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Regenerative agriculture: principles and practices in action

Regenerative agriculture: principles and practices in action

Regenerative agriculture has recently attracted significant attention for its contribution to mitigate climate change. Although many of the practices are not new, they have not so far been adopted at scale. With the right demand pull-through, market access and incentives, there is significant opportunity for crop production to reduce its own environmental footprint, as well as, in the near-term, help offset that of other industries.

 

Regenerative agriculture has recently attracted significant attention for its contribution to mitigate climate change. Although many of the practices are not new, they have not so far been adopted at scale.

 

This paper outlines the four overarching principles that define regenerative agriculture in the context of Westchester’s farmland asset management business. For each principle there are often several practices that can be implemented separately or in concert to achieve a desired outcome. To illustrate how these concepts are carried out at a farm level, practical examples are provided from across Westchester’s farmland portfolio.

1. Protection and enrich soil

Soil may seem static and uniform to those who do not work with it every day. Yet, in nature, soil is dynamic in terms of its structure and biodiversity of organisms and nutrients that support plant life. While not an entirely natural system, the management of agricultural soils should take a holistic approach to preserve and enhance soil quality and structure.

Preserving and improving soil quality requires producers to understand the makeup of the soil(s) they are growing crops on. Mainly, what are the percentages of sand, silt and clay particles comprising the soil, and what is the organic matter content? Soils are a mix of these particles; the coarser (sandier) or finer (clayey) a soil is the more susceptible it is to detrimental effects like erosion from water or compaction from machinery. Knowing a soil’s properties allows producers to make informed decisions such as:

The management of agricultural soils should take a holistic approach to preserve and enhance soil quality and structure.

Practices in action

Soil protection and enrichment in Brazil

In Brazil, the practice of no-till was first adopted in Paraná State in the 1970s and is now widely used throughout the country. It is also the production practice for 100% of Westchester’s portfolio in Brazil. When weather permits following harvest, cover crops are also planted on several farms to build organic matter, improve soil structure and nutrient cycling, and protect against erosion. Cover crops are selected based on the planting window for each region and which crop is planted for the upgrowing season. In the Center-West region, higher temperatures make cover crops like millet, sorghum and brachiaria grass well adapted. In the South, due to lower temperatures, turnips and cool season grasses like wheat, oats and rye are the best options for cover crops following soybean harvest. Some of the system’s benefits include cost savings by using less labor and equipment to till, increased soil moisture, reduced erosion, cooler soil temperatures, and increased nutrient cycling.

Brazil cover crop
Cover crop (right) and early soybeans (left), Brazil

To understand the carbon sequestration potential of these soil management practices, Westchester has partnered with International Conservancy and IMAFLORA to quantify the soil carbon stock at a farm located in the State of Bahia in Brazil. The tenant selected for the research manages approximately 11,000 acres of Westchester land and plants soybeans, cotton and corn for cash crops and a variety of cover crops after harvest. The study monitored the soil carbon levels (in metric tons per hectare) on land under native Cerrado vegetation, no-till and cover crops, and conventional tillage. The results demonstrate how regenerative practices can build healthy soils and sequester carbon. Study sites under no-till and cover crops demonstrated 22% more soil carbon than conventional tillage and contained 95% of the soil carbon stock observed under native vegetation.

2. Preserve air and water resources

Just as soil is essential to crop production, air and water play vital roles in producing high yielding and high quality crops. Therefore, the preservation of these resources is critical to maintaining productive farmland and benefitting the broader environment.

Water management techniques include:

Air quality management techniques:

Practices in action

Portfolio-wide water, air and nutrient management

Across Westchester’s global portfolio of permanent and row crop farmland, there are several water use, air quality and nutrient management cases to highlight:

Ground water recharge CA
Groundwater recharge basin, Tulare County, California

3. Manage pests systematically

Whether it is a plant disease, insect or weed, unwanted organisms often find their way into cropping systems and compete for resources or damage crops. While chemicals like pesticides and herbicides are effective when used properly, they should be one tool in a suite of synthetic and natural options for controlling pests.

