Could Regenerative Agriculture Save Us?
The world’s population is exploding, and food production is being pushed to the limit to support it. But some are practicing a new, more sustainable system of farming, one that combine ancient farming practices with space-age technology. The question is, is it enough?
A couple of years ago, my wife and I planted a small garden in our backyard to grow veggies like squash and bell peppers. Wanna see it? Let’s go take a look!
Yeah, we’re not good at this.
Luckily, that was just a project for fun, we don’t rely on that for our food, much less other people relying on it.
No, we can just go down the street to the store and take our pick from the cornucopia of produce from all around the world, ready and waiting whenever we want it.
This is a convenience that most people didn’t have throughout all of human history, but it comes with a cost.
According to the EPA, tractors burn 5.3 billion gallons of fuel a year in the US alone, and agriculture accounts for 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Not to mention water use and the knock-on effects of fertilizer and pesticides.
Oh, and half of all food that gets produced gets thrown away.
So much about how we grow our food right now is inherently unsustainable. And with our population continuing to grow, these resources are going to be even further strained in the future.
In fact some researchers have estimated that from now to 2060 we are going to have to produce as much food as we produced in the last 500 years.
But there are some who see a different way forward. A more sustainable way, one that combines ancient practices with modern technology. It’s called Regenerative Agriculture, and it promises to revolutionize food production… If it works.
VERY EARLIEST AGRICULTURAL COMMUNITIES
Scientists and archeologists may not agree on exactly when agriculture began, but there’s no question how important it was to our development as a species. For the first time, we were adapting the environment to fit our needs and not the other way around.
A development that will in no way ever come back to bite us in the ass.
The general consensus is that this started around 10,000 years ago, but this date keeps getting pushed back.
Take a recent archeological discovery called Ohalo II in the Sea of Galilee, which, when I say in the Sea of Galilee, I mean IN the Sea of Galilee. It was only found when a drought lowered water levels enough to reveal it.
There they found evidence of small-scale agriculture. Things like sickles and grindstones as well as fruit and cereal grain residue. And this dates back to 23,000 years ago.
By the way, if you’d like to see a video about the oldest cities ever found… I might be up for that.
HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE TO MODERN METHODS
The first depictions of a plow were by the ancient Sumerian people in the late neolithic period around 7,000 years ago.
Rice cultivation thrived in the Indus Valley Civilization at about the same time, which would spread to other parts of Asia.
In Europe, grains like barley, wheat, oats and rye were popular, and as the feudal system developed, they kinda landed on a two step crop rotation system.
Basically you farm it, then let it go fallow and have the animals eat grasses or hay for a season and then plant your crop again. The benefit of this is it lets the crop rest and the animals help nourish the soil with their manure.
The downside of this method though is that you’re kinda without food for parts of the year which requires you make bigger crops, which means cutting down more forests… It wasn’t that sustainable.
A new pattern emerged in the late Middle Ages where they used three fields, this allowed them to plant year-round and still give the crops time to rest.
Around the 1400’s it became more popular to plant cover crops in the off season instead of letting the fields go fallow. These were non-edible plants that helped hold water in the soil and prevent erosion – I’ll get into that later.
But the biggest change in agriculture took place along with the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. As roads and transportation infrastructure improved, and farms became mechanized, the productivity of farms went off the charts, and populations grew accordingly. This is often called the Second Agricultural Revolution.
THE DUST BOWL
Enter the Dust Bowl. As if the Great Depression wasn’t bad enough, we also experienced an unprecedented ecological disaster on top of it.
Overproduction of crops combined with a 10-year drought led to a massive loss of topsoil across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Massive blizzards of sand darkened the skies as farmers went bankrupt in record numbers and the nation experienced food insecurity.
The prevailing wisdom at the time was that America was the land of plenty. In fact according to the Bureau of soils in 1909:
“The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.”
Turns out that was wrong.
Through a combination of factors like the creation of the Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service), farm subsidies, and a new level of mechanization spurred on by World War 2, we eventually pulled ourselves out of the dirt.
