What is regenerative farming, anyway?
There is no single definition because regenerative farming is site-specific. What works on your farm might not work on somebody else’s. But there are some basic commonalities between all the definitions. They are:
- Conservation tillage – in other words, disturb the soil as little as possible.
- Diversity – plant as many different plants as possible on your farm, leads to nutrient-dense soils which grow nutrient-dense food.
- Rotation and cover crops - keep plant roots in the soil year-round to avoid erosion, build up soil organic matter, and feed soil microorganisms. Planting the same crop in the same field decreases the diversity of microorganisms and increases the chance of pathogens.
- Mess with it less - always be cautious when adding natural or synthetic additives to your farm’s ecosystem. The natural relationships between microorganisms and plant roots can be easily disrupted by a misapplication.
That’s all well and good, you might say, but I’ve been getting good yields off my land the way I’ve been farming, why should I change?
That’s the best question you can ask. The answer lies somewhere between reverence for the earth and more profit from your farm.
What Are Your Expectations Of Regenerative Farming For Your Farm?
There’s a lot of literature out there that would lead you to believe Regenerative Agriculture is a silver bullet. It’s not. It isn’t a get rich quick scheme, it may take years to get it right – but has the potential to pay off in spades when you think of it as a long-term investment. But, even in the short term, regenerative farming practices will increase your soil fertility, which will lead to fewer disease and insect problems. You may also have a higher nutrient profile in your crops. Those practices may also help with water retention and decrease nutrient leaching (especially nitrogen), sequester carbon from decaying vegetation (plant roots) left in the soil and not tilled, and in the long-term – increased crop yields.
If you have a long-term vision of health for your farming ecosystem then regenerative farming practices will make your vision easier to attain. Just as your farm is unique the mix of regenerative farming practices you will use to create your vision will be different from your neighbors. That uniqueness is a difficult hurdle to overcome when converting to regenerative farming from conventional or even organic. But with the aid of a crop consultant, the proper ag tools (both mechanical and additives), and an open mind your farm can be more profitable rapidly.
What Do You Think Of Regenerative Agriculture?
Even if you think regenerative ag isn’t for you it doesn’t hurt to do a little research so you can know for sure. You can’t decide to change how you farm overnight, but consumers can decide what they are going to buy just that fast. For example, if you are raising soybeans, you are probably going to have a great market because, as Todd Neeley wrote in the May 3, 2019 issue of Progressive Farmer:
“It should be a net advantage for people who are farming crops, because it will allow them to get higher prices for other legumes, primarily. Pea protein, chickpea protein, and lupine are being turned into plant-based meat. So, you end up with a situation where you can go to more crop rotation, less mono-cropping…”
But processors and retail food companies aren’t looking for just any soybeans, or peppers, or cilantro. They’re looking for regeneratively grown crops. Consumers are beginning to ask where and how their food is grown. And, when all is said and done, the consumer is your boss.
But, how do you feel about fields with last year’s crop biomass standing in your fields in spring? Does it feel like you’ve not completed your job? The psychological and social components of transitioning to regenerative farming are just as difficult as deciding which cover crop is best for your situation.
Here are some facts to mull over and to share with your neighboring farmers:
- Most farms operate at a loss, especially if you remove government subsidies
- Agribusiness has consolidated most small or medium-sized farms, simply because the package of machinery and chemicals is too costly if you aren’t “big.”
- Grain yields have gone up, but protein concentrations keep going down. We’re eating more and still not getting the nutrients we need.
- If you are raising cattle in a CAFO you are using antibiotics – which pass through the animal into the manure you spread on your fields, contaminating soil and potentially water as well.
- Farming “as usual” with pesticides and herbicides is dangerous for your health, your families, and consumers. The USDA, in 2005, found detectable pesticide residues in 73% of fresh fruits and vegetables and 61% in processed foods. Those pesticides work on pests by attacking their neurologic, respiratory, and reproductive systems – they do the same on humans.
- Farmers, compared to other occupational groups, are the most likely to die from suicide, according to a 2020 survey by the CDC.
If no one in your vicinity is using regenerative farming practices you may feel lonely. That happens to anyone who has a new idea. You’re making your neighbors, who are using farming practices they inherited, a little uneasy. But in the process you’re creating greater fertility in your soil, making more money than your neighbors, and you’re acting as an inspiration to your community. Numerous studies, including “The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture” by Ponti, Tomek et al, have shown that, although yield generally goes down the first 2 years, profit goes up on the farm. How can that be?
