onboard farmers and develop how to measure and monitor carbon drawdown.
LEVER 4: Activate New Crop and Ecosystem Markets.
Imagine a market place that honors, rewards and pays more for products and services that are good for people and earth. Imagine a marketplace for ecosystem services that pays farmers for stewarding the land, sequestering carbon in the soil, solving climate change, producing clean water, maintaining biodiversity and soil health. Such markets are just emerging.
On the crops side, the Regenerative Organic Alliance has created the Regenerative Organic Certification. By 2050, this certification will be the gold standard and ‘north star’ of regenerative agriculture, and creates a premium for farmers. Premiums are often defined by certifications, which differentiate between the provenance and value systems behind the crop. The USDA Organic certification has been a powerful market differentor for farmers. Organic farmers are widely more profitable than chemical-based farmers, due to the 200-500% premium over conventionally-grown commodities for farmers. Shifting to regenerative organic is a big transition, and PFI, Rodale Institute, Mad Agriculture and ROA will guide that process for farmers with financial, technical and market support. Our groups are deeply connected to organic food markets and brands working to regenerate their supply chain to create healthier food for all and shift the diets of Americans.
Lever 5: Change the Story and Attract Others to Join
A revolution attracts others into the movement. Regenerative agriculture is attractive to farmers because it yields much more than healthy soil, nutritious food and a stable climate. It helps create true wealth, happiness and joy, which makes the regenerative revolution irresistible. Farmer’s Footprint is a core partner in storytelling. In early 2019, they launched the first installment of a planned documentary series exploring the stories of farm families transitioning to regenerative agriculture. In six months, the film received 250,000+ views across multiple digital platforms and live events, with 50,000 social media followers passionate about building the regenerative movement. Through cohesive storytelling and information aggregation, we provide a single central location for our audience to engage with stakeholders invested in creating a healthier, more resilient food and agriculture system.
Our vision systematically and systemically addresses all themes of the Food Vision Prize. Regenerative organic agriculture creates a diversity of food that is healthy for people. Technological innovation is at the heart of creating regenerative organic systems that work with nature, and not against it. We need to mimic natural systems, reduce disturbance and tillage, working with ‘weeds’ in new ways, all of which which depends on technological innovation. Our action plan alters the economics of the farm system with radical and new financing and markets for crops and ecosystem services. Our work is community-based and grounded in cultural change, a movement led by Iowans, for Iowans.
If Iowa goes, others will follow. State by state. County by county. Farmer by farmer. 67 Colorado, 102 Illinois, 53 North Dakota, 67 Pennsylvania, 95 Tennessee, 58 California, and so on.