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‘A Poor Man’s Rainforest’: Why We Need to Stop Treating Soil like Dirt

Hidden under our feet is a miniature landscape made up of tunnels, caves and decaying matter. Soil is where a quarter of the species on our planet are believed to live and in this dark, quiet, damp world, death feeds life. Rotting leaves, fruits, plants and organisms are folded into the soil and burped out as something new.

Good soil structure provides many nooks and crannies that house organisms, which, in turn, create an environment that suits them, directly altering – and improving – the structure of soil. Like a collective of tiny chemists, they keep soils healthy and productive by passing nutrients between them, either by collaborating or killing each other.

Complex food webs move nutrients around the system, generating healthy soils that provide goods and services for humanity. Goods include food, fibre and clean water. Services include regulation of the carbon and nitrogen cycles, nutrient recycling, water storage, regulation of disease and detoxification of pollutants.

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Can Soil Inoculation Accelerate Carbon Sequestration in Forests?

When foresters first tried to plant non-native Pinus radiata in the southern hemisphere, the trees would not grow until someone thought to bring a handful of soil from the native environment. “They didn’t know it then, but they were reintroducing the spores of fungi that these trees need in order to establish,” Colin Averill, ecologist at The Crowther Lab, explains. “When we plant trees, we rarely ‘plant’ the soil microbiome. But if we do, we can really accelerate the process of restoration.”

That process of restoration has become one of humanity’s most urgent missions. In order to slow global warming, we know that we need to decarbonize our economy and start removing carbon from the atmosphere – and we’ve largely been looking at doing so through dreams of negative emissions technologies and schemes of tree-planting.

But only very recently has more attention been turned toward another major potential tool for carbon capture: soil. An astonishing 80 percent of the carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems is stored underground. According to the 4 per 1000 Initiative, a modest and achievable increase in soil carbon of 0.4 percent could be enough to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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The Rodale Institute’s Soil-Carbon Solution and the Future of Regenerative Agriculture

According to a recent white paper from the Rodale Institute, global implementation of regenerative practices could sequester more than 100 percent of human-related carbon emissions.

One decade ago the United Nations Environment Programme predicted that in a worst case scenario, yearly global greenhouse emissions could reach 56 gigatons in 2020. And Rodale Institute’s paper notes that in 2018 total emissions approached this projection, reaching 55.3 gigatons. Global agricultural production accounts for roughly ten percent of these yearly emissions.

Despite this, Rodale Institute remains confident the world is already equipped with the tools it needs to achieve massive drawdown. The action paper assures that the technology necessary for a massive ecological rehabilitation is already available.

The paper defines regenerative agriculture as a set of farming practices that return nutrients to the earth and rehabilitate entire ecosystems, rather than depleting them. These practices include farming organically without synthetics and chemical sprays, diversifying crop rotations, cover cropping, and integrating livestock with rotational grazing.

And the Institute stresses the importance of incorporating these techniques into conventional farming in the hope that every farming model may make use of its most valuable tool: healthy soil.

The paper indicates that soil can contain three to four times as much carbon as the atmosphere or terrestrial vegetation. This implies that even small changes to the quantity of carbon stored in the soil can vastly impact levels of atmospheric carbon.

“There are very few cost-effective tools that work as well as the soil, that can be implemented across such a broad spectrum of topographies and cultures,” Jeff Moyer tells Food Tank. “We’d be amiss to not use this tool.”

Moyer says that cover crops, when grown to maturity, are one of the easiest and most cost-effective tools farmers can use to sequester carbon anywhere in the world. But this isn’t always a priority. In the United States, for example, activists say that crop insurance doesn’t incentivize farmers to take advantage of the benefits of cover crops. “We have very conflicting incentives, and we need to change that,” Moyer says.

Producers and consumers also have a key role to play. “If we don’t incentivize [regenerative agriculture] at the policy level, then we have to incentivize it from within the supply chain,” Moyer says.

Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), says incentivizing regenerative farming and generating trust with shoppers may go hand-in-hand. In 2017, ROA created a certification, Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), to incentivize regenerative practices from within the supply chain.

“We wanted to create a high-bar standard to demonstrate and clarify what regenerative can and should be: a holistic type of agriculture that regenerates resources and considers all players in the farm system, from the soil microbiome to the animals to the workers,” Whitlow tells Food Tank.

