The mainstream agricultural methods used today were born out of necessity, namely to feed a growing population. However, decades of planting mono crops like corn and wheat, combined with soil disruption from constant tilling and the use of chemicals, have degraded soil health, polluted the water and air, and created a sizeable carbon footprint that creates about 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Regenerative agriculture is one promising solution. It’s not a new concept though, having been around for hundreds of years. But public conversations about climate change and growing consumer demand for knowing where food comes from and how it’s made are energizing the movement.
“At this point, everybody has been affected by climate change in some way, shape or form,” said Evan Harrison, CEO of Kiss the Ground, a non-profit organization that seeks to increase awareness about regenerative agriculture. “Everybody’s either been directly affected with wellness issues due to chemicals coming through the foods we consume, or knows somebody who has, and the vast majority of the population has either dealt with drought and/or flood. When you trace these issues and look at what we need to do as a human race to reverse the damage that’s been done, soil health and regenerative practices really come top of mind.”
According to Datassential Research, while only 20% of consumers say they’ve heard the term “regenerative agriculture,” 70% agree the food they eat should be grown on farms that use sustainable practices.
Regenerative agriculture takes sustainability a step further. Whereas sustainability measures are designed to stop the depletion of natural resources, regenerative agriculture takes a holistic approach that simultaneously incorporates techniques that restore crop and soil biodiversity, removes carbon from the atmosphere and sequesters it to the soil, improves water quality, and makes agriculture as a whole more sustainable.
Retail bakers are well-poised to keep the regenerative agriculture momentum going with downstream contributions in the form of consumer education and product innovation.
Kansas City, KS-based Farm to Market Bread Co., which serves both retail and wholesale customers, recently partnered with New Cambria, KS-based Farmer Direct Foods, a flour supplier that sources grain from its own network of regenerative farms, to use its hard red winter wheat, hard white wheat and stone-ground rye flours.
“We always had the dream of being able to have a farm grow just our wheat,” said John Friend, CEO of Farm to Market. “Over the years, we’ve come to realize that’s not entirely possible. Farmer Direct has given us that ability to start to have that direct connection. One of the things that drew us to Farmer Direct flour was to be able to fulfill that long-term goal of being able to know where our wheat comes from.”
The bakery’s retail side produces branded breads that sell fresh to grocery stores seven days a week.
“I think those customers are going to be really happy to start learning about where their flour is coming from and that it’s going to have a more positive impact on the environment,” Friend added. “Being able to be more conscious about where our wheat is coming from as far as having a positive impact on the environment is just an added plus.”
The potential of being able to use locally sourced flour is what initially drew Manhattan, KS-based Radina’s Bakehouse to Farmer Direct Foods. The fact that the flour is milled from grain grown on regenerative farmland was an added benefit. The bakery uses the miller’s whole grain white wheat and whole grain rye flour.
“It is the philosophy of the owner of Radina’s, Wade Radina, to source as many ingredients as we can locally,” said Santiago Bonilla, bakery production manager. “There’s a new wave of regenerative agriculture coming in, and we want to join that conversation. Our goal is to educate our customers so that regenerative agriculture can be scaled.”
The local grain movement, an extension of regenerative agriculture, is a movement New Haven, CT-based Atticus Bakery and its sister business Chabaso Baking Co. have been interested in and involved with for quite some time. Atticus, a bakery cafe, gives Chabaso an opportunity to explore using some of these local grains.
“Before the pandemic, we shifted all of the flour and grains that Atticus sources in its breads and pastries to be only New England-grown from small-scale growers and millers,” said Reed Immer, director of sales and marketing for Chabaso. “But at Chabaso, we’ve realized that we can’t make a product with 100 percent locally sourced, regenerative practice grains because it goes way past the price point we need to be competitive in a mainstream grocer.”
Instead, the Chabaso team shares its learnings from baking with local grains at Atticus with its customers.
“It’s almost been like a bread lab for Chabaso in terms of being able to test items in a more intimate, smaller environment,” Immer said of the work at Atticus. “We tell our customers, ‘This is what’s working in the micro bakery, super premium world, and we think there’s some trends that can flow over into your more mainstream grocers or food service operators.”
When it comes to advancing the regenerative agriculture movement, retail bakers can lead the way.
“We just need to get the word out that regeneration is a solution to the climate, wellness and water issues,” Harrison said. “The way that will happen is with like-minded companies that say, ‘We want to give our consumers an opportunity to make a decision to support regeneratively sourced products.’”