Down to Earth
The Promise of Regenerative Organic Farming
by Sandra Yeyati
With its dependence on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, heavy tilling techniques, concentrated animal feeding practices and mono-crops—all designed to maximize yields—conventional farming has come at a great cost. “Conventional intensive farming practices have significant negative consequences for the land and surrounding ecosystems,” says Richard Teague, Texas A&M professor of Ecosystem Science and Management. “By disrupting the natural function of these habitats, the valuable ecosystem services they provide are compromised.”
The way we’re growing food now is not sustainable. “According to the United Nations, we only have 60 harvests left before our soil is completely depleted. Years of conventional industrial agriculture have drained the soil dry of all of the organic matter, all the microbes, that microbiome that brings nutrients to our plants and to our planet as a whole,” says Margaret Wilson, content creation and media relations specialist at the Rodale Institute.
The UN also reported last year that agriculture and forestry were responsible for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. “Agriculture is a climate-intensive process and conventional practices make that even worse because they’re fossil fuel-intensive,” Wilson says. “They require a lot of machinery to plow fields and distribute pesticides. Fertilizers are fossil fuel-based. Tillage is a huge part of conventional agriculture, where you’re turning the soil over, and that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
One third of the world’s land surface is considered desert, and according to Judith D. Schwartz, the Vermont author of The Reindeer Chronicles and Cows Save the Planet, most deserts are manmade. “If we look historically, we learn that most deserts were once thriving grasslands or some other kind of ecosystem and became deserts after hundreds of years of poor grazing management or farming that was no longer putting nutrients back into the soil.”
The good news is that deserts can be brought back to life. In the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, where much of the land is degraded, ingenious ranchers have figured out a way to support healthy animals and plant biodiversity. “The ranchers were earning money by managing the livestock holistically in a way that was reviving the ecological function of these lands, so there were thick grasses, birds and butterflies flourishing right next to land that looked horrible—absolute deserts with a lot of erosion, the soil so depleted that it couldn’t hold water,” recalls Schwartz, who visited the area.
Regenerative organic farming holds great promise to rebuild soil, draw carbon from the atmosphere and ultimately grow healthier food. “When you take out the pesticides, fertilizers and intensive tilling, our farming systems trial concluded that regenerative organic agriculture uses 45 percent fewer fossil fuels and releases 40 percent fewer carbon emissions than conventional practices,” Wilson says, adding that a recent Rodale Institute white paper postulated that by transitioning all global crop and pastureland to regenerative management, we could sequester 100 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions.
As the founder of the Rodale Institute, J.I. Rodale, said, “Healthy soil equals healthy food equals healthy people.” Soil restoration is job one, and we know how to do this. “The goal of regenerative farming is to farm and ranch in nature’s image,” says Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer and author of Dirt to Soil.
He offers the following six principles to create a thriving, regenerating agricultural ecosystem:
1 - Context: “There’s a reason bananas do not grow in North Dakota. They don’t fit the context, whereas more spring wheat is grown in North Dakota than anywhere else. You have to farm and ranch in your context.”
2 - The least amount of mechanical and chemical disturbance possible: “Nature tills with earthworms and burrowing rodents, but it certainly doesn’t till the soil like we do in farming or even in gardening. Tilling is the worst thing you can do if you want to raise nutrient-dense food. Nature aerates the soil with the use of living plants and soil aggregates. Those soil aggregates will only last about four weeks, then new ones need to be formed, and the only way to form them is by not tilling and allowing biology and fungi to secrete substances that help bind sand, silt and clay to form soil aggregates.”
3 - Armor on the soil: “Nature always tries to cover the soil, whether it be leaves in a forest or decaying plants in a pasture or field. Nature does not like bare soil.”
4 - Diversity: “Where in nature do you see a monoculture? Usually only where man put it or man’s actions have driven it to be a monoculture. Nature is very diverse, so hundreds of different grasses, legumes all growing in harmony. We’ve gotten away from that. Now we plant monocultures. That’s not the way nature functions.”
5 - A living root being in the soil as long as possible throughout the year: “I go out in the spring here in North Dakota, and you’ve got crocuses coming up through the snow. That’s nature’s way of trying to take the solar energy and all of these compounds out of the atmosphere, and through photosynthesis convert it into carbon to feed soil biology.”
6 - Livestock and insect integration: “Nature does not function properly without animals. Too many people think we have to remove the animals from the landscape. That’s the worst thing you can do. What’s going to pollinate the plants? The way our rich soils were formed was with large herds of ruminants, grazing the plants. That plant, once grazed, starts sloughing off root exudates to attract biology, to regrow, and then that plant is able to cycle more carbon out of the atmosphere.”
Brown waxes poetic when he talks about the amazing results of regenerative farming. “Healthy soil looks like dark chocolate cake. It’s full of pore spaces. Healthy soil is dark because of the amount of carbon in it. It smells good, whereas unhealthy soil is very compacted. There’s no pore spaces. Water cannot infiltrate into it. It’s a dull, pale color. You can see it, you can smell it, you can feel it.”
According to Wilson, the Rodale Institute is poised to help farmers adopt these principles and make them profitable. “People say regenerative organic isn’t scalable, but through our farming systems trial, we’re proving that you can do this on a large scale. It might require customization, but that’s why we’re investing so much in providing support and research to farmers to help them navigate that, and we’re seeing that scalability is not a barrier to implementation because so many big companies like Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia are starting to implement these practices because people are demanding it. The market finds a way to make it doable and as long as we keep up our consumer education and show people that this is a benefit to everybody, I think large-scale farmers and corporations that buy their products will respond.”
Last year, Graham Christensen’s father gave him and his brother full control of a 750-acre farm in Oakland, Nebraska, that has been in the family since 1867. Over the decades, the farm has seen many changes, but the biggest transformation is still to come, as the brothers eagerly transition their once conventional operation into a regenerative organic one.
The family began to incorporate a few innovations 12 years ago when they stopped tilling the land and adopted solar energy, but this year they’ll take bolder steps to eliminate their dependence on GMO seeds and chemical fertilizers and pesticides which over the years have reduced organic matter levels in the soil and led to increased and unhealthy nutrient levels in their waterways.
“For the first time, we’ll be cover-cropping 612 acres and expanding habitats for wildlife, especially in some riparian areas, so we can get more roots in the soil and have better filtration and cleaner water,” Christensen explains. “We’re going to produce nutrients by building a biodiverse ecosystem and we’re incorporating animal grazing systems to help us fertilize naturally rather than having to add synthetics like nitrogen and phosphorus.”
They have planted a 100-tree hazelnut orchard that they hope to expand as a tree crop. “That’s going to help us stop soil erosion, store more carbon in the ground, produce another form of income and also be able to fit right into our cropping system, virtually taking out no extra land; just creating a higher layer, so now we’re farming higher in the air.”
The transition is not without its risks, Christensen adds. “Farms like ours have been heavily subsidized by the federal government to ship our grain to other countries. What we’re trying to do now is produce more small grains and hazelnuts for a regional market and reintroduce livestock to the land—not in confinement—so we can focus more on feeding people in our local community and in Omaha or Lincoln or Kansas City or Des Moines.”