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Seeds: Regenerative Gold Medal Winner

Author: Kerry Hoffschneider | Published: June 5, 2018

Colleen Fulton won a gold medal in the Public Speaking Competition at both the Nebraska District FFA and State FFA Convention competitions this year. Her speech was entitled, “Regenerative Agriculture.” However, long before Colleen achieved these awards, her father Kevin Fulton, a farmer and rancher near Litchfield, Neb., went on a journey through agriculture that led him to change to the regenerative approach that has had a lasting impact on all his children – Colleen, Cami and Timothy.

Kevin attended High School in Loup City and assumed leadership roles at a very young age – everything from FFA president, captain of the football team to president of National Honor Society. He then went to college at Kansas State University to achieve a bachelor’s degree in animal science. He later went on to graduate school where he earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology and spent 27 years in competitive weightlifting – all over the country and world. That led him to a career as the Head Strength and Conditioning coach at the University of Massachusetts.

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Producer Gail Fuller Offers 8 Lessons From His Career in Cover Crops

Author: Amy Bickel | Published: May 22, 2018

Unlike his conventional counterparts, Gail Fuller doesn’t focus on maximizing yields.

The Emporia, Kansas, farmer thinks differently than the age-old mantra that, with 10 billion people expected on the plant by mid-century, farmers must feed the world.

“I’m sorry if you are buying into that crock,” Fuller says bluntly.

Instead, Fuller made the decision to base his profitability and success on the health of his soil.

“Soil is life and life is soil,” he said to a crowd at his annual Fuller Field School in Emporia last month. “We have 60 years of topsoil left and that was as of 2012. If we continue this current production model, we might not be able to feed the world by 2050 because we might not have all the soil left to do it.”

Lessons from Gail

Fuller started the school seven years ago to educate others about regenerative ag, a concept growing across rural America. He wants his soil healthy and full of life—from microorganisms like nematodes, protozoa and mycorrhizal fungi working unseen below the earth to the beneficial insects and livestock above.

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You Can Change Your Soil

Author: Cindy Snyder | Published: February 12, 2018

BURLEY — After 25 years of experimenting with cover crop mixes and tillage practices, Gabe Brown has a simple message for those who would like to put their farms or ranches on a more sustainable path.

“You have the ability to change your soils and your operation,” he told a crowd of more than 300 Thursday at a soil health workshop in Burley. “You can do it.”

When Brown and his wife bought her parents farm in Burleigh County, N.D., in 1991, the soils had less than 2 percent organic matter. A double ring infiltration test showed the ground could only take a half inch of water per hour. The crop rotation had been wheat, oats and barley — all cool season grasses.

Today those same fields have 5 percent organic matter and the soil can take an inch of water in 9 seconds. The second inch took 16 seconds to infiltrate.

“Don’t tell me the soils you have are what you are stuck with,” Brown said. “We can all make changes.”

Not that the process is quick or simple. And Brown warns there is no cookie-cutter approach.

He travels across the U.S. speaking to other farmers about his 5,000-acre farm and also hosts tours of his farm. Everyday he receives more than 100 emails from farmers, most of them asking the same question: What cover crop mix should I plant?

“I didn’t choose your wife,” Brown told the audience. “Why would I choose your cover crop?”

Not matching the cover crop to the resource concern is the most common reason cover crops fail. Brown shared an example of a farmer in South Dakota who baled off his winter wheat straw and then seeded turnips and radishes into the residue. He then grazed off the cover crop and called Brown to complain that the field was still blowing away.

The problem wasn’t hard to diagnose. Brassicas accelerate residue decomposition, and the farmer had already reduced the residue by baling off the straw. There wasn’t enough carbon in the system to armor the soil.

“Cover crops work,” Brown said. “What didn’t work was the person making the planting decision.”

If a seed dealer does not ask a producer within the first couple of questions what resource concern the producer wants to address with a cover crop, Brown recommends hanging up the phone and calling another dealer. “They don’t have your best interest in mind.”

