The Ultimate Guide to Regenerative Agriculture And Soil Health
Regenerative farming is a holistic, regenerative system of agriculture that embraces the principles of ecology. It can be seen as a new agricultural revolution or a revitalization of ancient practices that have been upgraded over time.
Sustainable agriculture has been practiced for centuries in local areas, but recent developments in equipment have made regenerative farming more accessible to larger operations too. The basics of this system include cover crop rotation, composting, carbon sequestration, and a focus on soil health.
At the highest level, regenerative agriculture focuses on the long-term health of the soil and the environment. It is a form of sustainable agriculture that can be traced back to ancient times.
We have seen an increase in awareness about the harmful effects of industrial agriculture on our environment, and regenerative farming offers an alternative to this harmful way of farming by focusing on sustainability, biodiversity, and healthy soil. In order for there to be meaningful change in farming practices, people must take a pragmatic approach to adopt these tried and true methodologies.
Let’s imagine soil as the skin of the earth. Now ask yourself, do we humans have a history of a good skincare routine with our planet? The answer is clearly “No”. We have seen topsoil erosion and compromise over the last century that outpaces the destruction of our farmlands across all of human history. If we are going to reverse this trend, we need to integrate systemic changes in the farming methods we use today.
How Did We Get Here?
Modern large-scale agriculture (as we know it in America today) essentially started in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. This allowed anyone to claim ownership of 160 acres of land in our heartland by proving they could sustain themselves for 3-5 years. It’s worth noting that much of the land gifted by Lincoln to American’s was acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. Although the land was purchased by America from France, the original owners of the land were Indigenous people. We will discuss how Indigenous people have impacted regenerative agriculture later in this article.
According to Lincoln’s agreement, at the end of the term, the land was deeded to the new owners if they could prove their farming and/or ranching acumen was up to standard and could sustain them. This set in motion the widespread agricultural progress for America in the new territory west of the Mississippi.
In all, more than 160 million acres of public land, or nearly 10 percent of the total farmable land of the United States, was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders. It is unclear how much of the 160 million acres were originally stolen from Indigenous people.
For the first 50 years, the plan worked to perfection as small farmers and ranchers blazed their trails across the heartland. However, in the 1930s, America suffered through one of the worst tragedies, both agriculturally and culturally, in its history – the Dust Bowl.
Over years, the farmers across North America had been over-tilling their soil while planting the same crops season after season. As farming became more commercial, and higher volumes of crops were needed to be harvested, we turned to the technology of the day (mechanized tilling and pesticides) to increase the output. However, the side effects of over-tilling (a term that didn’t even exist then) were catastrophic!
Over-tilling by itself did not create the Dust Bowl, just like an airline crash is not caused by one component failure. Typically, many smaller failures add up and lead to larger, systemic ones.
Farmers of the day were tilling and planting the same crop over and over. By creating a monoculture (the growth of only one type of crop in a given region), and without any cover crops to protect the land, wind erosion blew away the top layer of soil. Unknowingly, they were reducing the soil’s ability to be resilient to pests, weeds, droughts, and other adversities. The reduction of organic matter content turned America’s soil into a desert.
Alongside over-tilling and planting the same crops over and over, America saw major droughts in 1934, 1936, 1939, and 1940. All of these variables, stacked on top of each other, evolved into a situation that created massive fallout for American farmers and food supply chains.
Nature was not solely responsible for the Dust Bowl either. Politics and culture played a huge role also. In the early 1900s, wheat was sold in marketplaces for a few cents per bushel. Most wheat farmers were of European descent where it was a more localized crop among other grains and grasses.
However, with the advent of war (World War I), Europe’s grain routes (mostly from Russia) were blocked, and the U.S. stepped in to ramp up wheat production. Eventually, this guaranteed farmers $2 per bushel and created a mass market for wheat that previously did not exist.
How was that market supported? By leveraging the expansive original prairie grasslands of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, etc. Now, instead of varieties of crops produced by the small family plots, farmers inadvertently created vast monocultures by tilling and planting a single type of crop (wheat, corn, soy, etc.) with no cover crops in sight.
To make matters worse, the economic collapse of 1929 sent farmers scurrying west for employment, leaving vast areas of land unplanted and ripe for a soil disaster. Bring on the droughts of the 1930s and it’s easy to see how the perfect storm was unfolding.
Note: Cover crops are plants that are intended to cover the soil rather than for the purpose of being harvested. They help farmers manage soil erosion, soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, and diseases. By not planting cover crops, most (if not all) of the living organisms that keep soil healthy end up leaving because they have no food. Planting the same crop, harvesting, and tilling in constant cycles pulls the nutrients (and carbon) out of the soil and into the atmosphere. Carbon has gotten a bad reputation lately, but that’s because there’s too much in the atmosphere, and not enough in the ground!
What Were the Outcomes of The Dust Bowl?
America’s farmland went through a desertification process where the land degraded because biological productivity decreased. It’s estimated that over 100,000,000 acres of once fertile land was essentially turned into dust. When fertile areas become arid climates, it’s very difficult to reverse the effects.
Most of us think of the Dust Bowl as a singular event, however, the storms began in the 1930s and continued for nearly a decade. During that time, millions of people moved out of America’s heartland because of widespread hunger and poverty. Those original homesteaders who had to prove themselves in the late 1800s to keep their land were evicted by mother nature herself.
Because of what was happening to farmers across America, Franklin D Roosevelt decided to create the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) to revitalize the country’s farmland. Today, we know this organization as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Slowly but surely, this organization has helped support farmers, soil health, and the agriculture supply chains across America that the world relies upon.
