Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative

Project Overview

icon-natureThe Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (IRAI) fits into the iSEE research theme of Secure and Sustainable Agriculture. Sponsored by Fresh Taste, IRAI is a partnership between the Department of Crop Sciences, the College of ACES, U of I Extension, and iSEE.

 

 

The Challenge

Current environmental and economic trends highlight the need for agriculture and food systems that are resilient to climate change, improve soil and water quality, support healthy communities, and enhance food security. A promising approach that has gained considerable traction with farmers and food systems participants is “regenerative agriculture.” Regenerative agriculture represents the opportunity for a new synthesis — an outcome-driven approach — to advancing 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. The core value proposition of this synthesis is that technology and nature are not mutually exclusive.

The interdisciplinary foundation of agriculture, engineering, and computation positions the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to provide global leadership in regenerative agriculture research and innovation.

 

Get Involved with IRAI >>>

 

 

The Solution

The deep academic strengths and mature relationships with a diverse community of stakeholders position the University of Illinois to become a national leader in regenerative ag. This new paradigm in agriculture will be propelled forward by actionable research, designed and conducted collaboratively with stakeholders, at the interface of agronomy, crop science, ecology, computer science, economics, and social dimensions. IRAI will engage all campus assets relevant to regenerative agriculture’s diverse land-based and community outcomes. A mission-critical function of the Initiative will be to facilitate ongoing conversations with key actors in the food system network: producers, landowners, value chains, end users, scientists, NGOs, technology firms, policy makers, the financial sector, and experts in the purposive disciplines (art, philosophy, etc.). IRAI will emphasize:

  • building new collaborative relationships among Illinois scholars to conduct actionable research and train the next generation of practitioners in Regenerative Agriculture (capacity);
  • intimately connect the stakeholder and the academic community in sustained two-way dialogs about research and education, and challenges to adoption and measuring impact (relationships); and
  • heighten the visibility and impact of the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative and secure sustained financial support (sustainability).

 

More Introductory Info: Podcasts and Videos

Watch our YouTube of the April 9, 2021 meeting discussing IRAI’s seed funding program and call for proposals >>>

Listen as Emily Heaton discusses perennial grasses with WILL Radio’s Todd Gleason in April 2021 >>> 

Listen as Heaton and Anya Knecht define IRAI for WITY Radio’s Dennis Michelsen on March 18, 2021 >>>

Listen as Heaton and Knecht discuss the College of ACES and improving land and resources on WITY on March 25, 2021 >>>

Watch our YouTube video of the first IRAI meeting Oct. 30, 2020 >>>


Initiative News

News from IRAI Director Emily Heaton and Assistant Director for Operations Anya Knecht nearly one year into the Initiative:

Three teams were selected to receive up to $50,000 in seed funding for their projects after the IRAI call for proposals in Spring 2021. “Each project brings a unique solution and perspective to mobilizing solutions geared toward regenerative agriculture practices and addresses a need within that space,” Heaton said. “We are very excited to see these proposals transform into action.” The details:

  • A study titled “U.S. Chestnut Cultivar Exploration — Integrated Bioprocessing and Quantity” led by Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) Professor Keith Cadwallader; Savanna Institute Tree Crop Commercialization Program Manager William Davison; Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory (IBRL) Pilot Plant Operations Assistant Manager Brian Jacobson; and IBRL Assistant Director of Business Development Bethany Conerty.
  • A study titled “Prototyping an Autonomous Robotic Harvester for Enabling Large-Scale Chestnuts Farming in the U.S.” led by EarthSense Inc. Co-Founder and CEO Chinmay Soman; Davison; and Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Computer Science Associate Professor Girish Chowdhary.
  • A study titled “Regenerative Agriculture and the Human Health Nexus in the Age of Climate Change,” led by Basil’s Harvest Executive Director and Chef/Registered Dietitian Erin Meyer; Gastroenterologist and Associate Professor of Medicine Dave Ramkumar; Internist and Associate Professor of Medicine Japhia Ramkumar; Basil’s Harvest Agroecology Solutions and Soil Microbiologist Carl Rosier; Illinois Water Resources Center Director Yu-Feng Forrest Lin; and FSHN Associate Professor Pratik Banerjee.