Once again we were able to innovate our way out of a problem and found a way to make…
One of the innovations by the way was the Haber-Bosch method for synthesizing ammonium nitrate, this made fertilizers cheap and abundant.
It also made bombs back in World War 1, so… slightly better use.
Pesticides came into wide use during this time as well and some of the earliest ones had arsenic in it. Because we learned nothing from the Victorians apparently.
PROBLEMS WITH MODERN DAY AGRICULTURE
And we’ve essentially been pounding the ground for more food ever since.
This modern style of agriculture has led to issues from dangerous run off, toxic chemicals, soil erosion, and 700 million tons of CO2 every year in the US alone.
We’ve become so reliant on industrial agriculture that we’ve kind-of forgotten the old tried and true methods that sustained our species for thousands of years. Of course the flipside to that argument is that those tried and true methods couldn’t sustain the population we currently have… Which was only possible because of our industrialized food production… We’re kinda stuck in a loop here.
And this is where regenerative agriculture comes in.
Dear lord. Did I just spend 5 minutes going all the way back to the very beginning of human agriculture just to make this one point?
You know what, let me save you some time, I’ll do this for you.
(on screen, a comment window slides up and the words “GET TO THE POINT JACKASS” type on there)
THE CORE TENETS OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE
The term “Regenerative Agriculture” is a fairly amorphous one, there is no one agreed upon definition of what is and isn’t regenerative agriculture, it basically encompasses various practices that aim to make farming a less extractive process. With a large focus on mimicking nature.
It often involves planting mutually beneficial crops like the three sisters method practiced by Native American tribes in the Northeast, or planting tomatoes and basil together and now I want a Caprese salad.
It also focuses on maintaining a healthy fungal and bacterial microbiome in the soil for greater productivity as well as maintaining healthy root systems that lock in the topsoil and prevent erosion.
But one of the largest selling points especially considering our current climate situation is that regenerative farming produces far less CO2 and in fact can act as a carbon sink, locking carbon in the ground over time.
So, with all of that in mind, here are some of the various practices that make up regenerative agriculture.
First let’s talk about cover crops.
Cover crops are basically magic. They can sequester carbon during the winter fallow season while also controlling weeds, protecting soil, and capturing excess nutrients not used by the main season crop.
On top of that, the residue left by the cover crops can provide slow-release nutrients during the growing season as it decomposes.
They firm up the soil, preventing it from drying out into dirt and flying away Dust Bowl Style.
Any farmer that’s not using cover crops in some form is missing out, and yet… only
12% of farmers use cover crops. Only 3% here in Texas.
Okay if it has so many benefits then why are 88% of farmers NOT doing it? Well, the simplest answer is that a cover crop is still a crop.
They cost money to buy the seeds, they take energy and time to plant and cultivate the seeds, and water… It’s literally double the work.
Plus most farmers operate on someone else land, so you’re spending all this money and energy on improving land that you don’t own planting a crop that doesn’t make you any money.
Rental contracts are often short term and cover crops are a long term strategy. You’re basically doing really good work improving the land for the next guy that comes along.
And if you are a farmer and barely getting by because soybeans have cratered in price, you aren’t going to use cover crops or let your land go wild just to make the “hippies” happy.
This is going to require political support but farmers only represent 2% of the voting population, so good luck with that.
But if you’re a farmer and you own the land, it’s a reasonable long-term investment in the health of your farm. Unfortunately in our current big Ag situation, these are usually relegated to small family farms.
This is an effort that needs to be supported with government incentives, which was part of the Green New Deal that never got passed.
But the way things are going it may be inevitable. Our topsoil is in danger. Iowa for example is losing topsoil at 16x the natural rate and some are concerned that we’re on the verge of a new Dust Bowl without some kind of intervention.
INTENSIVE ROTATIONAL GRAZING
Next on the list is Intensive Rotational Grazing.
This one is a great idea. Until it’s not.
This basically involves strategic grazing of livestock in the fields. The livestock eats the crop – maybe even a cover crop – and then poops it back out onto the ground filled with microbes and nutrients.