So, from this natural disaster came a great organization that works with farmers every day. But the reality is, the dust bowl would have never happened if regenerative farming practices were used across America’s agriculture industry. Even today, it can be difficult to convince farmers to use regenerative farming practices.
The Solution to the Problem in the 1940s and How this Led to Today’s Farming Practices
The desertification of the heartland in the 1930s led to chemical and genetic technologies in the 1940s and beyond. Most of the chemical and genetic solutions were focused on introducing nutrients back into the soil. Much like the types of side effects humans get from taking drugs, adding lost nutrients to the plants created byproducts (or reactions) which then created more byproducts (and more reactions)! A vicious cycle was beginning.
The most notable undesired effect from introducing nutrients into a monoculture environment was the fact that weeds now had a new environment to thrive in. Crops can be seen as plants that humans have tamed to grow in certain areas, while weeds are plants that grow on their own, unassisted by humans.
The unassisted growth of weeds created an unintended nuisance – weeds competing against crops for nutrients and water. These weeds are supercharged with nutrients that are used as steroids for corn, wheat or soy. This became a real problem for farmers across the heartland.
So, how did farmers learn to control the weeds? By again turning to technology in the form of weed killers or herbicides. These herbicides did exactly what they were designed to do, kill the weeds. Of course, the herbicides created another byproduct (or reaction). New variants of weeds that become resistant to the herbicides in one or two generations. So new, more powerful herbicides needed to be developed, and the cycle continued.
Another nuisance that farmers had to consider was pests (or insects). Again, our farming community turned to the industry-leading technology, pesticides. These chemicals are designed to deter or kill harmful insects in farmland.
Crop-dusting (the act of spreading pesticides over a field before crops are planted), became common practice for farmers. These pesticides were designed to deter all different types of infestations.
As you may have guessed, much like the herbicides, the insects started to form a resistance to the pesticides. Again, we have put ourselves into a never-ending cycle of genetic adaptations and chemical alterations.
On top of all this, society began to see another byproduct that came by way of the increased use of chemicals in the fields. Now, not only do we know that crops are adversely affected by herbicides and pesticides (because, in fact, they are poisons), science has shown the effect of these chemicals on humans. How did we attack this problem? Again, turning to technology in the form of crop genetic modification.
Genetics is a fascinating science that has always been shrouded in a bit of ambiguity. As the smallest unit of heredity, DNA has been studied for decades to try and understand how it works and what makes us who we are. Just like humans have genetic makeup, so do plants.
Like us, plant genetics form the characteristics of the organism. Are we tall, light-skinned, blue-eyed or are we shorter, husky, and tan? It’s all in our genetics. Many times, plants have ideal and less ideal characteristics due to the conditions they are trying to survive in.
So, in the same way humans evolved to survive, so have our plant ancestors. By carefully studying and using genetic modification, researchers were able to develop crops with natural immunity to certain pesticides and herbicides. But again, byproducts reared their ugly heads.
Earlier we spoke about monocultures and the downsides of growing only one type of crop. Well, just like in humans, the crops’ descendants take on the benefits of their parents. Unfortunately, they also take on the flaws.
What happens when the parents are too close together in the bloodline? Genetic mutations. Plants develop genetic weaknesses just like humans can. But, by insulating them from the weaknesses with additional herbicides and pesticides, we can temporarily strengthen the line. These chemicals are just bandaids that never solve the root problem.
Think about it like this: A human that gets a kidney transplant is given a lot of drugs to help the body accept (or in most cases, not reject) the new organ. The body’s natural defenses stack up against this threat to knock it down. However, the downside is that now other threats (viruses, disease, etc.) are more capable of attack because nearly all the body’s defense mechanisms are being called upon to save the new organ. Transplant patients are often isolated for a time while the body heals and regenerates.
The plant’s ability to adapt and survive through adverse conditions create an environment for new threats to pop up all the time.
Of course, the human solution is more technology, more pesticides, more herbicides, and further genetic modifications. As you can see, this is an endless cycle. Unfortunately, the biggest loser in this battle is our soil. The natural balance of our soil health got further off track over the course of crop cycles and technologies. Our man-made solutions, while rapid and effective short-term, have overwhelmed our soil’s ecosystems and its ability to naturally recover and thrive.
We’ve leaned too heavily on genetic modification & chemical processing to put the necessary ingredients back into the soil through rotating in a whole new set of crops.
Genetic modification is the insertion of a gene from one species of plant or animal into another. Crops such as corn and soybeans are have been highly genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides. This process is called horizontal gene transfer which can lead to unexpected effects. For instance, corn has been shown to produce allergens and can cause problems in people with gluten sensitivities.
Countries with strong agricultural resources are investing in new technologies to increase their crop yields. But, unfortunately, this has led to declining diversity in the types of crops being grown. The biodiversity of plants is directly impacted by human decisions, so it’s crucial for us to keep track of the agricultural changes we make as we seek to grow biodiversity and soil health.
Of course, irrigation practices play a part too. Irrigation has smoothed over the rough patches of low rainfall periods. On the flip side, overuse of water is leading us back to a potentially catastrophic event. We are taking more water from the aquifers than is being replenished by rainfall and snowmelt. One of our most critical natural resources is becoming scarcer from Kansas (underground aquifers) to California (diversion of rivers to supply irrigation needs).
In the end, plant diversity, natural pesticides, and weed control all took a back seat to innovations in chemical technology. The soil across the world is depleted and abused by years of mistreatment.
