Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, ex USDA scientist turner farmer, proved the profitability of regenerative grain farms and he is now working on almonds and livestock.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
What is the role of science and scientists in the regenerative agriculture revolution? Why are there so few peer-reviewed papers on regen ag? Why does it seem like advanced regenerative farmers are doing things which are absolutely impossible according to traditional academia?
Host Koen van Seijen has a riveting conversation with agro ecologist, entomologist, farmer and beekeeper, Dr. Jonathan Lundgren. He is the director of the nonprofit Regenerative Agriculture Research Center, the ECDYSIS Foundation, and the CEO of Blue Dasher farm in South Dakota.
Impacts on Soil
Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, initially, did not see himself as a “soil guy” as he studied entomology, which required him to focus on insects. He previously worked at USDA where he realized the impact of his studies on the soil.
“Everything that I was doing was being affected by them and everything that they were doing was being affected by my study group. It became clear that we’re at a phase in agricultural science where these disciplines —specific sorts of questions that the driven agricultural science for so long —are less relevant. Now, we need to figure out where all of our little sub-disciplines fit within the grander system.” – Dr. Jonathan Lundgren
Becoming a Farmer
Dr. Lundgren left the USDA and decided to set up a foundation and become a farmer himself. He discovered that farmers are farming spectacularly in the regenerative sphere, which contradicts scientific journals. Scientists are disconnecting with helping farmers for the longest time.
Dr. Lundgren wondered about the future of food production in regenerative agriculture. He tried to change the system when he was working for the government. There was so much bureaucracy and political clout which made him decide to leave the scientific community and take action.
“These farmers had developed systems that were very successful, but they were thinking about it as a system rather than component research.” – Dr. Jonathan Lundgren
Future of Food Production
The science that will support regenerative agriculture must come from grassroots. He proudly shares how he and his team are revolutionizing science to create an agricultural macro revolution. One of his biggest findings is that these farms have zero need for pesticides.
There are also daily struggles in the farm:
“How to manage vegetation without tillage or agrochemicals. We’re farming our annual crops directly into perennial warm-season grasses, which is, again, one of those rules that we threw out the window. So we’re using two tools that are well adapted to our environment, which are fire and grazing and, of course, vegetation competition.” – Dr. Jonathan Lundgren
Commentary On the Scientific Community
Dr. Lundgren gave a shocking overview on how they define success in the scientific community: just counting how many papers scientists publish in journals. The hope is to have scientists that ask the right questions and will conduct research that will directly benefit farmers, just like what he did during one of his researches.
“I changed the whole focus of our research program. It’s like what we’re doing is wrong. We’re losing what’s special about these farmers and these farmers are the actual leaders, not the scientists.” – Dr. Jonathan Lundgren
To hear more about Dr. Jonathan Lundgren and his amazing work on for regenerative agriculture, download and listen to this episode!
DR. JONATHAN LUNDGREN
Dr. Lundgren is an agroecologist, Director ECDYSIS Foundation, and CEO for Blue Dasher Farm. He received his PhD in Entomology from the University of Illinois in 2004, and was a top scientist with USDA-ARS for 11 years.
Lundgren’s research and education programs focus on assessing the ecological risk of pest management strategies and developing long-term solutions for regenerative food systems.
Lundgren received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering by the White House. Lundgren has served as an advisor for national grant panels and regulatory agencies on pesticide and GM crop risk assessments. Lundgren has written 107 peer-reviewed journal articles, authored the book “Relationships of Natural Enemies and Non-prey Foods”, and has received more than $3.4 million in grants.
Washington Post: Was a USDA scientist muzzled because of his bee research?
Scientific Paper Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
[00:00:00] Koen: What is the role of science and scientists in the regenerative agriculture revolution? And why are there so few peer-reviewed papers on regen ag? Why does it seem like advanced regenerative farmers are doing things which are absolutely impossible, according to traditional academia? In this interview, we dive deep into these topics and what to do about it.
Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered". A podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative food and agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil people, local communities, and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return.
Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land, grow our food and what we eat and it's time that we as investors big and small and consumers start paying much more attention to the dirt slash soil underneath our feet.
In March last year, we launched our [00:01:00] membership community to make it easy for fans to support our work, and so many of you have joined as a member. We've launched different types of benefits: exclusive content, Q&A webinars with former guests, ask-me-anything sessions, plus so much more to come in the future. For more information on the different tiers, benefits, and how to become a member check gumroad.com/investing_regen_ag or find the link below. Thank you.
Today on the podcast we have an agroecologist, entomologist, farmer and beekeeper. He's the director of a nonprofit regenerative agriculture research center the Ecdysis Foundation, cutting edge research for transforming agriculture with regenerative principles and the owner of Blue Dasher farm in South Dakota.
Welcome Dr. Jonathan Lundgen
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:01:42] Hi, how are you?
Koen: [00:01:43] I'm very well and to ask you a personal question: why soil of all the things you could be doing?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:01:50] I never saw myself as a soil guy. In fact, I probably bucked against it for many, many years. I was an entomologist and I was supposed to focus on insects and [00:02:00] insects aren't soil. But it became real clear over time that all the soil scientists down the hallway from me at the USDA - everything that I was doing was being affected by them and everything that they were doing was being affected by, my study group - and it became clear that we're at a phase in agricultural science where these discipline-specific sorts of questions that have driven agricultural science for so long, I think that they're less relevant now. We need to figure out where all of our little sub-disciplines fit within the grander system. So entomology became agroecology. Who would've thunk!
