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Relationships of regeneration in Great Plains commodity agriculture

Photo of a storm over a field of wheat.

This study explores why commodity farmers in the U.S Midwest are adopting regenerative agriculture practices at scale but not participating in carbon farming programmes led by agribusiness. The authors find this is because regenerative farmers are sceptical of large food corporations and want to cut dependence on costly agro-chemicals. The research sheds light on what drives and facilitates regenerative transitions, and stresses the importance of new social relationships with other regenerative farmers.


The study examines the growing regenerative farming movement in the Great Plains in the Midwest of America – an area historically known for its large-scale commodity production. Through 82 interviews with regenerative farmers, the study explores why there is low take-up of corporate regenerative agriculture programmes despite high regional interest in the movement. 

These carbon programmes, led by food corporations such as PepsiCo and General Mills, have proliferated in recent years. Targeting commodity farmers in the Great Plains for their large-scale operations, they promote adoption of practices that sequester carbon by offering financial incentives. The carbon that these farmers sequester contribute towards corporate emissions reductions, also known as ‘insetting’. 

However, the authors find that the low adoption rate of corporate carbon programmes, estimated at 1-3%, is because farmers who have adopted regenerative farming have done so to escape the stronghold of corporate agribusiness and reduce their dependence on costly inputs, advice and markets. They report general scepticism of food corporations, which puts them off carbon programmes despite the potential financial benefits. 

The authors suggest that these findings shed new light on the relationships that facilitate regenerative transitions, and those that don’t. The work highlights the importance of new relationships as existing ones are stressed due to adopting RA practices, and can lead to ostracization from neighbouring farmers and the network of agribusiness sales representatives who had previously been considered as friends. Participants report social network groups, organised events and workshops were essential avenues to discuss new ideas, learn from other farmers’ experiences, and share the challenges of the transition. Meanwhile, the study finds that carbon programmes from agribusiness corporations actually do little to facilitate regenerative transitions. 

The study finds that as farmers work to become less dependent on chemical inputs, they cultivate a greater appreciation of the soil and its microbes. The relationships with other regenerative farmers and non-human species that build soil health help them overcome some of the hurdles in a regenerative transition. 

The authors suggest that the importance of social and soil relationships to facilitating RA transitions counters the idea that RA lacks a political or social dimension. These are frequent criticisms of the movement. 

Those participants who tried carbon programmes – a minority – encountered barriers along the way. Early adopters were sometimes blocked from programmes because they could not prove ‘additionality’ of carbon as a result of their actions. Some referenced that the incentives were insignificant, terming them “beer money”. This, for many, was not worth the conditions that corporate programmes attached to them such as prescribing biological crop products or dictating where the crop is sold.  


In recent years regenerative agriculture has attracted growing attention as a means to improve soil health and farmer livelihoods while slowing climate change. With this attention has come increased policy support as well as the launch of private sector programs that promote regenerative agriculture as a form of carbon farming. In the United States many of these programs recruit primarily in regions where large-scale commodity production prevails, such as the Great Plains. There, a decades-old regenerative agriculture movement is growing rapidly, but not due to the incentives offered by companies’ carbon programs. On the contrary, farmers are adopting regenerative practices to cut their dependence on corporate agro- chemical inputs and expertise, and to thereby achieve technology sovereignty. These practice changes often strain farmers’ existing social relationships while drawing them into new and previously neglected ones, including the more-than-human relations necessary for building soil health. These new relationships and the knowledge they generate may in turn lead farmers to think differently about their own autonomy. These findings provide insight into farmers’ scepticism of private sector carbon farming programs, and highlight the value of attention to the multiple types of relationship change that accompany and facilitate regenerative transitions. 


Snorek, J., Freidberg, S. & Smith, G. Relationships of regeneration in Great Plains commodity agriculture. Agric Hum Values (2024).

Read more here. See TABLE’s explainer What is regenerative agriculture? 

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