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Greening the Food System Revolution in Indiana

WWF and partners mobilize new actors, innovations and platforms to transform hearts, minds, culture, and community norms to scale farming

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

World Wildlife Fund US

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 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.

• Clark Land & Cattle – 5th generation family farm of 7,000 acres in western Indiana using all regenerative practices • Fair Oaks Farms – largest dairy in the US - https://fofarms.com/ • Indiana Corn Growers Association - https://www.incorn.org/ • National Corn Growers Association - https://www.ncga.com/home • Indiana Soybean Alliance - https://www.indianasoybean.com/ • Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies (ACSESS) - https://www.myacsess.org/ • CiBo Technologies - https://www.cibotechnologies.com/ • Field to Market - https://fieldtomarket.org/ • Ecosystem Market Consortium (ESMC) - https://www.linkedin.com/company/ecosystemservicesmarketconsortium/ • Trust in Food/Farm Journal -https://www.trustinfood.com/ • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Indiana - https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/in/home/ • Indiana Soil and Water Conservation Districts (92) - https://www.in.gov/isda/2368.htm • Indiana Natural Resources Foundation - https://www.ind

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.worldwildlife.org/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Washington, D.C.

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Our focus will be the State of Indiana (94322.187 km2). We will focus most of the activities on the 16 primary farm counties.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Indiana is in the heart of America’s heartland.  Agriculture is a mainstay of the Indiana economy and way of life.  Indiana’s rich soil, adequate rainfall, and rich history of farming make it an important region for the present and future of U.S. agriculture.  Indiana is in the top five US states in terms of corn and soybean production.  While most of Indiana agricultural production could be classified as “conventional,” there is a growing interest in conservation agriculture and regenerative farming practices, those that look to improve, regenerate and restore soil health.  For instance, the number of acres used for cover-cropping, a major farming practice, has more than quadrupled in the Hoosier state since 2011.  No-till practices have been growing steadily since the 1990s.  Today, Indiana farmers plant almost one million acres of cover crops, about 9% of the total farmland — a higher percentage than other major farming states.  There is some openness, but change is still slow as many farmers are conservative and understandably risk averse due to uncertain farm economy, small margins, low capacity, and minimum safety nets.  There is also a fundamental issue of mindsets and culture change that holds many farmers in Indiana, not unlike in other parts of the country. 

At the same time, Indiana is also home to some unique farmer champions – Rick and Carol Clark, and Mike and Sue McCloskey -  that have been farming green for almost a decade, and who are leading the way and can serve as mentors and role models for others.  WWF partners with these farmers and believes that if a transformative culture and systems change is made in Indiana, it can be done anywhere else in the United States.  We can use Indiana as a model to create momentum for a larger farming green movement in the rest of the country.

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.

Indiana is the 17th most populous state with about 6.7 million people and the 38th largest state by area in the United States. It has a diverse economy with a gross state product of $359.12 billion in 2017. At the same time, farming and agriculture are still a central part of Indiana’s culture and economy. Indiana consists mainly of flat or rolling plains and has rich soil good for crop production. It has adequate annual rainfall for agriculture on average, but parts of Indiana are at risk of mild drought during dryer months. The state has 94,000 farmers operating 56,000 farms, and agriculture contributes about $31.2 billion to its economy. Its top five commodities are corn, soy, livestock-for-meat, poultry/eggs, and dairy.

Despite agriculture’s importance, only 14% of Indianans live in rural districts. Indiana is a fairly conservative state historically, but does have a progressive and practical streak. A survey of farmers show they feel strong responsibility for environmental stewardship around water quality, but low awareness of water quality issues, medium willingness to change practices to benefit water quality, and very low willingness to accept a financial burden like a tax or fee to improve water quality. The same survey shows that cost and long-term economic benefits are very important to farmers’ decision-making. 80% of Indianans believe climate change is occurring, and 77% of Indianans believe climate change is a threat to Indiana’s economy. The same survey shows Indianans significantly underestimate how many of their peers believe in, or are concerned about, climate change.

Indiana farmers who are part of a farmer-network show a higher awareness of environmental issues like water quality and pollutant sources, a higher awareness of how their actions impact water quality, and a higher willingness to change their practices to benefit water quality.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