Koen: [00:02:38] And then
you left the USDA and you set up the foundation, you set up a farm. Can you describe a bit the different pieces there and how they interlink?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:02:46] Yeah, so everything that the farmers were doing in this regenerative sphere was really spectacular. I mean and they were doing things that science said couldn't happen.
Koen: [00:02:57] Do you have an example?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:02:58] Yeah. I mean, [00:03:00] growing cover crops in arid regions or in areas with short growing seasons, they were going no till where "Oh no, if you do that, you're going to lose everything!" and they were diversifying their crop rotations, they were integrating animals into these systems. It's like every time we've done this scientific study on this research farm and everything was controlled... and it was like, we totally missed the boat! These farmers had developed systems that were very successful, but they were thinking about it as a system rather than a component research.
So I saw that this is the future of food production, right? So I tried to change the system from within the federal government. I was given an award by president Obama for being one of the top scoentists in the country, thought I had some political cloud out there, hought I could make some changes. Big ships are hard to turn! And so I ended up quitting. I said, you know, this isn't going to come from the government. [00:04:00] This isn't going to come from large universities. This is going to come from the grassroots and it's already happening. And science, to support it, needs to come from the grassroots too. We need to really, yes, we need to rethink our food production systems. Well, we also need to rethink a lot of the associated aspects of society that are accompanying that change in our food system, and science is certainly one of those. That's kind of what we're really interested in focusing on is how we conduct agricultural science from this sort of paradigm-shift perspective, macro-evolutionary scale. That's what we're talking about now, these little micro-evolutionary steps and incremental steps in science. So what we did is we created Ecdysis Foundation, Blue Dasher Farm, we're revolutionizing how science is being done in order to drive a revolution in agriculture.
Koen: [00:04:59] Yeah, there's a [00:05:00] lot to unpack there. You mentioned you believe regen ag is the future of food production. Do you remember, was there one specific moment that you, I don't know, a light bulb moment? Was it over the years? Do you remember when that really clicked?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:05:13] Well, just interacting with farmers and beekeepers. So ranchers, farmers, beekeepers, these guys were doing things that I'd never seen before and that I was taught couldn't be done. They were growing traditional crops, but they didn't have insect pests. And so I said, well, what's your pest management regime? And they said "we don't have one, we don't have pests" and I said "No, no, no, no, that's not supposed to happen. You're your pests are inevitable. You can't get away from these thing". And they said "no, if you design your system right you don't have these problems". And I'm like, okay. Seeing is believing just as much for scientists as it is for farmers, which is a real problem with our current scientific infrastructure because how often does scientists actually go out to the field [00:06:00] anymore?
I went out to their operations, what they said was true. So the guys like Gail Fuller and Gabe Brown and more locally even with farmers that were doing some spectacular things. And for me, that was the turning point. It's like, I can't go back to supporting a broken system like this anymore. I need to use my research and what skills I have for the future, and the future is regenerative ag .
Koen: [00:06:25] And you decided to not only set up a foundation but also a farm. Can you explain a bit the work of the foundation of this macro revolution, and why there's a farm and a foundation, and what's your work, your focus currently in terms of getting the academic world to the regenerative agriculture world, and/or, the other way around.
Yeah, so what we said is one of the central problems is that we're evaluating scientists based on a cluster of metrics that separate us from the people that we're trying to help. Why do we feel success is related to whether or not you [00:07:00] jumped to mid-management level versus being in the cubicle for your whole career? What the hell does that mean? What a pointless thing, right? But it means something to you when you're in that system. And that's the same thing, that's what happened in science. I mean, we were evaluated based on how many scientific publications that you get in the peer -reviewed literature, which is great but if they're impenetrable to normal people that you're trying to help... how many grant dollars you've gotten, you know, how many millions on competitive grants? How many students, graduate students, you've pumped through the puppy mill in order to ... ?
And none of this is helping farmers obviously.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:07:40] On that list of things that we were assessing ourselves by what do farmers care about? None of them, right? None of them. But the only way that you get a job in science is by adhering to that current bureaucracy. And so agricultural science is just in this self-perpetuating rut. We can't get out. [00:08:00] And so the first step in the process is it's like "well, you know what I mean, we've got some scientific credibility, we've worked within that system, we've demonstrated that we know it and are good at it, now I'm going to quit. And I'm going to start something totally different, and hopefully we can make some serious changes". So the first step in that process is that the scientists have to become farmers. We have to walk a mile in their shoes. Cause right now, the scientific questions that we're asking that are supporting a broken agricultural system are, too often they're completely disconnected from the kinds of questions that need to be answered from a practical perspective of farming.
Koen: [00:08:39] So your farm is in South Dakota, can you describe it a bit? What are your farming?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:08:43] So what we did with Blue Dasher is we took the rule book, we looked at it and then we threw it out the window.
