Regenerative agriculture has gained momentum over the last several years as a way to increase food security and combat climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic only quickened the pace by exposing faults in our food systems. However, these techniques aren’t new: farmers have been experimenting with regenerative farming techniques and educating agriculture communities for decades. Jay Brandt is one of those farmers.
His family has been farming in Fairfield County, Ohio since the 1970’s. Together he, his father and his son established Brandt Farm, and then seed processing company Walnut Creek Seeds in the early 2000’s. Now, the family is working with local farmers and retailers to provide heritage grain from corn and wheat directly to consumers. The farm’s admirable growth can be attributed to the family’s commitment to no-till farming, cover cropping and educating the community about the benefits of regenerative practices. I had the opportunity to speak with Jay about his experience.
“When my father began farming in the early ‘70s he adopted some no-till practices, primarily because we were raising a lot of livestock,” said Jay. “There wasn’t much time to get all the field work done, and he had concerns about erosion, because we’re in highly erodible land. So going to no-till offered the advantage to reduce labor in the spring and fall, and aided in reducing erosion.” Around that time, Jay’s father also started using “green manures” (a former term for cover crops), and used chemical termination for those cover crops sparingly. He tested this method only where erosion was high in the hills and valleys.
“My father’s observation was that the crops were doing better and didn’t suffer stress during the summer, so he began to adopt it across the entire field.”
With this knowledge the family established a system of cover cropping and no-till farming and began educating the community about the benefits of these practices. As early as the 1980s, Jay’s father was working with the State Conservation Society to help other farmers implement no-till practices across the state of Ohio.
Connections and advocacy for conservation practices soon became part of the Brandt family legacy. Jay believes that much of the farm’s success can be attributed to his father’s speaking engagements in the region and across the nation in service of conservation ag. First in looking at sustainability action, and then in talking about how practices can help rebuild and restore the soils in a productive manner, without the excessive use of chemical inputs. These speaking engagements allowed the Brandt family to establish both a seed production company and a direct-to-consumer brand, all while maintaining the farm.
“Back in the early 2000s, when Dad was doing a lot of traveling and talking about conservation and cover crops, the soil health movement really started up with the support from the Natural Resource Conservation Service. He had an opportunity to be in front of several people, and to be recognized as a resource for information. So we saw, in our area, a lack of knowledge and seed for cover crops. That led to the development of Walnut Creek Seeds.
Then we started to look at supplying food grains locally, and have cooperated with a couple farmers and some retailers in the region to develop a small craft business. And that helps to build regional awareness of conservation and regenerative practices. It’s tied to these heritage grains, because you [are able to use] history and some nostalgia and regional identity, which people enjoy. So not only is it farm-to-table, but it has that taste and flavor of home, and is fun for everyone.”
When considering his experience and thinking about farmers making the transition to regenerative practices, Jay says, “The challenge is between the ears, to overcome some of these [older] mindsets. You don’t need more bushels, you need the bushels you grow to provide a better profit. So reduction in fertility practice, reduction in relative maturity, can allow you to expand and increase adoption of different conservation practices.”
Indeed, for many farmers, this is a whole system approach, which can be daunting. However, tackling the system one piece at a time can help farmers make significant changes with less risk. As Jay emphasizes, farmers can succeed by making changes that are “big enough to make a difference, but not big enough to end your career in agriculture.” And of course, learning from failures.
“As we know, we usually learn more from failures than successes, and if we don’t have one hiccup somewhere we’re not learning anything.”