My mother’s family raised turkeys during the ‘30s, buying pults in spring and herding a grown flock to the rail-head come September. Autumns, they moved to town so eight kids could attend school. Back then, villages really did raise children.
On Dad’s side, his father used education as a lever to propel himself off the farm, pursuing pharmacy in a distant city, then lodged there like a wind-blown seed, making a career. Grandpa preferred sweeping drugstores to shoveling barns — gum not manure stuck to his shoes.
Investigate the genealogy of America and generations are few before you end up on a farm. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer and decades of immigrant settlers worked inland, raised children and settled land -- building roads and schools and towns. Farming became the backbone and settlements communities, where more people could live, not starve.
It’s not unimaginable America’s farms could rise from the ash heap and lead an ecological/cultural renaissance badly needed in an age of industrialism, technological overkill and climate upheaval. It’s just not likely. Just as it was never likely that a kid like me would end up farming.
Modern farms are businesses, not just places to raise family and settle land. Businesses have a bottom line, and need to pay taxes, hire, invest, and ride out years when times are tough. And raising children costs more than ever, with sports and medicine and college. A farm has to produce for that too.
Over many decades, every farm in America has had to make their choice: stay on the land and find ways to grow revenue — or, cut back on farming or rent the acreage while one or two adults go elsewhere to work.
Small towns and farmsteads in the Midwest have fallen backwards in this time; fewer farms, school populations in decline, investment dwindling. Semi-trucks haul grain off the land and dump into grating at a rail yard, the farm’s lifeblood disappearing down a corporate silo which ships it to feedlots or ethanol plants or overseas.
Wall Street makes money on this, but not farms. Government and insurance companies hold the fort, not kids.
We are a long ways from a family making hay or marching its flock to town.
And so is the farmer who gets his groceries from a super market: buying cheap food raised from gigantic producers seven states away. Meanwhile, to get a high-capacity irrigation permit, some states now require a farm to go on municipal water supply. Why? Because well water is too polluted to drink — due to all the chemical sprays used in row cropping.
Get that? Some farms now pay others for food and water because the net result of running their business makes it impossible to produce these on their own land. How is the rest of America going to get sustenance when farms don’t feed themselves or drink their own water?
Sad fact is, farms need to scale-up to produce a profit — and margins are slim. Some years, like the last five, margins can be negative (especially in small dairy) and farmers are being asked to burn equity just to keep farming, ultimately, so they can lose more money.
Or borrow more, scale-up and hope margins allow them to make payments.
But, at a certain point, as farms get bigger, the impact of scale gets out of proportion to the landscape — you know, the actual underlying ecology Nature provides. So, liquid manure gets pumped for miles, monocultures run for quarter sections, pivot irrigation units suck water tables dry, and hogs by tens of thousands reside at a single facility.
We are told that this leads to cheaper pork chops and keeps food producers and ancillary businesses afloat. But it also compromises air, water, and soil, degrading habitat, bio-diversity and animal welfare, leading to calamities like pollinator die-offs, increasing cancer rates, chemicals in watersheds, as well as producing food low in nutrients and minerals.
America pays less and we get less.
But we also lose more. And more.
Starting with topsoil. Including deaths from opioids and meth in rural areas. Ending with communities unable to keep up.
Scaling-up paints farms into a corner where fewer producers live in the country, fewer children attend school, hardware stores close and young people move away for better opportunity. The rural Midwest is dying as we knew it, and the net result in 2016 was a massive rural landslide in favor of a Donald Trump presidency.
They bet on a wing and a prayer. They got a first-rate asshole.
But the deeper damage is that a decline in the quality and numbers of farms also makes it impossible to sensibly manage land, habitat and water. Without these ecological systems alive and well, there is no “country” to live in. And farmers, for better or worse, manage this ecology, each in charge of a single thread in an infinitely interconnected tapestry that makes a whole eco-system.