According to Whitlow, ROC surpasses what is required by most other certifications. To pass, farms must apply with a baseline of organic certification and meet strict requirements under each of ROC’s three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Since its founding, the program has certified 15 brands through its pilot program, including Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia Provisions.

Whitlow says brands will have a significant role to play in driving interest and investment in regenerative organic farming. While she believes consumers are ready to start making purchases in line with their values, producers may need a push from their supply chains.

“Growers operate on razor-thin margins,” Whitlow tells Food Tank. “To adopt regenerative organic practices, which carry more risk than chemical-intensive methods, growers need buyers that will pay a premium and commit long-term through the trials and tribulations of adopting new, innovative methods.”

Pasture Cropping—The Innovative No-kill, No-till System Developed by Australian Farmers

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Regenerative agriculture is a global farming revolution with rapid uptake and interest around the world. Five years ago hardly anyone had heard about it. It is in the news nearly everyday now. This  agricultural revolution has been led by innovative farmers rather than scientists, researchers and governments. It is being applied to all agricultural sectors including cropping, grazing and perennial horticulture.

In previous articles we have described how regenerative agriculture maximizes the photosynthesis of plants to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to increase soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is a good proxy for soil health, as it is important for improving fertility and water capture in soils, thus improving productivity and profitability in farming.

Many regenerative farmers sow their fields with mixtures of plants just to capture carbon dioxide to improve the levels of soil organic matter. These are called cover crops and are distinct from the cash crop. The cover crop builds soil fertility. The cash crop earns an income. 

Pasture Cropping—the No-kill, No-till System

Australia has many innovative regenerative farmers. The two farmers below are pioneers of a cover cropping system called pasture cropping. This is where the cash crop is planted into a perennial pasture instead of into bare soil. There is no need to plough out the pasture species as weeds or kill them with herbicides before planting the cash crop. The perennial pasture becomes the cover crop.

This was first developed by Colin Seis in New South Wales. The principle is based on the sound ecological fact that annual plants grow in perennial systems. The key is to adapt this principle to the appropriate management system for the specific cash crops and climate.

The pasture is first grazed or slashed to ensure that it is very short. This adds organic matter in the form of manure, cut grass, and shed roots into the soil to build soil fertility and to reduce root competition from the pasture. The cash crop such as oats is directly planted into the pasture.

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

Heres Colin Seiss own description of pasture cropping:      

 A 20-hectare (50 acre) crop of echidna oats that was sown and harvested in 2003 . . . This crops yield was 4.3 tonnes/hectare (31 bushels/acre). This yield is at least equal to the district average, where full ground-disturbance cropping methods were used.” 

This profit does not include the value of the extra grazing. On Winona, Colin Seis’s farm, it is between $50–60/hectare because the pasture is grazed up to the point of sowing. When using traditional cropping practices where ground preparation and weed control methods are utilized for periods of up to four to six months before the crop is sown, no quality grazing can be achieved.” 

“It was also learnt that sowing a crop in this manner stimulated perennial grass seedlings to grow in numbers and diversity, giving considerably more tonnes/hectare of plant growth. This produces more stock feed after the crop is harvested and totally eliminates the need to re-sow pastures into the cropped areas. Cropping methods used in the past require that all vegetation is killed prior to sowing the crop and while the crop is growing.” 

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

“From a farm economic point of view, the potential for good profit is excellent because the cost of growing crops in this manner is a fraction of conventional cropping. The added benefit in a mixed farm situation is that up to six months extra grazing is achieved with this method compared with the loss of grazing due to ground preparation and weed control required in traditional cropping methods. As a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.” 

 

Other benefits are more difficult to quantify. These are the vast improvement in perennial plant numbers and diversity of the pasture following the crop. This means that there is no need to re-sow pastures, which can cost in excess of $150 per hectare, and considerably more should contractors be used for pasture establishment.

Independent studies at Winona on pasture cropping by the Department of Land and Water have found that pasture cropping is 27 percent more profitable than conventional agriculture; this is coupled with great environment benefits that will improve the soil and regenerate our landscapes.  

Pasture cropping is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter. The fields are covered with photosynthesizing leaves all year, capturing CO2, which are deposited deep into the soil by the roots of perennial cover crops. Dr. Christine Jones has conducted research at Colin Siess property showing that 168.5 tons of CO2 per hectare (170,000 pounds/acre) were sequestered over the course of ten years. The sequestration rate in 2009–2010 was 33 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.