Koen: [00:08:49] The traditional rule book.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:08:50] Right. At this point, it's small, but it's got a lot of enterprises stacked on top of each other. And that's what I think [00:09:00] our regenerative farm is supposed to do is have those enterprises integrated vertically. So what do we do? We raise sheep, we raise honey, we raise prairie, we raise wetlands, we raise chickens for meat and egg production - we're looking at other forms of meat production here that we can integrate-in - we have an orchard for perennial fruit production, fruit nut, and then we also have, the annual and perennial field crops that are kind of all integrated in with a native unbroken prarie. Which, if your listeners have never experienced the prarie that used to range across North America, it's a real gem. And there isn't many little pockets like Blue Dasher Farm left anymore, less than 1%.
Koen: [00:09:48] Wow. And then how does it connect to the academic? Because you could have just started - a 'just' between bracket obviously - you could have just started the farm and say, okay, I've seen the experience of many of the farmers, it seems to make a lot of [00:10:00] sense, I put my academic hat on the wall and that's it, I will just become a farmer and step away from the academic world. But you didn't.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:10:07] Right, and there's a lot of A's sometimes I wish I could pick one hat to wear, but I don't.
So the research facility is right here on Blue Dasher Farm. We have a scientific staff that's located here. This is the first in what is becoming a national network of these centers for regenerative agriculture research. So we're looking at expanding into Colorado and California in the next year, maybe Iowa, and just starting to extend our reach.
Koen: [00:10:36] Because that's something that's missing.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:10:38] Yeah. Well, what we would like these to be, as sort of the scientists have to become a part of the agricultural community, again. Not in some ivory tower, but actually a place of learning where people can go and be a part of it, and then we can also be a part of that community where we get to know the farmers in our region and help them directly with their problems.
Koen: [00:10:59] And what are [00:11:00] some of the problems you've been tackling at the farm?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:11:03] How to manage vegetation without tillage or agrochemicals. So we're farming our annual crops directly into perennial warm season grasses. Which is, again, one of those rules that we threw out the window and now we have to figure out: okay, why did we do what we do and how do we make it work? So we're using two tools that are really well adapted to our environment, which are fire and grazing. Then of course, vegetation competition in order to control vegetation. Not eradicate it, which is often the goal of vegetation management, but rather "how do we push it down at key points to allow us to take our revenue-earning crop off of the field?"
Koen: [00:11:45] And you mentioned it was small, the farm, what's the size? What should we imagine as business?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:11:50] 53 acres but half of that is unbroken prairie and wetlands, and we're working with those.
Koen: [00:11:56] As an integrated system.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:11:57] Yeah, right.
Koen: [00:11:58] And in terms of [00:12:00] research, to bring it up, you published a number of papers or you published a paper where we connected over in 2018, if I'm not mistaken. Focused on the profitability of regenerative farms versus non-regenerative farms, which is one of the few studies I know that actually came up - please let me know in the comments if you know of any others - that really connected that profitability, which obviously all investors but also farmers always talk about. Can you describe a bit the background of that study? And then we get into the results.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:12:30] Well, we received a research grant to study cover crops and their effects on insects. It was meant to be an on-farm study. So we went out, we talked with some of these regenerative farmers. I don't know that they knew they were regenerative farmers at the time because that word really wasn't floating around much in the U.S. yet.
Koen: [00:12:49] How did they call themselves? Soil farmers? How did you connect?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:12:52] I don't know, I don't know. I mean, they were, they were no-tillers, cover-croppers, you know, that kind of stuff. But [00:13:00] regen really became a thing and people rallied behind that drum for sure. Anyways, so we said "Okay, well you guys are the leaders we want to learn from you, you guys have an amazing farm in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska" - which is kind of a heart of this transition zone between corn and soybean land, and range lands - and they said "Yeah, yeah, we want to participate". So we said "Okay, great. Well, we're the scientists so we're going to come out there and what you want to do then, if you've got to participate, is you're going to plant this cover crop at this particular time, and you're going to have four replicated plots, and then you're going to leave half of those without them...
Koen: [00:13:41] I would have loved to see their faces...
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:13:43] And they're like "What the hell is this? What are you talking about? We don't use Roundup, we can't use that. What species of cover crop are you talking about? I mean, do you want us to, and when do you want us to sow that? And I'm like "Okay, this is getting, this is a cluster, you know, I mean, this is where this is a total [00:14:00] nightmare. It's falling apart." But what was really falling apart is that those guys were leading this cover crop charge at the time and we were losing what was special about their farm. So that's when I changed the whole focus of our research program. It's like, what we're doing is wrong. We're losing what's special about these farmers and these farmers are the actual leaders, not the scientists.
And so what we've said is we said "Farmer, point us to the corn phase of your rotation, and we'd like to study that." And they said "Okay, that's no trouble". And then we said "Okay, point us to the corn phase of your neighbor who's a conventional farmer who has been successful at that conventional farming". And they said "No problem." And so we went and we studied those and we got a totally different picture of anything that anybody's ever demonstrated within I think the peer-reviewed literature. We got a systems-level study, with best management practices, [00:15:00] that were defined by successful farming operations, as opposed to what scientists have defined as best management practices in a laboratory or on a research farm. And then it's got a regional focus, instead of just one little pocket. So that model of study is kind of a part of this whole idea of how it is that we approach agricultural science where we need to be considering these systems, and how do you define those systems also becomes a real challenge because it's not traditionally done very well. Everything that has to be very controlled. So we're losing the relevance by controlling everything in their scientific questions.
Koen: [00:15:43] And we're going to unpack that piece a bit, but, what were the outcomes, or a few of the outcomes that I would say what, what surprised you the most? I mean, you've seen a lot of things prior to that study and what would be a few of the big surprises coming out of - apart from the fact that you had to change your whole [00:16:00] setup of your study - but it was probably a humbling experience, right?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:16:03] Yeah. The number one: insect pests were 10 times more abundant in the insecticide treated cornfields. That wasn't supposed to happen.
Koen: [00:16:13] Because they were treated. Right.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:16:15] Right. That's why we buy this stuff. It's a good investment, right?
Koen: [00:16:18] 10 times, not even 10% or 10 fold more abundant of insects. Wow
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:16:25] Yeah, I mean, similar numbers in other cropping systems now. It's just like, it's a total fallacy, everything that we learned about integrated pest management, it was doomed to fail from the beginning when it was conceived back in 1959. It was doomed to fail because what it said was what IPM - which is the way that people apply pesticides and things like that - and they said "Here's a broken system that's gonna to have pests, and here's how to manage them better". And what they should have been [00:17:00] asking is "Why are their pests to begin with?". And that's what these farmers did on these regenerative corn fields.
But another thing that was pretty surprising is that the yields were uncorrelated with profit. And this is something that we've been suspecting for quite some time. Farmers don't have a business plan; *laughs* there's no business plan on most farms in the U.S.
Koen: [00:17:24] No, they only talk about yield. I mean, the regenerative guys and girls definitely talk about margins and profits, et cetera, because they're comfortable with that. But it always surprised me, as somebody that doesn't come from farming, like you would never ask the question - I probably said it a million times on this podcast - to a factory. Like what's the maximum you can squeeze out, in terms of bicycles or in terms of phones. No, you would ask what's the optimal in terms of costs, input, output. I mean, you're not going to do a 24 hour shift, is it doesn't make sense. You're not going to input, et cetera. But somehow in farms we only ask what's your yield, that's it.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:17:57] Yeah, it's crazy. And down at the coffee [00:18:00] shop too. I mean, nobody's talking about.
Koen: [00:18:02] Of course. Yeah, that's the one thing we compare, but they weren't correlated. So what's going on there?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:18:09] What my conclusion is, you know, I mean, you could grow 300 bushel corn if you really want to, but it's going to take a lot of input costs. And that's not good farming, right? It's really poor farming, but you still have the best yields in the county, and that's what matters to the farmer. Again, what metrics are we assessing our success by within these different fields?
Koen: [00:18:32] Yeah, it said something like: the regenerative fields - and I would like to touch up on that a bit later - had a 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems? That's again, significant, a lot, et cetera, but at 29% - because I hear some people now saying we're actually approaching like, we're outperforming, approaching, even if you just look at corn et cetera on some regenerative fields, do you see that too? Is this because we [00:19:00] looked at part of the system and not that the holistic. Like does this include the grazing that they might do afterwards as well? How should we look at the 29 and not be scared? Okay. It's almost 30% less. How are we going to feed the world? Which is something we hear all the time.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:19:12] Yeah. I mean, right now, 67% I think something like this of the arable land in North America is devoted to crops we don't eat. So, if you don't want to feed the world, grow food. Looks pretty simple. Number two, you know, I mean, hunger is not correlated to how much corn we're producing. If there's hunger issues around the world it's either a distribution problem or we're producing the wrong kinds of thing.
Koen: [00:19:42] So you're saying to 29% less is not something to be frightened about?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:19:49] Oh no, no. And then the last thing on that is some of the top yielding farms in this study where the regenerative farms.
Koen: [00:19:57] So it's possible. It doesn't have to be, but [00:20:00] that's not their metric of what they're optimizing for, or they should
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:20:03] I think that's true. I mean, they're focusing on the profitability of their operation. But it's also true that we're on the front edge of a movement right now, then there's a lot more variability in the, in yields and production.
Koen: [00:20:17] How many farmers were there in that study?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:20:21] 20 or something like that? I'd have to go back and think about it.
Koen: [00:20:24] But yeah, not 200. And it was one of the first studies, and it's still the only one I've seen at this level, at the system level.You were mentioning some other, you're working on some others. Can you share a bit on that?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:20:38] Yeah so our strategy of Ekdysis is, I mean, we're trying to change the world to regenerative food production, using science as much as we can, and part of our strategy is to find key systems, food systems around the country that can have knock-on benefits or affect agricultural communities.
And so we did the corn [00:21:00] study that you're referring to, we're working in rangelands in the South-Eastern U.S., and rangelands up in the Northern Plains of the U.S. and Canada. We're working on cash grain systems from Manitoba all the way down to Kansas.
Koen: [00:21:14] And how did you pick those? Because they're large acreage, because huge issues? What's the framework to decide?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:21:20] So we look at what are some of the dominant crops that can, either profit-wise or acres-wise, in a particular region. And then the hope is that when we turn that crop that the rest kind of sees that.
Koen: [00:21:36] And when you say region, is that bioregional? Watershed?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:21:40] Eco regions, I guess. We divided the U.S. in a certain number of these eco regions based on climate, based on rainfall, temperature, and then growing conditions more or less, and then markets... but they probably drive a lot of those as well. [00:22:00] Almonds in California would be another example. And that one we're just wrapping up.
Koen: [00:22:04] That would be interesting. And that's coming?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:22:07] Yeah so that one's going to change California agriculture. Fundamentally change it. And agriculture in California, that's one of the biggest agricultural states in the U.S. financially.
Koen: [00:22:19] And probably the world by itself. Yeah.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:22:21] Yeah I bet you're right. Yeah.
Koen: [00:22:22] Yeah, no, it's, I mean, in terms of economy, it's the seventh in the world, if it would be a separate country. So... in terms of agriculture, it would be, I wouldn't know, somewhere around the 10th maybe. And it's yeah, if you drive through California, you see the negative impact mostly of what agriculture has been. Especially if you read the earliest descriptions of how California used to be, or when you to look when the first European settlers came in, what kind of abundance there was. Obviously as a managed system because the landscapes have been managed, but you can see how quickly that has turned into, pretty much a desert.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:22:55] It's a desert now. And water is becoming this really central issue that [00:23:00] only regenerative ag can solve. Right.
Koen: [00:23:02] More pipes. No, no, no. I saw the signs. I was driving through California in October and yeah, you can see the desert and orchard and it's quite depressing honestly.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:23:11] It was a real eye-opener for me. We work a lot on bees, honeybees, and most of the nation's bees during the summertime, they live up by us, right? And then early in the year we ship most of the nation's. its bee's out to California to pollinate tree crops, especially almonds. So anything that I'm doing to try to save the bees up in South Dakota is completely negated when they get hosed down by every agri-chemical under the sun in California.
Koen: [00:23:39] It's a miracle they still come back sort of alive when they come back to you after that.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:23:44] No, they don't actually. No, they don't. That's the problem is that they don't. Sometimes they're dead hives walking. But they're dead. And so it became real clear that we need to start working on agriculture out in California.
Koen: [00:23:58] And you're saying this [00:24:00] study is going to change Californian agriculture? Without giving away too much. How do you see that happening? Why would you say that?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:24:07] It was a very similar study design to what we did in rangelands, and what we did in the corn study, and what we're doing in cash grain system. We just found the most progressive regenerative home and producers - and there wasn't many - but we found them and then we did a sideline comparison with conventional almond producers, right nearby, or even literally right across the path from the regenerative guys. And, the regenerative guys are implementing things like perennial ground covers and plant diversity, they're abandoning all agri-chemical use, they are increasing compost, compost teas, and then they're integrating animals back into their orchards. We found six times higher biodiversity in the regenerative almond orchards.
Koen: [00:24:57] And by biodiversity what do you mean?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:24:58] Primarily insect life, [00:25:00] six times the life. I mean when we talk about the insect apocalypse and the biodiversity losses the planet is facing right now, that's huge! That's money in the bank. Every one of those insects is worth revenue. We don't know how to value it yet, but it is. And it shows in the profitability of the farm system. Soil organic matter is 30% higher, so carbon sequestration was higher in these almond orchards. That's huge when we're talking about incentivizing carbon sequestration models and things like that.
Koen: [00:25:35] Water use probably a lot lower...
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:25:37] Water infiltration rates was six times higher in the regenerative almonds. That will change California ag.
Koen: [00:25:45] Yeah, because now it's like concrete underneath the trees.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:25:48] Not only that, but there's no water to be had, or very little water to be had, especially in certain regions and they're planning on taxing what they have.
Koen: [00:25:57] So whatever comes from the sky you should [00:26:00] hold on it as long as you can, which means infiltration. Go on, go to use because that is key.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:26:09] So at this point, I mean the data, we haven't analyzed everything yet, but it looks like yields are about equivalent in the two systems. Profit was twice as high.
Koen: [00:26:17] Profit twice as high. Flavor? I mean, you must've tried them.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:26:20] We have nutrient density that we're still running and there will also have, yeah, taste comparisons and things like that.
Koen: [00:26:29] What are you using for the nutrient density?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:26:31] So we are thinking about nutrient density a little bit differently. We've thought a lot about this over the last few years - about how to measure this - and we're coming at this from an ecological perspective. So right now everybody's like "Oh, it's density, density, density." It's like, "Density of what? I mean, what are we looking for here?". Because within the ecological sphere we're not interested in density. If you have too much density on one particular nutrient that's called a pest. [00:27:00] Or one particular insect, or something.
Koen: [00:27:02] So you're looking at an overview, or the right composition?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:27:05] So what we're interested is using diversity indices for assessing nutrient diversity and nutrient content of these different foods. And so we're applying similar ecological principles to looking at the relative abundance and the number of different nutrients that are available within these different foods. And then we can generate indices that are based on that. Ultimately, we're going to have to evaluate which of these indices are best correlated with our response variables which is, at the end of the day, human health. Right?
Koen: [00:27:42] And your miocrobiome.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:27:44] Right. Those are 50 year-studies, right?
Koen: [00:27:48] Yeah, what can you absorb. And what's how are you measuring the nutrient availability? And thus also partly density. What are you using currently to figure it out in these almonds?
[00:28:00] Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:28:00] We're using very inexpensive soil analyses or plant nutrients density, or forage quality things that gives us a huge range of micronutrients for very inexpensive. The farmers can do themselves, they are doing it themselves, they're just not using it for this. And then we're taking that information and generating indices that then we can compare with, well, hopefully some things that are meaningful to the customers.
Koen: [00:28:28] And what are some differences you see to the regenerative-grown almonds and the neighbor?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:28:32] We don't know yet. The study is still steaming. It's so hot, it's still steaming. We're still working on it.
Koen: [00:28:39] And just to describe the - because for anybody that didn't have the chance to travel in California - how would you describe a bit visually, obviously, as we are in a podcast, the difference between the neighbour and a regenerative farm. Like how does an orchard look like if you stand and you have that fence that you normally have or a road and you see left and right. What's the visual differences you can see basically the difference [00:29:00] between regen and non?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:29:01] To the right is your conventional almond orchard and it's absolutely sterile. There's dust, it's grown in dust, it's not soil anymore. And the only thing that's growing are Almond trees. The almond trays themselves are probably yielding as much as we think that a conventional orchard can yield based on chemotherapy that's keeping these trees alive. But it's a sterile environment. And then right across the path to your left is a regenerative Almond orchard, and under the ground it feels cool because the plant cover there's 10, 15, 20 species of plants growing underneath it. There's life in that orchard and it feels alive.
Koen: [00:29:45] That's a place you want to be.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:29:46] Yeah, that's right, that's exactly it.
Koen: [00:29:49] Thanks for that. I hope everybody could travel a bit too - especially as we are in a period where we're not allowed to travel at all - to travel to a regenerative versus non regenerative one.
So when is this [00:30:00] study - I mean it's steaming hot - when is it coming out? When is it scheduled to be out?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:30:03] This is work that was done by Tommy Fenster and he's getting his master's degree with this study. He's writing his thesis right now and we'll be submitting those papers for publication and open access journals over the next probably six months or so.
Koen: [00:30:18] Ah, okay so this year we will be able to see the show.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:30:21] My hope is that they'll be 2020 papers. Yeah. We really need to get this out.
Koen: [00:30:26] Yeah. So is this another rabbit hole, probably: what do you see the role of science in Regen Ag, ideally?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:30:34] In a supportive role, scientists need to be students again, we need to learn from the experts and take that knowledge to help to validate what they're doing.
Because right now within regenerative ag it becomes very difficult for investors to think about this because it's all anecdotes, right? It's like "Oh so-and-so, he did great things!" But there's no data behind it. Right? And there's [00:31:00] no instance of... yes, it worked on that particular farm, but is it going to work someplace else? And so science can help with that. And that's what we've been using our science for.
The other way that we're using science to help fuel this revolution is to help provide scientifically proven roadmaps for transition. Because right now there's a lot of early adopters in this, but that's not the majority of farmers and we need to make it as simple and transparent for those farmers to transition their operations towards a regenerative model. So that we can remove some of the risks that's associated with that.
Koen: [00:31:36] And the fear, and the uncertainty... So what would a roadmap look like?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:31:40] So yes, again this is rethinking how we do agricultural science. So our strategy is.... you know what? It's so funny because I've had developed this plan for almonds now, and we're doing this in cash grain systems for General Mills, they're trying to transition their supply chain to a [00:32:00] regenerative one.
Koen: [00:32:00] Yeah, I had Mary Jane on the podcast, I would say a year ago but I'm probably getting the date wrong.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:32:06] Anyways, we're doing some of the science behind the biodiversity assessments for them to help with that. Anyways. So I was just asked to provide what's next for the almonds - like while we're going to do these transition - and so I had to write up what exactly experiments are we doing? And so I'm like "Okay, well, I think we're going to have these treatments, right? We need to have treatments and we're going to do this and we're going to have cover crops here, but maybe we need to only allow certain cover crops, and then maybe we'll have another treatment where they're integrating animals, but I wonder which species..." And I'm like "Holy cow! I just went back in time to the corn study again." And I'm like "What am I doing here?" And so I stopped.
Koen: [00:32:54] Its a reflex.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:32:55] That's what I was trained to do! Control everything. And so [00:33:00] what our strategy is is yes, we can provide some guidelines, but what we're doing is the farmers are going to be transitioning. There's going to be a lot based on this almond study right off the bat. A lot of our control orchards, or some of the control orchards, are already transitioning. So it's like, well, we can't use those guns again.
Koen: [00:33:20] Cause they see the neighbours. I mean, you've just described visually as a place you want to be versus a place of you don't want to be. And then they hear the profitability and I think a lot of them would, logically they would jump on it. Obviously it's not so easy and you're stuck in a system we all created, but you're saying on many are starting to move.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:33:38] And just as a story, we had one of our conventional orchardists come over to the regenerative guy and we were sitting at the table and we showed them the data just on the pests, right? And they looked at the data and he's like: "I don't believe this. I don't believe it. What you're telling me is that I did everything right. I mean, I follow the university's [00:34:00] recommendations. I sprayed five times last year, I sprayed insecticides and I have the same number of pests as my neighbors who didn't spray at all. I don't believe it. I don't believe what you're telling me". But that guy just transitioned, or has just started to transition, 125 acres of almonds over to regenerative this year.
Koen: [00:34:20] That's a lot of insecticides, and a lot of insects that we need.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:34:26] Tens of thousands of dollars per year. That's another position. That's keeping a son on the farm or a daughter on the farm kind of money, you know?