Farms as businesses do not generally spend more on growing soil, increasing bio-diversity, protecting water or growing nutritionally-dense food. Why would they? It costs a lot of money and reduces a farm’s competitiveness; may even throw it into bankruptcy.
America and its farms are caught betwixt and between: needing food but not getting enough nutrition, needing pollinators but addicted to farming systems that systematically eliminate them, needing clean water but dependent on industrial farms the deploy endless chemical inputs, seeking to mitigate climate change but hopelessly addicted to annual cropping and constant tillage that makes atmospheric carbon worse.
I am a farmer living in Wisconsin — second only to California in the number of organic producers. And, my first concern is not making money. My main priority is taking care of land: growing soil, increasing bio-diversity, protecting habitat, increasing fertility (without chemicals), making sure water runs pure off my land. If you are wondering if I have a primary source of revenue other than farming, you would be correct. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t try this, nor would I recommend it to others.
At 58 and white, I check a lot of boxes typical of Wisconsin farmers. Yet, I am anything but. Fact is, I am brand new on the land, having spent two full decades teaching secondary/post secondary students …. well, just about everything but agriculture.
In 2010, I took on a steep learning curve: going to conferences, feeling out equipment, learning about soil health. And now, after four years of informally messing things up, I am making the plunge, hitching my star to a new kind of farming, a new brand of farmer: one working, not just for sustainability, but to improve soil health, grow habitat and increase food quality — managing an ecology with the future in mind.
This kind of farming and ranching is called — regenerative. Meaning, finding a way to grow soil while growing food, increase nutrients and minerals without paying for inputs, raise animals to produce large litters, reduce mortality rates, achieve admirable weight gains, all while protecting heritage genetics and improving the quality and capacity of pasture.
These techniques are well-known and well-proven, not just over decades, but over tens of thousands of years. Regenerative farming attempts to mimic Nature; align as much as possible with the way animals, habitat and soil have worked together over millennia. By farming within Nature’s context, in the way landscapes have traditionally functioned, farmers capture synergies, capacities and abundance that Nature provides for free and thus, do not pay for or outsource these off the farm.
Bigger than all this — and in a farming context, the outcomes I just listed are measurable and meaningful to the bottom line of any farm — bigger than anything for me — the reason I am going whole hog on regenerative agriculture: I believe it is humanity’s last best hope to avoid the worst effects of a vicious climate.
Walter Jehne, an renown Australian soil micro-biologist points out in a recent interview in Acres USA, that the real problem in our atmosphere is excess water vapor. Sure, it’s brought on by rising temperatures tied to carbon dioxide levels, but it is greatly exacerbated by a broken hydrologic cycle: one that can’t function when vegetation is removed, land sits barren, desertifies and photosynthesis dwindles — cycling less carbon into the soil profile.
Jehne makes a great case that a healthy soil network, well-aggregated so it can store oxygen, water and carbon, with living roots in the ground secreting a wide variety of compounds, is the planet’s best protection against the ravages of climate, and, in fact, is absolutely essential if civilization is to survive the next several hundred years.
How does a farmer practice Regenerative Agriculture?
1. They focus on building soil health at the level of microbes, bio-diversity and roots in the ground. This requires a PHD to fully explain and understand, but, with more life in a spoonful of good dirt than humans on the planet, soil is incredibly complex, profound and effective at what it does. But it does have needs and one of them is fertility — regular feeding if you will — along with water and oxygen. Healthy soil, composed of aggregates, is akin to creating a vast underground sponge or reservoir (Jehne calls it a “vast underground Cathedral) where oxygen, water, minerals — along with carbon — can be stored for use by plant roots and the micorrhyzal fungi network. Well-aggregated soil is the lynch pin that improves landscape function, plant resilience, bio-diversity and nutrition in food.