94000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

6700000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The planet is in peril from climate change to loss of nature and biodiversity, primarily as a result of habitat and natural resource degradation, including land conversion, loss of soil, and over-extraction and pollution of freshwater systems.  Agriculture and food production are primary drivers of these planetary system challenges and we need to do something urgently to transform how we grow and nourish the world, especially in light of global population growth, changing demographics and shifting dietary preferences.  The United States is a global leader in agricultural production, research, innovation, yield, and efficiencies, which has led to unprecedented production and surpluses of food, fiber and biofuels.  At the same time, we have born the externality costs of intensive, extractive systems in the contamination of our waterways, the degradation of critical soil assets, and the loss of our functioning ecosystems, habitat and communities.
Indiana’s farmers are also suffering directly from a multitude of challenges, increasing debt, the trade war, and climate change. Costs of production are high and getting higher with the use of genetically modified seed and the package of requisite chemical inputs that go along with them.  The number of farms in Indiana are declining while the average size of farms increase, mostly as a result of family farms going bankrupt and being absorbed by larger farms.  45% of farms in Indiana reported net losses, and 18% of farms reported net gains of under $10,000 year in the 2017 agricultural census.  In the U.S. 83% of farmer income comes from off-farm sources.  Climate change is already impacting Indiana’s agriculture, where rising temperatures have reduced corn yields over the past decade and scientists predict a further yield decline by mid-century.  In addition, Indiana reports 100 million tons of annual soil erosion, primarily from crop and pasture land; this has negative environmental impacts and threatens long-term agriculture in Indiana.
Growing awareness of environmental sustainability has increased distrust between farmers and environmentalists.  The agricultural sector has been increasingly implicated as a major contributor to greenhouse gases.  Many environmental advocates and consumers are blaming farmers for environmental problems, particularly livestock and animal feed producers which dominate Indiana’s agriculture. This combination of challenges and the negative narrative and blame targeted towards the agriculture sector have made farmers feel increasingly defensive and even angry at “outsiders,” like government, NGOs, and corporates, who attempt to finger wag at farmers and try to change their farming practices and way of life.  They are also reluctant to take considerable risks, understandably so, especially financial risks.  Thus, the majority of farmers in Indiana are not open to or willing to entertain the idea of switching to new modes of operation, management, such as regenerative practices like no-till or cover-crop agriculture.  Farmers often feel scapegoated for broader environmental problems and reluctant to adopt practices advocated by conservation organizations.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

WWF will support the creation of a new narrative and transformative culture around food systems in Indiana, starting with farmers and the communities where they live and operate.  WWF will work to mobilize new actors, new innovations and platforms that will shift the negative narrative as agriculture as the environmental stewardship problem, to a more positive narrative where farmers and agriculture see themselves as part of the solution.  The focus is initially on changing hearts, minds, and cultural and community norms.  But ultimately, the coordinated, aligned and combined efforts will create a change in the greater community, where conservation and regenerative agricultural practices becomes the norm and is widely adopted and accepted as the means of  farmers of Indiana in creating a sustainable farm future for their state by the following:

  • Identify, analyze, and engage key stakeholders, actors and influencers across the entire value chain, including the farmers, certified crop advisors, extension agents, university resources, agribusiness dealers, buyers, traders, CPG companies, retailers, consumers, policymakers, NGOs, communities etc.
  • Create a “Chip and Joanna” (from HGTV’s Fixer Upper) for Regenerative Agriculture so a series of stories can be
  • Facilitate a peer-to-peer platform for innovative farmers to share their experiences, learning, and best practices to accelerate mindset shift
  • Through existing social, professional and community networks, create platform(s) to disseminate stories, lessons learned (both successes and failures), and trusted, credible resources between farmer-to-farmer, and peer-to-peer for actors across the entire value chain
  • Develop spatial-data tools that help farmers assess and valuate their land and assets as a result of investments in conservation and regenerative agriculture practices
  • Develop market-based mechanisms that provide positive incentives to drive adoption and contribute to the business bottom line for the producer
  • Develop the business case for regenerative agriculture
  • Develop a user-friendly regenerative agriculture scenario planning interface or “game” that lets interested farmers to “try on” different new practices

 Identify policy, enabling environment and finance mechanisms that will support farmer adoption, reduce risk, and provide transitioning incentives

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.

Indiana is representative of the rural heartland of America.  Rural communities and farmers themselves are typically libertarian, progressively conservative and often (and for good reason) relatively risk-adverse, especially when the farm economy is weak and unpredictable, working capital and safety nets are low, and “outsiders” like government, NGOs, or big companies are telling them what to do. 

Indiana’s farmers now have a collaborative network of peers they can tap to discuss their challenges, and potential tools for economically and environmentally improving their operations. The farmer-to-farmer platform will help normalize and remove perceived risks from environmentally sustainable agricultural practices like cover-cropping and no-till agriculture by showcasing farmers who have adopted these methods.

Farmers in Indiana will have higher net incomes through increased yields and reduced operating costs. Their farms will become more resilient to extreme weather like flooding and drought. They will reduce soil erosion which will protect the productivity of their land for future generation.  Their regenerative agriculture practices will increase soil sequestration, reduce soil erosion, reduce pollution from nutrient runoff, and improve local biodiversity.

