Much has been written about regenerative farming (sometimes referred to as “carbon farming”) and its potential to fight climate change (World Bank, 2012) by sequestering carbon in soils. However much of the media and imagery we see on this topic focuses on specialty farms such as produce and orchards. Specialty crops are a tiny portion of farmland overall.
We cannot discuss regenerative agriculture and soil carbon sequestration without considering broadacre farms (or field crops), the huge fields we see in the Midwest.
Broadacre is completely different from specialty farming- and as of now, carbon farming is very difficult to scale on broadacre farms. Even worse, current adoption of regenerative techniques has relied heavily upon chemical herbicides like glyphosate (Roundup). If we want to turn the world’s farmland into a giant carbon sink - without chemicals - we have to solve this problem.
Different Crops, Different Farms
When we think of farming, many of us think of the crops we see in the local farmers’ market - heirloom tomatoes, specialty greens, organic fruit. Or we think about the produce section of the grocery store. We have seen some wonderful recent documentaries discussing regenerative farming, such as The Need to Grow and The Biggest Little Farm. Most of the farms we see in popular media, especially when discussing regenerative agriculture, show small community farms that grow produce (fruits, vegetables, etc) - also known as specialty crops.
Here’s the challenge - specialty crops comprise a tiny segment of farmland. To convert farmland into a carbon sink on a large-scale basis, we have to look beyond specialty crops- we must consider broadacre farms (also called “field crops”). Broadacre crops broadly consist of grains such as corn and wheat, oilseed crops such as soy, and textile crops. Broadacre crops are grown on much larger fields, and generally in different parts of the country from specialty crops.
The Big Picture
According to the USDA, there were 664 Million acres of farmland planted in the US as of 2019 - approximately one million square miles, of which approximately 300 Million used for food-related crops, and rest is devoted to livestock grazing. To put things in perspective, if US farmland were a country, it would be the 10th largest country in the world (per Wikipedia, bigger than Algeria, but smaller than Kazakhstan).
Source - USDA Farm Service Agency and Agriculture Marketing Service
Breaking down the food cropland in the US, only 3% of acreage is devoted to specialty crops- and 84% is used for broadacre. So if we want to use our farmland to absorb carbon, we have to figure out how to do it on broadacre farms.
Broadacre vs Specialty Crops: Completely Different Businesses
Broadacre farming is very, very different from specialty crops; while we consider all of them to be farms, when you dive in a little deeper, you see that they are very different activities.
All these factors, combined with several others, mean that broadacre farming is a completely different business than specialty crops. And regenerative methods that work for specialty crops may require a different approach on broadacre.
The Regenerative Broadacre Challenge
Many of the techniques of regenerative farming - weed control without tilling or chemicals, cover cropping, or managed grazing- are labor-intensive. Since specialty farms are labor-intensive to begin with, the incremental labor costs can potentially be offset by cost reductions in fertilizer and other areas. However broadacre farms are simply too large to farm manually. And that’s the challenge- to have a real impact on our food systems and the environment, we need a way to enable farmers to scale regenerative agriculture to broadacre farms.
Greenfield Robotics is focused on enabling regenerative agriculture on broadacre- that’s where we see the biggest opportunities. Our goal is to enable farmers to scale sustainably, with healthy soil and no chemicals. Our first line of robots enable corn and soy farmers to control weeds without tilling and without chemicals. Stay tuned for more information.