Posts

The Key to Saving Family Farms Is in the Soil

Would it sound too good to be true if I was to say that there was a simple, profitable and underused agricultural method to help feed everybody, cool the planet, and revitalize rural America? I used to think so, until I started visiting farmers who are restoring fertility to their land, stashing a lot of carbon in their soil, and returning healthy profitability to family farms. Now I’ve come to see how restoring soil health would prove as good for farmers and rural economies as it would for the environment.

Over the past several years, I drove through small towns from Ohio to the Dakotas visiting farmers to research Growing A Revolution, my book about restoring soil fertility through regenerative farming practices. Along the way, I saw a microcosm of the national economy in which run-down farms and hollowed-out towns stood in stark contrast to farms and communities thriving with renewed vitality.

These revitalized farms came in all sizes—hand-worked three-acre vegetable farms to horizon-spanning ranches where enormous remote-controlled contraptions seemingly cast out of Star Wars seeded and harvested fields with GPS-guided precision. Yet it was not size or technology that distinguished these places, but how they worked the land.

After the Second World War, an expanded reliance on chemicals boosted the yields from soils degraded during decades of intensive farming. At the same time, American farmers increasingly specialized in and became very good at growing a large amount of a small selection of crops. This newfound bounty manifest as a surplus of corn, wheat, and other agricultural commodities. Over time, this drove down the price farmers got for their harvest as the cost of fertilizer, diesel, and pesticides rose—squeezing farmers in the middle.

From 1960 to 1970 corn prices rose from just over $1 to $2 a bushel—the equivalent of about $8 in inflation adjusted dollars today. In 2019, however, corn prices have stayed around $4 a bushel, so farmers are getting half of the real income for growing the same harvest as they did when we put a man on the Moon. At the same time the inflation-adjusted price of a barrel of oil tripled from about $20 in 1970 to more than $60 today. Over the same period, global fertilizer prices roughly doubled. Today’s conventional farmers spend a lot more to grow crops they can sell for far less than their grandparents did.

The mantra became “get big or get out” as the average size of American farms grew. The number of farms declined as smaller ones were consolidated or went out of business. Small towns struggled to retain people, and economic vitality declined in rural areas as a smaller population supported fewer services and local businesses. Driving through America’s heartland today, it’s hard to miss the fallout: shuttered stores, closed restaurants, and half-vacant mini-malls.

Interviewing farmers who had already improved their soil, I found hope that we might turn around this almost century-long trend and economically revitalize rural America. Their practices not only restored soil health, but returned profitability to family farms in the span of a few years, as opposed to the decades you would expect.

If we restore soil health and save farmers substantial input costs, we can restore smaller farms as a means to a secure living and revive the economic viability of farming communities across small town America.

So how did those farmers do it?

The successful regenerative farmers I visited all combined three unconventional practices that cultivate beneficial soil life: They parked their plows, planted cover crops, and grew complex crop rotations. Some also reintroduced livestock to their fields, employing a shifting mosaic of single-wire electric fences to frequently move cattle and implement regenerative grazing methods. These farmers were rethinking how they saw and treated their land.

This combination of unconventional practices—no till, cover crops, and complex rotations—allowed farmers to use far less fertilizer, pesticide, and diesel to grow and harvest as much, if not more, than they did growing one or two crops under conventional farming practices. At conferences, other farmers related how it took just a couple of years for this new farming system to rebuild soil fertility enough to become more profitable than neighboring conventional farms. From then on, these regenerative farmers spent less money to grow more, a surefire recipe for a better bottom line.

Regenerative agriculture is not just about restoring the life of the soil.I could see the difference around the countryside. In parts of the Dakotas where no-till and cover crops had been widely adopted, the landscape was dotted with new grain silos and barns. Shiny new pickup trucks streamed by on the roads. But in counties where black dirt fields still marred the view, things looked worn down and worn out, and topsoil blew across the highway. In Kansas, I was struck by the contrast between bright, well-maintained equipment dealerships in counties that had gone no-till, and sad lots of rusting gear in those counties still hitched to the plow.