The peer-to-peer format of the platform will give farmers an inclusive, private space to candidly discuss the potential benefits and costs of regenerative agriculture practices from a business perspective.

Consumers will see Indiana’s regenerative farmers as part of the solution to climate change instead of a problem. Farmers will feel proud of their environmental stewardship and welcomed into the environmental community instead of feeling unfairly blamed for environmental problems.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

WWF envisions a peer-to-peer online platform that will allow Indiana’s farmers to connect with one another and absorb new ideas and potentially profitable practices. This platform will create a community of farmers facing similar challenges who can support one another. It will also help guide farmers’ decision-making for whether or not to adopt practices like cover-cropping and no-till agriculture, from a business perspective.  

Advancing scaled uptake and adoption of conservation agriculture and regenerative agricultural management practices and systems across Indiana and beyond will take more than sharing of information, technical training, and changes in policy, financial incentives and the enabling environment. 

All of those things are necessary and critical, but more fundamental is the need to change hearts, mindsets, and culture in the individual farmers and the communities in which they live and operate. Indiana is a perfect place to attempt a vision at this transformation because if we are success in Indiana communities, we can scale to other producers and rural communities as well with credibility and confidence. 

The ultimate goal of this vision is to shift the narrative of agriculture and farmers/ranchers/producers from being part of the environmental problem to being part of the nature solution.  Farmers need to see themselves as nature’s stewards of the land and as part of a new, different and positive narrative for the future of agriculture.  Farmers must internalize this, own it, and come to a point of self-actualization within their own lives, contexts and communities.  Farmers must be consciously and unconsciously open to seeing how farming green can be transformative to their farm, families, communities and business bottom line, and only then will they be more proactive and onboard with changing and transforming how they farm. 

We would partner with a platform to build on previous successful models of farmer-to-farmer learning through farmer-created videos in India. Indiana’s farmers overwhelmingly perceive mobile technology as a valuable agricultural management tool and report high levels of comfort using mobile technology. We could adapt the video-sharing model to a mobile-friendly online platform to take advantage of Indianan farmers’ pre-existing use of this technology.

Profitability

Farmers in Indiana will have higher net incomes through increased yields and reduced operating costs. Their farms will become more resilient to extreme weather like flooding and drought. They will reduce soil erosion which will protect the productivity of their land for future generation. Small and medium-size family farms will be economically viable and not at risk of bankruptcy or absorption into larger farms. The diversification of crops from practices like cover cropping will make farmers more resilient to future economic shocks like trade wars.

Environmental Sustainability

Farmers’ regenerative agriculture practices will increase soil sequestration, reduce soil erosion, reduce pollution from nutrient runoff, and improve local biodiversity.

Consumer and farmer perceptions

The peer-to-peer format of the platform will give farmers an inclusive, private space to candidly discuss the potential benefits and costs of regenerative agriculture practices from a business perspective. Farmer organizations will advocate for policies that benefit regenerative farms to further encourage adoption of regenerative practices, with the understanding that increases in regenerative agriculture will benefit all Indiana farmers by protecting Indiana’s soil and water, protecting its small farmers, and improving agriculture’s reputation.

This platform would allow farmers to watch videos of their peers’ successes and failures adapting practices like cover-cropping and no-till agriculture to learn about the potential benefits and how to avoid potential pitfalls. It would help farmers who have successfully adopted regenerative agriculture practices like Rick Clark help discuss the bottom-line oriented business case for switching to regenerative agriculture.

Trust

 Because this platform will be farmer-driven with farmers’ stories, WWF hopes to improve trust between farmers and conservation organizations like WWF. Farmers will see their peers as more knowledgeable about the realities of farming, and more likely to be candid about both the advantages and disadvantages of different practices. Any decision to change agricultural practices represents a risk to the farmer’s livelihood and future; during a time when family farms are increasingly going bankrupt and becoming absorbed by larger farms, this risk is a top concern for farmers. The peer-to-peer format will allow farmers to be confident that they have a complete picture of the risks and benefits before deciding whether to change their business practices. It will also provide farmers who do wish to adopt regenerative agriculture throughout the process of switching to new practices with a supportive network of other farmers who have already made the change. These farmers can offer advice, answer questions, and provide mentoring support to their peers. 

Although this vision primarily targets Indiana's agricultural counties, the vision of fundamentally transforming hearts, mindsets, cultural and community norms, and incentives is targeted at the entire state of Indiana, which includes the producers, consumers, policymakers, and the entire set of value chain actors across the primary agricultural industries in rural and urban regions of the state.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event

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Hi Melissa Ho - Welcome to the Food System Prize! In the final moments, we are encouraging a final cross check to our check list: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1o8WGMus6-V8GywWdlNwmCpk7I1fMVzcQ/view