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Sustainable ag and a new food label

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The Manuels’ cows coming into pasture on Prairie Grass Ranch in Havre, Montana. PHOTO COURTESY OF JODY MANUEL

By Sierra Cistone EBS Contributor

By this time next year, Prairie Grass Ranch in Havre, Montana, could become the first in the state to receive a new regenerative food label. 

Known as the Regenerative Organic Certified, or ROC, the label is among the first of its kind and will certify food producers who not only grow organically, but who also use regenerative agricultural practices, including the use of compost, perennial crops, limited or zero soil tilling, and grazing cattle in a way that mimics natural grazing habits of native wildlife by rotating the animals through different pastures over time. 

Each tool has its own merit and place within an individual’s crop or livestock system, but they all aim to achieve a common goal: increase soil health and achieve sustainable food production. 

Rarely has soil health been a priority in modern-day industrial farming, and it’s something experts say has resulted in increasingly nutrient-deficient farmland. But research now shows that using regenerative methods to grow food creates healthier soil which, in turn, produces food that’s more nutritious and can help buffer farmland against the effects of drought, pests and even climate change. 

This increasing body of research inspired big companies like Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s to partner with the Regenerative Organic Alliance in order to launch this new food label in 2017. 

A perennial wheat and legumes after harvest on Prairie Grass Ranch in May 2020. PHOTO COURTESY OF JODY MANUEL

Run by Jody Manuel and his wife Crystal, Prairie Grass Ranch has been using regenerative methods for over a decade. The Manuels began incorporating regenerative organic practices into their produce, grain and livestock production in 2007 and are confident that their products will easily meet the label’s criteria. 

“Back then, the term hadn’t even begun to get thrown around yet,” said Jody Manuel. 

They started the process of switching to regenerative organic methods by first eliminating the use of chemicals on their crops and used their cattle for weed control. Along the way they made the switch from raising strictly grain-fed cattle to raising grass-finished cattle, which then required a bigger adjustment: they needed new cows.

The Manuels’ early stock of cattle had large frames to support putting on a lot of weight very quickly, a design geared toward eating grain. Now, however, they’ve built a new herd with smaller frames able to tolerate a diet of grasses and legumes and spend more time grazing on the landscape.

Manuel says his cows play an important role in consuming plant matter and then returning those nutrients to the soil, which then supports the health of the microbiology that live underground. 

For Manuel, the ROC label is a way to finally show consumers that as a producer he’s committed to growing and raising food in a way that aids in planet and human health.

“The No. 1 benefit of the label is that it offers hard, definable parameters for the term ‘regenerative,’ so that when consumers see it on a label, they know exactly what it is that they’re buying,” he said.

Many people are familiar with the terms “organic” and “sustainable,” but “regenerative” is not as ubiquitous. Manuel says that unlike regenerative methods, growing food organically is not a guarantee that the food is more nutritious or beneficial to the soil. 

Bob Quinn, a long-time Montanan, regenerative farmer and coauthor of the book “Grain by Grain,” makes a clear distinction between organic farming and regenerative farming. He defines organic as a system of food production devoid of chemical, pesticides and additives, whereas regenerative agriculture, he says, focuses largely on building healthy soil by recreating natural systems. 

“You need both concepts to make the whole picture, the vision of mimicking nature, which is regenerative,” Quinn said.

Many regenerative practices were used more widely before the rise of agricultural chemical companies, which offered easy solutions to common problems, while regenerative techniques were largely ignored or forgotten. 

“Many problems are easily answered by … buying a sprayer and it would be very easy,” Manuel said. “But it’s just not an option for us.”

Now, however, as people are seeking answers to issues surrounding human health, climate and widespread soil degradation, big companies are increasingly turning toward regenerative practices in order to support producers using these techniques. 

“Personally, I just think it is probably cutting edge right now, just like organic would have been back in the mid-‘80s, or even early ‘90s,” Manuel said.

Ryan Kulesza, founder of Regen Market, the up-and-coming online platform for regenerative farm products in Montana, says ranchers who use regenerative practices cannot always find a market through which to sell their products. 

Kulesza said that the idea for Regen Market grew out of a realization that producers who were growing food regeneratively had limited networks for getting their food from farm to table, and the public’s uncertainty about what “regenerative” even is made it especially challenging.

“There was nothing on the shelf that told the story of why it was different than another locally produced [product] sitting right next to it,” Kulesza said.

Kulesza’s hope is that Regen Market will not only provide the infrastructure for farmers and ranchers who are already producing food regeneratively, but that producers who are considering making the shift to regenerative will have peace of mind in knowing there is a market for their products. And Jody Manuel sees that benefit.

“It would be a dream come true for us to be able to market our entire herd through one Montana company,” he said.

The ROC label is an important step for producers like the Manuels, who have spent years producing food with the health of the soil, land and consumer in mind. 

“It seems like more and more consumers are wanting to know that they’re part of, you might say carbon sequestration or part of a movement that’s reversing effects that have come to be seen as detrimental to our world around us,” Manuel said. He believes the ROC label will show consumers that he is doing just that.

Experts estimate that the U.S. has only 60 years of good topsoil left, but research shows that regenerative agriculture can reverse that trend. 

While there may be an initial hump for producers looking to incorporate regenerative practices into their food production, Manuel offers advice for anyone thinking about navigating the bridge into the world of regenerative organic farming and ranching: “Just cross.”

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