The trick is keeping these organic lawn mowers moving around from one plot to the next without letting them eat too much of the crop and damaging the roots.
One way to do this is with mobile electric fences that corral the cows into the next area, the trouble with this, as you may have already figured out, is it only really works on small areas.
The larger the plot, the more cows you need to graze it, the more fences required to move them around – it doesn’t really scale up.
Proponents might argue that this is a good thing, keep farms small, instead of having hundreds of giant industrial farms, we should have thousands of smaller, more sustainable farms.
Which does sound great, but the reality is there just aren’t that many farmers out there, or people who really want to farm.
Another practice is No-Till Farming
Tillage is when you basically dig into and tear up the soil and there are some good reasons for this, to aerate the soil, to break up stalks and roots from the last season and to expose new seeds to as much soil as possible. But there are some good reasons not to.
Soil erosion being a big one, plus it can dry out the soil and kill beneficial microbes and fungi and earthworms, which by the way, release carbon into the atmosphere when they decompose.
Depending on the type of soil you’re working with, you can either implant the seeds into the ground like giant hypodermic needles, or they can simply fold the soil back, implant a seed and fold it back up again, which is kinda mesmerizing.
This uses far less fuel than traditional farming, which usually uses 6 gallons of diesel per acre, no-till uses 2.
Assuming the cost of diesel is around $3/gallon, a 1000 acre farm could save $18,000.
Plus no-till farms also retain a lot more moisture, which is better in drought conditions.
For every 1% of organic matter in an acre of soil can hold 16,500 gallons of water.
Conventional ag soil has 0.5% of organic matter.
Regen farms can have up to 5% organic matter per acre.~ 82,500 gallons per acre
And yet, only 21% of farms use no-till practices. The reason? Big surprise, it’s money.
In order to convert from traditional tilled farming to no-till, you have to buy new equipment and farming equipment is expensive. Like, really expensive.
Many farmers who have made the switch said that it was difficult at first, but over time increases in crop production made up for the cost.
So, no-till is gaining in popularity lately. Even though only 21% of farms do it, there are big players like General Mills that are promoting no-till farming. So hopefully this becomes more the norm soon.
Then you’ve got composting.
Composting is nothing new, and it’s pretty well known – you might even do it yourself either with a composting pile in your backyard or with a rotating composter like I have.
Composting is basically just decomposition of organic material that gets cycled back into the soil. If you do no-till farming you kinda naturally get a kind of composing as layers of soil get added on.
Think about lasagna with a layer of dead plants, cow poop, fresh plants cut down, and plants actively growing. Give this a couple of seasons and you got a stew going, baby.
So where with rotational grazing, the cows wander the fields and deposit the manure naturally, with composting often farmers will create a central area where the cows are kept and the manure is then harvested and sprayed on crops.
Although, like rotational grazing there are scaling issues. Most farmers can go about 5 miles before the spraying of the manure becomes cost prohibitive.
Composting is super important in smaller farms though because it recycles the nutrients and reduces the amount of inputs.
That’s a recurring theme with Regen farming, is reducing the inputs, meaning fertilizers and pesticides being added to the fields. Nutrients are precious and it’s all about recovering and reusing as much as possible.
Nutrients on a regenerative farm are like water on Arakkis. Every drop counts.
By the way, if you have a home and a yard, there’s nothing stopping you from composting.
It kinda drives me nuts when I see people bag up their cut grass or leaves and throw them away, it’s like what are you doing? You’re taking something natural and wrapping it in plastic and then spreading chemicals on your yard to do the same thing that natural stuff would have done, it’s insanity.
And last but not least we’ve got Agroforestry.
Agroforestry is basically using trees and shrubs in mutually beneficial ways to protect and nourish crops.
They can do this by providing windbreaks around the perimeter of fields to prevent wind erosion,
Serving as buffers along rivers and streams to filter farm runoff and stabilize stream banks.
A technique called Silvopasture combines trees with livestock and their forages on one piece of land.
