By Hal Hamilton
I used to catch fish in my farm pond for Sunday dinner, so it’s not too strange for me to think of fishing and farming as somehow connected. Good fishing and good farming each depend upon getting the enabling conditions right.
For many years people who fish have urged the managers of public lands to restock lakes and rivers with young fish raised in hatcheries. The results of restocking are sometimes disappointing, however, and some wildlife managers have tried a different strategy. Instead of restocking fish, these managers enhanced shallow habitat for spawning and protection of fingerlings from prey. A recent study published in Science reported that whereas fish stocking is frequently ineffective, habitat enhancement consistently increases fish abundance.
We notice somewhat similar patterns in agriculture. The spread of conservation, or regenerative agriculture practices, depends upon getting the enabling conditions right. New practices must be locally relevant and validated by people known by local farmers. Trusted crop advisors suggest cover crops or reduced tillage to help solve specific problems such as weed control or soil erosion. Financial incentives can help, and farmers want to learn from other farmers, and so bottom-up networks within which farmers can share what they’re trying, are extremely useful.
To summarize my point so far: lakes repopulate with fish if those lakes have the right enabling conditions; agricultural change also requires the right enabling conditions: shared learning among farmers, along with locally rooted agronomic advisors and financial support through the transition.
Implementation of these strategies requires anticipating the forces that resist change. In a lake, young fish need to grow in a place that is hard for predators to get to them. In agriculture, farmers need to be able to try out new practices away from the critical eyes of those who are accustomed to focus on only productivity per acre and per person.
When I farmed, I was proud of my “Master Conservationist Award” from the local Soil Conservation District, but the every-day necessity for me was to sell as much milk as I could from my farm, year on year. I used advice from my neighbors, the County Agent, university specialists, the guy who sold me seeds and supplies, and fellow directors of the local Farm Bureau. Everyone was helpful, and everyone pursued the same goal: profitable productivity of product per person and per acre.
Now, in an era of climate change and focus on greenhouse gas emissions, opinion leaders, including many conventional farmers, are trying to figure out how productivity and regenerative farming practices might reshuffle themselves into new ways of farming. All farmers are increasingly attentive to yields in drought and flood years. Those yields are strongly influenced by the health of soil. Water availability is, in turn, influenced by local water cycles, which are themselves influenced by biomass above the ground, most consistently trees and grasslands. And pest pressures are reduced when predators have habitat for reproduction.
Farmers have long been sophisticated learners, and now agriculture has become even more complex. Advocates of change should start with respect. Critics of modern agriculture can come across to farmers as demeaning, sometimes implying that hero-innovators are smarter and more ethical than their peers. Virtually all farmers, however, make rational decisions in relation to market demand, proven technologies, the opinions of trusted advisors, volatile weather and prices, crop insurance and other programs to help manage those risks, and assumptions by lenders of what makes farms successful. These support systems for farmers can be summarized in this simple three-legged stool.
Regenerative agriculture will scale if we address all of those enabling conditions for farmer decision-making. Just as fish need places to hide from predators until they grow big, farmers need safe spaces to experiment, along with support that is free of judgement.