By Josie Watson, joint JD and Masters of Environmental Management student at Vermont Law School and Yale School of the Environment
COVID-19 has reminded us, perhaps as never before, that we need an overhaul, not only of our health care system, but our food system as well.  As a steady stream of studies and articles point out, a priority of future] food system policy should be to support the emergence of local and regional, diversified, healthy food and farming systems, derived from fertile, carbon-rich soils.
Over the course of 2019, I helped to coordinate a network of food system stakeholders in the Northeast, as a researcher at the Tufts Global Development and Environment Institute. This network, now called the Northeast Healthy Soil Network (NEHSN), held a symposium in late February, right before the coronavirus pandemic put an end to most public gatherings in the US. This growing network of Northeast farmers, farm organizations, food system nonprofits, agricultural research labs and state governments has come together to discuss how we can channel badly needed funds and resources to regenerative farmers in the Northeast region who are promoting biodiversity, holistic livestock management, and other healthy soil management practices on their farms.
The agricultural policy strategies proposed by NEHSN members parallel those of many other farmers across the nation’s various regions. They are aimed at agricultural subsidy reform, proposing that our food system should incentivize not a small handful of specific crops, but rather the production of a wider variety of foods and crops, which would not only feed greater numbers of Americans with affordable, nutritious food, but also engender healthy ecosystem services such as soil erosion prevention, water conservation, watershed cleanup, and biodiversity. An incentive payment system for healthy soil farm management could become the first government-backed fund stream for this healthier system of farming.
Building Bioregional, Healthy Soil Food-Sheds
As you may already be aware, current United States agricultural policy tends to subsidize chemical and energy-intensive destructive farming practices with the goal of producing large amounts of cheap food and commodities, much of which are exported. This degenerative business as usual sets up major obstacles for farms promoting soil health and the development of a strong and vital food-shed in the Northeast. At the 2020 Northeast Healthy Soil Network symposium, participants agreed that a transition towards a bioregional alternative food system would require both an influx of taxpayer dollars and a soil-friendly, climate-friendly private investment strategy. We detailed numerous pathways forward, and importantly, the stakeholders ready and willing to get to work on stewarding them, in our conference notes.
The Art of Consortium work: Operating Manual for the Post-Pandemic Bioregional Food Systems We All Want
At the NEHSN symposia, we learned by looking around at all the food system stakeholders in the room with us that we already have all the team members we need to reform agriculture in the Northeast, but they are not yet organized into a team. Every member of the Northeast Healthy Soil Network is working hard to develop the final three, interdependent factors of bioregional food system emergence:
- Bioregional markets; food distribution networks to supportive consumer bases
- Accessible food processing for smaller-scale, diversified farms
- Government & public interest in investing in ecosystem service farming
What does it take to organize siloed stakeholders into one effective consortium? NEHSN believes that working at the regional level is the way to do so, and both public entities, like a Governor’s office, state Department of Agriculture, and private entities like Foundations and Philanthropic equity funds have the power to make them happen. Let’s take a look at some examples from the Northeast.
We have a pool of regenerative and transition to regenerative farmers, conscious consumers and food retailers to make bioregional foods more accessible, but we are lacking the public and private funds and infrastructure to move forward. The greatest obstacle to healthy, regenerative farming in the Northeast is lack of funds for innovative farmers and inadequate infrastructure, including poorly structured transportation and processing facilities, making regenerative foods relatively more expensive than industrially farmed food.
However, the onset of COVID-19 has been a powerful stimulus to the emergence of bioregional food supply chains, boosting consumer demand for healthier natural and organic foods and stimulating a sharp increase in home-cooked meals. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) buying club memberships in Maine skyrocketed as soon as COVID escalated, as communities, shaken by disrupted grocery store supply chains, and worried about their health, sought local, reliable, direct sources of the food they needed. Demand for strong local farming communities surged. Stonewall farm, a small holistic management dairy farm in Keene, New Hampshire, saw sales from their farm store increase by 30%, and started bringing in products from surrounding farms to secure their supply and ensure their community got what they needed.