Regenerative agriculture is not just about restoring the life of the soil. By making smaller farms profitable once again, it could bring more people back to the land and thereby boost the economy in small towns across America.

You don’t have to take my word for all this.

These points are backed up by a recent paper by Claire LaCanne and Jonathan Lundgren who compared regenerative and conventional corn fields on 20 farms in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota. They ranked farms from most regenerative to most conventional based on whether farmers tilled, planted cover crops, used insecticides or other pesticides, and let cattle graze off cover crops and crop stubble. They then divided them into two groups of fields: regenerative fields that were not tilled, received no insecticides, and included livestock grazing; and conventional fields that were tilled at least annually, regularly received insecticides, and had bare soil in between cash crops.

For each field, LaCanne and Lundgren measured the amount of organic matter in the soil, pest insect populations, corn yield, expenses, and profit. What they found directly contradicts key tenets of conventional agriculture. They found that pest insects (such as corn rootworms, European corn borers, Western bean cutworm, other caterpillars, and aphids) were 10 times as abundant on conventional farms that used insecticides than on farms that relied on regenerative, pest-resilient cropping systems with no insecticides. The lower pest abundance in regenerative fields was likely due to competition from greater insect diversity, and because insecticide use kills predatory insects (like ladybugs) capable of keeping pests in check. This becomes a problem because pest populations rebound before their predators.

The soil is the historical root of American prosperity, the foundation of our country. LaCanne and Lundgren also found that regenerative corn fields were almost twice as profitable as conventionally managed corn fields due to lower seed and fertilizer costs, a price premium if the crops are organic, and the added value of cover crop grazing for meat production on the regenerative fields. The profitability was unrelated to grain yield, but positively correlated with soil organic matter. In other words, restoring soil paved the way to restoring farm profitability. A profitable farm was less about how much the farmer grew and more about how they treated their soil.

Other studies have also found higher economic returns from adding cover crops to no-till systems in order to improve soil health. One example comes from a four-year study of the economic impacts of cover crops conducted by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research on a farm in northwestern Missouri. Over the course of the study, cover crops averaged a positive return of $16 per acre among all fields, and reached up to $100 an acre in some places. The cost of cover crop seeds and planting was more than offset by lowering fertilizer costs by up to $50 per acre, increasing corn yields from 120 bushels to 153 bushels per acre, and raising soybean yields from 38 bushels to 52 bushels per acre.

Such results are not an anomaly. In 2019, the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program released a report on cover crop economics based on data from several hundred farms that concluded cover crops generally provide a positive return within three years and that profit margins continued to grow for at least seven years. Corn and soybean yields were consistently higher in cover cropped fields, especially in drought years. Such examples show that spending less to grow more is a winning combination for farmers.

Whether on large commodity crop operations or on small boutique farmsteads supplying farmers markets and restaurants, the key to a more profitable farm lay in the health of the soil. And we need more small farms near cities to provide fresh foods and vegetables, much as we need regenerative grain and dairy and grazing farther afield. Bringing life back to the soil can help farm profitability across America’s rural landscapes. It’s time to reverse and revise the “get big or get out” mentality to “get small and get back in.” Restoring the soil on smaller, more profitable farms holds the key to restoring rural communities.

The soil is the historical root of American prosperity, the foundation of our country. But since the American Revolution, our nation’s soils have lost half their organic matter—half their natural fertility. Policies that promote efforts to rebuild healthy soils offer fertile ground to help restore prosperity to family farms and farming communities. Reinvesting in our soils is a natural infrastructure program, a sound investment in the foundation and future of America. This would not only put a lot of carbon in the ground, it would reduce the environmental damage from agrochemical use and help bring life back to the land and rural communities. Having more people on the land isn’t the problem, it’s the solution.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams

Enrich the Soil, Cool the Planet

Fairlee, Vermont — American’s are more concerned about climate change than ever. An average of national polls conducted by Gallup this March, showed that 59 percent of Americans “believe the effects of global warming have already begun” and that 45 percent of those asked, “think global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.” It’s unsurprising that climate change has emerged as a central issue in the Democratic primary campaign as voters and concerned citizens across the country ask what they can do to fight global warming.