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Man Who Wrote the Book on Regenerative Agriculture Says Conservation is the Fifth Ag Revolution

Published: February 5, 2018

According to Dr. David Montgomery, author and professor at the University of Washington who spoke to farmers during the 22nd Annual No-Till on the Plains Winter Conference, our soils around the world have been severely degraded due to conventional agricultural practices. In a recent interview with Radio Oklahoma Ag Network Associate Farm Director Carson Horn, Montgomery says soil degradation has taken on two forms in modern times.

“One, is the erosion and loss of soil itself, like what happened in the Dust Bowl for example,” Montgomery explained. “But also, in terms of degraded soil organic matter – the carbon that’s in the soil. You can think of it as food for the microbes that actually help build soil fertility.”

Listen to Dr. David Montgomery and Carson Horn speak about how regenerative agriculture can reverse the effects of soil degradation here.

Montgomery says in North America, about half of our soil organic matter has been degraded, averaged across the United States. Globally, he says, it is about the same. Not only is that a devastating amount to have lost, it is also continuing to be lost at an alarming rate.

“The pace of global soil degradation at present, shows we’re losing 0.3 percent of our agricultural land capacity globally each year,” he said. “That sounds like a small number, but you play that out over the next 100 years and we’d be on track to lose a third of our agricultural productive capacity while we’re on track to raise our population by 50 percent. Those numbers are working against each other.”

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How a Grain and Legume Farmer Harvests Nutrition from the Soil

Larry Kandarian grows legumes alongside ancient grains on his California farm, producing a polyculture that benefits both the health of the land and his own.

Author: Clarissa Wei | Published: January 9, 2018

“I’m 72, but I consider myself middle-aged,” said Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms as he smiled and took a sip of his stew. Sitting in his trailer with a sun-weathered tan, Kandarian looks like any other farmer in the state.

And for a while, he was.

In the 1970s, Kandarian started off as a conventional farmer specializing in flowers and California native plants on his farm in Los Osos, about 100 miles northwest of Santa Barbara on California’s central coast. He decided to pivot full-time to growing organic, ancient grains eight years ago after the recession shrank the market for his goods.

“I figured that people still have to eat grains,” he said of the shift.

But what sets him apart now is his approach to growing food. Instead of deeply plowing the land and mixing in sheets of fertilizers to ensure high yields like most farmers in America, Kandarian employs a minimal-tillage system and uses absolutely no fertilizers or compost.

For fertility, Kandarian takes advantage of the nitrogen-fixing properties of plants in the legume family like clover, beans, and sweet pea. He sows legume seeds in the ground after the grain is harvested, leaving the chaff of the grains still on the field. The chaff decomposes and fertilizes the legume crop. The legume crop, as it grows, fixes nitrogen into the soil.

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ND Farmer Stresses Importance of Regenerative Agriculture

Author: Elizabeth Varin | Published: December 20, 2017

Gabe Brown hasn’t tilled his land near Bismarck, N.D., since 1994.

He hasn’t used synthetic fertilizer since 2007.

Yet he said he’s still seeing yields measuring above Burleigh County averages and he’s still turning a profit profit.

“We’re our worst enemy, not allowing nature to function,” he said last week at the South Dakota Grassland Coalition 2017 Winter Road Show’s stop at the Dakota Event Center.

“…We cannot have ecological integrity without human integrity,” he said. “All of us need to look in the mirror and realize that our management decisions that we make every day on our operation affect thousands of people, really hundreds of thousands of people. Because they’re affecting the mineral cycle, the water cycle, the nutrient cycle.”

Brown argued in favor of looking beyond cash crops and into the ecosystem of the land farmers are using.

“It’s not that I’ve got more nutrients,” he said, comparing his land to tilled land, land with minimal crop diversity and land on which lots of synthetic fertilizer is used. “They have that much in their soils also. It’s just that it’s not available. Because they don’t have the biology and the healthy ecosystem to make those nutrients available.”

Brown spoke about regenerative agriculture, a land management approach that aims to improve soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.

“You’ve got to think outside the box to make profit in commodity markets,” he said.

The crowd included a mix of farmers and conservationists, said Valeree DeVine, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist.

“What we like to see is that they come and hear a message from another farmer and rancher,” she said. “As an agency we can talk it but we can’t show them what we’ve done on our own operation. So we feel that it means more from another farmer and rancher.”

