June 12, 2024

Support extended for regenerative ag program

Emily Heaton (right), I-Regen director and University of Illinois crop sciences professor, notes the early successes of Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative as the program takes the next step with new funding commitments. Details of the funding extension and new I-Regen brand were announced Nov. 7 at an IRAI public convening at U of I’s Energy Farm.

URBANA, Ill. — An initiative focusing on regenerating health and wealth within communities and region has taken the next step in its commitment.

The Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative has successfully completed its first three years and transformed to the new name — I-Regen — moving forward at the University of Illinois. The announcement was made Nov. 7 at an IRAI public convening at U of I’s Energy Farm.

The initiative was renewed and renamed with funding by the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund and reflects its ongoing commitment to the future of agriculture in the Midwest.

I-Regen encourages diversified value chains that balance the health and wealth of Midwest agricultural systems, creating a resilient bio-economy that combats climate change, enhances soil and water quality, supports communities and ensures food security.

I-Regen is a partnership between the U of I Department of Crop Sciences, the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, U of I Extension and the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment.

“I-Regen started initially with a three-year grant from a group of foundations in Illinois to the University of Illinois,” said Emily Heaton, I-Regen director and U of I crop sciences professor.

“It was really aimed at helping the university show up for farmers around the topic of regenerative ag, and what’s the science, what are the connections, how do we understand the opportunity that regenerative ag presents for the people of Illinois, and the science that’s needed to advance it.

“Over the first three years we did a lot of listening, we funded some seed grants and what we discovered is the University of Illinois has always been positioned to advance regenerative agriculture. But the incentives in our agricultural system these days have moved away from regenerative agriculture, and it was time for revisiting what we really want out of these systems.

“In our conversations with stakeholders, as well with the faculty, students and staff on campus, what we realized is that people want to have better and more health and wealth. They want healthier communities that regenerate and retain the wealth in those communities and our small towns, and they want to see a path forward to doing it for themselves.”

Next Step

The next phase is to understand what science and action is needed to increase the health and wealth of the “I” states.

“We decided we were going to take the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative and remobilize as I-Regen. That really reflects that the ‘I’ states are doing this together,” Heaton said.

“Illinois, Iowa and Indiana are all doing the same things, and we’re all using our land-grant universities to advance the science that importantly demonstrates the path forward, and try to reduce the risk of some of these newer practice so that farmers don’t have to take all of that risk themselves.”

Collaborating with Extension and university partners, I-Regen provides a regional approach to research, education and outreach.

“I want to see communities be healthier and wealthier.”

—  Emily Heaton, I-Regen director and University of Illinois crop sciences professor

Through seed grants, community engagement, public convenings and innovative projects like Voices and the Coalition of Regenerative Agriculture, Food and Health, I-Regen is strategically positioned to develop regenerative agriculture partnerships across the “I” states.

In 2020, U of I and a collaborative fund at Fresh Taste began the IRAI. With IRAI’s expansion and name change to I-Regen, Fresh Taste’s continued financial support will now be known as the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund.

“MRAF is committed to advancing regenerative agriculture in the region,” Heaton said. “The strategic alliance of I-Regen and MRAF will enable us to further amplify our impact by mobilizing extension programs, fostering ongoing dialogues and promoting interdisciplinary education.”

“IRAI has been impressively successful in elevating the profile of regenerative agriculture, both at the university and in the constellation of organizations and funders working on food and sustainable agriculture,” said Lenore Beyer, Fresh Taste co-chair and director of Conservation Initiatives at Kinship Foundation, which co-administers Food:Land:Opportunity, funded through the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust.

“Building off of this success to further strengthen ties between on-the-ground organizations, growers and researchers is vital, and this evolution to I-Regen sets Illinois up well to be a leader.”

Heaton and Assistant Director Anya Knecht have steered this endeavor into a robust platform for the growth of regenerative agriculture on a regional scale.

“As the new logo illustrates, we are bringing health and wealth to the I-states,” Knecht said.

Together, the Illinois team stands united in its dedication to drive forward the cause of regenerative agriculture.

“With the support of MRAF and our remarkable team we are excited to propel the regenerative agriculture movement to new heights, enriching our communities and fostering a healthier future for all,” Heaton said.

“I’m excited to build regenerative agriculture partnerships with our ‘I’ states’ neighbors through I-Regen,” said Adam Davis, head of Crop Sciences at the U of I.

“A regional approach to research, education and outreach will help encourage the diversified value chains needed to balance health and wealth in Midwest agricultural systems.”

Filling Funding Gap

Heaton noted the funding gap that can happen between the initial efforts of any initiative and its end goals. These new efforts and financial support fill that gap.

“What we’ve found is universities historically are really good at exploring new ideas, but if no one picks up on that new idea and runs with it, then it doesn’t go anywhere — always thinking, never doing,” Heaton said.

“What we found is that industry really likes an idea to be proven out. They want to see the full risk profile on it. So, what we have is a gap at the pilot or demonstration stage.

“Land-grant universities have the assets that the could demonstration some of these practices. For example, they usually have land assets, their research farms, a lot of times they have physical assets in their buildings or their people that they could really do some demonstrations. But we often don’t have the long-term funding to help us see through a demonstration and importantly make the mistakes, which is what people need to see.

“This funding from this group of foundations called the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund lets us show our work. It will show the mistakes, as well as the successes.”

Student Opportunities

I-Regen will utilize U of I’s farm and classroom assets and open up countless opportunities for its students.

“We’re standing here at the Energy Farm which is a 320-acre farm directly adjacent to the University of Illinois campus, and there are computers around us,” Heaton said.

“Oftentimes, there are students in this room at the Energy Farm who have been out in the field right outside collecting the data and coming back in here and analyzing that data. That’s oftentimes streamed to campus where people are doing analysis on it.

“So, what we’re offering students is now in a state where less than 1% of the state does production agriculture. We’re making it possible for all of our students to be part of the agricultural system and not just doing the labor part of that, but taking the fruits of that labor, the data and learning from it on campus, whether a computer science student or a crop science student.

“Importantly, a big part of this system is our markets and policy, that’s what drives a lot of what we do in agriculture. So, the students who are in health care, for example, or political science or law don’t now necessarily how important agriculture is to the things that they’re studying.

“So, yes, we’re certainly talking to the soil science students and the crop science students, but really we’re also talking to the other 90% of the students on campus and helping them get access to information that’s important to them as people, not just as students.”

Status Quo

Heaton’s family farm is near Monticello, and she earned her bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in crop sciences at the U of I.

“I’m from here and I don’t want to maintain the status quo. This is not something I want to sustain. I want to see communities be healthier and wealthier,” she said.

“I think we can do better. I know we can do better, and we have some missed opportunities in the way we’re doing things now.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor