By TIM ALEXANDER
PHILO, Ill. - Dirk Rice, a farmer from Philo, Illinois, (Champaign County) has seen firsthand the benefits of regenerative farming on his cropland in terms of nutrient loss reduction and increased yields. That’s why Rice, 61, is excited about a new collaboration estimated at $216 million between PepsiCo and the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), Soil and Water Outcomes Fund (SWOC) and Illinois Corn Growers Association (ICGA) to drive adoption of regenerative agriculture practices and reduce carbon emissions on U.S. farms.
“We began with cover crops in the fall of 2012 and expanded from there. My son came back from school around five years ago and he’s now a dealer of cover crop seed,” said Rice, who grows around 2,100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat with his son each year. “We’ve tried a number of different things but have settled into cereal rye as a cover crop after corn. For a long time we had our fertilizer supplier mix the seed with some potash to spread, but we now have a broadcast seeder. We’re basically just fluffing the ‘trash’ up and putting the seed on over the top.”
Rice, who grows corn for Frito Lay North America and is a former member of the Illinois Corn Marketing Board (ICMB), understands that not all farmers can or are willing to assume the financial risk associated with funding non-revenue producing cover crops and the equipment needed to grow and terminate them. That’s why Rice is throwing his full support behind ICGA’s strategic partnership with PepsiCo (owners of the $13 billion convenience food business Frito Lay), which aims to accelerate the uptake of more than three million acres of farmland to regenerative agricultural practices by 2030. The partnership is expected to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of around 3 million metric tons.
“As the climate crisis continues to escalate, the threat to our food system increases as well,” said Jim Andrew, Chief Sustainability Officer, PepsiCo. “It’s critically important to partner, for the long term, with organizations that have earned the trust of farmers as they make the transition to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices. We intend to be shoulder-to-shoulder with farmers as they work to make soil healthier, sequester carbon, improve watershed health and biodiversity, and improve their livelihoods.”
Rice credits the late Mike Plummer of the University of Illinois Extension in Marion for introducing him to cover crops and, most of all, providing the ongoing technical support he needed to overcome early hurdles to success. He sees the strategic partnership with PepsiCo as a way for a new generation of regenerative farmers to receive the expert guidance they need to grow cover crops or introduce new tillage practices as part of an overall regenerative farming commitment.
To that end, PepsiCo has pledged to work with ICGA, SWOF and PFI to establish and scale financial, agronomic, and social programs that enable the transition to regenerative agriculture practices through education, upfront investment in outcomes, peer coaching and networking, and cost-sharing. In total, PepsiCo will work with PFI to reach approximately 1.5 million acres; SWOF to reach nearly 1 million acres; and the ICGA to reach approximately 600,000 acres. Based on progress to date, these collaborative efforts are expected to deliver more than 500,000 regenerative acres by the end of 2023, according to an ICGA news release.
“This is something that PepsiCo’s customers are asking of them,” said Rice, who grows around 60,000 bushels of yellow corn for Frito Lay each summer. “As a grower for Frito Lay this is something that I am interested in, but you don’t have to grow for Frito Lay to take advantage of this opportunity. Some companies are doing this as a feel-good thing, but PepsiCo is all in on this. This program is just the tip of the iceberg for them-- this is important to PepsiCo because their customers are serious about it.”
The collaboration will allow farmers in Illinois an unprecedented opportunity to have a good portion of the cost of cover crop seed underwritten by a forward-thinking corporation, according to Rice. “This can serve as a great entry level program for farmers who want to get started in regenerative agriculture,” he said. “Try 40 acres or 80 acres and move up as you get comfortable. I’m in my 11th year and every year I’m learning something new. We want people to build their comfort level so they can see the benefits as they emerge.”
The effort by PepsiCo is integral to reaching its goal of sponsoring the adoption of regenerative agriculture across 7 million acres by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2040.