The NEHSN conversations have revealed many market-building stakeholders who can be brought together to support the emergence of our highly-demanded bioregional food system, including but not limited to:
- CSA Markets
- The Northeast Organic Farmers Association “Find Local Food” pages and farmers market maps – not just for organic producers!
- The Real Organic Project farm network
- COOP networks – Hanover Coop, Green Mountain Coop, we need to scale out coops and help more Northeasterners shop at them for the same price as conventional grocery stores chains
- The Carrot Project
- Farm to Institution
- Essential Farmers
- Croatan Institute Soil Wealth Report
- The American Farmland Trust (AFT) New England Farms Under Threat Report team
- The Food Solutions New England Food Vision Report
- The Regenerative Food Network
Groups like the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund have begun drafting strategic plans to strengthen markets for local food, like the 2020 Food System Plan. A bioregional convening strategy that coordinates these groups focused on market expansion could connect a highly resilient, expansive network of healthy soil growers, drawing from both urban and rural operations, to markets that are receptive to their supply. The economies of scale generated by this coordination could be a step towards even making local and regenerative food and crops more affordable.
Thus far, AFT and Food Solutions have partnered to fund conferences of stakeholders in New England on this topic, and the VT Sustainable Jobs Fund can be found at these conferences presenting fantastic strategies to stakeholders in the room who are capable of executing them. NEHSN believes that Governors offices and members of state Departments of Agriculture from across the region must attend these conferences, treat them as officially as their own strategy meetings, and bring resources to the table that incentivize the gathering to precipitate into a working-group that can actively collaborate with the government from that point on. The question at the forefront of all our minds is, why are our state governments, those with whom we entrust the greatest authority to plan and build our local food access systems, held back from our region’s most knowledgeable food system planners? Where is the protocol for collaborative, stakeholder-consortium-led reform, which a Green New Deal will not only benefit from, but depend on to be successful?
Accessible food processing for smaller-scale, diversified farms
Food systems are complex webs that extend beyond farmers and customers. A bioregional “watershed” of healthy soil farming, interconnected food processing, distribution networks and accessible markets must be supported in the Northeast to connect healthy soil farms and the customers they are dependent on. Enter the Regenerative Food Network (RFN), a breakthrough collaboration between Jesse MacDougall of the Savory Hub farm Studio Hill, VT, and a family office private equity manager passionate about supporting his regional food system. Throughout the course of 2019, the RFN has invested in the missing link of regenerative, local food systems – a Northeast Bioregional food system processing infrastructure network. They did so without knowing how much in demand their infrastructure network would be as soon as the pandemic hit. Farms hit by pandemic-induced skyrocketing demand and are in need of the processing facilities they are currently constructing.
Building out needed bioregional food system infrastructure has entailed purchasing processing facilities across Vermont, New York and Maine, getting them up and running and establishing systems of connecting them to both the supply side of regional farms, and the demand side of market options for the products they aim to process. The RFN seeks to work through these facilities to give farmers, large and small, throughout the region access to food processing for their animal and prepared food products, and simultaneously create a distribution system to market hub networks in nearby cities. It is an ambitious plan, that already has found investors. Because the system is investing in electric grid-powered operating facilities and even electric truck distribution systems, clean energy investors are showing strong interest as well.
The positive impact of the regenerative farmer network as it emerges will be monitored by the Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) system developed by the Savory Institute, which has a hub at Studio Hill and Stonewall Farm in Keene, New Hampshire. The defining success point of this infrastructure, innovated and integrated into the business plan by a farmer himself (Jesse MacDougall), is that the slaughterhouse and processing facilities will pay farmers a fair price for their products, and help them distribute it – eliminating the financial disadvantage of a farmer having to pay for product processing, then turn around and pay again for the distribution of their products to markets. Jesse and RFN the hope that this will be a bold step towards decentralizing the food system, creating a farming environment in which growing and distributing products to local markets is not only possible, but affordable and competitive with industrial agriculture products. This system will help many more farmers in our region gain access to markets they haven’t yet had the capacity to reach. It will create accessibility, and through bioregional economies of scale, perhaps even more affordability on the consumer side for beautifully farmed products in the Northeast. Or at least, that’s the vision, and that vision, in the midst of food shortages and mass supply chain uncertainty, is being called heartily for by consumers across the country.
