How often do we come across a win-win-win situation? Let’s celebrate it whenever it happens! Here’s a big one: Regenerative Agriculture.
Too often, doing something good means, SACRIFICE (frowny face). “No, you can’t eat that, it’s bad for you.” “Finish your homework.” “Take the bus instead of driving.” “Buy vegetables that don’t look very good and cost more, but are better for the environment.”
But here’s one that seems to be an exception to that pattern. As our knowledge about what happens below the surface of our soils grows (pun intended!) at an exponential pace, regenerative agriculture holds the prospect of: growing as much or more food; using less water; needing far less fuel like diesel for tractors; demanding less chemical input like herbicides, pesticides and non-renewable fertilizer; being healthier for the farmer, the consumer and the environment; sequestering carbon in meaningful amounts that some say could even REVERSE climate change, and, most important, can be more profitable for the farmers and no more expensive for the consumer.
Not only that, but when done well, it can even include animals, like livestock and poultry, making meat no longer the bad guy, but a key contributor to the complete cycle!
What is regenerative agriculture? Basically, it means shifting our thinking about agriculture from what’s happening above ground, to what’s happening below.
The fundamental shift is to stop seeing soil as simply an inert medium that holds certain chemicals for plants to suck up and use to make food, in competition with other organisms which then have to be eliminated. Instead, farmers can see soil as a living community, that works synergistically and collaboratively to create optimal conditions for the plants and animals that humans like to eat.
The task of the farmer then, is to design an agricultural system that nurtures the most active and beneficial soil community possible. Let plants and animals do the work currently being done by machinery and chemicals. This approach can work on a huge scale, or the more modest-sized family farms we appreciate so much here in Western Colorado.
In “modern” industrial agriculture, a farmer takes a soil sample to a lab, that then prescribes which chemicals, provided by a huge company and applied by massive machinery, need to be added year after year, to keep the inert dirt viable and keep competing organisms at bay.
Much of the production from that system then goes to feedlots and poultry houses, where animals eat and live in the most unnatural conditions imaginable.
With regenerative agriculture, the farmer reads the plants, reads the soil, talks to their neighbors, shares information and results, and uses a diversity of plants and thoughtful timing of introducing animals, and skims off a small portion of the soil community’s output to send to market, while the rest remains to grow and thrive all year round.
How can that be more profitable? Two words: input costs! There are only two ways to increase profits in any business. Increase revenue or reduce costs. With crop margins so tight, a regenerative approach can drastically reduce what the farmer spends on fertilizer (toxic to many soil organisms), fuel, machinery, and poisons for insects, fungus, undesirable plants and more.
Nurture your soil community, instead of Big Business! Let plants, animals, micro-organisms and the sun work for you. They don’t ask to get paid, just supported!
What’s the downside? Yes, there are challenges, but what farmer or rancher isn’t used to that?
The biggest challenge is cultural, and the second, a shift in thinking and knowledge.
The way most agriculture is being done today, especially in North America, has dominated for more than a hundred years, and is promoted by a massive industry that reaps (note how agriculture infuses our language) huge profits for huge companies, propped up by a system of subsidies that still leaves most individual farmers barely able to scrape by on razor-thin margins. Regenerative producers are having to create their own networks and systems of mutual support.
What about sharing information and shifting thinking?
Well, here in Western Colorado, people are already doing that. One of the best opportunities is the merger of two conferences that have been happening for years.
The 2023 Soil Health, Food and Farm Forum will be held this Friday, Jan. 27, and Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Montrose Pavilion Event Center. If prior years are any indication, the quality of information shared and the inspiration created will be outstanding.
I encourage anyone to attend who cares about farming, ranching, food, health, the climate, water, the Western Colorado way of life, or just likes to hear more about win-win-win possibilities. Let’s get this movement growing!
Jim Riddell has lived in Western Colorado for more than 20 years and considers agriculture to be key to why people want to live here. He also is co-owner of a farm in Illinois that has been in the family for nearly 100 years.