Koen: [00:34:39] Interesting. So what made him - I mean, I'm assuming it's a 'him', that's also interesting but thats for another discussion - what made him, let's say it's him, from "I'm not believing this data", and he could have thrown it out and just ignored it, what made him make that step?
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:34:52] I think it was the, the science. I think it was.
Koen: [00:34:56] So it was a reflex of saying, "I don't believe this".
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:34:58] I think it was. I mean, [00:35:00] initially he's like, I mean, he had to throw everything out that he thought was right. He had been fooled.
Koen: [00:35:06] He had been fooled and lied to for a long time.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:35:10] Yeah. By the scientists, by the industry, by everybody. And I'm not saying that that was an intentional, you know, towards anybody. Well, for some people it probably was.
Koen: [00:35:23] But now we know better or we should know. And that's, I mean, we were discussing internet before we're in a different world compared to 40 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. I mean, I, daily farmers find your study and find your TEDx doc, go online. Find other people, find people even nearby in some cases that threw out the rule book and started from zero.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:35:44] Yeah. Yeah. That's crazy. And that's, I mean, that's where no-strings-attached research also comes into play, and that credibility.
Koen: [00:35:52] Can you describe that a bit for the listeners? Where's your funding coming from? What's the model? Because otherwise, if you [00:36:00] are connected to the old system of academia, et cetera, you have strings attached.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:36:04] Right. So one of the first things that we did is that, you know, all of the studies out of these large institutions are being strongly influenced by where the revenue is coming in from, and the revenue is coming, in from an agricultural sciences, from large seed companies, from large chemical companies. I mean shoot! They even have, you know, the name being right - it's on the buildings for crying out loud. It's like, it's crazy in the U.S. right now. And so we said, anybody on the production side we're not interested in taking their money. So our revenue comes from competitive grants and, it comes from donations, it comes from education. So when we give presentations or workshops or things like that, we ask the farmers pay for their education and then, from farm revenue, so we kind of have to walk the talk. [00:37:00] We've been faced with this issue of large food companies and things like that approaching us because they want...
Koen: [00:37:08] A General Mills, yeah.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:37:09] For example, but others have as well.
Koen: [00:37:11] How do you deal with that? With the potential criticism of "yeah, but you're connecting to these giants" and "don't dance with the devil" et cetera.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:37:20] It's really challenging for us because our integrity and our credibility are paramount. I'll go broke before I sell out. I'm not willing to sacrifice that on a personal level. I mean, I dealt with that at the USDA in a major way.
Koen: [00:37:35] Just for anybody listening, that's a whole different interview we can do. You can definitely Google, you'll find a lot on that, but we're not going to dive into that.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:37:42] Sure. So if I don't have a firm rubric yet. I go by, does the company actually invest in this? Are they committed to this? And if they are, we want to help them in some way. So if [00:38:00] it's a multi-billion dollar food company and they're dumping, you know, $4 million into regenerative ag for their beef production or something like that, BS, right. I'm not buying that.
Koen: [00:38:12] Regenerative washing.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:38:14] That's what it is. But for other companies that want to change their supply chain and they're working with farmers already and have demonstrated interest, to me I feel more comfortable with that. If Monsanto walked in tomorrow and said, "We're really committed to this whole regenerative ag thing" it'd be like "here's the door, here's the door." "We're committed to the soil. " Right...
Koen: [00:38:39] And in terms of - if you can share but just to have an idea - what does this study, like the grain study you did in 2018, what does it cost? Just to have an understanding of the budgets needed to do things like this. Is it a million? Is it 10 million? Is it 200,000? What's more or less the range, if you can give a range obviously.
[00:39:00] Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:39:00] Can we do a study on a shoe string? Yes.
Koen: [00:39:03] But do we want to? No.
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:39:05] We can't. I mean, we're at this scale now. So for the cash grain system, for a three-year project, it's probably going to run 1.5 million for the three year transition study on almonds. And that accompanies an additional validation in the southern range of almond production. That's going to be 1.1 million, that's what we're thinking about.
Koen: [00:39:31] I mean it's a lot of money, for anybody listening I don't have it in my bank account, but compared to any research budgets, it's really a drop in the bucket.
It's a drop in the bucket for the potential
Dr. Jonathan Lundgen: [00:39:42] benefit.
Koen: [00:39:42] And with a huge potential impact!
Oh my God. I mean, look at how much, how many hectors of elements or acres of elements or is there just in California? Oh God, I'd have to look that up. It's the dominant, it's the dominant. The dominant agriculture vineyards are, have [00:40:00] quite a bit of acreage, but almonds trumps fail by one shot, one soybean farmer.
I mean, we did a neonic study that showed that neonicotinoids. That's a insecticidal seed treatment. That's on a lot prop seeds. So basically just for anybody that thinks, what is he talking about? What does that do? In the practice, it doesn't do anything actually. Then that's the problem. How do you use it both to go out there to help control insect pass on your crops?
It's basically, it's like a dip. yeah. It's like a seed coating. Yeah. Anyway, so we did some studies and show it doesn't work. And so I told some farmers that and they were like, So we stopped using neonics this last year. Based on your study, you saved us $10,000 last year in one year, one year. I mean, that's one operation one year, I think.
Yeah. The potential impact of the financial side of things is just [00:41:00] astounding. So all mums, if we can double the profitability of almighty God, the millions, hundreds of millions of dollars. That would come out of that for millions of insects that annually, and maybe some of your bees come back actually alive.
