The CAFNR Center for Regenerative Agriculture (CRA) recently received the largest grant in University of Missouri history – $25 million to help farmers adopt climate-smart practices that will ultimately help them improve the resiliency of their crops and livestock. In addition, they are also part of a $95 million award as part of the same grant program – Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, funded by the USDA. This second grant is led by Farmers for Soil Health, and Missouri is one of 20 states participating in the program. CRA is providing the cover crop trainings for all 20 states.
It is an exciting time for regenerative agriculture efforts across the country. But for Director Rob Myers and his team at CRA, Kelly Wilson, assistant director, and Bethany Bedeker, cover crop education specialist, it’s all in a day’s work. They’ve been assisting farmers across the country on efforts to preserve soil health and its ability to regenerate through efforts such as cover crops, no-till farming, planting for pollinators and implementation of grazing systems for almost two years now. Their efforts continue to grow – and these new grants will continue to expand their efforts – and their team. Cover crops are a major focus, so far.
Since its establishment in 2021, CRA has trained more than 500 agriculture advisors on cover crop practices, Myers said. This “train the trainer” approach will multiply their efforts.
“Over time, this group will be able to impact tens of thousands of farmers,” he said.
Trainings first were focused in the Midwest, but have expanded nationally. Often a company will ask Myers to provide trainings to their employees; Bayer for example has rolled out a program to get hundreds of thousands of acres enrolled in cover crop practices. In addition, grants from the Walton Family Foundation and the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research have provided funding for these offerings. Finally, CRA is working with Regional Cover Crop Councils across the country on customized training programs. They aim for their work to be focused a third each on Missouri, the Midwest and nationally. Of course, this shifts a little based on funding and projects.
The recent $25-million grant is a “unique one,” Myers said. “Grants are typically inward focused. This one directly engages farmers – up to 3,000 in Missouri.” Participating farmers will receive financial incentives for climate-smart practice adoption, technical support, and training and improved marketing opportunities.
In the last few years “regenerative agriculture” has become an incredibly hot topic – in all aspects of the agricultural chain – even fashion.
“In 2020, regenerative agriculture exploded in the media,” Myers said. “All of these big food and ag companies now have some sort of regenerative agriculture program.”
General Mills was one of the first to announce incentives for their farmers to take up regenerative practices. Companies across food, beverage and even clothing have since announced programs. Regenerative agriculture has a two-fold benefit for corporations – it helps with their carbon goals and is something their consumer base is asking for as part of product development.
But it’s not just corporations who have taken an interest in regenerative farming – the farmers themselves have also embraced it, Myers said.
“There’s a pull from corporations, but also a push from farmers. We’ve always had farmers interested in conservation but many have really latched on to regenerative agriculture,” he said. “We used to just preserve soils so they wouldn’t blow or wash away. Research shows we’ve lost half of our topsoil and half of the organic matter in the soil on average. So now we talk about not just preserving but regenerating the soil.
“It’s more and more of a challenge when we see these extreme weather events. These practices we’re talking about help in the dry and the wet weather.”
Myers grew up on a farm in central Illinois and studied crop and soil science during his undergraduate years at Illinois State University. For his PhD work at University of Minnesota, he focused on conservation tillage. He’s worked in sustainable agriculture for the USDA and still is part of the USDA-NIFA North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) leadership team. Myers has served as an adjunct faculty member since 2001 with the CAFNR Division of Plant Science and Technology.
He started discussing the idea of a similar center with CAFNR leadership a few years back; they hosted farmer and faculty listening sessions to gauge interest and focus. Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) contributed significantly to the planning effort and then stepped up with three years of funding to help launch the center.
“With more than 93% of land in Missouri in private ownership, the strong collaboration between agriculture and conservation is critical to achieving our conservation goals,” said MDC Director Sara Parker Pauley. “We work with a large number of landowners and farmers through our private-lands team and this new partnership provides a valuable opportunity to expand the use of regenerative practices to positively impact the state of Missouri for the long term.”
“Farmers were comfortable; the time was right,” Myers said of the center’s launch. The proposal for the MU Center for Regenerative Agriculture was soon accepted by university leadership, with particular encouragement from Associate Dean Shibu Jose. More than 40 faculty members are listed as collaborators with the center within CAFNR. In addition to Wilson and Bedeker, additional staffing is planned for the near future.
In addition to trainings, general education is another focus for the Center. CRA is producing a number of videos, first featuring farmers sharing why they are using cover crops and other climate-smart agriculture techniques. Additional videos will focus more on the “how-to’s” of implementing these techniques.
“We have such innovative farmers,” Myers said. “It’s a challenge to keep up with them at the University level!”
Other projects on the horizon include creating curriculum for Mizzou students so they have the knowledge surrounding the practices of regenerative agriculture when they graduate. Myers said they are also working to share data and analysis of efforts with policymakers as the next Farm Bill talks begin. Finally, they are working with Ray Massey, extension professor, agricultural and applied economics, and CAFNR alum Alan Weber to create a cover crops decision tool for farmers. Their website is a wealth of information for landowners, researchers and the public, too.
Myers’ hope for future?
“I want to see the land greener more of the year,” he said. “When you fly over the Midwest and see green plants providing living roots in the soil year round, it’s generally a good indication that soil health is being improved.”