Beginning Another Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture

My family and I spent the last week at a lake cabin together. The many hours of cards and board games made it the perfect time to discuss regenerative agriculture. On the first day, I handed out copies of Gabe Brown’s book ‘Dirt to Soil’. What a better time to get in some reading than on vacation? The conversations we had were inspiring and hopeful.

My family owns some 1300 acres of pasture and cropland in Minnesota. We lease most of it to producers using conventional methods of tillage and synthetics. My dream is to regenerate this land according to the principles laid out in Brown’s book. As I begin to navigate the challenges of converting our property to regenerative, I will also begin working with investors and farm managers to regenerate more land.

Grandpa Don studying Regenerative Agriculture

My grandfather devoured the pages of ‘Dirt to Soil’ during our vacation. He told me “It’s the way I always felt farming should be done. I’m always telling my renters the importance of crop rotation. It’s [the book] very interesting.” My grandfather has farmed his entire life and was brought up during the post WWII agricultural revolution in the United States. During this time there was great concern about the country’s ability to establish food security and to produce enough for the troops returning home and building families. Major advancements in mechanization, synthetic fertilizer, and pesticides led the way to quickly make the United States the greatest food producer the world has ever known. It was a response to the situation of the time. Now, 80 years later, we are seeing the detrimental effects of these approaches on our environment and health. But who in their right mind would have thought we’d still be using the same methods?

Like Grandpa said, when you sit down to read what Gabe has done on his ranch and the message that he is spreading, you know regenerative is the right thing to do. Agriculture has become all about killing and trying to control complex ecosystems. In the book Gabe says “With the conventional method, I would wake up every morning and ask myself, what should I kill today?”. How much better off would we be if we worked with nature instead of against it? For example, consider the fact that for every 1 pest insect there are 1700 beneficial insects. But when we spray insecticide, we kill them all. Not only do the insects die, but these chemical residues leach into the soils and destroy the microbes plants need to take up vital nutrients.

Everything eventually boils down to time and money and, to me, that’s where regenerative practices get really exciting. You no longer till… at all. You no longer need to spend time and money hauling and applying fertilizer, pesticides, and fungicides. You don’t need to vaccinate and worm livestock. No calving in the bitter cold of February. You don’t have the daily chores of hauling feed and clearing manure. The animals have legs and apply their fertilizer directly to the fields!

‘Dirt to Soil’ is full of stories of successful regenerative producers around the country and points to hundreds of organizations, scientists, and professors working to educate more growers. It helped me understand the basic “five principles of soil health”:

  1. Limit Disturbance
  2. Armor the Soil Surface
  3. Build Diversity
  4. Keep Living Roots in the Soil
  5. Integrate Animals

These principles helped me to identify the next step in my learning journey. Principle one is pretty easy to understand. Stop tilling and applying synthetics. Gabe doesn’t recommend going cold turkey on fertilizer right out the gate but recommends big reductions and to taper off and eliminate its use within 2 to 4 years. There are 32,000 tons of atmospheric nitrogen above every acre we can utilize instead.

Principles two through four are all about cover crops, and that’s where I currently lack understanding. To remedy this, I downloaded a copy of ‘Managing Cover Crops Profitably’ from SARE. Cover crops are not common near our family farm and utilizing them is definitely “going against the grain”. Getting past this peer pressure and conventional thinking will be challenging. Not to mention establishing principle five and turning livestock out on the fields. There’s going to be some talk around town.

With the availability of information today though, I am hopeful that the timing is right for some big changes in agriculture. People like Gabe Brown and his partners at Understanding Ag have set the ground work for the rest of us. Now we each just need the courage to spread the message. This is a movement that affects everyone and everyone can participate.

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