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  • Writer's pictureJen

The Soil Crisis - What Does "Regenerative Agriculture" Mean and Does It Matter?

Depending on the farm and what is being grown, regenerative agriculture will look a little different in practice, but will always share a common denominator – building healthy soil.

“Is that all?” you may be thinking… But in order to realize the significance of this, you first need to understand what’s been happening to our soil for the past 150 years.

Before the plow arrived, one of the most fertile places on the planet, the Midwest, had 14-16 inches of topsoil beneath its towering prairie grass.

And then we began plowing – and plowing, and plowing, and plowing. Each year (or multiple times a year), conventional agriculture disrupts a complex soil structure by turning it over with a plow, leaving it far more fragile and prone to run-off. In addition to this continual disruption, when the harvest season is over, fields are often left bare, without the structural aid of dense plants and roots – sitting ducks to the erosive effects of wind, rain, and snow.

In the past 150 years, the estimated loss of topsoil is approximated to be 57.6 billion tons in the Midwest alone (nearly half of our topsoil)1. In many areas, fertile soils have been reduced to hard-packed clay.

After several generations of tillage, the chemical farming age began following World War II. As topsoil eroded at an alarming rate and the fertility of our land began to dwindle, modern farming embraced an easy fix – synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, all destructive elements used to temporarily mask larger problems – depleted land and unhealthy plants.

And thus, the vicious circle began. Without these chemicals, crops didn’t grow well, but with each year of use, dependence increased.

And that’s where we are – caught in a cycle of soil depletion that will eventually catch up with us.

It’s difficult for this reality to really sink in to our modern way of thinking. We’ve been brought up shopping at supermarkets where the shelves are full and, presumably, always will be; we don’t have to give it any more thought than that. But behind the scenes, the means of this abundance is being swept away, literally… The disconnection between the farm and the consumer has left a gap of ignorance, and instead of building soil and investing in our future nourishment, we’re building a future of consequences, because topsoil is needed to grow our food.

It's important to note that I’m not trying to vilify tillage or conventional agriculture as a whole. There’s a time and place for disturbing the soil (we allow our pigs to periodically disturb the soil, and these areas produce some of the best grass on the farm!), but the danger lies in doing it excessively, and this is where conventional agriculture has often errored…

In contrast to farming methods that gradually degrade the soil, regenerative agriculture uses practices that focus on building soil, and it does this primarily through mimicking patterns found in nature.

Nature knows how to grow and thrive.

The relationship between the soil, grass, and cattle is a perfect example. If we want to raise cattle in a heathy, regenerative way, we start by looking at their design: cattle are herbivores. Ok, so how do herbivores function in nature?

Remember the 16 inches of top soil found under the impressive miles of prairie grass 150 years ago? Those were maintained by massive herds of buffalo (herbivores). They grazed, and trampled, and fertilized, but never settled into one spot for weeks on end (what we refer to as “continuous grazing”). Predators and the desire for fresh grass kept them moving.

That’s the pattern we mimic, and that’s the pattern that builds soil.

On a regenerative farm, cattle graze and then move on, leaving the grass ample time to recover and regrow. The pulsing effect of pruning, fertilization, and recovery is a pattern clearly displayed in nature – and what do you know…it really works. After grass is grazed, a proportionate amount of the root dies to give the plant energy for regrowth. The dead roots then become “organic matter,” which is food for soil biology. The cow, in turn, leaves behind her manure in exchange for the grass that she took, and so the cycle goes on, building and maintaining healthy soil.

I like to think of regenerative agriculture as farming with humility. Rather than imposing our grand ideas on nature and trying to twist its beautifully complex symbiosis into a mold that fits our ambitions for production, regenerative agriculture studies and submits to a design that already knows the answers better than we do.

- Jen


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