What Do We Lose by Farming Traditionally?
The people on our planet are destroying the soil that houses 25% of all biodiversity. The soil provides us with oxygen, produces food for us to eat, and stores water that can be used for drinking. The soil also absorbs incoming carbon dioxide which helps keep the earth’s temperature cool. This is the type of carbon (sequestration) that we like!
One of the many reasons agriculture methods are problematic is because they require a lot of land. It has been estimated that one-third of the Earth’s dryland surface is used for growing crops. That means that currently there are 5 billion hectares of land farmed globally.
Our governments and agriculture leaders need to invest in soil conservation and restoration practices; the future of the planet rides on it. The world’s population is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. This type of population growth will come with an increasing demand for food.
So, as the global population continues to grow, so does the need for healthy, sustainable agriculture practices. Today, virtually all of the world’s agricultural land exists in a degraded condition, which reduces the availability of nutrients in the soil. In Africa, it is estimated that forty million people are trying to survive on formerly fertile land that has degraded to the point where it is essentially nonproductive.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that farmers need to invest in soil conservation and restoration practices in order to meet the growing demand for food. Food security is a growing issue because of the world’s rapidly changing population and changing climate.
The rapid growth in the global population combined with an increase in the demand for food has led to a decrease in farmland. This has increased the pressure to produce more food with less land. With this type of pressure on our farms and farmers, it is tough to visualize how we’ll meet those demands while sustaining healthy ecosystems that minimize environmental impacts.
Topsoil is typically found in regions where rivers meet oceans and support plant life. Biodiversity is the variety of living organisms within an area, such as a species, family of species, or ecosystem. The biodiversity within the topsoil is the beginning of agricultural fields that provide the stability necessary to produce food for people. The Amazon River is the largest river in the world, spanning 8,000 miles. It provides 20% of the earth’s fresh water and produces 20% of its oxygen.
Pesticides have been in use for a long time, but there has been a recent push to abandon them because they can cause a variety of health problems. According to the EPA, pesticides have directly impacted animal and human health. They add that the health effects of pesticides depend on the type of pesticide. Some, such as the organophosphates and carbamates, affect the nervous system. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body. All in all, direct exposure to pesticides can be dangerous.
It all comes down to this – our soil is the basis of our existence. It’s the medium in which plants grow. It contains our food, and it provides us with clean water. Soil is essential to life as we know it, so it’s time we pay attention to its condition and treat our soil with a little more kindness.
What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture, also known as regenerative farming, is a sustainable agricultural practice that supports the natural life cycle of the land. It is an augmentation of traditional farming practices, which are based on the use of chemical fertilizers and tilling, and has been shown to produce higher crop value.
In many ways, this regenerative method is better for the soil and ultimately better for the farmer’s bottom line. Over time, yields per acre will increase and there will be a drastic reduction in human input (irrigation, pesticides, herbicides, labor, equipment, etc.). In some cases, the value per acre can 2-3x just by going back to tried and true farming practices that were commonplace before the era of chemicals and genetic modification.
The regenerative approach to agriculture is clearly based on the principles of ecology. It recognizes that healthy soil is essential for healthy plants, animals, and human beings. The regenerative approach also recognizes that soil erosion and carbon sequestration are major problems facing our planet today.
The regenerative approach seeks to address these issues by promoting practices such as no-tillage (or low-tillage) farming, cover cropping, crop rotation, livestock integration (including poultry), composting, biological pest control, and water infiltration practices (such as rainwater harvesting).
It focuses on farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. This results in both carbon drawdown and an improved water cycle.
Regenerative agriculture practices are typically summarized into 5 main categories.
- Don’t disturb the soil through no-tillage, or minimal tillage practices.
- Keep the soil surface covered via the application of crops that restore soil health.
- Keep living roots in the soil, thereby building a thriving biological ecosystem.
- Grow a diverse range of crops that compost to create a rich microbial community.
- Bring grazing animals back to the land that stimulate plant growth and soil health.
NGO, The Carbon Underground, published this widely accepted definition of Regenerative Farming in 2017 –
“Regenerative Agriculture” describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.
Specifically, Regenerative Agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter.
This not only aids in increasing soil biodiversity and health but increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths, thus drawing down climate-damaging levels of atmospheric CO2 and improving soil structure to reverse civilization-threatening human-caused soil loss. Research continues to reveal the damaging effects to soil from tillage, applications of agricultural chemicals and salt-based fertilizers, and carbon mining. Regenerative Agriculture reverses this paradigm to build for the future.
Is Regenerative Farming New?
No; there is nothing new about regenerative agriculture. The indigenous people across America were masters of regenerative agricultural processes! For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous people of North America practiced a form of agriculture that sustained them for generations and defined their relationship with the land.
Contrary to popular belief, Europeans did not discover an “untouched land”. This idea, known as the ‘pristine myth’ of the early settlers, is just that, a myth. Charles Mann, the author of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” notes how this myth obscures the reality that Indigenous Americans were leading practices for hundreds of years that define sustainable agriculture and land stewardship today.
One of the agricultural systems the Iroquois practiced was called “The Three Sisters,” and it involved growing corn, beans, and squash in close proximity to each other. This kept the soil’s ecosystem diverse, as each plant had different characteristics, nutritional needs, and left behind varied biomass.
In this system, the corn stalks provided a natural trellis for the beans to grow on, which in turn helped the corn grow by adding nitrogen to the soil. The squash vines then acted as a ‘living mulch’ that could maintain soil moisture levels and keep weeds at bay. The three sisters could easily have been four, five, or a dozen – the more biodiversity, the better.
