A&W, Canadian ranchers and non-profits are partnering to create a more sustainable future for people, animals and the planet
For as long as she can remember, Lieschen Beretta has been practising regenerative agriculture on her family’s farm in King City, Ont.
“My parents started out with a small hobby farm in 1992, just after they married,” she says. “They couldn’t afford a tractor or equipment, so they did everything with two Percheron horses, and the cattle only ate grass and hay. They just wanted to have natural ingredients for us kids. Then their friends started buying our beef, and it grew and grew.”
When Beretta and her brothers were old enough to start checking and moving cattle on their own, their dad told them, “You’re not only checking the cattle, you’re checking the grass. We’re grass farmers first.” That’s because, in simple terms, regenerative agriculture is designed to work in harmony with nature: nutrient-rich soil produces healthy grass, the grass feeds the cattle, and the cows in turn fertilize the soil.
Now, Beretta is the ranch manager for Beretta Farms, a thriving operation with more than 800 acres of owned and leased land, and 300 head of grass-fed cattle. She is also part of a growing network of regenerative ranchers across the country who have partnered with A&W Canada, home of the iconic Burger Family menu, to put 100 per cent grass-fed beef on the national map.
A&W and Beretta Farms first joined forces more than eight years ago when A&W was searching for farms that could supply it with delicious-tasting beef raised without artificial hormones and steroids. Both parties quickly recognized a shared commitment to sustainability, and forged a partnership Beretta describes as “phenomenal.” “They’re like family to us,” she says.
Working closely with Beretta Farms and others, A&W Canada has now switched to serving 100 per cent grass-fed beef exclusively in its restaurants nationwide. Looking forward, A&W continues to deepen its commitment to the regenerative agriculture movement in Canada by investing in innovative research and projects designed to make it easier for farmers across the country to transition to this sustainable model.
In harmony with nature
While the practice of regenerative agriculture dates back centuries, with roots in Indigenous cultures, it is experiencing a resurgence among farmers and food companies concerned about the impact of large-scale food production on soil quality, animal welfare, and the climate via carbon emissions.
When it comes to raising beef, instead of using feedlots – where cattle are fed a grain diet for part of their lives – regenerative farmers prioritize healthy grass in their pastures in order to maximize how much feed is naturally available to their animals. Cattle that live their entire lives grazing on the land can actually be a tool for capturing carbon from the air and sequestering it into the soil where it belongs through the regeneration of healthy, growing grasslands. In this process, cattle farming, biodiversity and carbon sequestration can go hand in hand.
“When we started our exploration into grass-fed beef, we quickly learned how important the inclusion of livestock can be to regenerating soil in grasslands,” says Angela Griffiths, A&W Canada’s vice-president, Food Safety, Animal Welfare and Environment. “We visited Canadian farms and you can see the difference in the diversity of life on regeneratively managed versus overgrazed lands.” While it’s true that grass-fed animals take longer to grow, she says, “the cows live a more natural life.”
“It took several years to make the transition in our restaurants, partly because we wanted to source as much of our beef from Canada as possible,” says Griffiths, who also holds a Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture. “Raising 100 per cent grass-fed beef in Canada can be challenging, but it is possible. The benefits are especially important since we know Canada is home to one of the most endangered grassland ecosystems on the planet.”
In fact, less than 20 per cent of Canada’s prairie grasslands are left in Western Canada, having largely been turned into cropland. Grasslands are vital, life-sustaining ecosystems that help mitigate floods and drought, protect endangered plant and animal species, and capture large amounts of carbon in the soil. Researchers estimate grasslands could contain as much as 30 per cent of the carbon stored in the Earth’s soil.
Canada’s sustainable future
Beyond sourcing grass-fed beef, A&W is championing the regenerative agriculture movement in Canada by funding a variety of research and projects. Their focus has been on partnerships that lead to practical tools and resources for Canadian farmers and ranchers looking to integrate more regenerative agriculture practices to their operations.
One of these partners is Regeneration Canada, a national non-profit dedicated to promoting soil regeneration. Its executive director, Antonious Petro, says the non-profit organization grew out of a need for education, awareness building, and connecting like-minded organizations to learn from and support one another.
“Grass feeding [cattle] is a huge step toward adopting regenerative agriculture practices,” Petro says. “It’s a part of a bigger equation that includes the quality and diversity of grass, animal health, worker health and community health.”
Learning from each other and from the past is instrumental to helping corporations, farmers and producers overcome the barriers that are inevitable with such enormous change. “Understanding the history of the land and the practices of our ancestors and Indigenous communities is incredibly important for our collective success,” Petro says.
One of the strategies Regeneration Canada has adopted is a digital, user-friendly map to track farms in transition. Since the map went online, it’s been visited by farmers who are curious about starting their regenerative journey and want to talk with others with experience, and even forge partnerships. For consumers, it’s a way to find out where they can buy goods.
“I feel, after the pandemic, lots of farmers and consumers want to be part of something that is positive,” says Petro. “With the regenerative agriculture movement, we have something that is working, and we need everybody to scale up. There are so many great success stories and corporate partners that are genuinely interested in furthering the movement. We are hopeful that more farmers, government and consumers will join in the journey.”
Likewise, A&W believes that real progress will only come from working together. In 2021, they partnered with Cargill and ALUS to help farmers and ranchers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba accelerate agricultural practices that promote healthy grasslands, improve wetlands, create wildlife habitats and protect species. The company has also provided funding to SODCAP (South of the Divide Conservation Action Plan) to support various projects that implement regenerative grazing and improve range and soil health, and biodiversity.
“Enjoying a grass-fed beef burger from A&W is just one way Canadians can support regenerative agriculture,” says Griffiths. “Regenerating Canadian soils and restoring grasslands is vital to help create a more sustainable future for communities, animals and the planet.”