I-Regen: Changing the Midwest Landscape
I-Regen fits into the iSEE research theme of Secure and Sustainable Agriculture. Originally called the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative and sponsored in 2020 by Fresh Taste, the Initiative was renewed and renamed in 2023 with funding by the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund (MRAF). I-Regen is a partnership between the Department of Crop Sciences, the College of ACES, U of I Extension, and iSEE.
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.
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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
- IRAI Receives New Funding; Rebranded I-Regen
- Summer 2023 Progress Report
- Seed-funded Project: From Farm to Food to Human Health
- VIDEO: Regenerative Ag at Work — Riggs Beer
- Fall 2022 Public Convening: IRAI Seed-Funds Three Teams for 2022
- Summer 2022 Progress Report
- Voices on the Land 2022
- Summer/Fall 2021 Progress Report
- Public Meeting April 9 Discusses Request for Proposals
- Video: An introduction to the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative
- IRAI Launched at U of I; First Call for Seed Grants Coming Soon!
Nov. 7, 2023 — The Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (IRAI) has marked the successful completion of its first three years with a new name: I-Regen. The name change reflects an ongoing commitment to the future of regenerative agriculture in the Midwest. I-Regen encourages diversified value chains that balance the health and wealth of Midwest agricultural systems, creating a resilient bioeconomy that combats climate change, enhances soil and water quality, supports communities, and ensures food security.
Since its inception, IRAI has served as a catalyst for regenerative agriculture, gathering diverse voices and knowledge to navigate this vital and growing space. Building upon this foundation, I-Regen is poised to reduce fragmentation and promote a shared vision of regenerative agriculture in the I-States region (Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana). Collaborating with Extension and University partners, I-Regen provides a regional approach to research, education, and outreach. Through seed grants, community engagement, public convenings, and innovative projects like Voices and the Coalition of Regenerative Agriculture, Food and Health, I-Regen is strategically positioned to develop regenerative agriculture partnerships across the I-States.
In 2020, the University of Illinois and a collaborative fund at Fresh Taste began the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative. With IRAI’s expansion and name change to I-Regen, Fresh Taste’s continued financial support will now be known as the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund (MRAF).
News from IRAI Director Emily Heaton and Assistant Director for Operations Anya Knecht nearly three years into the Initiative:
- The Basil’s Harvest 2022 seed grant team, the Coalition of Regenerative Agriculture, Food and Health, and Carle Illinois College of Medicine have created an elective course.
- The Zumwalt Acres 2022 seed grant team is hosting a Field Day in July 2023.
- IRAI and U of I Extension will host a Fall Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership Field Day on Nov. 6, 2023; more details to come!
Ubiquitous in the soil and environment, microbes are an essential part of human function. In fact, the human microbiome contains more bacterial cells than actual human cells.
“Even though they’re not part of our genetics, they exist in and on us,” said Dr. Davendra Ramkumar, a Champaign gastroenterologist and Associate Professor at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine (COM).
Ramkumar and his wife, Dr. Japhia Ramkumar, internist and Associate Professor at the Carle Illinois COM, have key roles in a project seed-funded by IRAI to explore the microbiome connection from farm to food to human health. “Regenerative Agriculture and the Human Health Nexus in the Age of Climate Change” is an initiative of Basil’s Harvest, an Illinois nonprofit promoting regenerative ag and human health. The project will shed light on how regenerative farming practices lead to healthier soils and plants, which produce healthier food, which in turn influences gut health and, ultimately, overall human health. The collaboration, which includes researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Illinois Water Resources Center, and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has received a second year of IRAI seed funding.
The theory is that maintaining a healthy diet is the simplest way to maintain a healthy microbiome, rather than taking supplements such as prepackaged prebiotics and probiotics. And getting healthy food relies on healthy, regenerative agricultural practices that prioritize soil health: things like minimizing soil disturbance, planting diverse crops, and using no-till cover crops. Though this research is still new, some studies show that produce grown through regenerative ag has higher vitamin and mineral content, and that minimizing hormones and antibiotics in animals leads to a healthier fat profile in meat.
“It was difficult to select just three awards from the many wonderful proposals we received,” IRAI Director Emily Heaton said. “We are excited to advance these promising projects.”
The new grants:
- “Soil That Rocks: Investigating the Effects of Basalt Rock Fertilizer on Soil and Plant Health through a Farmer-Researcher Collaboration,” led by Lexi Weintraub, Gavi Welbel, and John Zumwalt of Zumwalt Acres; Maria Villamil, U of I Professor of Crop Sciences; and Esther Ngumbi, U of I Assistant Professor of Entomology.
- A renewal from 2021 seed funding — “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; Basil’s Harvest Communications & Project Manager Kelly Bloedorn; Gastroenterologist and U of I Associate Professor of Medicine Dave Ramkumar; Internist and Clinical U of I Associate Professor of Medicine Japhia Ramkumar; Basil’s Harvest Agroecology Solutions and Soil Microbial Ecologist Carl Rosier; University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Nutritional Sciences Professor Jasia Steinmetz; Illinois Water Resources Center Assistant Director Amy Weckle; and Attending Physician and U of I Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine Holly Rosencranz.
- “Expanding Farmer Access to Organic Technical Support in Illinois through Training for Extension Educators,” led by Organic Agronomy Training Service (OATS) National Program Director Mallory Krieger; and U of I Extension Commercial Agriculture Fellow Talon Becker.
Another highlight of the public convening was a performance of “Voices on the Land,” written in 2022 by farmers, crop scientists, grocery store workers, environmental scholars, students, and people who eat, and voiced by Jackie Abing, Shannon Donovan, and Voices arranger/editor Azlan Smith. To view the video, click the image above or follow this link >>>
News from IRAI Director Emily Heaton and Assistant Director for Operations Anya Knecht nearly two years into the Initiative:
“Over the past year, we have met with many stakeholders, researchers, community and businesses to help grow and support regenerative agriculture,” Knecht said. “The big tent is gradually being filled with many voices so that we can form a clear, well-informed vision of potential solution-oriented approaches to regenerative agriculture.”
As the team has been closing the gaps and building the bridge of communication, IRAI’s first three seed-funded projects have hit the ground running with more proposals to be funded in the second round of awards (funding starts Sept. 1, 2022).
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.”
Regenerative Ag in the Media
Nov. 4, 2022: Regenerative Ag Students Combine Theory, Practice
Principal Investigator, co-PIs, and Researchers (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign unless otherwise noted)
- PI and Director: Emily Heaton, Professor of Regenerative Agriculture, Department of Crop Sciences
Departmental page >>>
Watch a YouTube video on Emily (“Regenerative Agriculture: A Family Tradition”) >>>
- PI: Adam Davis, Professor and Head, Department of Crop Sciences
Departmental page >>>
- Co-PI: Evan H. DeLucia, Arends Professor Emeritus, Department of Plant Biology
Departmental page >>>
Lab page >>>
- Co-PI: Madhu Khanna, ACES Endowed Professor, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Alvin H. Baum Family Chair and Director, iSEE
Departmental page >>>
- Co-PI Kimberlee Kidwell, Professor of Crop Sciences; Associate Chancellor for Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives
College of ACES page >>>
- Carmen Blubaugh, Visiting Research Scientist, Department of Crop Sciences (Diverse Corn Belt Project)
Project Manager/IRAI Assistant Director for Operations
- Anya Knecht, Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE)
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
- Voices project intern: Azlan Smith, MFA Candidate, Creative Writing
- Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund
Publications & Presentations
(Team members’ names in bold)
- Coming soon!