Because their land was their means to survival, indigenous peoples were true stewards of the environment. One of the most outstanding qualities of these communities is their deep connection to their surrounding land. For centuries, they had been protecting, preserving, and hunting in order to sustain themselves. Losing the resources and the land meant losing their homes, livelihoods, and, in extreme cases, it meant losing their lives. Today, they are also known for defending their land, forests, and rivers against the takeover for development and ‘conservation’ projects.
What Indigenous peoples are fighting for is their land, and all the plants and animals that live on it (as well as the plants and animals that live on neighboring lands). They understand this more than anyone else: without such landscapes, the Earth will eventually become dry and barren. Although they comprise less than 5% of the world population, Indigenous peoples protect 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity. However, despite their critical role in ensuring a resilient and healthy planet for plants and animals, there is a lack of mass interest in their efforts.
If we are truly concerned about achieving global sustainability and protecting the world’s biodiversity, we ought to be working more with indigenous peoples and communities to address these challenges. That starts with listening to them and recognizing their knowledge, experience, and culture.
One such person to listen to is A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa), the Director of Programs: Agriculture and Food Systems for the First Nations Development Institute. First Nations provides grants and technical assistance to native communities and economies. Recently, A-dae was interviewed by Arty Mangan, Director of the Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Program. Her insights are both timely and profound.
“There are stark differences between agricultural systems in indigenous communities and agricultural systems in contemporary communities.” A-dae points out, “The first being the idea of collective resources. In an indigenous community, there are some things that just cannot be commodified – land, water, air, animals, even the health of the people, all of which are considered collective resources. Collective resources require collective and community management.”
She goes on to point out the necessity of sustainable farming practices. “It’s important to keep in mind that food is an indicator of the health of a society. In an indigenous community, food shortages mean something within that society is awry and has to be fixed. But because [today] we have the extra barrier of food access through money, food no longer is that indicator. You have to replace that societal indicator with something else. When that happens, people are disconnected from society and from the collective resources that go into making food.”
A-dae directs us toward what she and so many other indigenous people believe is the correct path. “I think nature is our best teacher. But it’s a fallacy to think that we can imitate a system that has been in existence for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. These are systems that have been perfected because of relationships with other living beings, plants, animals, the land, and everything that surrounds it; those relationships take time. We are a very young society and nation…We can probably shoot for mimicking nature, but the idea that we could actually achieve it is a fallacy to me. We can observe it [nature] knowing that we can probably aid in the health of it, (but) there is something greater out there that we must respect.”
Finally, she states what many feels is obvious, “In regenerative agriculture, science needs to follow healthy systems. Indigenous people are stewarding healthy systems. Rather than trying to disprove or prove the functionality of these systems, science needs to take their cues and use scientific methods to explain the importance and the positive [outcomes] these stewarded lands [are producing].”
These principles can also be applied to cover crops (which we’ll touch on further) to improve soil health, sequester carbon, and bolster biodiversity year-round. Using combinations of complementary plants, known as “Intercropping” wasn’t the only way our native ancestors worked in harmony with the earth. Water management was as crucial to them back then as it is to modern farmers today.
The modern-day sustainable agriculture movement is focused on water management and adapting to different climates. Using old pre-colonial practices can be a good starting point for this. For example, Indigenous communities in more humid climates planted the Three Sisters on mounds of soil, which drains the soil of excess moisture. Today, mounds are still used as a way to preserve soil and reduce erosion.
In contrast, The Hohokam tribe in Arizona dug and maintained canals as an irrigation system to facilitate farming in a rather arid climate. Similarly, the Pueblo tribes used dams to prevent deep ruts and gullies and redirect the water for agricultural and other purposes. Today, farmers in those arid regions continue to use these irrigation practices to overcome drought cycles and otherwise dry conditions. However, we must note that these practices tax natural water sources and underground water tables.
The impact of colonial practices on indigenous people was devastating. Modern farming practices have reversed centuries of progress made by Indigenous people. Today, we have no one to blame but ourselves for climate change and environmental devastation.
Indigenous cultures around the world are fighting for their rights and land every single day. These people are by far the most underrepresented group in the world. Again, although they account for less than 5% of the earth’s land, they protect 80% of the earth’s biodiversity. They have a deep understanding of their environments which has allowed them to conserve extensive amounts of natural habitats. It’s time we look towards their ancestral knowledge as a modern way of living in harmony with the land.
Changing of Times – What was Old is New Again
The Western agricultural model is unsustainable. Not recognizing the role of indigenous people in regenerative agriculture is not accurately telling the story. Their implementation of tried-and-true farming methodologies proves that we need to turn to our past in order to learn how to move forward.
The regenerative agriculture movement is growing in size and momentum. The use of regenerative farming practices has been on the rise, with some experts claiming that it could be the answer to many of the world’s environmental problems. Regenerative farming methods have been described as “the most promising agricultural practice for reversing desertification” and have been used all over the world.
Recently, there has been an increase in interest in this topic due to its role in combating climate change and soil erosion. Humans have been on a quest to conserve and protect the earth’s natural flora and fauna for decades. Despite all our efforts, the earth is still losing an estimated 137 species every day.
Living organisms are an integral part of the earth’s natural ecosystem. The biodiversity in our environment is currently under threat due to the rapid, unprecedented rate of climate change. Habitats are shrinking and species are dying out. This has led to decreased productivity in agriculture, fisheries, and other vital industries.