2. The best way to feed and revitalize soil is to use animal impact and rotational grazing in ways that replicate what occurred through evolution. What created the great prairie soil of the Midwest? There were many factors, but chief among them was the impact of large numbers of animals roaming in herds, grazing, then moving on. Ranchers and farmers, like Gabe Brown, are getting incredible results using large herds of ruminants to literally grow soil, increase landscape function, cycle nutrients, and importantly, sequester carbon — deep in the soil profile. The science on this is solid, and as a field of study, the soil microbial network is literally, along with the deep ocean, the last frontier on Earth.
3. Use the focus on the soil microbial network and animal impact to reduce input costs, increase resilience, diversify revenue streams and produce higher quality, nutrient-dense products with solid yields. But the first key is to reduce the cost of inputs. Once a farmer is not dependent on corporate off-farm inputs, the ability to make decent margins greatly increases. Quality not quantity has to become the identifier of good farming, and there is progress in developing a measuring device that can identify nutrient levels of specific food products. As a consumer, you have a key role to play. Read the label, ask questions, do online sleuthing — but for God sakes, do not buy meat from feedlots. Research until you find a regenerative farmer and then buy those products in bulk. Meat, in particular, maintains well in a freezer.
4. Hone in on your farm’s native potential in terms of a crop or an animal type and species: what is your particular ecological niche, your natural advantage? What are your soil types? Length of growing season? Natural plant communities? Figure these out, match them to a farming enterprise. Then, build it, brand it and get better at it over time, all while focusing primarily on quality, not quantity. Continue to build soil health using animal impact, creating aggregates, good porosity, excellent mineralization and your farm will produce nutrient dense food while improving its foundational resource: soil.
5. Engage the public at every turn, educate and inspire because there has never been a public more in need of understanding farming and food than the contemporary United States. We spend the most on health care of any nation and rank 47th in terms of health outcomes. Most of this is the result of lousy food and poor diets. As an educator, I know how hard it is to get things to stick in a student’s brain, and in the case of farming and food, it’s is such an immense task that everyone — and now including you — has to pick up the mantle.
In my case, as a regenerative grass farmer on a new piece of land, one that had been subjected to the corn and bean rotation for many decades, the first year has been about building soil and establishing pasture. On roughly half my tillable acreage, I planted a very diverse custom mix of 15 different plant species, cool-season grasses, a variety of forbs, including clovers, hairy vetch, alfalfa, warm-season grasses. Bio-diversity is one of the true hallmarks of Nature. The mix is capable of providing soil fertility as well as year-around cover and maximum photosynthesis due to the variety of growing heights and habits on the plants. This is a perennial pasture and will last deep into fall and green-up early in spring. My hope is I will never have to till this ground again. Ever. (Did I mention that tillage is the anti-thesis of soil health? Or that a vast majority of American farmers till their land every year? No? Crap, I’ll have to write another diary.)
And this week, after taking my first ever crop of high-quality hay off this part of my farm, I couldn’t help but gush about how beautiful these fields look in the sun of late August. The plants are literally shining and jumping back into growth mode after their first cutting. Nothing better on a farm than that shine of happy plants, roots in the ground, fully fed and watered, eager to reach for the sky. The biology under that pasture is alive and multiplying ... I am so glad I didn’t till there this spring and instead, used a seed drill and planted directly into soy bean stubble.
On other fields, I have planted a variety of cover crops, crimson clover, sorghum Sudan grass, some barley, to build organic matter, a key step in feeding the soil microbial network and increasing function. Those fields I did have to till because the corn stubble, a result of GMO technologies, was so thick, so implacable, so rigid, I couldn’t get my seed drill through. These crops will also get cut, but with a chop and drop technique that deposits tons of organic material on the ground for digestion into the soil microbial network. This is all about getting ready for next year’s planting: more pasture and a small grain rotation so I can supply feed for local chickens and pigs.
If you made it this far, God Bless, and as exhausting as it may be, you need to understand, I have not scratched the surface on regenerative farming. Nor, for that matter, on the many, many reasons the current production system is failing — at every level. I hope you will begin your own inquiry into regenerative agriculture and how you can participate, even as just a consumer -— Especially as a Consumer! — in helping America’s farms rise again — and shine!