Thus far, much of the reporting and activism on climate change, from the droughts in Chennai, India, to the burning of the Amazon rainforest, has focused on the increase in the greenhouse effect due to the rise of man-made carbon emissions in the earth’s atmosphere. Climate activist organizations like 350.org have focused their efforts almost solely around encouraging Americans to decrease the amount of carbon emissions they produce, through using renewable technologies and decreasing fossil fuel dependence.

KEEP READING ON THE BERKSHIRE EDGE

Regenerative Agriculture Hits the Mainstream

If you’re a cattle producer, you may already have heard the term “regenerative agriculture.” If you’re a grain producer, maybe not.

But that’s about to change. This spring, General Mills announced a plan to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland in the U.S. and Canada by 2030, and Cargill Canada announced its Sustainable Canola Program.

“We have been feeding families for more than 150 years and we need a strong planet to enable us to feed families for the next 150 years,” General Mills chairman and CEO Jeff Harmening said in a press release. “We recognize that our biggest opportunity to drive positive impact for the planet we all share lies within our own supply chain, and by being a catalyst to bring people together to drive broader adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.”

The Rodale Institute in the U.S. coined the term to describe a kind of organic agriculture that not only maintains soil resources but improves them by limiting soil disturbance, maintaining soil cover, increasing biodiversity, keeping living roots in the ground and integrating animals into cropping systems.

KEEP READING ON COUNTRY GUIDE

Growing Healthier Soil, Food and Profits: Minnesota Farm Is Classroom for Upcoming Regenerative Agriculture School

REDWOOD FALLS, MN, (May 22, 2019) – While many farmers and ranchers are struggling to stay afloat in today’s turbulent agricultural economy, one Minnesota farm couple is turning the tide with a new, “regenerative” business model.

But rather than treating it as a trade secret, Redwood Falls farmers Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz are hosting a three-day Soil Health Academy school Aug. 13-15 at their 400-acre farm so others can learn how to breathe new life into their own farming operations.

Soil Health Academy schools feature instruction by Ray Archuleta, Dave Brandt, Gabe Brown, Allen Williams, Ph.D., and other technical consultants, all of whom are widely considered to be among the most preeminent pioneers, innovators and advocates in today’s soil health and regenerative agricultural movement.

“Stoney Creek Farm was chosen because Grant and Dawn have successfully implemented soil health-focused, regenerative agricultural principles on their farm for years,” said Gabe Brown, co-founder of SHA. “As a result, those practices and principles can be fully illustrated in a real-life setting throughout the students’ hands-on learning experience.”

For the Breitkreutz family, hosting the SHA school represents an opportunity to share their experiences and help other farmers make the transition to a more profitable and fulfilling farming business model.

“We have been on our regenerative path for 15-20 years now and have seen such an improvement to both our pastures and farm fields and we feel that it is vital for our neighbors to find their way to a regenerative path also,” Dawn said. “By hosting the Soil Health Academy on our farm, we hope we are opening a door to their regenerative agriculture education.”

The farming couple’s regenerative farming approach has yielded a wide range of benefits from increased
profits, to improved water infiltration and healthier soil, wildlife and livestock.

“By implementing regenerative agricultural principles on our farm, we’ve improved our bottom line by reducing input costs, including chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, and seed,” Ms. Breitkreutz said. “And our operation now includes additional species of livestock and a meat sales enterprise, which is operated by our daughter, Karlie, and her husband, Cody, through their company, Ten Creek Range. Currently they are selling to individuals in local communities with plans to add on-line sales very soon. We hope to add
pasture-raised chickens by next year,” she said.

In addition to growing better yields and profits through regenerative agricultural principles, Stoney Creek Farm is also growing life in all shapes and sizes.

“We see the increased wildlife, biological life in the soil, improved grain yields, and the improved health of our livestock,” she said. “We have eliminated erosion and improved water infiltration, which means we now keep the water where it’s supposed to be and what could be better than that?”

But one of the most important regenerative agriculture benefits cited by the farming pair, has nothing to do with economics or agronomy.

