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Regenerative Ag Could Make Illinois Farms More Climate-Friendly -- And More Profitable, Too

Courtesy Savanna Institute
Alley cropping, planting productive tree crops between alleys of conventional crops such as corn and soy, is one of many regenerative agriculture practices being researched and practiced in Central Illinois.

The term “regenerative agriculture” sounds wonderful...or for many maybe just more fancy talk for the latest sustainable agriculture movement.

But regenerative agriculture is an important topic in the Greater Peoria region, because the majority of the land in Central Illinois is planted in large-scale monoculture swaths of corn and soy. Interest may be low for the average person because of the, well, monotony of monoculture, but agriculture is a very big deal none-the-less.

In 2019 Illinois farmers produced over 1.8 billion bushels of corn and half-a-billion bushels of soybeans. The ability to grow this many crops by a shrinking number of farmers has developed over the last century thanks to science, engineering, and policy.

It is clear that large-scale production agriculture yields an abundance of basic calories, most of which go to animal feed and ethanol. But in doing so, the U.S. EPA estimates that the agriculture industry contributes around 10% of human’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that number has risen 10% since 1990.

This approach to agriculture has also contributed to soil degradation and to the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from upstream waterways. The Illinois River exports the largest amount of this state’s contribution to that nutrient runoff—a majority of which comes from agriculture, according to the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

In addition to the ecological drawbacks, commodity farming has increasingly thin profit margins, and, for many, has resulted in negative profits in recent years.

Economists at the University of Illinois estimate that a 1600 acre farm could see net income as low as -$25,000 in 2020, continuing a downward trend in farm income since 2013. 

Widespread changes in farming practices could combat the detrimental aspects of this system. But change does not come quick or easy in agriculture, and often not without the leadership of land-grant institutions such as the University of Illinois.

For over a century, farmers have relied on the research and advice of the university’s crop scientists to increase farm efficiency and yields. Private agribusiness and food industry stakeholders have also supported and benefited from the powerful research and development capabilities of land-grant institutions.

So it should not go unnoticed that earlier this month, the University of Illinois announced the launch of their Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, and what seems an official acknowledgement of the critical issues facing the industry: from soil health to farmer wealth.

The University said the initiative brings together stakeholders on and off campus to create agriculture and food systems that are resilient to climate change, improve soil and water quality, support healthy communities, and enhance food security.

Adam Davis, the head of the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois, said “The aim of regenerative agriculture is to advance the triple bottom line in agriculture — productivity, profitability, and environmental health.”

I had a conversation with Davis to learn more about what this initiative means for the university and for agriculture stakeholders in our region:

Tory Dahlhoff: What’s so significant about this initiative in terms of the role UIUC can play in advancing regenerative agriculture?

Adam Davis: It offers an opportunity for us to pitch a big tent and invite various types of stakeholders in. Regenerative agriculture is an outcome-based approach to sustainable ag. It’s more that we agree upon some goals that we have: improving soil quality, improving biodiversity, improving food access and community outcomes. So there’s a real diversity of types of players that you need in order to address regenerative ag goals.

TD: So why does all of that matter?

AD: We’ve aimed very squarely at productivity for decades without always considering net profitability and without always considering human and environmental health. It’s increasingly difficult to make a living on this very simplified system of just corn and beans and bare ground for most of the year. We’re leaving a lot of sunlight on the table.

So, diversifying our cropping systems can help economically, but then there’s also the very real change in our global environment. To meet this challenge of feeding a growing population and addressing climate change, we need to get more living cover on the ground over more of the year.

TD: It seems sometimes conventional farmers are almost demonized in the conversations around sustainable agriculture, and therefore alienated from those conversations. How are you guys engaging conventional farmers?

AD: The idea here is to make this a very inclusive activity. These outcomes that we are trying to achieve need to happen soon. Things are changing rapidly for planet Earth and and farming can be a part of the solution since so much of our ground is managed that way, and what we do on that ground matters. We’ve got 26 million acres of ag land in Illinios and if we really want to make these changes across a large portion of that land we have to include conventional growers.

I really do believe we can achieve all of these goals within a regenerative agriculture.

Learn more about the initiative at the Oct. 30 virtual kickoff event organized by the University of Illinois College of ACES. The initiative is offering seed grants for interdisciplinary projects that advance the goals of regenerative agriculture.

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Tory Dahlhoff is a freelance reporter based at WCBU. He's also the host of the food and farming podcast Food Trek.