Over the decades, soil erosion has become a serious issue that needs to be dealt with. Regenerative agriculture (or regenerative farming) is one of the solutions that has been proven to help in carbon sequestration and soil remediation.
One of the best ways to improve soil health is by using ancient techniques. This way, we can reduce the loss of topsoil, increase carbon sequestration, and reclaim our lost soils.
5 Ways our Ancestors Farmed in Harmony with the Land
They didn’t disturb the soil.
Soil supports a complex network of wormholes, fungal hyphae, and a labyrinth of microscopic air pockets surrounded by aggregates of soil particles. Disturbing this by plowing or heavy doses of fertilizer or sprays will set the system back.
They kept the soil surface covered.
The impact of raindrops, frosts or burning rays from the sun can all harm the soil. A duvet of growing crops, or stubble residues, will protect it. Contrary to popular belief, the further away from the equator we get, the more carbon we can store in the soil. This means vast amounts of land in the U.S. and Canada are ripe for regenerative agriculture processes.
They kept living roots in the soil.
In an arable rotation, there will be times when this is hard to do. But living roots in the soil are vital for feeding the creatures at the base of the soil food web; the bacteria and fungi that provide food for the protozoa, arthropods, and higher creatures further up the chain. They also keep mycorrhizal fungi alive and thriving, and these symbionts are vital for nourishing most plants. This creates a free fertilizing and watering service for crops.
They grew a diverse range of crops.
Monocultures do not happen in nature, and our soil thrives on variety. The only place you can find monocultures in nature is where humans have forced them into existence. Companion cropping (two crops that are grown at once and separated after harvest) can be successful. Cover cropping, (growing a crop that is not taken to harvest but helps protect and feed the soil) will also have the happy effect of capturing sunlight and feeding that energy to the subterranean world. These cover crops provide value at a time when, traditionally, the land would have been bare.
They grazed various animals on the land
Regenerative agriculture practices encourage animals to graze across the farmlands while crops are growing. Livestock feeding and supercharge the soil in ways that synthetic chemicals cannot. Some may ask, why not just regularly mow the grasslands that this livestock grazes in? Because mowing does not affect the crops in the same way. During livestock grazing, they actually tear the grasses and crops from their roots. This “tearing” damages the plant in a way that causes it to seek out more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help heal itself.
Why Are Regenerative Farming Practices Not Widely Adopted?
Many farmers across America are used to planting corn, wheat, or soy in their crop rotation. They are working on land that has been in their family for generations and, most notably, they are using practices that they are comfortable and familiar with. Tilling makes the planting process easier. Pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides kill off living things that farmers don’t want near their crops. All of these practices have been ingrained into our farming communities. On top of that, farming subsidies and regulations make it tough to buck that trend when there is a buyer for these crops.
Farming regulations are the reason why farmers are tied to subsidies. The government has set up these regulations to make sure that farmers don’t lose or make too much money. Since the 1980s, several agricultural policies have been enacted to stabilize prices and increase domestic production. The goal of these regulations is to help struggling farmers and protect consumers from inflation. Governments want the farmer’s income to stay level with the cost of living.
Farmers have found traditional farming practices to be more convenient, which means that regenerative practices take more work. Traditional farming practices are long-established, but we now know that they are not the best for the environment. Regenerative practices may take more effort to implement, but they are better for our land and our health.
Conventional farming methods are adopted over regenerative practices by most farmers. This is because the practices are well-known, there is little investment required, and the results are predictable. In fact, the results are many times guaranteed by the farm bill insurance.
The Farm Bill Insurance is a government initiative that has helped many struggling farmers. The insurance covers the farmer’s lost profits if disaster strikes, so they can continue farming, pay their bills, and provide food for Americans. However, by moving towards more independent methods, this insurance is typically revoked. This is a risk that many farmers who survive on slim margins are unwilling to take.
The federal crop insurance program was instituted on February 16, 1938. As with most government programs, good intentions often lead to disappointing results. A program that was intended to minimize risk has become a monster that now dictates most of the cropping decisions made in the United States today. It’s estimated that over 95 percent of planting decisions farmers make today are based on how much money they can guarantee themselves by insuring through crop insurance programs. Farmers know exactly the minimum amount of gross dollars per acre they will receive that year from crop insurance.
One large obstacle is fear – fear of letting go of the safety net of familiarity. We are now two generations removed from a production model that did not rely on extensive use of synthetics. Most farmers do not have the experience and knowledge to farm otherwise.
A second obstacle to change is the lack of financing options for farmers who move to a different production model. Most lending institutions are not familiar with regenerative agriculture and are hesitant to make loans to diverse operations unless good records or adequate collateral is offered.
Another obstacle had been measuring the actual health of the soil including how much carbon is present. Today, there are more advanced methods such as the Haney Soil Test. This series of advanced tests are named after USDA scientist Rick Haney. They include standard macro and micro-nutrients for plant consumption, but what’s different about the Haney test is that it also estimates nutrients for microbial consumption while focusing on how much carbon and nitrogen are in the soil.
What we get are snapshots of the organic matter pools and fluxes. These pools are constantly being replenished by plant root exudates and dead microbial cells. By incorporating regenerative methods, we should see improvement in the soil’s nutrients and overall health.
Regenerative farming methods can take more time and resources to accomplish. Since the techniques are less well known, they both require resources to learn how to use while lacking the predictability of conventional practices. But, there are success stories out there, such as Gabe Brown. Gabe is a North Dakota farmer/rancher that was forced into regenerative practices after his first few years of farming proved disastrous.