The study “Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably” by LeCanne and Lundgren in 2018, found “…regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over conventional corn production systems.”
You aren’t spending tons of money on toxic chemicals. If you’re a conventional farmer you can’t just stop all chemicals cold turkey, but decreasing the amount of chemicals every year will increase the soil microbial activity. If you’re planting cover crops you can either think of them as a money drain or think of ways to diversify your farm. Cattle, hogs, and chickens are great secondary income streams and your cover crop (if you plant the right mix) is a perfect diet.
You care what your neighbors think about your farming practices. You’ve spent your life building up a reputation for neat tidy fields. The fertilizer dealer is your friend. In rural America, it’s hard to step out of line. But that’s what leaders do. If you’re a farmer, you’re a leader in your community – you have the opportunity to create major economic change in your area. If you make more money, you’ll spend it, then that person will spend it… There’s a wonderful economic effect in a community when a farmer starts making money instead of going into the hole every year.
But there are some real issues to overcome when you transition from conventional to regenerative farming.
Barriers To Converting To Regenerative Farming
Most farmers are risk-averse. Even though farming is one of the riskiest occupations, so many variables to consider for a profitable yield. But if you’ve been farming for all your life or inherited the family farm there’s a set way to do things.
“Even though most people are losing money in agriculture, the fear of change is so great that they would rather wrestle with the devil they know vs the devil they don’t know.”
Money is the most important factor for making decisions.
Lenders. Banks are the predominant form of farm financing. Banks are unwilling to support alternative farming practices such as regenerative farming, but will lend a farmer money if it is for something that supports the status quo. This keeps many farmers in a vicious cycle of conventional farming, low-profit margin, and degrading soils.
Crop insurance. Yes, as it is now you are rewarded for the risky behavior of planting in degraded or marginal lands. The current crop insurance rating program doesn’t recognize the benefits of improved agricultural practices. It rewards failure when you plant a crop on a field that you are pretty sure is too dry or too wet. This is a political and economic issue.
Machinery costs. When you change your rotation from corn and soybeans to include wheat, you need to buy a different machine, or at least another attachment. You also have to find a buyer for that wheat. It’s one of the reasons you and other farmers keep doing what you’ve always been doing. At the end of the day, you’re tired. You don’t have the energy to create new contacts for different commodities.
The Ag Science Complex. Research at land grant universities is often not really independent. This creates a bias in scientific studies and those scientists are, for the most part, working on small changes to the status quo. They may never have been on a farm or are using metrics that are not applicable to a healthy farm ecosystem. The scientific inquiry needed to validate regenerative farming practices isn’t being done by scientists from the traditional land grant universities.
But it is being done by farmers, companies such as Rogitex, and organizations such as the Rodale Institute that see the benefits of less tillage and less toxic chemicals on the soil food web and on crop yields. When you start searching into greater depth the information out there, you quickly realize that there is a growing number of members of the scientific community that has invested time and money into regenerative agriculture studies.
Crop Sales Infrastructure. In the developed world one of the most deep-seated barriers to regenerative farming is the entrenched nature of the agricultural supply chain and its economic constraints. At least, that’s the perception of many farmers. But that is changing. Major brand names such as General Mills, Danone, Interface, Kellogg, Nestle, Mars, Unilever, and Patagonia, to name a few are committing to regenerative agricultural products. The ag supply chain is changing for the good of our planet.
Your Future In Regenerative Farming
Conventional farming may be the mainstream today, but it’s steadily being overtaken by regenerative farming. Part of the change is due to consumer demand but many farmers are becoming aware their farming practices are beginning to cost them a lot of money. Farmers, perhaps you, are looking elsewhere for answers to their questions about yield, soil health, and insect and disease issues.
Many farmers are already practicing some aspects of regenerative farming and just think of it as “good management.” You may be one of those farmers. If so, some of what you have read will be a review, some will be new, and some you will simply disagree with. That’s part of the regenerative ag conversation. If you’ve been using minimal till or cover crops, you’re ahead of your neighbors. Now step up your game and learn more about the rhizosphere and the relationship between your crops and the soil they are growing in. There is a lot of activity under your feet.