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06-17-2024

Farmers are adopting regenerative agriculture for better soil health

Regenerative agriculture has become the focus of the agricultural community as farmers in the U.S. face the harsh realities of climate change — extreme heat, drought, heavy rainfall, flooding, and erosion.

This innovative approach promises not only to improve soil health but also to provide financial opportunities through “carbon farming.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a farming approach that focuses on enhancing and restoring the health of the soil, ecosystems, and the environment while producing food. It goes beyond sustainable practices, which aim to maintain the status quo, by actively improving the land.

The key principles of regenerative agriculture include:

  • Minimizing soil disturbance: Reducing tillage and avoiding the use of heavy machinery to maintain soil structure and integrity.
  • Keeping the soil covered: Using cover crops, mulch, and crop residues to protect the soil from erosion, regulate temperature, and retain moisture.
  • Maintaining living roots in the soil: Planting cover crops and perennials to keep roots in the soil year-round, which supports soil microorganisms and improves soil health.
  • Integrating livestock: Using managed grazing to improve soil fertility, control weeds, and enhance biodiversity.
  • Reducing external inputs: Minimizing the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and instead relying on natural processes to maintain soil health and productivity.

    By implementing these practices, regenerative agriculture aims to sequester carbon in the soil, improve water retention and infiltration, enhance biodiversity, and create more resilient food systems.

    Financial and practical challenges

    Despite the potential benefits, many farmers have been hesitant to join carbon market programs. Surveys indicate that low carbon prices and extensive paperwork deter participation.

    However, a recent study published in Agriculture and Human Values reveals that financial factors are not the only barriers.

    Many farmers view soil health improvement as a pathway to a better quality of life, reducing their dependence on agrochemical companies’ products and advice.

    “Farmers are really looking to get off that treadmill of high-input, high yield commodity agriculture,” says Susanne Freidberg, a professor of geography at Dartmouth College and co-lead author of the study.

    Insights from the field

    The study, based on interviews with over 80 farmers in Kansas and Nebraska, explores their experiences with regenerative practices.

    These farmers, managing farms ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand acres, shared a range of experiences from recent adopters to veterans with over 20 years of practice.

    Recent adopters cited high input costs, soil erosion concerns, and success stories from other farmers as motivations to explore soil health. They often began their journey by attending field days or conferences.

    As they implemented new practices, they developed new mindsets and relationships.

    “Farmers who had implemented regenerative practices talked a lot about how they paid attention to interactions between the different kinds of life in their fields — cover crops, earthworms, and especially soil microbes,” Freidberg noted.

    Social dynamics of regenerative agriculture

    Below-ground microbial activity not only builds soil fertility, allowing farmers to use less fertilizer, but also helps reduce erosion, conserve water, and sequester carbon.

    However, practices beneficial to soil microbes sometimes strained relationships with neighbors and landlords.

    “Farmers mentioned that when they stopped tilling and started planting multi-species cover crops, they started getting strange looks at their local coffee shop because now their fields looked messy,” Freidberg explained.

    These tensions underscored the importance of support networks among regenerative farmers. Many joined informal “support groups” to share experiences or farm equipment.

    “Farmers who viewed regenerative agriculture as a way to gain more personal freedom also saw that this freedom depended on the support of other farmers,” Freidberg said.

    Personal fulfillment and carbon programs

    Farmers also appreciated the return of birds and wildlife to their fields and found their daily work more enjoyable and interesting.

    Those who signed up for carbon programs preferred ones without long-term commitments or major changes to their practices.

    One farmer described the extra income from carbon farming as “beer money.”

    Future of carbon farming

    The opportunities for carbon farming expanded with the rollout of USDA-funded “climate smart” commodities projects in 2023, around the time the Dartmouth study concluded.

    These projects, often led by large food and agribusiness companies, offer financial incentives for adopting regenerative practices. However, widespread farmer participation will depend on how well these projects align with farmers’ values.

    “When farmers talk about the return on investment on regenerative agriculture, they’re talking about more than just money,” Freidberg emphasized.

    In summary, while the financial benefits of regenerative agriculture are significant, many farmers are drawn to these practices for the broader improvements they bring to their lives and communities.

    By focusing on soil health, farmers are not only nurturing their land but also fostering a more sustainable and fulfilling way of farming.

    The full study was published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values.

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