Gabe Brown, an American Regenerative Success Story (albeit not overnight!)
Gabe Brown runs a ranch near Bismarck, ND. He and his wife, Shelly bought the property from her parents in the early 1990s and took over a “traditional” farming and ranching operation. The years of agriculture, the common way, had taken quite a toll on what was now “Brown Ranch”. Through trial, error, and many hardships, Gabe realized the best way to bring the farm back was to bring the soil back. His efforts over the past decades are seen as revolutionary, and farmers all over the globe are looking to learn from the lessons that Gabe has learned. Today, he’s passing on his education to the next generation.
Gabe is a pioneer of the soil health movement and has been named one of the 25 most influential agricultural leaders in the United States. The Browns integrate grazing, no-till cropping systems, cash crops, and multi-species cover crops, along with all-natural, grass-fed beef and other livestock. The Brown family has received a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the USA Zero-Till Farmer of the Year Award. When it comes to regenerative farming, there are few as knowledgeable as Gabe.
Gabe’s ranch was in tough shape when he and Shelly took over, and the symptoms of degraded resources were evident – poor infiltration, poor fertility, weeds, and low yields. This combined with high input costs nearly put them out of business before they got started. The cause of all these symptoms was the same – poor ecosystem function. The result was soil laid bare to the elements where every storm washed away more topsoil.
Bare soil is one of the worst symptoms of a degraded ecosystem on any farm or ranch. It is the first step toward desertification, and much worse for fragile areas that have limited rainfall throughout the year. To bring this ranch back, there needed to be some drastic changes. Gabe began to realize that nature is more collaborative than competitive and that the standard ways of agricultural “combat” were not working.
Gabe met with Ray Archuleta, a farmer from Seymour, MO. who teaches Biomimicry Strategies and Agroecology principles on improving soil function. He has over 30 years of work experience as a soil conservationist, and this collaborative concept ran totally against his training as a government agronomist – where the traditional “fight the farm’s enemies” was prolific. Ray’s studies in soil health, and a new view on collaborative crops, insects, and livestock, proved vital for Gabe’s future practices.
The first step was to cease all tilling. Once farmers stop tilling, they can further the healing process by planting a cover crop because green plants don’t just protect the soil, they are biological primers. They capture solar energy and transfer it to the microbes in the soil (photosynthesis), fueling the fusion of life.
Without cover crops, you’re going to “spill the sun” as Ray says, and waste an opportunity to start the healing process for your soil. So, how did Gabe prepare the land for seeding without tilling? He went back to nature’s prescription: where seeds fall amongst biomass already on the ground.
Simply put, no-till farming is a practice that employs a seed drill with a single disc that cuts a slice in the soil no greater than the width of a knife. If there is crop residue on the field, the discs can easily slice through it. The drill has multiple seed units mounted on top. Seeds drop through the center of each unit and are deposited in the small slit made by the disc at a predetermined depth. “Nature never tills”, but what nature does is develop diversity. In a prairie ecosystem like North Dakota, there are dozens of different species of plants (mostly perennials) growing together in symbiosis.
The next step was to stop the overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and other forms of biocides. Most farmers use insecticides to kill pests, but what they don’t realize is that they are killing predator insects too. For every pest species, there are between 400 and 1,700 species of insects that are beneficial to humans (think bees). Through the widespread killing of insects, we ensure we never have the population of predatory insects we need to kill the real pests. Without these beneficial insects, food webs and ecosystems will eventually collapse. Herbicides are also common to combat weeds, but as Gabe has learned, those “weeds” can be controlled with natural methods. What Gabe found was that, in many cases, those weeds became beneficial.
Along with cutting the biocides, Gabe reduced or eliminated the artificial nutrients he was adding. He realized that only about 40 percent of the synthetic nutrients applied in a given year on his croplands were actually taken up by the plants that year. The remainder stays in the soil. More often than not, especially in the case of nitrogen, fertilizers are lost due to leaching out of the soil. Above every acre, there are approximately 32,000 tons of atmospheric nitrogen. Why would any farmer purchase synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, rather than “harvest” their own nitrogen from the air above by using cover crops?
Without healthy soil, we cannot have healthy crops, healthy animals, or healthy people. We must promote the health and functioning of the ecosystems in which we farm. Like humans, nature can handle occasional stress. But, also like humans, nature cannot function properly in the face of prolonged or chronic stress.
More Seeds of Hope – How Regenerative Agriculture Can Save The Planet
We see regenerative practices popping up across the country. Typically, it’s farmers like Gabe who have reached a “breaking point” with their land and opt to try something new. In some ways, it’s seen as a risky venture, but some agronomists think the risk is not only worth it, but the risk of continuing down the current path will lead to certain ruin for our country’s farms and farmers.
In California, agriculture is big… really big! When asked what the state’s largest business is, most think of technology, entertainment, or even tourism. However, California’s biggest business sector by far is agriculture!
California’s agriculture industry is the largest in the country, and it employs nearly one million Californians (or nearly ½ of the entire country’s farmworkers). California produces 50% of the country’s vegetables and over 65% of all fruits and nuts! Almonds, walnuts, avocados, and various beans are all grown in California and distributed internationally.
California’s farms are vast and grow a wide variety of produce. But California’s nuts and citrus fruits have traditionally had a more difficult experience out west due to their appetite for water.
Since soil health and water conservation are vital to keeping these farms going, it’s natural to see a lot of innovation coming from this region. Combine that with California’s many universities, and their reputations for leading agriculture education (along with California being one of the more progressive states), and, naturally, many new farming techniques that are better for our planet are being studied there.