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Healthy Soils Program: Diversity of Farms Awarded, Cover Crops and Compost Most Popular Practices

Author: Brian Shobe | Published: December 13, 2017

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) announced its first round of grants for the Healthy Soils Program last week. In our first blogpost about the awards, we shared a summary of the awards by project type (incentives versus demonstration) and a breakdown of the awards by county. In this blogpost, we share a preliminary analysis of the distribution of the awards based on land use type and the practices projects plan to adopt.

This preliminary analysis is based on our interpretations[i] of the one-paragraph project descriptions provided by applicants, which you can read here:

Incentives Projects

The 64 incentives projects are fairly well distributed across the major agricultural land use categories in California, with a quarter of the awards going to orchards, a quarter to annual cropland, and 13-14% each to vineyards, grazing/range lands, and mixed land use operations. Nine percent of project descriptions were too vague to determine their land use.

We were excited to learn that nearly three out of four projects awarded will be adopting more than one practice; furthermore, nearly one in four projects will be adopting four or more practices! Numerous studies have demonstrated that combining Healthy Soils practices has a synergistic effect on soil health and GHG emissions.

Cover cropping is by far the most popular practice with more than half (39) of the projects planning to adopt it. Compost applications to perennial crops (21) and annual crops (18), mulching (14), and hedgerow planting (16) are also quite popular, with more than a quarter of projects including those practices. The “herbaceous cover practices” (e.g. contour buffer strips, field border, filter strip, etc.) seemed to be the least popular, with at best a handful of projects planning to adopt those practices. However, it is important to remember that in order to be eligible for any of the “herbaceous or woody cover practices,” an applicant had to adopt or maintain an existing “soil management practice.” This likely prevented some farmers and ranchers who were interested solely in the “herbaceous or woody practices” from applying.

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How Midwestern Farmers Could Help Save the Gulf of Mexico

Author: Tom Philpott | Published: July/August 2017

This cool technique can rescue sea creatures and soil—so why aren’t more farmers using it?

If you pay state taxes in Maryland, you fund a program that gives farmers as much as $90 per acre—$22,500 annually for a typical corn operation—to plant a crop that’s not even intended for harvest. This absurd-sounding initiative cost the state’s coffers a cool $24 million in 2015.

Yet I come not to expose a government boon­doggle, but to praise an effort crucial to saving our most valuable fisheries. Let me explain.

Every summer, an algal bloom stretches along the Chesapeake Bay, the most productive estuary in the continental United States. As the algae dies, it sucks oxygen from the water, suffocating or driving away marine life. Cleaning up the dead zones would lead to more productive fisheries, increased tourism, and higher property values—benefits that would total $22 billion per year, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

What drives the algal blooms is what makes corn grow tall: nitrogen. The corn that farmers plant sucks up 50 percent or less of the nitrogen in the fertilizer they apply in the spring. But come harvest, there are no plants to absorb the excess, and so it leaches into streams and runs off into the bay—where it fertilizes a bumper crop of algae.

By paying farmers to plant a winter-­hardy crop like rye right after corn is harvested in the fall, Maryland is trying to solve that problem. The rye absorbs the excess nitrogen and is typically harvested in the spring—before it matures into an actual grain crop—to make way for corn and soybeans. The chaff is either tilled under or left as is; when farmers plant into it, the dead vegetation crowds out weeds.

The program owes its origins largely to a 1998 University of Maryland study that showed planting rye after corn reduced nitrate leaching by about 80 percent. When cover crops were used for seven straight seasons, the researchers found, the nitrate levels in the water table dropped by 50 percent or more. Now, more than half of all corn and soybean acres in Maryland are covered in the winter, keeping 3.4 million pounds of nitrogen out of the Chesapeake Bay.

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Ramseyers Using Nature As a Blueprint for Beef Grazing

Published: June 6, 2017 

For thousands of years livestock roamed the plains and forests and contributed to an ecosystem that produced some of the richest soils in the world. More livestock producers are taking note of this system with a long history of proven success and working to implement it on their farms.

Jeff and Michelle Ramseyer raise around 250 cattle in an organic rotational grazing system with neighboring grain farmer, Dean McIlvaine. The Ramseyers provide the livestock and the labor while enhancing the fertility and controlling weeds on McIvaine’s farm ground for their Lone Pine Pastures operation in Wayne County, Michelle said.

