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Organic agriculture is both a complement and a complication to the push for regenerative agriculture. Its success demonstrates that financial rewards can encourage more sustainable practices on the farm, but the organic approach also stops short of the philosophy behind regenerative agriculture.
Clear Frontier, for example, is a startup funded by wealthy investors that has begun buying up Midwestern farmland to convert it to organic agriculture and has acquired about 8,500 acres so far. The Omaha, Neb.–based outfit is on its way to spending a total of between $200 million and $300 million over a decade to purchase about 30,000 acres for that purpose, says Justin Bruch, president and cofounder.
“We buy the land and lease it to farmers on a long-term basis and help them with crop rotation and cover crops and technology around that, as well as give them the runway to get from conventional to organic in 35 months,” Bruch says.
Among other things, Clear Frontier aims to detail the financial gains for farmers from doing things organically. “It’s important for farmers not just to have a sustainability case but to be profitable in a longer-term case as well,” says Cristina Rohr, managing director of investments for S2G Ventures, which has invested in Clear Frontier. “It’s validating to have proof from actual farms.”
The market is validating the boom in organic acreage. U.S. sales of organic foods reached $52.3 billion in 2021, and will ride compound annual growth averaging nearly 9%, to $95 billion a year in sales by 2026, according to BlueWave Consulting and Research.
But organic agriculture isn’t regenerative agriculture, even though there’s a lot of overlap between the two. Organic carries strict requirements and regulatory definitions in the United States and elsewhere, focused mainly on inputs: not using pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
So while both organic and regenerative philosophies also can involve crop rotation, for example, organic farmers use light tillage, while regenerative agriculture discourages any tillage. And synthetic fertilizer can have a role in regenerative farming while it’s verboten in organics, which is one reason yields on organic farms typically are lower than in conventional farming.
Still, Bruch believes that organics can show a way for the growth of its regenerative cousin by demonstrating that the end consumer will pay more for products that manifest efforts to protect human health and promote sustainability.
“With organic, you have a standard, and documentation, and you’re paid a premium to get there,” Bruch says. “If there’s no criteria and you don’t compensate” [farmers who use regenerative practices], “it’s using a shotgun versus a rifle.”
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