Us-Versus-Them Gets in the Way of Regenerative Agriculture: We need conventional farmers

By Hal Hamilton

I’ve been thinking about the cultural divide between mainstream farmers and those who self-identify as regenerative or organic. As with many other issues, people get stuck in different camps and a chasm solidifies and gets in the way. Regenerative agriculture is both necessary and polarizing. Even though regenerative agriculture is best understood as a system rooted in soil biology—keeping the ground covered and diverse roots below ground—outreach among farmers can be most successful by addressing specific challenges faced by each farmer. And that outreach works best among farmers themselves and their already-trusted advisors.

My friend and mentor Donella Meadows used to say all the time, “Blame the system, not the players.”

As with most social change strategy,

  1. We need to keep one eye on our aspirations for system change and the other eye on incremental steps.
  2. We should be humble and respectful with everyone now doing the best they can within their circumstances.
  3. We should pay attention to ways to shift those circumstances so that Individual actions match collective goals.

I was once a farmer myself. I didn’t want outsiders to explain to me how I should do things better. I already knew that I could do better. During my early years of farming, I struggled with soil erosion. I can still feel the pain I experienced when walking around the edge of fields after a heavy rain.

Farmers are not stupid. They know what’s happening on the land they’re responsible for, but the shift from a focus on productivity toward an additional focus on soil health requires that they make new investments and take on new risks within an already shaky financial environment. Farmers do not need outsiders to tell them to “kiss the ground” or join a movement. Many well-meaning critics and visionaries are out of sync with most farmers, who tend to plan what they’re going to do in an incremental, problem-solving way. They’re too busy with specific next steps to join movements or embrace new philosophies.

Here we get to the crux of the matter. Although the critics and visionaries can rub many farmers the wrong way, the critics are right about the future of agriculture. For the last seventy years or so, farming has become ever more specialized and technologically sophisticated, producing very high yields of relatively few crops. In the Midwest US, livestock have been concentrated in larger numbers in fewer places. Oats, hay, and pasture have disappeared from much of the landscape, which is now dominated by corn and soybeans. The ground is bare half of the year. Bountiful ingredients for feed, food, and ethanol serve markets well, but soil organic matter, and even soil itself, has diminished in many areas, reducing the resilience of the system, which is more vulnerable to droughts and floods, and more dependent upon petro-chemical inputs. Successful farmers have mastered the technologies of this system and achieved levels of productivity that would have been unimaginable years ago, but the biological underpinnings of soil, water, and climate cycles are more fragile than they used to be.

Along the way to a more regenerative agriculture, we NEED so-called conventional farmers. They care for most of the land and grow most of what we eat. If we caste them into the ranks of the damned, with our attitudes and language, then we, in fact, marginalize ourselves. We also need conventional business leaders and policy makers. Otherwise, we are a self-righteously proud movement with very little impact.

Thousands of good farmers are already on a very exciting journey into soil biology, learning about the immeasurably complex relationships among billions of bacterial and fungal organisms in every spoonful of fertile soil. Yes, billions! The soil microbiome is just as important to healthy farms as is the microbiome in each of our guts to our own health. Regenerative agriculture has become a field of discovery, with new insights about resilient productivity in drought and flood years, and a practical path toward improved reduced greenhouse gas emissions and better water quality. These are exciting times for farming. It’s fun to feel the heartfelt enthusiasm of farmers blazing a new trail.

Let’s not mess up all this progress by disdaining those who are at a different place in the larger journey. We need them. According to Dr. Abbey Wick, soil scientist at North Dakota State University, “When engaging with farmers about soil health, it’s as important to listen as it is to talk. That’s the only way to figure out the next steps for each farm in each place.”

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