“Dean actually owns the properties we have cattle on. We are a grass-fed operation. We started back in 2014 when we got the cattle. Dean is an organic crop farmer and all of the cattle are raised on organic grass. We do not feed anything other than hay and grass. Dean needed more fertility because his crops weren’t growing well. Jeff went to him and said ‘Hey we can get you more fertility, why don’t we start a grass fed operation?’ That is what we did,” Michelle said. “Our first 40 heifers were delivered in December of 2014 and we calved in March-April of 2015 and have gone from there. We graze on his cropland and we have about 200 acres of permanent pastures. We market our beef to Heinen’s Grocery Store and we have freezer beef we sell in the community. We also have organic raised pork in an open barn with outside access.”

Emulating nature is the goal behind the beef operation. The Ramseyer operation has drawn from the experience of Gabe Brown from North Dakota. Brown was a speaker at the Soil Health Field Day at the farm of Dave Brandt in early April where he shared about his work with regenerative agriculture involving crop and livestock production.

“No matter where I go, I am 100% confident that the principles I use to get our ranch to be an ecosystem in North Dakota are the same no matter where I’m talking. It will work on your operation. The principles are the same anywhere,” Brown said. “Nature has been around for thousands of years. That is the model we need to emulate. There is another way of doing things and the way I found that works best is nature’s way.”

Brown completely changed the way he was farming to put a focus on building up his soils rather than degrading them.

“In nature there is no mechanical disturbance. That is a fact. There is always armor on the soil surface. Nature tries to cover herself. Nature cycles water very efficiently. Through our farming practices we’ve destroyed that water cycle. We need to heal it. In nature there are living plant root networks and those networks are very efficient at building the biology,” Brown said. “The greatest geological force on earth is life itself. Plants take in CO2 out of the atmosphere photosynthesis occurs and a portion of that is translocated to the roots where it is leaked out as exudates. That is how all of us in production agriculture get our profits. We have to have that functioning properly to make a profit. Part of that root exudate is converted carbonic acid that breaks down the rocks to make nutrients available to the plants. It is the biology in the soil that makes nutrients available. The fungal network is also very important.”

Tillage and synthetic fertilizer release carbon and the result is degraded soil. Brown has implemented a system that minimizes synthetic fertilizer and tillage while maximizing soil biology and plant root growth in the soil with a no-till/cover crop system that also includes intensive livestock grazing.

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Earth Talk: How Are Farms and Farmers Dealing With Climate Change?

Authors: Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss |  Published: June 5, 2017 

Agriculture may well be one of the industries hardest hit by the effects of global warming. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental advocacy group, reports that warming-related drought and flooding is already behind tens of billions of dollars in American agricultural losses annually. Given this growing threat, more and more farmers are looking to incorporate tools and techniques — let alone switch up what crops they grow — to be prepared for the big environmental changes already underway.

According to Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources (CSANR), some of the most promising warming-friendly farming technologies and practices include conservation tillage (stirring up the soil less), precision agriculture (which employs information technology to monitor crop development, refine soil inputs and optimize growing conditions), improved cropping systems (refining the sequence of which crops follow each other on a given piece of land), and anaerobic digestion of organic wastes (via capturing methane waste and turning it into useable energy).

NRDC has been working on sustainable agriculture for decades, and recently launched its Climate Resistant Farms campaign to focus on helping farmers roll with the punches of global warming through implementation of some of these new techniques. The group works directly with farmers to develop and share some of these best practices regarding soil health and water use.

“Climate change and extreme weather will likely have detrimental impacts on crop production, but farmers can use cover crops and other soil stewardship practices to make their farms more resilient to the climate change impacts already being felt and those likely to come in the years ahead,” reports NRDC. “Such practices can also help to reduce and capture the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.”

NRDC analyzed the carbon capture and water-holding benefits of soil stewardship methods to increase soil organic matter in the 10 highest-value-producing agricultural states in the U.S. They found that “using cover crops on just half of the acres devoted to the nation’s two most ubiquitous crops — corn and soybeans — in those top 10 states could help capture more than 19 million metric tons of carbon each year and help soils retain an additional trillion gallons of water.”

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