This huge addition of soil organic matter has stimulated the soil microbiome to release the minerals locked up in the parent material of the soil, dramatically increasing soil fertility. The following increases in soil mineral fertility have occurred in ten years with only the addition of a small amount of phosphorus:

A soil comparison between Colin Seis’s farm (Winona) and a nearby property shows significantly improved soil carbon levels in areas that have been pasture cropped. 10cm = 4 inches. Image courtesy of Dr. Christine Jones.

 

Calcium       277%

Magnesium 138%

Potassium   146%

Sulphur       157%

Phosphorus 151%

Zinc             186%

Iron              122%

Copper        202%

Boron          156%

Molybdenum   151%

Cobalt         179%

Selenium     117%

 

The Soil Kee System

An excellent example of the development of pasture cropping / no-till no-kill is the Soil Kee, which was designed by Neils Olsen.

First the ground cover/pasture is grazed or mulched to reduce root and light competition. Then the Soil Kee breaks up root mass, lifts and aerates the soil, top-dresses the ground cover/pasture in narrow strips, and plants seeds, all with minimal soil disturbance. The seeds of the cover/cash crops are planted and simultaneously fed an organic nutrient such as guano. The faster the seed germinates and grows, the greater the yield. It is critical to get the biology and nutrition to the seed at germination and to remove root competition.

 

 

A perennial pasture a few days after the Soil Kee was used to break up the root mass and plant the seeds of the cover crop.

Pasture cropping is excellent at increasing soil organic matter/soil carbon. Neils Olsen has been paid for sequestering 11 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (11,000 pounds/acre) per year, under the Australian governments Carbon Farming Scheme in 2019. In 2020, he was paid for 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (13,000 per acre) per year. He is the first farmer in the world to be paid for sequestering soil carbon under a government regulated system.

Niels Olsen with a multispecies cover crop of legumes, grasses, and grains for livestock. This mix grows strongly in mid-winter. Cereals, pulses, and other cash crops can be planted into the pasture to produce high-value cash crops.

Regenerative agricultural systems such as cover cropping and pasture cropping are radically changing the conventional approach to weed management. They have shown that the belief that any plant that is not our cash crop is a weed and needs to be destroyed is no longer correct. The fact is that plant diversity builds resilience and increases yields, not the other way around. The key  is developing management systems that change competition from other plants into mutualism and symbiosis that benefit the cash crop.

 Multispecies cover crops produce more biomass and nutrients than single-species monocultures. In the example of the Soil Kee system, the amount of stock feed is more than double the usual perennial or annual pastures in the district.

Variations of these systems are being developed all the time and are being used very successfully in horticulture, grazing and broadacre agriculture. To quote Colin Seis, “as a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.”

 

Andre Leu is the International Director for Regeneration International. To sign up for RI’s email newsletter, click here.

Soil Health: How to Take a Seemingly Impossible Path to Healthy Soil

The road to soil health can be difficult, and the knowledge attained during the initial steps may be based on very different systems and practices than a producer is used to. This often leaves producers to take what they’ve learned from other systems and apply it to their operations.  This was the case for two farmers in a high disturbance potato and sugar beet rotation for whom the notion of soil health just ten years ago was considered impossible.

We sat down with Brian Kossman from Paul, Idaho, and Luke Adams from Rupert, Idaho, who have been innovators in cover cropping and limiting disturbance.

How to Introduce No Till into a Sugar Beet and Potato Operation

Much of what Brian and Luke knew about farming and soil health was based on non-irrigated, Midwestern corn-soybean applications. They had to figure out how to take the principles they learned and apply them in a vastly different, high desert operation.

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The Soil-Keeping Approach to Regenerative Justice: 7 Principles

In this critical moment in our shared history, the call for transformational change is growing louder. But what exactly does this involve? Transformational change emerges from deep beneath that which we can see. Our beliefs shape our identities, just as soil health shapes plant life and paradigms shape social systems. Realizing the promise of a just society requires us to remediate inequities embedded in our soils, societies, and selves. However, “systems change” work often stops short of including all of these nested domains, hindering our ability to cultivate conditions conducive to life.

