By Hal Hamilton
From a farmer’s point of view, regenerative agriculture makes sense if it solves problems and reduces risks.
Farmers have been dealing with risks since they first poked seeds into the ground. Weather, markets, weeds, and insects: no two years are the same. Advocates of regenerative agriculture promote soil health as a long-term hedge against drought or floods, and rightly so, but farmers walk a tightrope in the near term. Before doing anything new, they calculate costs, time, and uncertain prices. As an Iowa farmer explains, “Look, I have about forty harvests in my career. I can’t afford to screw any of them up.”
Regenerative farming practices keep the ground covered as much as possible, with diverse roots under the surface. The soil steadily improves, but these practices are not easy, especially on farms in which every step is constrained within a very tight timeline.
Many farmers depend upon crop advisors to help with decisions, although those advisors are not always familiar with management steps toward regenerative agriculture. Similarly, neighbors and farm organization leaders might be skeptical of new technologies. Farmers can feel as if they are out on a limb. As one farmer told us, “Plant a cover crop in the middle of an area of conventional agriculture and you will be diminished in the eyes of your neighbors.” This farmer did it anyway, but there were personal consequences: “I didn’t sleep for 2 months and lost fifteen pounds trying to get cover crops in behind a late harvest last year, but I’m the only one on the farm who knows how, and it’s just me, my wife, and our hired man.”
Farmers can benefit from financial incentives to remove some of these risks of transition. Ohio farmer Fred Yoder, former President of the National Corn Growers Association and current co-chair of Solutions from the Land, thinks that “The best example is the Delmarva Peninsula where farmers get paid anywhere from $60 to $80 an acre to plant a cover crop, and they’re literally cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, restoring it to where people can raise oysters and clams again. At first those farmers dragged their feet, saying it’s not going to work. Government said that they each had to have a nutrient management plan for each tract of land, and they resented this regulation. But it’s just part of farming now. They’ve seen their soils improve. And they’ve been able to cut a lot of their synthetic fertilizer application. And they’re also figuring out really good ways to use cover crops as to help manage weeds, using less herbicide today than before.”
Fred goes on to talk about his own farm: “I tell you what, I would never go back to farming like I used to farm because it was wasteful. I’ve seen such an improvement in my soil tilth that we’ve doubled our yields in the last 20 years.”
Then Fred reflected on new government programs: “We just have to make sure that farmers stick their toe in the water. If we can get them to work on this for three to five years, they’re in it for life. Farmers will go through a little bit of a valley, you know, when they switch everything over. We have to get biological life back in the soil before we can return to full productivity. So I hope that with this new funding we can encourage all farmers to try it over five years.”
Jim Moseley, who farms with his sons in Indiana, and was once Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, found his own path with help from a crop consultant he hired, many years ago, to help him make his annual cropping plans: “On my farm the big change came along with an independent crop advisor who knew soil biology, so I’m convinced about the importance of influencers who are trusted by farmers. It’s most helpful when we can have a group of farmers come together in person. And this key influencer can nurture, educate, train them into a better way. It’s not something that happens immediately, it’s something that they begin to understand over five to ten years, and they begin to take chances that they didn’t think they would.”
One of the Sustainable Food Lab’s programs, along with North Dakota State University and several corporate partners, is to expand the ranks of trusted crop advisors who can help their farmer clients in ways that Jim Moseley describes.
For more on scaling regenerative agriculture, visit this link to the Scale Lab of key leaders across the U.S.. From that page you can access a synthesis of three future scenario stories and building blocks to scale regenerative agriculture. You’ll also find a set of downloadable decks to use with colleagues and partners.