IRAI plans a second call for proposals in Spring 2022. Said Knecht: “We are hoping for even more engagement and opportunities as we fill the regenerative agriculture ‘Big Tent’ with folks from many disciplines.”

In addition to an introductory meeting in November 2021 and the seed funding meeting in April 2021, IRAI participated in the following events in 2021: Illinois State Fair Ag Day, the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences’ annual Agronomy Day, Farm Foundations, and the Farm Progress Show.

More introductory videos are scheduled to explain the people and the principals behind regenerative ag.

The second Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative public meeting was Friday, April 9, 2021. More than 100 interested researchers, farmers, and organizations joined the discussion as IRAI released its first Request for Proposals (RFP).

The meeting was used to answer questions and network for shared understanding and team development. See the top of this page for more information about the RFP.

In Fall 2020, the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (IRAI) was launched as a new home for regenerative agriculture research, education, and outreach. IRAI receives grant support from Fresh Taste, and brings together stakeholders on campus and beyond to create agriculture and food systems resilient to climate change, improve soil and water quality, support healthy communities, and enhance food security.

In early 2021, IRAI will offer multiple seed grants in an open request for proposals (RFP). These competitive grants will be awarded to interdisciplinary teams 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 new Initiative’s objectives and potential seed grant ideas were discussed on Oct. 30, 2020, at an online workshop. View the video of the meeting above or on YouTube >>>

Led by Crop Sciences Professor and Head Adam Davis, Plant Biology Professor and iSEE Founding Director Evan H. DeLucia, iSEE Interim Director Madhu Khanna, and College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) Dean Kimberlee Kidwell, IRAI will be administered through iSEE along with leaders from Crop Sciences, the College of ACES, and the University of Illinois Extension. IRAI will be led by Emily Heaton of Iowa State, who joins the U of I’s Crop Sciences Department in 2021 as a Professor of Regenerative Agriculture and Extension specialist.

“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 Davis, the lead PI 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.

Said Khanna: “Regenerative agriculture is a promising approach to transforming the agricultural system to make it economically and environmentally sustainable. 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.”

Read the full news release from the College of ACES >>>

 


The IRAI Team

Principal Investigators and co-PIs (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign unless otherwise noted)

Project Manager/IRAI Assistant Director for Operations

  • Anya Knecht, Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE)
    Contact: knecht2@illinois.edu

2021 Seed-Funded IRAI Teams

  • “U.S. Chestnut Cultivar Exploration — Integrated Bioprocessing and Quantity”
    • Keith Cadwallader, Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition
    • William Davison, Tree Crop Commercialization Program Manager, Savanna Institute
    • Brian Jacobson, Pilot Plant Operations Assistant Manager, Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory
    • Bethany Conerty, Assistant Director of Business Development, Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory
  • “Prototyping an Autonomous Robotic Harvester for Enabling Large-Scale Chestnuts Farming in the U.S.”
    • Chinmay Soman, Co-Founder and CEO, EarthSense Inc.
    • William Davison, Tree Crop Commercialization Program Manager, Savanna Institute
    • Girish Chowdhary, Associate Professor, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Computer Science
  • “Regenerative Agriculture and the Human Health Nexus in the Age of Climate Change”
    • Erin Meyer, Executive Director and Chef/Registered Dietitian, Basil’s Harvest
    • Dave Ramkumar, Gastroenterologist and Associate Professor of Medicine
    • Japhia Ramkumar, Internist and Associate Professor of Medicine
    • Carl Rosier, Agroecology Solutions and Soil Microbiologist, Basil’s Harvest
    • Yu-Feng Forrest Lin, Director, Illinois Water Resources Center
    • Pratik Banerjee, Associate Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition

Sponsor


Publications & Presentations

(iSEE project members’ names in bold)

  • Coming soon!
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