Regenerative agriculture is a system that growers have been testing and refining for more than 50 years. It is a method of farming that prioritizes the replenishment of minerals, organic matter, moisture and gas in soil, which allows that soil to become more resilient and produce more nutritious food.
Last week, we attended a field day in Washington County, Iowa, to discuss regenerative agriculture and soil health. Continuum Ag, a soil health consulting company hosted the event which included insights from farmers, experts, financial specialists, and policymakers. Together, we shared resources, information, growing practices and speculated about the future of regenerative agriculture.
We left the field day with several takeaways:
Building soil health requires patience.
Growers and soil health experts in panels, Q&A sessions and one-on-one conversations all emphasized the value of patience when building a regenerative agriculture practice. Re-establishing a balance of nutrients and a strong root structure, especially on fields where those things have been depleted, takes many seasons of cover cropping, no-till farming or other soil conservation practices.
Additionally, growers may not see immediate profits from their efforts, and adjusting to new machinery and practices could take significant investment, adding to growers’ frustration.
Grower and regenerative agriculture expert Rick Clark said in his keynote speech,
“We can’t look at the one-year profit plans on our farms. We need to start looking at our farms from a 5, 6 year perspective.”
Adjusting our outlook on farm profitability can help growers build the resilience and patience for a smoother transition to regenerative agriculture.
Building soil health requires failure.
No grower likes to see their crops fail. However, transitioning to new management practices will inevitably involve some failure. Growers and experts alike emphasized the value of testing new practices on small pieces of the farm, monitoring success closely, and most importantly, sharing failures with other growers.
Grower and panel contributor Russell Hedrick said in one session,
“Try one new thing every year that you fail at.”
In his opinion, failing is the only way to find what truly works for a grower’s farm. Regenerative agriculture isn’t a one-size-fits-all operation, and growers need to try riskier practices in order to find the most effective solution for them.
Regenerative agriculture is scalable.
The farm management practices associated with regenerative agriculture — no-till farming, cover cropping and others — can feel like an all-or-nothing approach. If a grower isn’t implementing these practices across all fields, then he isn’t truly invested in soil conservation. We learned that this simply isn’t the case. Experts at the field day discussed everything from new practices to administering soil tests and we learned that regenerative agriculture truly is scalable. Growers should feel encouraged to make changes that are within the bounds of their farm’s success, and lean into new practices slowly over time.
For example, many growers are advised to take soil samples and conduct soil health tests many, many times across their fields and over the course of the season. Grower Rick Clark only takes tests from three areas: one high-producing area, one low-producing area and one average area. Growers are encouraged to employ the practices that work for their farms, consider the ways in which their farms might adapt to these changes, and scale their practice up based on the specifics of their operations (size, location, climate, and profitability). That, according to many, is the only way to ensure widespread adoption of soil conservation practices on farms.
Regenerative agriculture is a team effort.
Policymakers and corporations were also present at the Continuum Ag field day. Together we discussed everything from soil health to carbon markets, and we agreed on one important concept: growers must lead the conversation in regenerative agriculture, but all parties must be in support of its adoption. Corporations help provide growers with the financing and resources they need to build a regenerative practice (through the carbon markets, lobbying or other methods of financial support), while policymakers help to enact the regulations growers need to succeed. Growers, of course, provide the experience and the information required to build an effective, sustainable and economically viable practice.
Scalability, carbon markets and associated sustainability practices are still being defined and refined for this industry, and collaboration with all stakeholders will be essential to its success.
There’s much to be learned from growers and experts, especially in the field of regenerative agriculture. We look forward to aiding the growth of this field, continuing conversations and supporting conservation-minded growers across the globe.