Government & public interest in investing in ecosystem service farming
For decades, family farms across the country, many in the Northeast, have been disadvantaged by conventional federal policy that has prioritized industrial agriculture, processed foods, and food commodities that are dependent upon expensive seeds and crops inputs, including heavy fertilizer and chemical usage. Naturally, these farmers are both excited and apprehensive to observe new forces pushing state governments to acknowledge and support healthy soil management in innovative ways, without relying on turning the titanic Farm Bill back towards parity.
States that either have made strong climate change reversal commitments, so are interested in soil carbon sequestration, or struggle with watershed nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are most likely to have set up task forces to explore the benefits of healthy soil management incentive strategies. Many states are tuning into the ecosystem service movement and the potential of designing “Healthy Soil Policy,”  incentive schemes around ecosystem service generation for public good & environmental health:
- Maine’s Natural Climate Solutions Assessment has led to multiple roundtables on healthy soil agriculture reform. Once the benefits of holistic forestry and farm management are quantified, the state can determine which fund streams to move to incentivize them.
- New York State’s climate action planning has been allocated $33 billion and includes a Carbon Farming Grant Program, which is working to direct funding from the state’s Climate Action Plan to farmers promoting ecological resilience with healthy soil agriculture
- The development of a Massachusetts Healthy Soils Action Plan was initiated in the same year by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) and the Commission for Conservation of Soil, Water, & Related Resources.
- Due to the impact of industrial dairy farming on watersheds into the Lake Champlain basin, Vermont has become a hotbed of healthy soil management activity, including:
- A USDA NRCS Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) grant establishing a research station at the University of Vermont designed specifically to study diversified food systems and the small farms that contribute to those systems.
- A Payment for Ecosystem Services working group launched by the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) to investigate pathways to incentivizing healthy soil agriculture to reduce watershed pollution and beyond. New Hampshire has become very interested in similar soil health-focused programming.
Incentivizing Ecosystem & Social Services of Healthy Soil Farming, not Crops
Soil carbon payment schemes, like those currently being engineered by Nori, General Mills, and Indigo Agriculture could be very useful for supporting large existing farming and ranching operations in their attempts to farm more regeneratively. However, to catalyze the diverse funding streams we need to build comprehensive bioregional food systems, we cannot ask for incentive systems focused on carbon alone. We need to start accounting for and incentivizing the changes in our land and health that we want to see.
We will need to bio-regioanlly coordinate the measurement of ecosystem services, such as soil health, water quality, and biodiversity to ensure that our surrounding ecosystems thrive into the future, but let’s not forget to measure social services as well, such as community nourishment levels, which can be tracked by monitoring rates of diet-related diseases and surveys asking about individual access to foods of preference. We don’t want to pay farmers for soil carbon alone – doing so could create a window for large corporate and industrial farming actors to further entrench their own models of paying farmers solely to farm wheat, soy, or other commodities, with an added bonus for using cover crops.
Rather, we need to start measuring what we value as a society: diverse, healthy food, nutrient density, and ecosystem health. The OpenTEAM agricultural data platform, a collaboration between Wolfe’s Neck Center and Stonyfield,  is working to aggregate and process soil health data that can measure and track the impact of healthy soil farming ecosystem services, and in the case of nutritional density, the social benefits these practices provide as well. This data can be used to evaluate multiple ecosystem services, and implement corresponding incentive payment strategies.
Once OpenTEAM, their partners, and other farm data management groups across the country organize, they will compile undeniable evidence for the ecosystem services generation by farms that holistically manage soil. This insight into the wide range of unacknowledged and undervalued work that regenerative farms do for their states and communities will hopefully spark all the remaining investment that is needed to establish farm parity for all, and security for our local food systems. Then work must be done to ensure this investment is channeled equitably to the diverse groups of people already struggling to support bioregional food economies.
