Forget Sustainable Farming — Regenerative Agriculture Is the New Frontier

Meet the innovative grazing expert profiled in “This Farm Is Medicine,” now streaming on Salon Premium

Author: Tom Roston | Published: May 4, 2018

“This Farm Is Medicine,” about Murray Provine, a businessman who turned to progressive farming after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, is another thought-provoking chapter in director Peter Byck’s “Soil Carbon Cowboys” documentary series, which is breaking new ground, getting the word out about the regenerative farm movement.

You can watch the full documentary “This Farm Is Medicine” on Salon Premium, our new ad-free, content-rich app. Here’s how

Salon spoke with Byck before, about “One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts,” and here we talk about this brave new farming world with adaptive-multi-paddock grazing expert Allen Williams, who is featured in “This Farm is Medicine.”


Turning Desert to Fertile Farmland on the Loess Plateau

Soil is not just dirt but a living system with many important functions. Degraded soils impact on food production, erosion, and more, affecting the lives of people around the world. Restoration efforts in China, Zambia and other countries seek to reverse this trend.

Author: Richard Blaustein | Published: April 5, 2018

Around 3,000 years ago, farmers settled on the fertile Loess Plateau in western China, a region about the size of France. By the 7th century, the rich soils were feeding about one quarter of the Chinese population. But intense pressure on the land eroded the soil. By the 20th century, desertification had condemned the remaining population to poverty. “It was a desperate place,” says Juergen Voegele, an agricultural economist and engineer at the World Bank who first visited the region in the mid-1980s. But that would soon change.

Voegele returned in the 1990s to lead a major 12-year World Bank project to help restore dirt to healthy soils on a vast scale. “This was absolute desert. A few years later the whole thing came back,” he says. “We saw birds, butterflies, insects – the whole ecosystem began to recover. Even after hundreds of years of complete devastation, the seeds were still in the ground and things began to happen very quickly. We did not expect that.”

By 2009, and the programme’s end, approximately 920,000 hectares had been restored of the 65,000,000-hectare region in western China. But elsewhere in China and around the world, soils are still suffering.


Australian Scientist Urges Farmers to Take a Light Touch With Their Soils

Published: May 4, 2018

Curiosity about regenerative agriculture is growing and a field day drew an audience of more than 150 people to the Clinton Community Hall in South Otago this week.

The attraction was an address by Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones, whose research on restoring soil health has proven controversial among New Zealand soil scientists.

Jones introduced her audience to the concept of “light farming” – restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils through photosynthesis.

“Imagine there was a process that could remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, replace it with life-giving oxygen, support a robust soil microbiome, regenerate topsoil, enhance the nutrient density of food, restore water balance to the landscape and increase the profitability of agriculture,” she said in a supporting scientific paper.

“Fortunately there is. It’s called photosynthesis.”


Beyond Organic: How Brands Can Be Active Players in Restoring Soil Health and Climate Change Mitigation

To boost sustainability, natural foods brands and retailers have focused on reducing energy consumption, using recycled and recyclable materials—but what about farms and soil? A partnership between small farmers and Annie’s has demonstrated what supply chain relationships could look like in a more sustainable, soil-friendly future.

Published: March 30, 2018

“Do you understand the barriers for the farmers and are you willing to help them?”

Erin Sojourner Agostinelli, Demeter

Part 1: Regenerative agriculture: an overview

Highlights from Erin Sojourner Agostinelli of Demeter:

  • Soil quality brings us the nutrition density we need in food.
  • Bringing regenerative agriculture into the industry involves finding resolution between two attitudes toward timing: You have to be patient and willing to deal with biological timing, but also satisfy the demands of the market, which may want products on shelves tomorrow.
  • Questions for brands to evaluate if you want to support regenerative agriculture: Do you know the farms where your ingredients come from; what are the steps you can take to help educate the farmer on the different certifications and tools available; do you understand the barriers facing the farmers and are you willing to help them? And if you can’t trace back where your materials come from or aren’t willing to influence or engage with the farmer, are you willing to go look for raw materials elsewhere and continually invest in your supply chain?

A Grass-Roots Movement For Healthy Soil Spreads Among Farmers

Author: Dan Charles | Published: April 9, 2018

In American farm country, a grass-roots movement is spreading, a movement to keep more roots in the soil. (Not just grass roots, of course; roots of all kinds.) Its goal: Promoting healthy soil that’s full of life.

I met three different farmers recently who are part of this movement in one way or another. Each of them took me to a field, dug up some dirt, and showed it off like a kind of hidden treasure.

“You can see how beautiful that soil [is],” said Deb Gangwish, in Shelton, Neb. “I’m not a soil scientist, but I love soil!”

