Regenerating rural communities with regenerative agriculture
Recently, I read a book called “From the Hidewood” (Robert Amerson 1996), about the Hidewood Valley where Blue Dasher Farm operates. It was set in the late 1930s, a time of tremendous change in so many aspects of rural life in South Dakota. The book describes positively the upheaval of rural culture as modern technology was introduced onto farms. The next generation pushed changes and progress onto the farm that ultimately drove the modern approach to farming. We are currently undergoing a shift that is similar in scale but fundamentally different that will shape how farms are managed. The resulting changes in rural communities will ensure the future prosperity of our society.
Farms in the 1930s and early 40s were characterized as diversified operations (they were growing a lot of different crops and livestock on small acreages) that were run by entire families. Farmers weren’t getting rich, but they typically were making ends meet thanks to the strong reliance on their neighbors and working together. This all changed with the dust bowl and associated Great Depression.
The introduction of machines to the farm in the 1930s allowed one person to efficiently farm larger and larger acreages by themselves, and provided the opportunity for children that grew up on farms to move to the cities with hopes of prosperity. Farms became simpler with fewer crops grown, and fewer livestock species managed. Agroindustry saw opportunities to exploit a diminishing customer base that was increasingly dependent on their products to keep their degrading lands productive.
And here we are. In 2019. Many farmers are struggling to make ends meet once again. Land prices are overinflated and too many farmers are over-extended financially, while commodity prices are perennially in the tank. We have been here before, and this is when fundamental change happens.
Neither the pre- nor post-industrialization approaches to farming were perfect. Both periods had strengths and weaknesses. And arguably, both approaches failed to attain their overall goal of a resilient food system.
A new movement has started from the grass roots to challenge the way that we think about farming. In key ways Regenerative Agriculture pairs what we have learned from the past two phases of farming into a single resilient and profitable system. It is called Regenerative Agriculture, and it is the future of food production.
Regenerative agriculture focuses on rebuilding soil health and conserving biodiversity to make farm products more nutritious, and farmers more profitable. Central principles of this style of farming are:
• Stop tilling the soil. Life in the soil is the driver of the land’s productivity. And tillage sets you back, sometimes for years, in soil fertility and productivity.
• Never leave bare soil. Plants protect the soil from erosion, capture energy from the sun, and support life on the farm. There should always be living roots on the ground.
• More plant/crop diversity is better than less. The biology is what drives the productivity of a farm. And nearly all groups of organisms (microbes, fungi, birds, insects, etc.) are more abundant and diverse when there are more plants.
• Integrate livestock and cropping systems. Livestock means more than just cows, and the plants and animals work together to make farmers more profitable.
When we follow these four general principles, farmers are more resilient and profitable, and more money stays on the farm. Importantly, farmers extract more than one revenue stream off of a single piece of ground in a year, and they can farm smaller and better. This gives more opportunities for kids to stay on the farm, and improves the natural resource base for future generations to farm.
Regenerative agriculture is knowledge intensive, and incorporates technology as needed to accomplish its goals. Come to the free Blue Dasher Farm (www.bluedasher.farm) field day on Aug. 10 at 2 p.m. to hear Will Harris (Georgia rancher), Steve Tucker (Nebraska farmer), and the soil builders coffee club discuss ways that regenerative agriculture has changed their farms and breathed new life into their communities.