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Good Food Insights
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Certifying regenerative agriculture with the ROC label

This piece is part of the the Good Food Insights series — a collaboration with FamilyFarmed, its Good Food Accelerator, Esca Bona and SPINS—that unpacks the dynamics driving the good food movement.

Farming practices that constitute “regenerative agriculture” have been in use for ages. But the concept did not emerge as a trend until five years ago when Pennsylvania’s Rodale Institute—a historic advocate for sustainable growing practices—began to strongly advocate the concept and ultimately began its push, launched last year, to create a Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) label for food products.

According to Rodale Institute, the ROC label is intended to set “a new, holistic, high-bar standard for agriculture certification.”

Most discussion of regenerative agriculture has focused on its environmental benefits, and the term derives from practices that “regenerate” soil that has been mined of its nutrients and biodiversity by the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are at the core of the conventional agriculture system.

Many sustainable agriculture advocates tout what they believe are sweeping positive impacts. With its emphasis on cover cropping, strong root systems and biodiversity, regenerative practices are credited by many with sequestering carbon in the soil, thereby reducing the risks of global climate change. An emphasis on organic soil amendments encourages composting, which in turn reduces food waste and the production of greenhouse gases from food decomposing in landfills. Healthy soils held in place by healthy plants are less likely to run off in rain or be blown away by wind.

But the ROC label is intended to go further with its three pillars, rewarding farms, and the food businesses to which they sell, not only for soil health and land management, but also for animal welfare and for farmer and worker fairness. The program is overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, described by Rodale as “a nonprofit made up of experts in farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness.”

The first official recipients of the ROC label are expected to be announced early this year, but already 22 enterprises—a mix of farms and businesses—have been participating in a pilot project.

The farms produce a range of products. There is a cluster in California, the nation’s most populous and most agricultural state, which includes Alexandre Family Farm, an “eco-dairy farm” in Crescent City; Apricot Lane Farms, a produce and livestock operation in Moorpark; and Bonterra Organic Vineyards in Hopland. Others are concentrated in the Northeast and include Breathe Deep Farm (grain and livestock) in Claverack, New York; Cedar Circle (produce) in East Thetford, Vermont; and Many Hands Organic Farm (produce) in Barre, Massachusetts.

The companies in the pilot program are all known for their environmental advocacy. They include well-known national brands such as Nature’s Path, Patagonia and Patagonia Provisions, Horizon Dairy, Alter Eco, Dr. Bronner’s and Maple Hill Creamery, along with Dandrea Produce, Grain Place Foods, Guayaki Yerba Mate, HerbPharm, Lotus Foods, Puris, SolSimple and Vega.

The Regenerative Organic Alliance will present an update and findings from the pilot certification program on March 8 at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California. The 2018 Expo West rocked regenerative agriculture with a five-panel cluster on the topic at last year’s expo.

FamilyFarmed’s Good Food EXPO, marking its 15th anniversary in Chicago March 22 and 23, will for the second consecutive year feature a panel on regenerative agriculture. Erin Meyer, whose Basil’s Harvest good food consulting firm is a partner in the ReGenerate Illinois organization, will be a member of the panel.

A former executive director of Illinois’ Spence Farm Foundation, which advocates sustainable practices and encourages young people to farm, Meyer provided this succinct definition of sustainable agriculture for those less familiar with the concept: Regenerative agriculture is farming that improves soil health, promotes diversity, builds a foundation for nutrient-dense food, and has a positive impact on climate change.”

Also participating in the Good Food EXPO, as an exhibitor, is Harold Wilken, who owns Janie’s Farm in Danforth, Illinois, and The Mill at Janie’s Farm in nearby Ashkum. Formerly a conventional grain farmer, Wilken was in the vanguard of local organic grain production when he started transitioning in 2005. His mission, to regenerate life and health in soils mined by conventional practices, has not altered since.

To Wilken, the capacity of organic/regenerative practices to restore soil health never gets old. “One of the biggest benefits of going organic is seeing the change in the land,” Wilken said. “We end up transitioning some new land every year for new landowners, and it still never ceases to amaze me how we take the land from kind of a barren soil with no life in it and make it into organic. We do that with cover crops and shallow tillage, and it works.”

So to paraphrase a popular slogan, if you eat Good Food, thank an organic and regenerative farmer—like Harold Wilken and those participating in the Regenerative Organic Certified program.

FamilyFarmed and its Good Food Accelerator is proud to partner with New Hope Network on this series of articles that unpack the dynamics driving good food. Each month, this series features portraits of the national Good Food landscape and individual industry sectors, and backs those insights up with facts provided through our partnership with SPINS. A panel titled Working Together Toward a Good Food Future: Presented by Esca Bona—featuring FamilyFarmed CEO Jim Slama; SPINS President of Client Growth Solutions Anubhav Goel; and Carlotta Mast, New Hope Network’s Senior Vice President of Content and Insights—will take place at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, on Friday, March 8.

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