Soil and water

Pumpkin Farms Adapt to Improve Soil and Reduce Emissions – NBC Chicago

This Thanksgiving, your pumpkin pie could have a smaller carbon footprint.

On central Illinois farms that supply most of the world’s canned pumpkin, farmers are adopting regeneration techniques designed to reduce emissions, attract natural pollinators like bees and butterflies, and improve health of the ground.

The effort is supported by Libby’s, the 150-year-old canned food company, which processes 120,000 tonnes of pumpkins each year – around 85% of the world’s total canned pumpkins – from these fields in Illinois.

Libby’s parent company, Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, is one of a growing number of major food companies supporting the transition to regenerative agriculture in the United States, with the goal of letting the soil thrive by reducing tillage and keeping insects, carbon and other nutrients in the soil. Other regenerative farming practices include crop rotation or using fewer synthetic chemicals and fertilizers that can degrade soil over time.

Regenerative agriculture has its roots in native cultures, including members of the Hopi tribe who still use ancient methods of water conservation in Arizona. It’s not organic farming, which has stricter rules and certification, and it goes further than sustainable farming by seeking to improve the land rather than preserve it, said specialist Rachelle Malin. of the environment at Nestlé.

“We’re learning more and really want to go beyond that,” Malin said as she stood near rows of tangled green vines and yellowish pumpkins on a recent September morning. “How can we rebuild some things that we may have already lost in some previous practices? »

In 2019, General Mills set a goal to adopt regenerative practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030; so far, the company says 225,000 acres have signed up for its programs, including one that pays farmers for credits they earn when they increase soil carbon or improve water quality.

Last year, PepsiCo set a goal to transition 7 million acres of farmland to regenerative agriculture by 2030. And Walmart said it would directly support 30,000 Midwestern farmers in their transition. towards regenerative agriculture by 2030.

Arohi Sharma, deputy director of the regenerative agriculture program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said food companies see the extreme temperatures and drought that are a result of climate change and know they need to act. The agricultural sector is responsible for 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, almost as much as residential and commercial buildings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“They are finally realizing that they can no longer ignore the climate impacts of their supply chain,” Sharma said.

The US Department of Agriculture also supports the transition. In mid-September, the agency announced it would invest up to $2.8 billion in 70 projects across the United States that will measure and verify the greenhouse gas benefits of regenerative agriculture. .

The USDA said a growing body of research shows that regenerative agriculture can mitigate climate change and help soil regain its fertility and resilience. A study published earlier this year by the University of Washington showed that the soil from farms that had practiced regenerative methods for at least five years contained twice as much carbon as the soil from neighboring conventional farms, and that the food that grown there was richer in vitamins and minerals. .

But farmers need financial support to make the transition, the USDA said, because it can take three to five years of trial and error and upfront expense before they start to see a payoff. .

No one tracks the number of American farms using regenerative agriculture techniques. Like organic farming — which accounts for less than 1% of US farmland — regenerative acres still vastly outnumber conventional ones.

Libby’s began its regenerative agriculture program in 2021 with the 38 farms in Illinois growing its pumpkins on 6,000 acres. The program is part of an effort to achieve Nestlé’s broader goal of sourcing 50% of its key ingredients through regenerative methods by 2030.

Bill Sahs, who grows pumpkins for Libby’s in Atlanta, Illinois, has been a farmer for 47 years. He joined the Regenerative Agriculture program in 2021 and is now working with scientists from Nestlé and EcoPractices – an environmental consultancy – to test his soil and try new methods.

Sahs used to plow his 200 acres of pumpkin patch, rake it with a plow, apply chemicals, plow it again, then plant it. Now he only tills the soil once before planting, which keeps carbon and other nutrients in the soil and makes it less susceptible to wind erosion. It also reduces emissions, he said.

“We don’t make as many trips with tractors, equipment and diesel fuel,” he said.

Sahs left some strips of land on his property to go natural, with wildflowers and milkweed to attract pollinators and soak up runoff water from his fields. Nestlé brings beehives to help pollinate his plants throughout the growing season so he can rely less on synthetic fertilizers.

Nestlé calculates that Sahs saved 119 tonnes of soil from erosion in 2021. His yields were lower than in previous years – he won’t say by how much – but he said he was still making good profits, in part because its fuel and fertilizer costs are lower.

“Everyone cares about environmental law, and you just have to change,” Sahs said. “If you can’t change, then you won’t stay very long.”

Research confirms Sahs’ experience. A 2018 study by South Dakota State University and the Ecdysis Foundation – a nonprofit research group – found that corn production was 29% lower on regenerative farms compared to farms. conventional crops, but the benefits were 78% higher due to less tillage, reduced use of fertilizers and pesticides, and lower water costs.

Nestlé provides financial support to farmers like Sahs in addition to funding the partnership with EcoPractices. Nestlé won’t say how much it spends annually, but it’s confident that over time, regenerative practices will lead to better environmental and financial outcomes for its farmers.

“The upside we see is the impact we can have on the environment and on the communities where these farmers live,” said Emily Johannes, Senior Director of Sustainable Sourcing at Nestlé. “He comes back in so many ways.”


Durbin reported from Detroit.