Conventionally Farmed Land Is Literally Dirt Poor. A Vermont Couple Has Set Out to Change That.

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Author: Bonnie Blodgett | Published: June 23, 2017 

When Jesse McDougall and his wife, Cally, took over the Vermont farm Cally’s Aunt Edie had operated for decades, what they’d envisioned as a profitable business venture turned into a rude awakening.

Learning the ropes of running a conventional farm taught Cally and Jesse some hard truths about nature they hadn’t anticipated. They kindled a suspicion. Could farming have had a hand in why Edie had died of a brain tumor at age 56?

The couple decided to take the farm cold turkey. No more chemical fertilizers. No more pesticides and herbicides. No more tilling to reduce weeds, either, and no more tiling to encourage water to drain more quickly into unprotected lakes an streams after a hard rain.

The result was disastrous. The soil turned dry and gravelly. It was prone to washouts. Edie’s once-lush fields weren’t able to produce much of anything except weeds.

The farm had suffered the same fate as she had, the McDougalls believed. All that man-made chemistry had, for all intents and purposes, cost the soil its ability to fight off disease on its own. Eventually the living organisms that sustain life had perished in the chemical onslaught.

Unwittingly, just by following the advice of the local farm bureau and the university extension service and the companies from whom she’d purchased seed, Edie had deprived her farm of its self-sufficiency by depleting its most precious resource, the carbon-rich soil made up of decomposed organic matter that maintains a healthy balance of interdependent organisms.

She had robbed her land of its ecosystem. Quite possibly, she had also shortened her own life.

Jesse and Cally had two choices: either they could invest in sprays and seeds, knowing they’d be leaving their own kids worse off down the road, or they could stay the course, risking bankruptcy, and slowly bring the farm back to life.

They thought of the farm as an addict. Withdrawal is slow and brutal. But once they’d connected the dots from Aunt Edie’s premature death to the weeds, the web kept getting wider and the dots denser. Soon they were looking at the world in a whole new way. A lot of problems they’d thought of as unrelated — from algae blooms to avian flu — came together in a single word that encompasses both the problem and the solution.

The word is regeneration.

Since then they’ve taken the word to the Vermont legislature. If passed, Senate Bill 43 would establish a statewide regenerative soils program. It is sponsored by the Soil4Climate Advisory Board, one of whose members is Jesse McDougall.

“Years of chemical treatment and tillage damaged our soil and the fertility of our farm,” he says, “essentially making us dependent on more chemicals and tillage in order to produce crops. This led to our decision to practice regenerative farming, including the use of planned grazing, which we soon realized was a better alternative to conventional agriculture — ecologically and economically.”

Looking at the pros and cons made their decision a no-brainer: Nice profits for a few more years vs. having to live with the knowledge of what those nice profits would cost down the road. The role of carbon sequestration in slowing climate change cinched it. Carbon’s release from the soil through conventional agriculture is one of the leading causes of global warming. Regenerative farming holds promise for allowing the carbon in the atmosphere to come back to earth where it belongs. Some experts say that changing the food system is the single most important thing humans can do — more game-changing even than harnessing renewables for energy — to alter the current and inevitably catastrophic course of climate change.

“We don’t have a ‘climate change’ problem,” McDougall has written on his blog. “We have a broken carbon cycle. There’s too much carbon moving up (greenhouse gases) and not enough carbon moving down (depleted soils, erosion, unhealthy food, droughts, floods, and so on). There’s no more nor less carbon than ever before … it’s just in the wrong place. … For farmers, foresters, landowners, and land managers everywhere, the direct action to take is clear: simply change your land management policies to leverage techniques that put more carbon into the ground than they release to the atmosphere — no-till, cover crops, mulching, livestock rotation, etc.”

There are other benefits, too, lots of them. “This will not only sequester atmospheric carbon,” McDougall explains, “but it will also improve the fertility of the soil and therefore the yield and quality of the land’s crops.” That’s because “when soil loses its carbon through decades of plowing and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it is no longer able to retain nutrients that instead flow into rivers and lakes, causing the algal blooms we’re now seeing.

“This bill provides an incentive to farmers to rebuild the soil ‘sponge’ above Lake Champlain and across the state — keeping water and nutrients uphill and in the soil where they belong.”

This is the problem Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has been trying to address through legislation that would require conventional farmers to set aside some of their land for plants that might slow farm runoff — mainly natives with long roots that hold soil in place. Conventional farmers say they can’t afford regeneration, not now, with farm prices low.

It’s a catch-22, of course, as the McDougalls know all too well. You can’t have it both ways. Farm prices are low because conventional agriculture is a self-contained system that penalizes long-term maintenance of soil, air and water. Small tweaks like Dayton’s buffer zones won’t make this system sustainable. Small tweaks in our economic model can make a difference, however. Capitalism is an efficient system, but without regulatory tools and monetary incentives that balance business interests with community interests it is a menace to society.

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