Quick Primer on Regenerative Farming

Quick Primer on Regenerative Farming

You may have heard the saying "what is old is new again."

While the term "regenerative agriculture" may seem like the latest buzzword, the substance behind the term is a refocusing on the ancient and time-honored farming practices prior to the industrial and mechanical advances in farming. A time when farmers understood the all important connections between plants, soil microbes and wandering herds. 

Over the past 60 years or so, we let that knowledge dissolve into nothingness. 

But my friends, we are rediscovering these natural methods. I feel really optimistic that we can get back to our roots before it’s too late.

Wikipedia has a pretty good definition: Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle...and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.

That excerpt is a great high level overview of the important aspects of a new\old way of farming that is growing rapidly across the US. I credit this progress to Mr. Joel Salatin.

Joel is the Moses of the small farm community today. He is a gifted communicator and teacher. Joel has attracted thousands of young people to sustainable farming. Due to his generous guidance, we are seeing a dramatic shift back to local and sustainable food production. I highly recommend his discussion with Joe Rogan (Joe Rogan podcasts #479 and #1478). I will link you to a 30 minute excerpt here.  If you're planning a roadtrip, dial up the full versions for 3 hours of enlightening discussion.

Let's take a high level look at some conventional farming practices and compare them with "regenerative" practices.

I was taught the conventional farming theories back in my college days at Oklahoma State University. The Ag industry was keenly focused on greater production with fewer farmhands. We had miracle fertilizers and pesticides. We even had crops that could be sprayed with herbicide and only the targeted weeds would die. Amazing!

Case #1 - A quick look at a conventional farmer who raises beef, hogs and soybeans.  This gentleman has worked extremely hard to buy and lease 1,000 acres of prime land. He runs big show cattle on 500 of the acres, he raises corn and soybeans in monocrop rotations from year to year. Boy, it is pretty to see a monocrop like soybeans as far as the eye can see! Finally, he has a very sophisticated barn for his hogs. This facility has concrete floors and a special waste water containment facility to ensure the highly concentrated hog waste does not seep into the nearby creek or the groundwater. And, please put on the plastic booties and step in the tray of disinfectant before entering. One errant bacteria and his whole herd could suffer a sweeping loss.

Our conventional farmer has a big equipment barn full of incredible machines: 4-wheel drive tractors; sprayers; seeders; discs; and a gorgeous 4 year old combine to harvest his corn and soybeans.

He is highly indebted to the bank for all of his equipment, which he finds a tad bit stressful. He has a super solid relationship with his banker though. This is important because his annual bill for inputs such as seed, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides is enormous.

Case #2 - Mr. Salatin's farm seems humble in comparison to our conventional farmer. He is primarily a grazier, which means he runs cows on pasture. He doesn't have a need to grow soybeans or corn as he can produce all the feed for his herd with his pastures.

In the early years, Mr. Salatin figured out some really cool things as he observed his cows and learned about pasture rotation. He found that if he broke up his property in small units and moved his cattle every day, that the pastures became much more diverse with beneficial insects and a wide variety of grasses and other nutritious plants. He labelled his pastures a "salad bar." His cattle were thrilled to see him each day, and they gladly followed him to the next small paddock of fresh green grass. He decided to raise a smaller breed of cattle, noting that an 800 pound mother cow caused much less impaction of the soil than an 1,100 pound cow.

Cattle tend to have a long production cycle, and our regenerative farmer needed a product that could provide another source of cashflow. He got the big idea to add some egg laying hens to the farm. This was a huge success as he sold all the fresh eggs he could produce.

And behold, he had a couple more profound realizations. He noted that the hens would follow behind the cattle and pick through the cow manure. They were eating fly larvae and parasites! This reduced the need for deworming his cattle to zero! He hated using any kind of antibiotics or medicines on his cattle anyway. What an amazing benefit it was to have those chickens following his cows. And one more brilliant thing he did was to have his pasture raised eggs tested against a typical factory raised chicken house egg. He was simply astounded at the test results. They were almost beyond belief. His eggs were several times more nutritious than the old stale eggs available at the grocery store (fret not, I will get into the details of that tidbit in a separate blog post).

You know, I'm having fun painting this picture of Mr. Salatin's farm, but my blog post is quickly getting too long. As a very brief final comment on his farm, he also added broiler chickens and hogs into his symbiotic system, resulting in the ability to produce more food in a smaller farm than his neighbors. As mentioned earlier, this fellow is very interesting whether you want to farm or not.

Let me do a  quick summary of the pros and cons of conventional versus regenerative farming: 

 Conventional Regenerative
Pro - Large Scale With Less Human Labor Input
Pro - Increases Water Retention of Soil
Pro - Centralized Processing (a Con for local food source reasons)
Pro - Reduces Need for Synthetic Fertilizers
Pro - Each American Farmer Feeds a Huge Number of People
Pro - Reduces or Eliminates need for Herbicides and Pesticides (glyphosate is forever)
Con - Monocropping and GMO Cause Dramatic Loss of Biome Diversity
Pro - Brings Soil Back to Life
Con - Soil Erosion Due to Reduced Organic Matter in Soil
Pro - Animal Health Improved Without Hormones or Antibiotics
Con - Low Moisture Retention Leads to Drought Risk and Higher Water Usage
Pro - Brings More People Into the Process
Con - High Density Animal Practices Lead to Disease Issues - Which Leads to Over Medication
Con - Organic or Non-GMO Feed Supplements Are Expensive and Hard to Source
Con- High Density Equals High Stress Equals Tough And Inferior Meat
Con - Labor Costs Can Be Higher

Those are just a few pros and cons off the top of my head. I think the main reason you and I are interested in this is to seek out very high quality food we can trust. Food that hasn't been tainted with medications or space age herbicide resistant seed. And we need to get local again!

As one final bit of information in closing this blog post - these are the fellows that have provided a foundation for me in my farming journey. Each have quite a bit of information out on the web.

  • Joel Salatin - Joel focuses primarily on production and marketing of chicken, beef and pork. An amazing and broad source of knowledge.
  • Gabe Brown - Gabe is a farmer from South Dakota and has claimed his fame by sharing soil improvement and water retention improvements in his low rainfall region. Invest a couple of hours in just one of his lectures on cover cropping and the soil microbiome, and you will have a great foundational understanding of regenerative agriculture.
  • Greg Judy - A Missouri rancher who lectures all over the world on how he manages rotational grazing and operating on leased land rather than owned land. He shows how anyone can find a way to farm.
  • Eliot Coleman - An organic farmer from Maine. Another priceless mentor for those focused on sustainable vegetable production.

Will post again soon. Let me know if there is a topic you want me to dig into!

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