Regenerative Agriculture is the term that describes agricultural practices that are deliberately implemented to restore soils that have been degraded.
Farmland soils in the United States have been degraded due to disturbing the soils with tillage. Think of a plow or other implements that expose the soil to the elements. Tillage was the cause of the Dust Bowl, and around the country it has caused topsoil to erode off farmland and into waterways at astronomical levels. In a major Shepherd's Grain growing region, this was the case:
Since the Palouse River Basin was first farmed in the late 1800s, soil erosion resulting from runoff water has been an ongoing problem. The erosion problem became particularly acute in the early 1900s when steep lands once used for hay and pasture were converted to grain production. It is estimated that 40 percent of the rich Palouse soils have been lost to erosion (Pimentel and others, 1995). U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study reported that from 1939 through 1977, the average annual rate of soil erosion in the Palouse River Basin was 9.2 tons per acre (tons/acre) of available cropland, or about 14 tons/acre of cultivated cropland (USDA, 1978). The study concluded that without erosion control practices, the average annual rate of erosion would increase to 14 tons/acre as more cropland was put into production. - Soil Erosion in the Palouse River Basin, by James Ebbert & R. Dennis Roe
Shepherd's Grain growers were pioneers in turning this trend around on the Palouse by putting the plow away and implementing no-till practices.
Regenerative Agriculture requires an understanding of agro-ecology and conservation agriculture practices.
Regenerative Agriculture is more than just implementing no-till practices. In order to truly be sustainable, farmers must understand the energy, nutrient, and water cycles of the ecosystem in which they farm, and then try to mimic them with their farming practices. Regenerative practices are not a simply "plug and play." They look different from region to region, depending on soil types and climate.
But there are some foundational principles that apply across all regions. These are the three principles of Conservation Agriculture, as defined by the United Nations:
- Minimum Soil Disturbance. This refers to no-till practices.
- Permanent Soil Organic Cover. Maintaining crop residue or planting cover crops to shield the soil from the elements is essential.
- Species Diversification. Monocultures degrade the soil further. It is imperative to diversify crop rotations consistent with the diversity of the ecosystem being farmed.
When we buy wheat from Shepherd's Grain farmers, they contractually agree that they are practicing no-till and keeping at least 30% of their field covered with crop residues. All of them are diversifying their crop rotations, and Shepherd's Grain has performed extensive research to give them tools to diversify further. Read more about that here.
Sequestering carbon in the soil is the primary aim of Regenerative Agriculture.
Making degraded soils healthy and resilient again relies on those soils being rich in carbon. This is often referred to as Soil Organic Matter. As farmers grow crops with the energy of the sun, the process of photosynthesis captures carbon out of the atmosphere and converts it into carbon in the plant tissues. If the fields are not tilled, that carbon breaks down into the soil, and this is referred to as "Sequestering Carbon." For this reason, scientists believe that regenerative farming practices will aid in efforts to mitigate climate change or global warming.
Conventional tillage practices release carbon back into the atmosphere and destroy the habitat for carbon-rich soil biology to thrive.
Shepherd's Grain growers have extensive scientific data that shows that their regenerative farming practices are significantly sequestering carbon. Read more about that here.
The most impactful way to help advance Regenerative Agriculture is to support those farmers in their supply chain. That's the opportunity you get with Shepherd's Grain.
Farmer adoption of regenerative agricultural practices is a challenge. There is always inertia with the conventional ways of doing things, and that is certainly the case with farming. Shepherd's Grain began as a means to directly support these farmers and the risks they were taking by implementing regenerative practices. The downhill environmental benefits of Regenerative Agriculture are verified at the farm level through Food Alliance and Salmon Safe certifications. Those certifications demonstrate the integrity of our message about what our farmers are doing to help make the world a better place through their regenerative and sustainable farming practices.