UC Davis’ Russell Ranch
Agricultural progress and education are not new at U.C. Davis (just west of Sacramento). After all, they call themselves “The Aggies”! For years they’ve been the top-rated agriculture school in the state, and offer 39 majors in agriculture and food science. One of the highlights is the school’s Russell Ranch.
The UC Davis Russell Ranch’s practices are changing the way farmers farm. They have found that the more rotational they are, the more sustainable and environmentally friendly their farming is. What does this mean? This means less water usage and less soil erosion. It’s not just an academic theory, they are putting regenerative farming into action on some larger scales. Their flagship program, however, is the “Century Experiment”.
Changes in the soil and agroecosystems often happen gradually, so they started their flagship 100-year experiment—the Century Experiment—in 1993 to understand the real impacts of agricultural management on resource use, economics, and the environment in over the long term.
The philosophy of the Century Experiment is a simple one: studying how farm management practices impact the ecology of the farm over the seasons, years, and decades will help figure out how to make agriculture and food production more sustainable.
On the 72 one-acre plots of the Century Experiment, they measure these trends by regularly observing:
- crop yield
- soil quality and biodiversity
- water and energy use
- other environmental impacts
What are the outcomes of the Century Experiment? Well, we’ll know all of them in 2093. But, in the interim, they have found that many of the ways our ancestors farmed are key to returning our soil to its once vibrant and productive state.
Chico State University’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems (CRARS)
The Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems (CRARS) is a non-profit organization that works with food and farming systems. According to their publications, the goals are to:
- Develop trans-disciplinary teams that include farmers and ranchers as research partners to investigate innovative methods and strategies resulting in practical, transferable, and transformative solutions that regenerate soils, ecosystems, and our rural communities while improving carbon capture, soil health, and food quality.
- Create collaborative networks and communication platforms for applied research, learning centers, and demonstration sites with partnering farms and universities that foster open dialog and data sharing.
- Transform agricultural and urban landscapes through regenerative practices.
- Develop and implement strategies for creating multi-scale food security, from local foodsheds to global production.
Chico State is not stopping with research in the classroom or on just select farms within the school’s systems. No, they are taking a number of CAPS (Community Action Programs) directly out to local farmers in the surrounding areas which include the following actions:
- Conduct applied research on regenerative food production systems to fill gaps in our understanding of RA practices.
- Establish a national network for regenerative agriculture that includes academics, extension, farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, and agency personnel to coordinate efforts around local food networks that support regionalized farm-to-fork systems to benefit regenerative farmers.
- Establish and maintain an educational website that will provide open access to all manner of data and information that pertains to RA.
- Establish a comprehensive educational program in Regenerative Agriculture that includes an industry Certificate, a Major and Minor in Regenerative Agriculture, as well as field days, special events, conferences, and on-farm demonstrations and learning centers that focus on regenerative farming practices.
- Establish/support “Farmer to Farmer Networks” for regenerative practices in all production systems that include cohorts of farmers and ranchers for peer support systems.
- Conduct special strategic planning sessions around the concept of a peer-reviewed Journal for Regenerative Agriculture that will focus on systems-based research in RA.
As you can see, these institutions are taking on the challenge to bring new farming methods into the mainstream. But regenerative farming is not just being led in California, it’s being championed on the opposite coast as well. In Boston, Massachusetts Indio Agriculture has become a leading researcher in advanced regenerative practices.
Indio Agriculture’s Terraton Initiative
In the Summer of 2019, Indigo Agriculture launched The Terraton Initiative. Their goal is to garner interest (and investment) from both individuals and corporations to back farmers in adopting regenerative practices. Indigo’s leaders claim some lofty goals – “This shift in the way farming happens around the world has the potential to remove one trillion tons of carbon from the atmosphere—and ground it in the soil. In effect, this initiative can help reverse climate change.”
In a cruel twist of fate, the regions most damaged by human intervention are the areas we see the most in need of help. The Terraton Initiative also has the ambitious goal to eradicate hunger in the world by 2050. Indio Agriculture will lead this initiative by planting one billion trees every year to capture carbon dioxide, increase rainfall, and restore soil fertility. This will create better crops with fewer inputs for regions that desperately need help.
From California to Boston, and South Carolina to Saskatchewan, we are seeing farmers joining with researchers and other organizations to increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices. This is what will restore our damaged soil.
What are the Economic Benefits of Regenerative Farming?
If we look back at Brown Ranch, one of Gabe’s resolutions was to stop thinking about yields and start thinking about profitability. See, not only is Gabe into saving the planet, but he’s also a capitalist! He outlines the fact that today’s farmers only see about 14 cents of every dollar they earn from the food they produce. Anyone taking home 14% of the value of what they produce has a problem on their hands.
Gabe, while not earning 100% of his farm’s value, is getting pretty close. This means he’s more in charge of marketing, storage, and distribution. So far, his family, customers, and bank account are satisfied with the results. Gabe has a great saying – “I’d rather be signing the back of my checks than the front!” Me too, Gabe, me too.
So, how is this possible? Well, for starters, regenerative farming has fewer input costs, like pesticides, water, and added nutrients, which mean fewer passes over the field. That means while his yields may be the same, or even lower, the profit per acre is much higher (with much less time and money spent on the fields).
Also, many regenerative farmers are looking at cash flow statements in terms of carbon. Carbon is not a typical commodity here in the U.S., but trends are pointing to that changing in the near future. In the last few decades, there has been a worldwide increase in soil degradation.
