Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative launches at U of I

URBANA, Ill. — The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, a new home for regenerative agriculture research, education and outreach.

The IRAI launches this fall with grant support from Fresh Taste, bringing together researchers on campus and stakeholders in Illinois and beyond to create agriculture and food systems resilient to climate change, improve soil and water quality, support healthy communities and enhance food security.

“The aim of regenerative agriculture is to advance the triple bottom line in agriculture — productivity, profitability and environmental health — in a way that enhances food security, reinvigorates rural and urban communities and restores the natural systems that life depends on,” said Adam Davis, head of the U of I Department of Crop Sciences and lead investigator on the Fresh Taste grant.

Regenerative agriculture distinguishes itself from, and yet encompasses, other conventional and sustainable approaches, such as organic production and no-till. Rather than dictating specific on-farm practices, regenerative agriculture is laser-focused on metrics and outcomes.

“Regenerative agriculture is about moving the needle, offering an opportunity for practitioners to measure progress from wherever they’re starting out. Rather than excluding people for using certain practices, we’re pitching a big tent, focusing on whatever it takes to get to greater biodiversity, soil quality, resilience and equity in human communities,” Davis said.

IRAI is offering multiple seed grants in an open request for proposals. These competitive grants will be awarded to interdisciplinary teams composed of Illinois scholars and farming or food-system stakeholders who address key metrics of regenerative agriculture: soil health parameters; on-farm biodiversity; or community health and resilience.

“The funders supporting the IRAI are strong supporters of regenerative agriculture,” said Karen Lehman, director of Fresh Taste. “We are thrilled to work with the University of Illinois to develop a robust program of new faculty and seed grants to students in collaboration with community partners. This initiative will elevate the profile of the university as a national leader in the field.”

The Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment, an interdisciplinary research institute at Illinois, oversees IRAI, along with leaders from the Department of Crop Sciences, the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and U of I Extension.

“Regenerative agriculture is a promising approach to transforming the agricultural system to make it economically and environmentally sustainable,” said Madhu Khanna, iSEE interim director and ACES distinguished professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the U of I.

“iSEE is excited to facilitate collaborations between our interdisciplinary research experts and our external partners to advance and apply the science required to realize this promise.”

Regenerative agriculture expert and crop sciences alumna Emily Heaton, currently of Iowa State University, returns to Illinois in January to help lead IRAI. She will join the crop sciences department as professor of regenerative agriculture and Extension specialist.

“I am thrilled to return to Illinois where I can put the knowledge we generate through the IRAI to work on my own family farm in Monticello. The IRAI is a true land-grant effort, and I am excited to work alongside stakeholders to return value to their operations, our landscapes and our communities,” Heaton said.

The Illinois faculty team includes Heaton; Davis; Khanna; Kim Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES; and Evan H. DeLucia, G. William Arends Professor of Integrative Biology, professor of plant biology and founding director of iSEE.