Natural options to control pest populations include:

When chemicals are needed to control pests, it is similar to the use of fertilizer in that the right product should be applied in the right place and at the right time. Crop stress from weeds and insects can be monitored remotely through satellite imagery and physically on the ground throughout the growing season to establish crop loss (economic) thresholds that inform producers to spray only when needed. Additionally, sensors can be installed on sprayers that apply herbicide where weeds are detected instead of indiscriminately across the field. To increase the efficacy of chemicals, susceptible life stages of pests should be targeted and the manufacturer’s recommended rate applied. When weeds are sprayed early, they are less likely to survive the herbicide and produce seeds that can increase populations and possibly breed resistance to the chemical. The same is true for insects as certain life stages can decrease efficacy and increase chances of survival and proliferation.

Knowing what pest pressure(s) is taking place in a crop and addressing it with an integrated plan of natural and chemical controls ensures biodiversity is maintained, chemical use is reduced and that it remains effective over time.

While chemicals like pesticides and herbicides are effective when used properly, they should be one tool in a suite of synthetic and natural options for controlling pests.

Practices in action

Inventing a better way to fight a harmful grapevine virus

Grapevine leafroll-associated viruses are responsible for yield loss and quality reductions in wine grape vineyards throughout the world. One way to combat leafroll virus is through aggressive removal of symptomatic plants. This process is highly effective when symptoms are visible, as they are in red grape varietals. Unfortunately, these symptoms are not visible in white varietals, allowing infections to persist and perpetuating virus transmission.

Grafted vines CA
Grafted vines in the greenhouse, California

Westchester’s viticulture team has developed an innovative solution to eliminate this transmission cycle and may ultimately serve as the basis for managing the spread of leafroll viruses industry-wide. A process known as grafting may hold the key to detecting the presence of leafroll virus in white wine grape varietals. Grafting will be used to design “signal vines”. A chardonnay scion will be grafted onto a small section of pinot noir, which will be grafted onto rootstock. Shoots and leaves growing from the small section of the red pinot noir “inter-stock” will exhibit visible symptoms if the vine becomes infected with leafroll virus. Several experiments with this technique are planned for vineyards in Monterey and Santa Barbara County in 2021. The viticulture team anticipates that this experiment will deliver higher yields, grape quality improvements, pesticide reductions and improved farming efficiency.

4. Enhance biodiversity

Modern agriculture is often negatively characterized as a ‘monoculture’, meaning a single crop with uniform genetics covering a large swath of land. When regenerative practices are employed, this portrayal is significantly overturned.

Much of the work to enhance biodiversity was covered in the previous section on pest management because off-target or over-application of chemicals is an important factor determining a farm or region’s level of biodiversity. Yet, there is still more that can be done to preserve biodiversity within and adjacent to cropland.

Practices in action

Flower stripes for pollinator habitat in Poland

Insects in general and bees in particular are essential to the pollination and production of a large number of crops. Habitat loss has led to a loss of wild bee species and an increase in diseases, leading to a decreasing bee population overall. In landscapes dominated by cropland, insects often lack adequate habitat for food and nesting. Flower stripes sown adjacent to crops helps increase the availability of food for pollinating insects, and in turn increases pollination. Since modern row crop farming is considered partly liable for a decreasing bee population, flower stripes demonstrate that modern farming and pollinators can coexist and support each other.

Pollinator habitat Poland
Pollinator habitat planted in an odd-shaped field, Poland

In an effort to enhance crop pollination and preserve bee populations, Westchester and farm tenants arranged to plant flower stripes at a variety of locations on farms in Poland. Westchester provided tenants with appropriate wildflower seed mixes and reimbursed them for the seeding work. The flowers are planted on areas of the farms that would otherwise not be cultivated due to lower quality soil or an awkward field shape. The stripes provide local beekeepers with attractive locations for their hives and serve as habitat for wild bees and other insects, as well as shelter for larger wildlife between large open fields.

Conclusion

As agriculture strives to further minimize its environmental impact, proven best practices guided by regenerative agriculture principles will undoubtedly be implemented across more and more acres.

Westchester will continue to evaluative where regenerative practices can be implemented, and to use data and benchmarking to understand where practices can be enhanced at an asset, regional and portfolio level. Westchester will work with the operators/tenants and the broader market to ensure that the right measures and incentives further promote these practices on the ground.

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Dimitrios N. Stathopoulos
Head of Americas Institutional Advisory Services

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A word on risk As an asset class, agricultural investments are less developed, more illiquid, and less transparent compared to traditional asset classes. Agricultural investments will be subject to risks generally associated with the ownership of real estate-related assets, including changes in economic conditions, environmental risks, the cost of and ability to obtain insurance, and risks related to leasing of properties. Nuveen provides investment advisory solutions through its investment specialists.

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