Fourth-generation Kansas dairy farmer Ken McCarty is all in on regenerative agriculture. He’s planted cover crops, reduced tillage, and fosters biodiversity by creating wetlands and planting trees on the land where he grows the crops that feed his animals.
“We’re young and we’ve really staked our future livelihoods on these regions and their resources sustaining us for the next 20, 50, 100 years,” McCarty told Civil Eats. “Taking care of the assets that sustain you simply makes economic sense. And there’s a moral obligation . . . regenerative agriculture is the right thing to do.”
And yet, unlike many of the regenerative farmers who have been in in the spotlight in recent years, McCarty isn’t a small- or medium-scale farmer. His is one of two conventional operations that make up the MVP Dairy partnership, a company that owns a total 26,000 cows, including 13,000 milking cows, holds all its cows in barns, and grows grain—predominantly corn—on approximately 9,500 acres in two states.
Three years ago, MVP Dairy joined a new regenerative dairy program sponsored by Danone North America, the company behind Dannon yogurt and Horizon organic milk. Danone’s program has allowed the farmers to measure the impacts of their practices, further refine them, and publicly talk about improving soil health, a chief goal of regenerative agriculture, said McCarty.
And dairy farms like his may be the future of regenerative ag—a fact that could signal an important transformation to a struggling, often controversial industry.
Danone, General Mills (maker of Yoplait yogurt and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, among other big dairy brands), and yogurt maker Stonyfield have all recently launched soil health programs specifically aimed at dairy producers. The voluntary programs, which offer training, tech support, and financial assistance, are seen as key to transforming dairy farms—a major source of emissions—into “carbon sinks,” allowing Big Food companies to reduce their carbon footprints and open up new avenues to market their products.
And they’re coming at a time when many dairy operations are struggling, milk consumption continues to decrease, and the market share for plant-based milks has been on the upswing, leading the dairy industry to focus on other products (cheese and yogurt consumption is up, for instance).
“There’s a moral obligation . . . regenerative agriculture is the right thing to do.”
“Food companies have a tremendous amount of influence on their farmers. So if they are actively promoting these practices, that speaks volumes to the farmers,” said Allen Williams, a co-founder of regenerative agriculture consulting firm Understanding Ag and the Soil Health Academy coach hired by General Mills. “It signals to them that companies are getting serious about regenerative agriculture and maybe the farmers should, too . . . otherwise they won’t want to buy from them. It’s an impetus that can help drive this movement more rapidly.”
But it remains unclear whether regenerative agriculture can actually deliver on its promises of significantly reducing emissions and helping to reverse climate change. And while experts say it’s possible that corporate dairy programs can help accelerate the transition to regenerative production, they also take issue with large confinement-based dairies like McCarty’s entering the fray.
At a time when a number of multinational food corporations are working to control the narrative around concepts like sustainability and agroecology, these dairy companies will also help define how consumers see the term regenerative in the years to come—a vision that includes some sustainable practices but works to ultimately preserve an industrial food system.
“It should be clear and transparent what companies are doing along that [regenerative] spectrum so that it does not mislead people to think that they’re doing more than they are,” said Urvashi Rangan, co-chair at Funders for Regenerative Agriculture (FORA), a national initiative of funders and investors.
Conventional, Organic Dairies Welcomed
Over the past decade, as regenerative agriculture has exploded from a niche movement to a global sustainability trend focused on combating climate change through carbon sequestration, Big Food companies have been jockeying for a place on the stage. Myriad agribusiness giants—from Cargill to PepsiCo and Nestlé—have made public commitments to help finance farmers’ adoption of regenerative practices. The world’s largest retailer Walmart, Bayer, and even fashion brands have also joined in. Locking carbon in farmland is also a key piece of President Biden’s plan to combat the climate crisis, as the administration works to support an agricultural “carbon market.”
Much of the interest and support has focused on crop farmers, but dairy farms may be the new frontier in part because their operations have a sizable carbon footprint.
Agriculture contributes about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and dairy farms are an important source, due to both livestock and crop cultivation. As they digest food, cows constantly belch methane, a greenhouse gas that is nearly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And their manure is a significant source of methane and nitrous oxide—a gas with 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. And the feed crops such as corn, alfalfa, and soy are typically grown using practices that lead to the use of massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, also significant sources of emissions.
The new regenerative dairy programs include a small number of farms for now, though they already encompass thousands of cows and tens of thousands of acres of farmland focused on growing animal feed. Danone, which four years ago became the first to launch such a program, is now supporting the transition to regenerative practices on 80,000 acres managed by 34 dairy farms. Twenty of those farms are conventional dairies that together manage 52,000 acres of land; the rest of the land is managed by 14 organic farms, members of Horizon Organic, the largest supplier of organic milk in North America.
Danone—which buys milk in the U.S. directly from approximately 700 farms, more than 600 of them organic)—considers dairy farmers key to slashing its emissions in half by 2030 and to becoming net zero by 2050. Its brand, Horizon, intends to become the first carbon positive dairy brand by 2025.
“Nearly two-thirds of our corporate footprint is tied to our upstream agriculture sources. So regenerative practices are a critical opportunity for us . . . to reduce our carbon overall,” said Deanna Bratter, Danone’s head of sustainable development.
Stonyfield Organic is also betting on regenerative practices to help it cut emissions by 30 percent by 2030. It launched a pilot program with five dairies in 2020 and has since expanded to include 10 of the milk producers it works with in the Northeast. The pilot includes more than 5,000 acres—mostly pasture and hay land. Though Stonyfield has not adopted a specific definition of regenerative agriculture and says its program is focused on managing climate change and going beyond the federal organic standards, the company is helping dairies improve soil health and other ecosystem services.
