Farmer Interviews: The Cool Farm Tool as an Enabler of Regenerative Agriculture

The Cool Farm Tool (CFT) is a decision support and engagement tool that enables farmers and supply chain actors since 2010 to benchmark and assess their greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental impacts of their agricultural activities. We spoke to Jake Freestone (farm manager at Overbury Farm, UK), Eric Ziehm (dairy farmer from High Meadows of Hoosick, NY, and supplier of US dairy company Stonyfield (Lactalis)), and Britt Lundgren (Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield) about the value of implementing regenerative agriculture and using the Cool Farm Tool on their farms.

They shared what it feels like to be a regenerative farmer, the approaches they have employed, and the lessons learned from using the Cool Farm Tool and assessing their farming activities.

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What was it like when you started the journey of regenerative agriculture and what were you hoping to achieve?

Jake Freestone: I started managing the farm here in 2003 when we had a plough-based cultivation system. The farm gradually went through minimal cultivation and we finally started no-till in 2013. My goal was to achieve three things: (1) reduced costs, (2) improved environment with less water erosion and runoff from fields and (3) an improvement in soil health.

Britt Lundgren: At Stonyfield, we set a Science Based Target to reduce our emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. We started a pilot program with six farms in 2020, where we support the implementation and monitoring of regenerative agriculture. In 2021 we are already working with ten farms, and plan to continue scaling participation next year, with the hope of a full roll-out across our suppliers by 2023. We hope to have an accurate snapshot of what emissions look like on pasture-based organic dairies, and use this data to identify leverage points for reducing our emissions.

What is the importance of regenerative agriculture for you as a farmer?

Jake Freestone: Regenerative agriculture is important to the way we farm because it enables us to improve our farming systems and to reduce the impact on the environment. It is a way of achieving higher yields of improved quality with reduced inputs. In addition, it helps us to improve our soil health and wider biodiversity, all of which have massive importance to the owners of the farm at Overbury.

Eric Ziehm & Sam Cottrell at High Meadow Farm Of Hoosick. ©ecofarmingdaily.com

Eric Ziehm: As farmers, we can experience first-hand the positive effects our regeneration practices can have. Most importantly we want our consumers to have confidence when they buy our products that they are supporting such practices. We can help heal our lands one farm at a time. I feel like our farms are a big carbon sponge.

What regenerative farming practices have you employed?

Jake Freestone: We’ve looked at four main strategies of regenerative agriculture here at Overbury, starting with zero till. That is only possible with the inclusion of cover crops and keeping the soil covered and protected at all times. We are also looking at a wider and longer rotation with more diverse crops being grown. And then finally the integration of livestock into the arable system. All of these approaches have helped enable us to achieve the improvement and soil health and farm productivity that we were striving to get to.

Eric Ziehm: We have implemented no-till practices with winter cover crops. This will definitely eliminate erosion along with building soil organic matter and also functions as a carbon sponge. We expect the same from our rotational grazing system.

What myths and challenges did you encounter in your regenerative approach?

Eric Ziehm: The biggest myth was that regenerative agriculture practices will limit yield potential and not be as productive. It has been just the opposite. We have found 100 per cent of the time that if it’s good for the environment, it’s good for our financial bottom line.

Jake Freestone: The major barrier encountered at Overbury was scepticism of the no-till system. This was because the farm was the first in the area and the first in this generation to take on no-till farming. With the use of social media and contacts, we were able to link up with like-minded farmers who offered help, advice, and support to avoid repeating some known mistakes.

Britt Lundgren - Climate Collaborative

Britt Lundgren ©Climate Collaborative

Britt, how did you gain buy-in from farmers to farm in a regenerative way?

Britt Lundgren: Eric said it best when he said, “if it’s good for the environment, it’s good for our bottom line.” I think many of Stonyfield’s farmers recognise that improved soil health and increased efficiency make business sense, which is a financial incentive in and of itself.

Why did you choose to use the Cool Farm Tool to monitor regenerative practices?

Britt Lundgren: One of the reasons we started using the Cool Farm Tool was because it is part of OpenTEAM, a farmer-driven interoperable suite of tools for improving knowledge of soil health. To achieve our Science Based Targets, we are relying on a collection of different tools, for farm management record keeping, for soil sampling, and for emissions calculations. Because the Cool Farm Tool is part of the OpenTEAM network, we feel more confident we can take a systems approach to track and reduce emissions at the farm level in a way that makes efficient use of farmers’ time and helps them access more site-specific recommendations for improvement.

Although we are in the early stages of using the Cool Farm Tool to model on-farm emissions, we have found it to have an intuitive interface with straightforward questions, making it easy to engage with.

Jake Freestone: At Overbury Farm, started using the Cool Farm Tool to put some lines in the sand as to where our farming practices were. Fortunately, we had some data from the past when we were applying a different type of farming system. It was a good opportunity to assess where we were, to look at our inputs and outputs and the effect that each of those has on our carbon emissions. Comparing current and past results was fascinating and very valuable as it illustrates how we will direct our farming system in the future.

Jake, what mistakes did you make along your journey to regenerative agriculture and what have you learned from these mistakes?

Jake Freestone

Jake Freestone: Firstly, we need to learn to be more patient in a no-till farming system. We need to wait a little bit longer in the spring to allow our soils to dry out and warm up, just a little bit longer. Another mistake we’ve made is to overgraze some of our cover crops which resulted in poaching in some areas and penalised the yield of the following crop. I also think cover crops can offer huge advantages in nutrient capture, soil stabilisation, and carbon sequestration. But if you have the wrong mix of cover crops in the wrong rotation, then that can lead to issues such as allelopathic effects on a following spring barley crop where you have oats as part of the cover crop before them.

What advice do you have for other stakeholders regarding the Cool Farm Tool?

Jake Freestone: The advice I would give is to have a look at the Cool Farm Tool and start to think about how you can record information that will be helpful to you. It might not be helpful this year or next year, but maybe in five years time. [You can record] things like energy use, diesel use, fertiliser use, water use as well as yields and quality which you anyway need to record for your farm assurance scheme or accounts. These records enable you to start that journey to measure where you are, and the outputs from the measurement again enable you to change any aspect of your farming system to deliver benefits both environmentally and financially.

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The transition to regenerative agriculture has its highs and lows. Scepticism and traditional views are usually the inhibiting factors for farmers to transition to a no-till system. The early days of changing over can be quite challenging from a financial point of view, especially as outcomes might only become visible over time. However, the learning curve can be very steep, and tools such as the Cool Farm Tool can provide support in defining emissions reduction strategies. It shows that especially synthetic and nitrogen fertilisers are an important source of emissions in crop production. At Overbury Farm, Jake and his team have worked on nutrient availability in their soils. They have used more fertilisers earlier in their growing system to get plants established (N and P for seed beds). Five years on, they were reducing this fertiliser usage by 50 percent. In addition, they started to reduce N fertilisers by 15% for more regenerative practices as biological activity and organic matter of the soil was increasing.

The Cool Farm Tool is free for farmers and growers. Start using it now to measure your GHG, water and biodiversity impact: https://app.coolfarmtool.org/.