Many people trace the origins of injustice and need for transformational change back to colonization. Looking at the root of this term can help us understand these complexities and devise new healing pathways. The word “colonization” comes from the Latin colere, the noun form of which, colonus, originally signified a tiller of the earth.

Western imagination tends to associate tilling by mechanical plows as the hallmark of industrial progress and evidence of cultural superiority.

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¿Qué es la agricultura regenerativa?

La agricultura regenerativa es un método de cultivo sostenible que puede reponer los nutrientes del suelo mientras combate el cambio climático.

La agricultura regenerativa es un nombre moderno para la forma en que se practicaba la agricultura durante siglos, antes del inicio de la agricultura industrial a principios del siglo XX.

Volver a esas prácticas tradicionales está cobrando impulso como una forma de revertir el daño causado al clima y al suelo de los que todos dependemos para nuestra alimentación y supervivencia.

El mundo corre sobre tierra vegetal. Es la fuente del 95% de nuestra alimentación. Durante siglos, los agricultores confiaron en la fertilidad natural del suelo para producir alimentos. Sin embargo, a principios del siglo XX, los fertilizantes químicos se hicieron necesarios para mantener esa fertilidad.

La agricultura industrial depende de insumos constantes de fertilizantes químicos para mantener la productividad del suelo.

Tipos de prácticas agrícolas regenerativas

Si bien puede parecer un término nuevo debido a un cambio creciente en las técnicas agrícolas, la agricultura regenerativa incluye una amplia gama de prácticas que han sido utilizadas por los agricultores durante décadas, incluso siglos.

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No-till Practices in Vulnerable Areas Significantly Reduce Soil Erosion

URBANA, IL. – Soil erosion is a major challenge in agricultural production. It affects soil quality and carries nutrient sediments that pollute waterways. While soil erosion is a naturally occurring process, agricultural activities such as conventional tilling exacerbate it. Farmers implementing no-till practices can significantly reduce soil erosion rates, a new University of Illinois study shows.

Completely shifting to no-till would reduce soil loss and sediment yield by more than 70%, says Sanghyun Lee, doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at U of I and lead author on the study, published in Journal of Environmental Management.

But even a partial change in tilling practices could have significant results, he adds.

“If we focus on the most vulnerable area in terms of soil erosion, then only 40% no-till shows almost the same reduction as 100% no-till implementation,” Lee says.

The study used physical data and computer modeling to estimate soil erosion in the Drummer Creek watershed, which is part of the Upper Sangamon River watershed in Central Illinois.

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Regen Farming Tools Go Beyond Just Keeping Carbon

Carbon Credits Are Coming!! Carbon Credits Are Coming!

You can’t pick up an ag magazine or listen to a farm report without hearing SOMETHING about all the news in Washington D.C. about carbon sequestration and carbon markets. Heck, you can hardly listen to ANY news source without hearing how soil health/regenerative agriculture is going to play a major role in our nation’s strategy to combat climate change.

Personally, I think this focus is a good thing—for some time now I have been pushing the benefits that practices like no-till, cover crops, grass plantings on highly erodible and improved grazing practices can have when it comes to sequestering carbon in the soil and reducing emissions.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I at one time was the executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts and helped create and run a state based carbon credit program that, at its peak, had over 50,000 acres enrolled. I’m a firm believer that anything that encourages conservation work on the ground and rewards farmers and ranchers for their stewardship is something worth pursuing.

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How Regenerative Ag and Strip Grazing Improves Soil Health

Ray Archuleta talks about three basic concepts for soil health during an Illinois Conservation Cropping Seminar.

  • One: The soil is alive.

A living plant is one of the most powerful tools on the farm. Plants and microbes feed the soil ecosystem and improve the quality of life.

  • Two: Everything is connected.

If it isn’t understood how the soil, inputs, crops, and management practices are connected, then harm can come from using tools incorrectly.

  • Three: The goal is to emulate nature (or “biomimicry”).

While efficiency has been a No. 1 priority, now it is known that the best approach is to mimic the natural system.

Archuleta says while these seem simple, the most challenging obstacle to overcome when adopting these three concepts is your mind-set.

“Thanks to the years of information we gained from our schools, our grandparents, and from our local community, our mind-set is the most difficult thing to change on the farm. The soil is easy to fix. Our mind-set is not,” he says.

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