By DEE-ANN DURBIN and TERESA CRAWFORD Associated Press Writers
ATLANTA, Ill. (AP) — This Thanksgiving, your pumpkin pie could have a lower carbon footprint.
On central Illinois farms that supply most of the world’s canned pumpkin, farmers are adopting regenerative techniques designed to reduce emissions, attract natural pollinators like bees and butterflies, and improve soil health.
The effort is supported by Libby’s, the 150-year-old canning company that processes 120,000 tons of pumpkins each year, or about 85% of the world’s total canned pumpkins, from these Illinois fields.
Libby’s parent, Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, is one of a growing number of large food companies supporting the transition to regenerative agriculture in the US, with the goal of allowing the soil to thrive by reducing plowing and keep 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 indigenous 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 certifications, and goes beyond sustainable farming by seeking to improve the land rather than just preserve it, said Rachelle Malin, environmental specialist at Nestlé.
“We’re learning more and we really want to go further,” Malin said as she stood near rows of green vines and yellowing pumpkins on a recent September morning. “How can we rebuild some things that we 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 of transitioning 7 million acres of farmland to regenerative agriculture by 2030. And Walmart has said it will directly support 30,000 farmers in the Midwest as they transition to regenerative agriculture to 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 result from climate change and know they must act. The agricultural sector is responsible for 11% of US greenhouse gas emissions, 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 United States Department of Agriculture is also supporting the transition. In mid-September, the agency announced it would invest up to $2.8 billion in 70 projects across the US that will measure and verify the greenhouse gas benefits of regenerative agriculture.
The USDA said a growing body of research shows 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 on farms that had practiced regenerative methods for at least five years contained twice as much carbon as the soil on neighboring conventional farms, and the food grown on them they were 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 start-up costs before they start to see a payoff.
No one keeps track of the number of American farms using regenerative agriculture techniques. Like organic farming, which accounts for less than 1% of US farmland, regenerative acres still far outnumber conventional.
Libby’s began its regenerative agriculture program in 2021 with all 38 Illinois farms growing their pumpkins on 6,000 acres. The program is part of an effort to meet 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 now works with scientists from Nestlé and EcoPractices, an environmental consulting firm, to analyze his soil and test new methods.
Sahs used to plow his 200 acres of pumpkin fields, rake them with a till, apply chemicals, plow them again and then plant them. Now, he works the land just 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’re not doing as many trips with the tractors and equipment and diesel fuel,” he said.
Sahs has let some swaths of land on his property go natural, with wildflowers and milkweed to attract pollinators and absorb runoff water from his fields. Nestlé brings in beehives to help pollinate your plants during the growing season so you can rely less on synthetic fertilizers.
Nestlé estimates that Sahs saved 119 tons of soil from erosion in 2021. Its yields were lower than in previous years (it won’t say how much less), but it said it still makes a good profit, in part because its fuel and fertilizer costs are low. . lower.
“Everyone is getting into the environmental act, and you just have to change,” Sahs said. “If you can’t change, then you won’t be here for 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 percent lower on regenerative farms than conventional farms, but profits were 78% higher due to reduced tillage, lower fertilizer and pesticide use, 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 is confident that regenerative practices will lead to better environmental and financial results for its farmers over time.
“The benefit we see is the impact we can have on the environment and the communities where these farmers live,” said Emily Johannes, senior manager of sustainable sourcing at Nestlé. “It comes back in many ways.”
Durbin reported from Detroit.
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