Existing Consortiums of stakeholders empowering bioregional emergence
We have all the resources we need for this gradual farming revolution. The nonprofit Farmer’s Footprint is taking action to consolidate such resources about regenerative agriculture reform from across the country. As NEHSN demonstrates, we in the Northeast have the motivated stakeholders that we need to help this bioregional food system emerge. Meanwhile similar networks are emerging in every U.S. region, preparing for the time when government and social movements align to invest in the food system that we all need.
It is important for every group not only to ask what they can do to build their bioregional food systems, but also, who they can partner with to do it! Some missions that would require serious teambuilding and partnership strategizing arose during our symposium. One example is below and the rest can be found in our notes.
- Mission: To expand from incentivizing healthy soil management for water quality, to all the ecosystem services generated by healthy soils, all soil health data that has been collected by universities, labs and farmers could be pooled together to tell this new story of holistic farm health and its impacts. Servicing a database to demonstrate robust links between specific soil health indicators and various ecosystem services will help create verified datasets through which outcomes can be connected to policies.
- Team: NOFA datasets, laboratory and university research, American Farmland Trust best management practice database can all be harmonized by OpenTEAM, a newly developing project out of Wolfe’s Neck Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
To see a sample teambuilding grid of healthy soil agriculture stakeholders in the Northeast, that can be referred to while building the bioregional food system, click here.
For information about Healthy Soil activity in your state, contact Josie and or state soil health policy specialist Steven Keleti.
Josie Watson lives and loves the local food system in the Upper Valley of Vermont. She has been a soil health and regenerative agriculture researcher for 3 years, having held positions at the Food and Agriculture Organization Global Soil Partnership (GSP) and the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, where she helped launch the Northeast Healthy Soil Network. She is currently a joint JD and Masters candidate at Vermont Law School and Yale School of the Environment, and researcher for the Regeneration Fund at ICV, a regenerative finance group.
 The coronavirus crisis demonsates what is wrong with how the world feeds itself.”
Information about the Network and its most recent symposium can be found here https://sites.tufts.edu/gdae/conferences-panels-and-events/
 Many policy options are already in progress, being tracked by the Soil Health Institute https://soilhealthinstitute.org/resources/catalog/
 Elaborated on in American Farmland Trust New England Report: Farms Under Threat
 CSAs Building Markets: Here’s why CSAs are thriving during the pandemic https://thecounter.org/csa-sales-struggling-before-coronavirus-covid-19/?utm_source=The+Counter+Subscribers&utm_campaign=e9b999ab10-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_04_16_05_32_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_75a28a0eaf-e9b999ab10-511585153
See: Food, Farms, Fisheries and Forests: Diet, Climate, Conservation, and a Healthy Future for New England https://farmland.org/food-farms-fisheries-and-forests-conference/
 Read Elizabeth Henderson, long-time leader of NOFA New York, for more https://thepryingmantis.wordpress.com/2019/07/27/root-solutions-to-crisis-for-family-scale-farms/
 See Maine Climate Table. The US State Soil Health Policy Map is a crowd-sourced policy tracker designed to support the growth of healthy soil and related policies by sharing frameworks and lessons learned.
 VESP page
 See Farms Can’t Save the Planet for more on this https://newrepublic.com/article/158833/agribusiness-farms-microsoft-mcdonalds-carbon-climate-change
 From larger groups like AFT, FSNE, to smaller ranging groups like the NOFAs, NESAWG, Soul Fire Farm and beyond
 The VT Sustainable Jobs Fund’s recent report: An Economic Development Plan for the Stabilization, Diversification and Revitalization of Agriculture in Vermont, draws attention to technical, transactional, and co-warehousing/fulfillment options that could enable our 600 farms to expand their direct-to-consumer service options. These marketing systems are indeed the missing piece between, not only local, healthier food supply, but also this wide, socially and environmentally intersectional spread of benefits provided by soil ecosystem services.
 Article about CSA networks in Copenhagen