The Ecdysis Foundation, a South Dakota-based agricultural research nonprofit, is undertaking a massive study of "regenerative" agriculture across North America.
Matt Jones, former Washington State University researcher and Ecdysis' entomologist, said the word "regenerative" sounds like a buzz word, but it's broadly about agroecological health, like building healthy soils and promoting biodiversity. According to Ecdysis, regenerative producers are known for practices such as planting cover crops, limiting agrichemicals, planting pollinator strips and hedgerows and integrating livestock into crop management.
The study is called the 1,000 Farm Initiative, Jones said. It has two main parts: a large-scale study exploring differences between conventional and regenerative farming practices and a study of challenges farms face when transitioning from conventional to regenerative.
The project is needed, said Jones, because many farmers are interested in "regenerative" practices, such as spraying less either because of environmental concerns or rising pesticide costs. The problem, he said, is that little research has been done into many regenerative farming practices. Jones said there's a need to understand what works and what doesn't.
For example, Jones said a grower he is working with would like to stop spraying glyphosate, but the farmer is having "such a hard time" eliminating the spray since it is used to terminate cover crops. Jones said research is needed to explore alternatives.
The 1,000 Farm Initiative is so-named because the goal is to conduct studies at 1,000 farms — both conventional and regenerative — across the U.S.
Jonathan Lundgren, former entomologist for USDA and founder of the Ecdysis Foundation, said the project started with 250 farms in 2021. He expects to reach 500 farms in 2022 and hopes to deploy researchers to 1,000 farms by 2023.
"It's really exciting," said Lundgren.
Jones, who is leading the Northwest portion of the project, will start by working with apple, cherry and grain growers, along with rangeland cattle producers, in 2022. In future years, Jones said he hopes to add Northwest potatoes, grass seed, vineyards and other crops.
Although the cost of conducting the research is estimated at $5,000 per site on average, there is no cost for a farm to participate.
Major funders include Silverstrand Foundation, Oberweiler Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, General Mills, Keith Campbell Foundation, #Noregrets Initiative, Burroughs Family Farm, Regen Ag Foundation and South Dakota Beekeepers.
The research will include soil health studies, bird surveys, studies of local pests and beneficial insect populations and analysis of crop nutrient density.
Farmers don't have to change anything about their management practices, Jones said. The researchers will study existing systems to find out which techniques are best for agroecological health and farm profitability.
The data will be shared with growers who participate in the study.
"Farmers can use the information to make decisions, so it's of immediate benefit to them," said Lundgren, the nonprofit's founder.
Eventually, the data will be made available to the public. Specific farms will be kept anonymous.
"It's about outcomes — producing research to help growers farm in a way that's ecologically responsible but also profitable," said Jones.