“Farming is fun, challenging, and rewarding again,” Ms. Breitkreutz said. “We wish we would have made the change sooner, which is exactly what we hear from every single person we have ever talked to who has changed to regenerative farming.”

To learn more about the Soil Health Academy School at Stoney Creek Farm, visit www.soilhealthacademy.org or call 256/996-3142.

Reposted in full with permission from Soil Health Academy

Cambio climático: el mapa que muestra las ocultas conexiones subterráneas de los árboles (y qué dice de la alerta que enfrenta el planeta)

“Un bosque es mucho más que los árboles. Hay todo un mundo bajo nuestros pies, un mundo oculto que no vemos pero cuya importancia es capital para la salud de los bosques y su supervivencia”.

El científico español Sergio de Miguel, profesor de la Universidad de Lleida, estudia las complejas relaciones entre las raíces de los árboles y vastas redes de microorganismos con las que viven en simbiosis.

“Es como una relación de amistad en la que uno aporta algo y el otro aporta algo en beneficio de los dos”, le dice a BBC Mundo el coautor de un estudio pionero sobre el tema publicado en la revista Nature.

El estudio presenta “el primer mapa a escala global de la distribución de los diferentes tipos de simbiosis que existen en los bosques del mundo”.

SIGUE LEYENDO EN BBC NEWS MUNDO

Ohio Soil Health Pioneer’s Farm is Classroom for Upcoming Regenerative Agriculture School

CARROLL, Ohio (May 15, 2019) – He’s been described as the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” of soil health because of his masterful, Jedi-like ability to regenerate the soil. 

His Carroll, Ohio farm now draws hundreds of researchers, farmers and conservationists from across the globe to gain insights into the principles and practices that have enabled him to restore the health and function of his soil and to invigorate his farming business.

Today, the Soil Health Academy announced that Brandt Farms will host a soil health and regenerative agriculture school, June 4-6, so other farmers can see and learn, first-hand, how 74-year-old David Brandt has transformed his soil and improved his farm’s profitability.

As more farmers struggle to stay afloat in today’s turbulent agricultural economy, Brandt said he hopes to share his successful regenerative farming model so others can learn how to improve the profitability of their own farming operations. 

“Hosting an SHA school on the farm is my way of introducing other farmers to the wide-range of regenerative agriculture benefits, including improved water infiltration, reduced use of manufactured fertilizers and pesticides and improved soil health.” Brandt said. “They’ll see what can happen to their own soil through the use of no-till, cover crops and continuous cropping rotations.”

In addition to Brandt, attendees of the three-day, hands-on school will learn from world-renowned regenerative agriculture experts Ray Archuleta, Gabe Brown, Allen Williams, Ph.D., as well as other technical consultants.

While many traditional agriculture researchers and farmers were initially skeptical of regenerative agriculture’s potential, Brandt’s success has helped usher in a new era in agriculture that focuses on farming in nature’s image—practically and profitably.

“Conventional farming wisdom says it’s impossible to achieve the kind of improvements I’ve made in soil organic matter, soil health and soil function,” he said. “But the results are real and they speak for themselves.”

Brandt describes his soil-health focused approach as “part innovation, part perspiration and part determination” and admits he’s had his share of set-backs and challenges.

“My journey has come through many trials and some failures but mainly through hands-on learning to see what can really be done to be a better steward of the land,” Brandt said. “Now I simply want to share my experience and help other farmers become even more successful in their regenerative agriculture journeys.” 

To learn more about the Soil Health Academy School at Brandt Farms, visit www.soilhealthacademy.org or call 256/996-3142.

Reposted with permission from Soil Health Academy

Climate Change Being Fuelled by Soil Damage – Report

Climate change can’t be halted if we carry on degrading the soil, a report will say.

There’s three times more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere – but that carbon’s being released by deforestation and poor farming.

This is fuelling climate change – and compromising our attempts to feed a growing world population, the authors will say.

Problems include soils being eroded, compacted by machinery, built over, or harmed by over-watering.

