Soil Wealth Areas Unlock Investing in Conservation and Regenerative Ag
The Croatan Institute recently released a report, Soil Wealth Areas: Place-based Financing for Conservation, Rural Communities, and Regenerative Agriculture, summarizing a USDA-funded, feasibility assessment regarding development of place-based financing districts in four regions: North Carolina, Northern California, Oregon, and Wisconsin. The project engaged with numerous place-based partners, 40 farms across 25,000 acres, and diverse groups of investors and stakeholders. The project addressed key issues related to regenerative agricultural investment, conservation finance, and access to capital and land, particularly for small and midscale farmers and farmers of color.
Soil Wealth Areas build upon the success of other agricultural districts, such as conservation districts and farmland protection districts. They are inherently place-based and locally governed by diverse groups of regional practitioners and stakeholders, including farmers, agricultural cooperatives, conservation and community-led organizations, value-chain businesses, food hubs, food and farming advocacy groups, food policy councils, and researchers. By being based in place, Soil Wealth Areas can better respond to local producers and entrepreneurs and help ensure that capital providers are aligned with the imperatives of ecologically resilient and socially inclusive food and agricultural systems.
As part of the North Carolina Soil Wealth Areas, for example, the project team facilitated a capital collaboration with Rural Beacon Initiative and Foodshed Capital, a community development financial institution (CDFI), which financed the conservation acquisition of heirs’ property in an historic Free Black community in Martin County. The farm is now implementing a regenerative transition focused on diversified agroforestry and regional food systems.
“As we assess the systems-scale change that is needed to begin addressing historic BIPOC land loss across the Southeast, flexible capital and creative technical assistance will be crucial to achieving real results. Our partnership with Soil Wealth Areas allowed the co-creation of a vision and strategic plan to secure appropriate, patient capital to finance the future of Free Union Farms,” says William J. Barber, III, Founder and CEO of Rural Beacon Initiative and Free Union Farms. “This step will allow us to accelerate the regenerative transition of our farm and serve as a case study on how a place-based model of collaborative capital coordination can help to address the on-the-ground realities to make communities more resilient. Self-determination for communities is the goal. Flexible capital is the first step.”
“We work on a daily basis with farmers and food businesses who need more access to funding and financing so they can make investments in their operations,” said Dr. Carla Norwood, Co-Founder and Executive Director at Working Landscapes, one of the project’s many place-based partners. “Croatan Institute’s Soil Wealth Areas are helping to create more diverse funding and financing options that can better meet these needs by aligning capital providers and producers in our network to drive catalytic impact in regenerative agriculture.”
“At Croatan Institute, we envision an equitable world where finance supports flourishing communities, vibrant places, and resilient regional economies,” said Dr. Joshua Humphreys, Croatan Institute President and Principal Investigator for this report. “Soil Wealth Areas provide a new way for us to help make that vision a reality in place. Based on over two years of collaboration with farmers, place-based partners, and aligned investors, this report outlines specific recommendations for unlocking new sources of capital to finance more regenerative land stewardship and more resilient rural places.”
Additional examples of how this initiative catalyzed change include:
- Pilot transactions in North Carolina unlocked more than $725,000 in flexible loan capital and crowdfunding donations for farmers involved in the project. The NC team also piloted a Financial Health Investment Project (“FinHealth”) with two cohorts of farmers of color to provide the kind of financial technical assistance that Soil Wealth Areas will integrate into their operations. This includes financial health coaching, farm business planning, and capital access strategies.
- In Wisconsin, the project team helped advance policy changes to the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy program that now extends flexible, land-secured financing to farms making conservation improvements such as managed grazing and agroforestry.
- On the West Coast, approaches to Soil Wealth Areas differed in California and Oregon. In CA, local leadership will need to drive efforts to coordinate place-based financing at the local level in collaboration with Resource Conservation Districts and aligned capital providers like CDFIs, impact investors, donor-advised funds, and other philanthropic investors.
- In OR, a more cohesive, statewide dialogue about a Soil Wealth Area model emerged among a growing group of organic farming advocates, land trusts, capital providers, and BIPOC farming groups. The model would ideally be rooted in the state’s diverse agricultural regions.
Following this first phase, Croatan Institute is establishing a national Soil Wealth Community to share learnings about the development of Soil Wealth Areas and place-based financing opportunities. In North Carolina, a new implementation phase of Soil Wealth Areas has begun in coordination with place-based partners, such as Rural Beacon Initiative and Working Landscapes, which is leading a parallel USDA Climate-Smart Commodities project focused on regenerative agriculture and soil health among farmers working with regional food hubs across the state.
This initial $2.5 million feasibility phase of Soil Wealth Areas during 2020-2022 was funded by a $700,000 Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and $1.8 million in private-sector contributions from a wide array of project partners, investors, foundations, and aligned initiatives.
About the Croatan Institute
Croatan Institute is an independent, nonprofit research and action institute whose mission is to build social equity and ecological resilience by leveraging finance to create pathways to a just economy.