Regenerative agriculture is the new buzzword, adopted by presidential hopefuls and critics of “industrial” farms. And also by some who say “certified organic” has been watered down as organic farms become “industrialized.” Sustainable is not good enough anymore. “Industrial” farms have destroyed soil health and productivity, critics say. Never mind that yields continue to go up on those “industrial” farms, and some of those same farmers are leaders in adopting soil-conserving and regenerative practices such as no-till.
Big food companies are jumping on the bandwagon. General Mills has begun initiatives to establish regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. In a more immediate challenge, they have partnered with Gunsmoke Farms LLC, a large farming operation in South Dakota, to convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland to organic by 2020.
General Mills is also a big contributor ($3 million+) to NGOs working on soil health and sustainability, such as The Nature Conservancy, the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership, and the National Wheat Foundation. Their projects seek to benefit 125,000 Great Plains farmers.
PepsiCo has a person assigned to work with farmers on sustainability methods, and are providing financial and marketing support to grow rotation crops, currently working with about 50 farmers. Target is working with Practical Farmers of Iowa and other groups to promote cover crop development.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre examples of regenerative agriculture comes from an interview with Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder and chairman. He insists regenerative agriculture cannot be done by big farms, that only small farmers can handle the nuances to make it successful. He pays small farmers in India 10 percent more to grow his organic cotton regeneratively.
“Regenerative agriculture can’t be done on a large scale. It just can’t,” Chouinard said. “These people are getting rid of their bugs by squashing them with their fingers. … Next year we’ve got 580 small farmers who will grow cotton this way.” And agricultural peasantry in India is being sustained!
Most regenerative agriculture advocates say it must be an add-on to organic farming. General Mills, however, takes a more practical approach, eliciting five core principles that do not mention organic.
- Minimize soil disturbance. This means no-till or conservation minimum till. It’s difficult for an organic farmer to control weeds without considerable tillage, which is the antithesis of regenerative.
- Maximize crop diversity. Necessary, advocates say, to keep diseases and insects under control without pesticides, and to build inherent fertility with legumes. That’s the way we farmed 70 years ago. It won’t support the kind of yields we need now to remain profitable and feed the world. And all crops grown in a rotation need to have a market and be profitable. Alternate crops with limited demand can be easily over-produced if too many farmers include them in their rotations.
- Keep the soil covered. This is an important erosion control measure for any farmer whether he/she farms in a 40-inch rainfall zone or a 10-inch zone subject to wind erosion.
- Maintain living roots the year around. Cover crops are an important factor in the Midwest and East where rainfall is excessive and erosion and nutrient leaching is a serious concern. Besides helping to control erosion and enable quick penetration of heavy rains, living plants through the winter can soak up nutrients left over from the previous crop and make them available for the next crop. They will absorb additional carbon, and build up organic carbon supplies in the soil — the focus of the regeneration effort. Less important, in my opinion, is that it keeps the root-active microbes busy between crops. I say less important, because populations of these organisms can recover quickly when living plants are again available. Planting a winter cover crop in the arid West is difficult, often impossible, unless the farmer can irrigate in the fall. Fall rains to sprout a cover crop often don’t come until temperatures are too cold to get significant growth before spring seeding or fallow preparations are underway. The only living roots available are usually weedy grasses and volunteer wheat. And they are not desirable as they will harbor root diseases that can infect the next grain crop, so the “green bridge,” as it is called, needs to be killed by chemicals or tillage two weeks before planting a spring crop. Carbon buildup in the soil is a challenge under arid conditions: Maintaining the status quo (sustainability) has to be the reasonable goal.
- Integrate livestock. Here is where I disagree with the pundits who claim livestock is necessary to promote the soil health of a farm. If you like livestock and the 24/7 care they require, and you have hay, pasture or cover crops they can harvest, they can perhaps enhance the bottom line. But if every farmer took cash cropland out of production to pasture livestock, we would have (a) a shortage of cash crops and (b) a meat-, milk-, and egg-production system with all the inefficiencies of 70 years ago. Pundits say the manure livestock produces is needed for soil health and crop nutrition, but manure is not a free lunch for the soil. Manure dropped on a pasture loses half its nitrogen back to the atmosphere. Even under the best manure storage conditions from livestock confinement 15 percent to 35 percent of the nitrogen will be lost to the atmosphere. And if cattle or pigs require feed from some other farm, nutrients excreted came from that other farm.
The theory that all “industrialized” soils are in need of regeneration because monocultures “doused” with chemical fertilizers and pesticides have robbed the soil of its carbon, biological diversity, and inherent fertility is bogus. One reference I came across while researching this article stated we only had 60 harvests left if we didn’t change the way we farm. To me, that’s nonsense based on the bulk of my readings and experience. Yields have been on a steady rise for 70 years. Soil conservation has made great strides in those decades, with millions of acres now virtually immune to soil loss because of no-till. Many diseases and insects have been conquered or marginalized through breeding and improved protectants. Sure, we still have improvements to make. But our productive future has never been more secure.
Jack DeWitt is a farmer-agronomist with farming experience that spans the decades since the end of horse farming to the age of GPS and precision farming. He recounts all and predicts how we can have a future world with abundant food in his book “World Food Unlimited.” This article was republished from Agri-Times Northwest with permission.