“We’re hoping to get climate benefits and increased carbon sequestration,” said Britt Lundgren, director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield. And she said that dairy farmers also get soil that is more resilient in the face of flooding and drought, higher yields, and they end up spending less on inputs like fertilizers. “Regenerative agriculture can potentially impact their bottom line,” added Lundgren.
Also small in number for now, the new regenerative dairy programs encompass thousands of cows and tens of thousands of acres of land growing animal feed.
General Mills, which buys its milk from dairy suppliers and co-ops, not directly from farms, launched the most recent regenerative pilot program last year with three dairies in Michigan’s Great Lakes region. This year, the company added six more dairies, for a total of 17,000 acres in the pilot. The company already runs two other regenerative pilot programs for oat growers in North Dakota and Canada and wheat growers in Kansas. The company says the three programs are part of its commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030, at which point General Mills hopes to reduce its absolute greenhouse gas emissions across its full value chain by 30 percent (compared to 2020). The company hopes to achieve net zero by 2050.
Although Stonyfield intends to pay dairy operators to take up regenerative practices, Danone and General Mills are offering other forms of support instead. The promise of higher profits and opportunity to get a foot in the door in the regenerative supply chain—for products that will don regenerative labels in the future—also draw farmers in. However, because most farmers don’t see a return on investment for around four years, said Nicholas Camu, vice president of agriculture at Danone, “what we try to do is bridge those four years financially.”
Giving Farmers the Tools to Make the Transition
The three companies’ regenerative dairy programs have different focal points and approaches. Danone’s main focus is on helping farmers assess their practices, providing on-farm support, and unlocking financial resources to cushion the transition. When a dairy farm joins Danone’s program, it undergoes a full farm audit using the Cool Farm Tool, an online greenhouse gas, water, and biodiversity calculator. The assessment offers an accounting of the farm’s CO2 footprint and helps farmers develop action plans by showing how their fields would respond to specific practices. Then, each farmer receives an improvement plan with a list of best practices and a baseline for monitoring progress, including soil carbon, biodiversity, water retention, and animal welfare.
The Danone dairies use a Return on Investment calculator to assess the financial impacts of the regenerative changes each farmer plans to implement. The tool was developed in collaboration with Kansas State University and Sustainable Environmental Consultants and their management platform EcoPractices, a third party that’s working closely with the dairies in the regen program. In addition, the company is helping them connect with new sources of financing to help with the costs associated with changing their practices, including government funding.
In the case of its Horizon dairies, Danone has established a $15 million Farmer Investment Fund that allows farmers who institute regenerative practices to access low or no-cost loans. But it’s unclear how committed Horizon is to its farmers’ regenerative pursuits: At the end of August, the company announced it would terminate contracts with 89 Northeast organic dairies, effective next year. Danone cited “growing transportation and operational challenges in the dairy industry” as the reason for the terminations and told Civil Eats that it had “onboarded more than 50 producers new to Horizon Organic that better fit our manufacturing footprint.” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts told the Associated Press that the company planned to “focus on larger farms in Midwest and West.”
“It’s really important that our farmers don’t feel like the transformation toward regenerative agriculture is a burden,” said Danone’s Bratter. “We’re not just coming with education opportunities, we’re also helping them assess the economic benefits and investments needed. And then we’re working to unlock resources and funding.” Danone has also formed several cross-industry partnerships to advance regenerative agriculture, including One Planet Business for Biodiversity and Farming for Generations.
Stonyfield’s pilot, in its second growing season, is focused on developing the right technology and digital tools to help dairy operators easily integrate regenerative practices and measure outcomes, including improvements to soil health and carbon sequestration. To this end, in 2019 the company helped develop and launch OpenTEAM, a collaborative, open-source agricultural management technology platform for farmers across the world. Its goal is to help farmers enter data, track it, and run agronomics forecasts to improve practices and apply for organic or regenerative certification, incentive programs, or even carbon credit opportunities, said Stonyfield’s Lundgren. And they can regularly measure their own carbon on the farm, without having to send soil samples to the lab.
While farms in Stonyfield’s dairy pilot will conduct core sampling and lab testing—an expensive and cumbersome process—the company is also helping to calibrate two new on-farm sampling tools that give instant readings of carbon content. The tools, Quick Carbon and Yard Stick, are both hand-held spectral analysis drills featuring cameras that “read” the soil’s carbon content based on its color. Several Stonyfield dairy operators will take up to 50 samples per farm this season using the drills, and the company plans to compare their readings with lab samples to see which gives the most accurate results, Lundgren said.
“We’re looking for the tools to make it easier to participate,” she said.
General Mills’ approach includes comprehensive group and individual education and one-on-one coaching/technical assistance over a minimum of three years, coupled with a train-the-trainer program that has the potential to expand regenerative practices on a regional scale, well beyond the company’s supply chain.
The company pays Williams, the consulting trainer from Understanding Ag, to work with the dairies. The idea, said Jay Watson, General Mills’ head of sourcing sustainability and regenerative agriculture, is to first help dairy operators understand how a regenerative system works. This includes teaching the principles of soil and ecosystem health and how to restore natural cycles that are broken in the current agricultural system. Based on this knowledge, dairy operators build a management plan that’s unique to their farms.
“Once the dairy producers embrace a different mindset, that’s when we see a greater propensity to try new things,” said Watson.
Because intense education and coaching are expensive and difficult to scale up, Watson said, General Mills plans to keep the number of dairies it brings into its regen program small. But it plans to pay others, such as nonprofits, conservation groups, and crop advisors to train and support hundreds of other dairy operators in their regions. An early example funded by the company is the Sustain our Great Lakes initiative, which seeks to increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture in the Great Lakes region, improve soil heath and water quality, and enrich fish and wildlife habitat.