Hurting the soil affects the climate in two ways: it compromises the growth of plants taking in carbon from the atmosphere, and it releases soil carbon previously stored by worms taking leaf matter underground.

The warning will come from the awkwardly-named IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – a panel studying the benefits of nature to humans.

The body, which is meeting this week, aims to get all the world’s governments singing from the same sheet about the need to protect natural systems.

KEEP READING ON BBC NEWS

Soil Health Champion Gabe Brown Featured on Commemorative Wheaties Box

BISMARCK, ND (April 15, 2019) – Since 1956, when U.S. Olympic track and field star Bob Richards first graced its cover, Wheaties cereal boxes have featured athletic champions who have overcome challenges in pursuit of their personal best. General Mills, the makers of Wheaties, recently featured another type of champion on a specially prepared box cover: soil health champion Gabe Brown.

A pioneering, regenerative agriculture farmer from Bismarck, North Dakota, Brown recently received the commemorative box from the General Mills Sustainability Team. While the company has no current plans to put the mock-up into mass production or distribution, the cover is a special tribute to Brown’s work as a regenerative agricultural advocate and educator. It is also emblematic of the food giant’s renewed commitment to expand the use of soil health-improving practices among General Mills’ cereal grain growers.

“The box was presented as a ‘thank you’ to me and the Soil Health Academy by the General Mills Sustainability Team for our work in providing education and technical support to their growers as part of a multi-year, regenerative agriculture project,” Brown said.

“Even as a novelty item, seeing your picture on the cover of an iconic cereal box is a humbling experience and the gesture was very much appreciated,” he said. “Truthfully, I think every farmer making the transition from industrial to regenerative agriculture is a champion.”

Brown knows how important that transition is in transforming farming operations. His recently released book, Dirt to Soil, chronicles his personal journey from industrial agriculture to soil health-focused regenerative agriculture.

“The story of my farm is how I took a severely degraded, low-profit operation that had been managed using the industrial production model and regenerated it into a healthy, profitable one,” Brown said. “All of us—whether farmer, rancher or home gardener—have the ability to harness the awesome power of nature to produce nutrient-dense food. We can do this in a way that will both regenerate our resources

and ensure that our children and grandchildren have the opportunity to enjoy good health,” he said.

In addition to transforming his own farm and ranch operation, Brown’s remarkable experience has yielded another benefit: a new calling.

“One of my goals in life is to help other farmers make the same transition,” Brown said. “I hope the book and all of our work through the Soil Health Academy will help many more farmers, and even consumers, discover the hope in healthy soil.”

Reposted with permission from Soil Health Academy

To Fix the Climate, We Have to Fix Our Soil

“One of our most important solutions to the global challenge posed by climate change lies right under our feet.” That’s according to Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil biochemist at the University of Merced, and she’s talking about soil, which isn’t acknowledged as a key factor in the fight against climate change.

When it’s healthy, soil is incredibly effective at storing carbon, Berhe said on the stage at TED in Vancouver. Soil stores around 3,000 billion metric tons of carbon, which is double the amount stored in vegetation and in the atmosphere, combined. The ability of natural ecosystems like soil to capture and sequester carbon is essentially bailing us out of experiencing the effects of excessive amounts of CO2 that human activities produce. Around half of the 9.4 billion metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere every year are captured in soil, plants, and the ocean, and soil is doing the bulk of that heavy lifting.

KEEP READING ON FAST COMPANY

Andrea Asch: Healthy Soils, Healthy Farms

The snow in Vermont is slowly melting and the woods and fields are springing to life with shoots of new growth. The soil is also re-awakening and is rich with an abundance of organisms and nutrients. Vermont relies on its soil for its most important economic driver – agriculture, and dairy farms. To keep that engine strong, many dairy farmers have turned to regenerative agriculture. More than just a set of practices, regenerative agriculture broadly supports many important environmental benefits.

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming that develops the soil as a habitat for organisms, making the soil robust and resilient for the production of healthy crops that ultimately support good animal nutrition and contribute to quality milk.

The foundation of regenerative agriculture is a set of practices based on concepts that improve soil health:

KEEP READING ON VTDIGGER