You should be able to tell from my blog that I am a big fan of soil health and regenerative agriculture.
As someone who works with the USDA climate hubs, I honestly believe that this approach to farming represents the “low hanging fruit” to help us both adapt to the extreme weather that climate change is exacerbating — while also helping to mitigate some of climate change’s root causes — via carbon sequestration and avoided emissions.
As a farmer and rancher, I also honestly believe that soil health and regenerative ag can help producers lower input costs, while over time maintaining and (hopefully) improving yields.
I think that wider adoption of this type of farming and ranching can help us make great strides in addressing water quality, soil erosion, and numerous other natural resource challenges. Like I said, I’m a big fan.
With all this in mind, however, I have to say that I am getting a little concerned that so many folks are getting ideas stuck in their heads as to what the specific practices are that constitute soil health/regenerative ag instead of understanding that those concepts don’t lend themselves to a checklist.
I’m getting worried that we’re trying to break this approach to farming and ranching down into a simplistic laundry list of specific things you have to do each and every year, on each and every acre, instead of recognizing that every acre is a little different and that every producer has a different reality.
Let me explain.
Recently much talk has been circulating around agriculture social media about how policymakers and the marketplace are looking at encouraging and/or rewarding producers who do things to improve the health of their soil and protect our natural resources.
I’ve seen conversations saying, “well, they just want everyone to plant cover crops” or “it’s all no-till” or “you can’t hay or graze real cover crops” or “it’s not really regenerative if you don’t incorporate livestock” or “crop rotations really aren’t cover cropping.”
This is a great example of that old saying about not seeing the forest for the trees. Everyone is so stuck on what ‘practices’ constitute soil health/regenerative ag that they miss the fact that this type of farming and ranching is more of an approach or process than it is a simple checklist of do’s and don’ts.
Some of this is unavoidable. It’s tough to get your hands around how to operate your business in a manner that sometimes seems more of an art than it is a science. To me, it’s akin to how people approach health care — everybody wants to go to the doctor and get a pill when they get sick instead of understanding that there are ways that you can avoid getting sick in the first place.
It’s much easier to get a prescription for a specific action to deal with a specific health problem than it is to approach living your life in a way that includes exercise, eating right and avoiding certain chemicals, substances, and circumstances in an effort to maintain good health.
In the same way, many, if not most folks, want to know what box to check to qualify as “regenerative.”
“No-till?” Check. “Cover Crops?” Check. “Grazing plan?” Check.
The problem is that we get so bogged down on specifics that we force some people into doing things that don’t make sense while having others avoid doing things that do.
As I said, some of this is unavoidable. You have to have sideboards and guardrails if you are going to have programs and markets. There has to be some direction on what does and doesn’t qualify.
At the same time, we shouldn’t lose sight of the need for flexibility and site-specific approaches when dealing with soil health. Different crops, geography, eco-regions and economic realities dictate that one size will not fit all.
I’m reminded of some of the discussions I have had over the years with long-time conservation employees. Time and again I have heard these folks say that as more focus was put on taking specific actions to deliver conservation programs, more and more focus shifted away from holistic conservation planning.
You have to focus on one practice and check it off the box to meet the goal — the problem is that you run the risk of losing sight of how that practice meets the much bigger goal of helping that producer maintain and improve productivity while protecting the resource base.
I honestly don’t have an answer for how to get around all this. I wish I did. All I can suggest is that maybe we take a little time to step back from the checklist and take a broader view of what needs to be done on an individual farm or ranch.
Clearly, our actions should fall somewhere under what we call the soil health approach—minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining residue on the ground, keeping something green and growing with a live root in the ground as much as possible, encouraging plant diversity, and incorporating livestock — but with an eye to doing this in a way that makes environmental and economic sense for the specific operation in question.
Maybe trying to move more toward that old ‘holistic, whole farm conservation planning’ that the long-time conservation folks talk about would be a good start.
Anything to help make sure we see the forest and not just the trees. If not, I worry we won’t get to where we want to go.