This degradation can be attributed to a number of factors, including the use of chemical fertilizers, monoculture farming practices, and heavy livestock grazing. However, one of the most measurable reversals of this degradation is the carbon content put back in the earth. Soil health improvements have been found to improve water quality, reduce erosion and runoff from agricultural lands, and increase energy efficiency. In many ways, they all help sequester carbon. As we know, one of the best ways to sequester carbon dioxide (and profit in the interim) is by planting cover crops.
Returning carbon to the soil increases the organic matter, by factors of several hundred in many cases. Gabe’s ranch went from less than 1% to over 6% in just a few years. For every one percent gained, he can store between 17,000 and 25,000 gallons of water per acre! The soil is storing better because it’s in better shape to absorb it. Now, rainfall gets stored in his soil and does not run off (taking that valuable topsoil with it)!
Sequestering carbon may also yield more profits in the future as carbon markets emerge. The international initiative “4 per 1000”, launched by France on 1 December 2015 at COP 21, consists of federating all voluntary stakeholders of the public and private sectors (national governments, local and regional governments, companies, trade organizations, NGOs, research facilities, etc.) under the framework of the Lima-Paris Action Plan (LPAP).
The initiative aims to demonstrate that agriculture, and in particular agricultural soils, can play a crucial role where food security and climate change are concerned. Supported by solid scientific documentation, this initiative invites all partners to state or implement some practical actions to amplify soil carbon storage (e.g. agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, landscape management, etc.).
The storage of carbon is not just good for the world, it can be sold. Recently, some European companies have placed prices on carbon as high as 116 Euros per metric ton. This translates to hundreds of Euros of additional revenue per acre for farmers committed to sustainable agricultural practices.
The more rapidly we rebuild our soil, the faster we get to reclaiming much of the 86% of revenue lost to traditional farming practices.
Top 5 Reasons why Regenerative Farming is More Profitable
1. It can reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides which are harmful to the health of plants and animals.
2. It can improve water quality by reducing the runoff of contaminants into rivers, lakes, and streams. Better water quality means a reduced need for irrigation.
3. It can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil. In turn, carbon credits can be quantified and monetized.
4. It can help to rebuild ecosystems by providing habitat for pollinators, birds, fish, and other wildlife species, while also reducing fuel consumption due to less need for mechanization of agriculture operations.
5. The practices used in regenerative farming have been shown to increase crop yields, reduce costs, and ultimately increase profitability.
What Can We Do to Increase Regenerative Farming?
Hopefully, by now you’re confident that our traditional farming practices need to change. It’s not just a matter of healthier food, better yields, and more efficient use of our farm/ranch lands. It really does come down to a matter of survival for us and our descendants. In order to increase regenerative farming, we all need to get involved. We believe it’s a matter of education, and that’s the impetus behind this article. Consumers, farmers, researchers, and most importantly, the agriculture business community needs to open up to the idea that there are better ways to bring crops to the masses.
Individually, we can seek out organic goods at our markets. Or, even better, we can shop at local farmers’ markets where more natural products are sold. There are more of these types of markets today than ever before!
We also need to increase the number of organic farmers by providing them with more training and education. Many programs, books, and working farms are out there. Let’s look to these experts and learn from both successes and failures.
The organic farming industry is also being severely affected by the lack of young people entering the profession. In order to combat this, a new program should be created that provides more training and education to those going into organic farming. If this program is created, it would help the organic farming industry tremendously because there would be a large influx of educated individuals going into it. We need the next generation to not only be concerned about farming (and maybe tweeting about it) but to really get passionate about restoring our soil. Gabe Brown put it best and to paraphrase – if we make all this progress and the next generation does nothing with it, we are doomed!
There are some commonalities learned from the soil pioneers practicing today such as:
- The use of high-tech farming equipment that can help reduce soil erosion and create better soil quality is becoming more common. The technology that is currently available for this includes GPS-guided tractors, soil sensors, laser-leveling devices, self-steering systems, and more.
- Allow time for the soil to regenerate. It’s time to reform commercial agricultural practices so that they are more sustainable for future generations. The use of chemicals, pesticides, and other methods to interrupt the natural cycle of life is helping our planet’s soil.
- Plant cover crops. We now know that this is one of the most important things you can do to save the soil. This will help with erosion and reduce the need for fertilizers or herbicides.
- Reclaim topsoil by adding compost or mulch which will help with both carbon sequestration and water retention. The use of composting will also provide nutrients for the soil that the plant needs to grow.
Beyond what individuals can do, there is also a need for a major change in policy. We need far more subsidies for farmers to switch from traditional methods to regenerative agriculture methods. The world’s agricultural system is unsustainable, however, most (if not all) Federal funding is based on these older, antiquated methods. New grants and assistance programs need to be structured around regenerative and sustainable practices to help our farmers jump-start these initiatives.
Let’s face it, the world’s population is expected to reach an estimated 8.6 billion people by 2030. To feed them, we will need a 70% increase in agricultural production. 70% over what we are producing worldwide today! That’s an enormous task that simply won’t be possible by expanding what we are currently doing today.
A total shift is needed. A great quote from Don Campbell (read from Gabe Brown’s book) lays it out perfectly – “If you want to make small changes, change how you do things. If you want to make major changes, change how you SEE things!” So now is the time to bring these regenerative agricultural practices into clearer focus.
We can create healthier soil, nutrient-dense foods, cleaner air, and cleaner water. It’s not just a sustainable way of farming, it’s a sustainable way of living that can help solve many of the world’s most pressing problems.
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