“You can pick it up and it smells like dirt,” Bryce Irlbeck told me, as we stood in a field near Manning, Iowa. “You can go on a lot of arms in Iowa and the dirt doesn’t smell like dirt anymore.”

And in Pleasant Dale, Neb., Del Ficke was practically ecstatic. “Look at this! And the smell! It smells beautiful! It’s alive!”


New Research Says Grass Finishing Can Build Soil

Midwest research says AMP grazing produces lower greenhouse gas emissions than feedlot finishing.

Author: Alan Newport | Published: February 28, 2018

A new study from Michigan has boosted the case for adaptive multi-paddock grazing with data showing less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from grass-finishing cattle than from feedlot finishing.

When the researchers included soil organic carbon (SOC) in the GHG footprint estimates, finishing emissions from the adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) system were net negative 6.65 kg CO2-enteric per kg of carcass weight, compared with feedlot (FL) emissions of 6.12 kg CO2-enteric kg, which was aggravated by soil erosion, the authors reported.

Perhaps just important, I believe, is the fact their data shows increased soil organic matter from AMP grazing. Researchers showed a four-year carbon (C) sequestration average of 3.59 Mg C ha/yr in AMP-grazed pastures. The feedlot system showed a potentially small net loss of soil carbon, as you might expect.


How Soil Can Improve Food Security While Combating Climate Change

Author: Brian Frederick | Published: March 30, 2018

Dr. Kristine Nichols was the Chief Scientist at the Rodale Institute, an independent research institute for organic farming, from 2014 to 2017. Her training and research focus on the microbes living in soil and how to make soil more productive.

The Rodale Institute was founded in 1947 in Kutztown, PA by J.I. Rodale. Inspired by the nitrogen fertilizer shortages during World War II, Rodale wanted to develop practical methods of rebuilding soil fertility. Today, the institute focuses particularly on compost, soil health, weed and pest management, livestock operations, organic certification, wastewater treatment, and climate change. It is home to the longest running comparative study of organic and chemical agriculture, started in 1981.

Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Kristine Nichols about how soil microbes affect agriculture and about some of the trials the Rodale Institute are conducting.


Regenerative Farming Trailblazers: How Reintegrating Livestock and Restoring Soils Can Lead to More Resilient Farms

Author: Marcia DeLonge | Published: March 29, 2018

Across the United States, more farmers are finding that practices that have worked in the past are no longer cutting it. Persistent low prices for common crops (especially corn) paired with high production costs (for example, expensive equipment and fertilizers) have made it hard to stay afloat. At the same time agriculture has also moved increasingly toward systems dominated by a few annual crops—typically corn and soybeans—often with fields left bare between growing seasons. This trend has degraded core resources like soil and water, endangering the long-term viability of many farms.

Faced with growing pressures, some farmers are exploring their options, including testing regenerative farming practices that can rebuild soil health, conserve water, improve water quality, and more. For example, farmers are diversifying their crops and animals, implementing more complex crop rotations, and protecting soil year-round by using cover crops. Such changes come with both challenges and opportunities.


Cape Town is Out of Water: What Can Living Soils Do to Help?

Published: November 28, 2017

Rainfall over 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa has been dismal. The city is experiencing the worst drought in over a century, and the city has about 10% of its usual water capacity available. The water is estimated to last the city until mid-July, with strict usage regulations already in place.

Regenerative agriculture rebuilds degraded agricultural soils and increases the soil organic matter in those lands. Just 1% of soil organic matter in an acre of land can hold as much water as a backyard swimming pool, serving as a reservoir of water in dry times like the current conditions. This can help reduce the water pressures caused by agricultural irrigation, which could instead be diverted to drinking water for residents. Unfortunately, lands farmed using conventional farming methods have gotten down into the 1–3% soil organic matter range, when they should be in the 6–8% range. That’s a shortage of 60,000–140,000 gallons of water per acre that the soil should be holding.


Designers of Paradise Podcast

RASA and soil activist Erik van Lennep are launching a podcast series, Designers of Paradise, bringing you into conversations with people changing how we produce our food, care for our soil and water, and protect our climate. These are the stories of the people dedicating their time and brilliance to reversing the impacts of our industrial food systems.

Naturally, we’ll be speaking with both farmers and consumers, but also with innovators and entrepreneurs, city planners and funders, across the spectrum of an emerging new ecosystem of regenerative practitioners. This Next Generation of agriculture is regenerating soils, food quality, local economies,communities and significantly, hope; hope for a better, healthier and more equitable future for all.

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be posting interviews here on a regular, as-made basis. So check back often to see what’s new. And if you have suggestions, please let us know in comments on the episodes or via twitter.