Alley cropping means planting crops between rows of trees to provide income while the trees mature.
The whole Silvopasture thing sounds especially cool because you’ve got cows grazing under trees, the trees produce food and attract pollinators that pollinate the crops, which are nourished by the cows and the leaves falling off the trees.
It’s this whole symbiotic thing where plants and animals coexist and benefit each other. (Circle of Life clip?)
The problem… As you’ve heard many times in this video… is scale.
What works great for small and medium-sized farms just isn’t practical for the big industrial farms that make up the vast majority of food production in the United States. And the vast majority of CO2 emissions.
So, is regenerative agriculture the solution? The blunt answer is no. Not at the level of food production required to keep up with current demand.
For regenerative agriculture to truly make an impact, we would have to completely transform our system of farming from one of giant industrial farms to smaller farms managed by thousands and thousands of new farmers. And, we would have to completely change our standard of living to one with less food variety, which… that’s not something people are going to be okay with.
And as I said before, there’s not a whole lot of people in this day and age aching to do farm work.
It’s grueling, sunup to sundown physical labor with razor-thin financial margins that so much of the time depends on the whims of the weather that year and market fluctuations that are completely out of your control.
We’re actually in a bit of a farming crisis right now. Farm debt has reached the highest levels since 1980, and bankruptcies on the rise. Farm bankruptcies in the Midwest jumped 19 percent in 2018, reaching their highest level in a decade.
Which, and this may sound counterintuitive, is actually a good reason for small farmers to embrace regenerative agriculture.
Regen farmers report higher levels of happiness and fulfillment; it’s still hard work, but it’s more purposeful and meaningful and maybe part of that is because over time they see better crop production out of it.
Fewer inputs, less tilling means less money for fertilizers and fuel, which cuts down on overhead, and healthier soil over time means higher yields and more income.
And there’s a lot of farms that could benefit from this. The average farm size in the United States is 100 acres. So it’s not all Big Ag out there.
The biggest hurdle is just the cost of new equipment so it will take some subsidies and incentives, along with some education and training to help farmers make the switch.
This is of course a bit of a political football because this is seen as a “green, climate-change” thing, which it is… But it also could help a lot of small farmers get out of dire financial positions.
Especially once you combine these practices with technology.
Farming is a lot more than just throwing some seeds on the ground and adding water. Crops are not chia pets.
They have to be carefully managed and with as little human effort as possible. This has been the struggle since the Sumerians made the first plow. But a new wave of agricultural technology might superpower those old, more sustainable farming practices.
For instance, satellite technology makes it possible for farmers to get up-to-the-minute reports on moisture retention in their fields.
Autonomous farm equipment allows one or two people to work an entire crop far more efficiently than a team of people.
New discoveries in fungi science boost nutrient distribution in the fields.
And transgenic plants who are genetically altered to resist drought, pesticides, and able to fight disease.
Think of it as a human who can go two weeks without water and can make their own penicillin.
All of these will help small farmers operate at a profit, and while many of the practices I mentioned do have scaling issues, burgeoning technologies are going to make at least some of these practices common in industrial agriculture as well.
Like I said at the beginning of this video, we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we made in the last 500 years. Every step we can take toward doing that more sustainably will make a huge difference.d by the way, shout out to all the small farmers out there leading the way on these practices and helping to educate others. Farmers… may be the most under-appreciated group of people in the world.
And if you’re not a farmer but want to make a difference, make it a priority in elections, vote for politicians that support subsidies for sustainable farming. And yes, that includes the Green New Deal, there was a lot of it in there.
Some elements of the Green New Deal:
– Reward farmers for undertaking practices that enhance ecological functions
– Transform training for existing US soil health experts
– Increase funding to the USDA Conservation Programs
– Establish a joint incentive and education program through the USDA Agricultural Research Center (ARS)
– Grow the R&D budget for carbon sequestration practices
And if you know any farmers, or meet a farmer, shake their hand and tell them thanks. It’s literally the hand that feeds you.