That would be right. Right. Exactly. Oh, knock on benefits for the community. I mean the health services, all of these different. Elements of society that would benefit from just changing climate change for crying out loud, pretty profound, pretty profound. It's a drop in the bucket. Absolutely. In terms of leverage and potential impact.
It's enormous just to shift gears a bit because I want to be conscious of your time. I like to end with a few final questions. What would you do if you would be in charge of $1 billion investment portfolio tomorrow morning? Thank you wake up and your heart, a billion to invest, which could be partly [00:42:00] philanthropy, partly investing.
I mean, it's your portfolio. How would you approach that? A billion dollars is a lot of money. Isn't it hard to think of that scale? Well, certainly from our perspective, and we're thinking about changing the world through science. And so I'd like some of that to be devoted. To creating this national or even international network of how we conduct agricultural research from a paradigm shift.
And we have that entirely laid out. The whole business plan is already thought through. So it's one of those things that's just waiting for a billion dollars. So that will be two, 300 million. What would be the range? So, yeah, I'll bet that's about what it would take on at least on a initial or then they would pay for it.
So that's where I would put it and rethinking our entire scientific infrastructure around agriculture and investing into that because the knock-on benefits of that would fuel society's health and vigor [00:43:00] for the next five, 10 generations. What a great investment and use of money. And then if you could, I mean, we're taking off your investor hat.
Unfortunately the fund didn't work out. Okay. But if you could change one little thing or one big thing, actually in the agriculture industry, sustainability point of view, what would it be? If you could wave a magic wand and one thing would change, what would it be? Golly. I mean, that's a difficult question.
I mean, that's kind of, what would I do? What does the food system of the future look like in 50 years? No more agricultural subsidies, except for disasters making farms businesses. Again, that could change overnight with your magic one too. Yeah, sure. Could creating this model that we're trying to create for helping integrating these rural communities again.
Farming smaller and smarter instead of larger and simpler integrating the communities again, because they have been completely disintegrated, right. Communities in the U [00:44:00] S are the basis of our entire economy. Whether we like to think about that or not. It's absolutely true. I think in many places we don't like to think about it, but it's, I would argue most of Europe unless rural economies does agriculture, because that's pretty much the same thing.
Unless we get that to work. It's just a foundation, right? I mean, that's the foundation of everything we now have to figure out, as we suddenly all scrambled to figure out who do we know that grows food for the first time in our lives, in a supermarket for many people. I'm not saying, I mean, obviously if you're calling in or listening in other countries, it might be something you see often, but here absolutely not.
I suddenly like who has chickens and who has that and who has a big vegetable garden, et cetera. We're learning the fallibility of that industrialized food system right now, it's pretty, pretty astounding. And this is why, I mean, for this crisis is exactly why we founded blue Dasher farm and Dyson's foundation was this crisis was coming.
[00:45:00] We saw it coming for the last 10 years, at least. And we needed to be here and ready. And now that it's here, we're kind of like scrambling, if they are a good start, putting out these fires, it's kind of, yeah, it's escalated. That's for sure. Does that answer your at least get some more dialogue? I mean, it gets subsidies come up very often in this final questions.
If something could disappear or, or animals outside or something like that, you know what we need to do? What I would do if I had a magic wand. And, we've been talking about this in the lab with the scientific team, quite a bit, forcing everybody to take off their shoes and walk around outside and feel the connection.
You know, winter's long in South Dakota. I don't know if you've ever been here, but it's a little long in South Dakota. And, me and my partner, Christina were walking out on the prayer rate and, and I've been so stressed out with Corona and how am I going to keep it diocese of float and all of [00:46:00] these different ideas.
And those research has to come out now. And the farm is starting to wake up. And I went out to the Prairie and we looked at the earliest flowers called the past flower, and it's just beautiful on the Prairie. And I laid down in the Prairie and I just looked at that and I felt. Everything melt away. That connection with the natural world is a part of us.
And it's so fundamental and spiritual and emotional and physical and everything is connected to it. And we are missing that as a species right now, too often. So if I had a magic wand, that's my answer. That's what I picked take over your shoes on a lively farm, let's say in the light farm, because otherwise you will burn your feet.
I think it's a perfect place to end this conversation. I hope it's not the last time we connect. I definitely will be checking in on all the research you're doing and publishing. Okay. Thank you so much for your time today, John, it's been a pleasure. Yep. Thank you. Yeah. Spread the word. If you want to see [00:47:00] more of the kind of thing, think about supporting it and, sure too.
I will link everything that I appreciate that. Thank you so much. If you found the investing in regenerative agriculture and food podcast, valuable, there are a few simple ways you can use to submit. Number one rate and review the podcast on your podcast app. It's the best way for our listeners to find the podcast.
And it only takes a few seconds. Number two, share this podcast on social media or email it to your friends and colleagues. Number three, if this podcast has been a value to you, and if you have the means, please join my patron community to help grow this platform and allow me to take it further. You can find all the details on patrion.com/regenerative agriculture or in the description below.
Thank you so much and see you at the next podcast.
Sign up to receive email updates!
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.
Join the Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food newsletter on www.eepurl.com/cxU33P
The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.Join the Community
8 comments on “Jonathan Lundgren – Regenerative agriculture much more profitable than extractive ag?!”