Introduction to Regenerative Agriculture

Bryan Vestal
Age of Awareness
Published in
15 min readOct 21, 2022

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Below is a picture that Groundswell created to summarize the multiple aspects of regenerative agriculture. They include the 5 main principles in brown, sub-principles in yellow, and health benefits in green. The ultimate goal is to return the Earth back towards what it was before we inflicted major change.

I will start with some history of agriculture, some soil science, no-till farming, the incorporation of agroforestry alongside other agriculture, and more. Although there are countless other benefits to regenerative agriculture, I will be pointing to it’s ability to move large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and back into the soil and wood products, while also reducing the release of stronger greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide from the soil. Below is a simplified rendition of the carbon cycle. The main problem that we have is that we have put large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels while also decimating the trees and soil which take it out of the atmosphere and store it. Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases which scientist say are causing the planet to warm. Regenerative agriculture maintains plant covered land which has a natural hydrologic cooling effect which can help lessen the problems associated with global warming.

“Regenerative agriculture can take large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere and tie it back into the soil. “We are literally standing on the largest and most potent carbon capture storage of the planet,” Orsolya Valkó says. “Many field tests show how high the soil’s storage performance is. If we want not only to preserve biodiversity, expand food production and at the same time fight climate change, there is no alternative to regenerative agriculture!”” https://easac.eu/news/details/regenerative-agriculture-healthy-soil-best-bet-for-carbon-storage/

History of Agriculture- If we could first look at indigenous farming methods. We should keep in mind that farming is relatively new in terms of our evolution. Many people around the world still survive on hunting and gathering. Below is the method known as Three Sisters. It mimics the symbiotic relationships found in nature.

  • Corn: the stalks provide living stakes for beans to climb.
  • Beans: they are nitrogen-fixers, using the rhizobia on their roots to take in nitrogen from the air and convert it to fertilize the soil. They also help to stabilize the corn stalks in heavy winds.
  • Squash: their large leaves shade the ground, maintaining moisture and preventing weeds.
  • Nutrition: Corn provides carbohydrates and beans are powerhouses of protein and amino acids. The squash rounds it out with a daily serving of vitamins and minerals.

The Aztecs built chinampas by moving fertile mud/manure onto reed mats. It is definitely a very productive and sustainable method.

On the other side of the planet the plow was invented around 1000 BC. Not only did it do other damage to the soil, it also allowed carbon to be released into the air and water.

Eventually large areas were plowed, which included the removal of trees. With nothing to protect the soil, it started blowing away, especially in times of little rain.

I read that FDR’s Shelterbelt Project(tree planting) led to a 65% reduction in the amount of soil blowing. We will get to tree planting a little later.

Bad tilling practices, no cover, and elimination of buffer zones near waterways caused the best parts of the soil to wash away. More so in hilly areas.

We now have ocean dead zones, because natural/artificial nitrates and other chemicals washed downstream.

Now, if we could look into the most important part of soil. Below is a picture of Mycorrhizal fungi. It works as extensions to roots, trading nutrients.

What is going on with all the living things in the soil is complicated, but if you can imagine, plowing and chemicals are not good for their well-being. Good soil health equals higher yields and foods with better nutrition.

Animal excrement and the subsequent dung beetles also play a part in soil health. Regenerative animal farmers consider the return of dung beetles to be a sign that they have regenerated life and nutrients back into their soil.

Daniel Mays has an excellent step-by-step guide book for small scale no-till personal and market gardens.

The Frith Farm is located in Southern Maine and it feeds and supports a lot of people.

Below is one of their processes for no-till.

  1. Applying cover crop seed in September. 2. Cover crop growing by winter.

3. Cover crop grows tall in spring. 4. Cover crop knocked down early June.

5. Cover crop covered with tarps to terminate. 6. Tarps removed.

7. Transplanting through mulch. 8. Strong yields without exposed soil/weeds.

The picture below can give an idea of how deep cover crop roots go. When roots die, they are turned into a nutrient-rich sponge-like humus by the micro organisms and worms. Different cover crops have different benefits to the soil including putting nutrients into the soil including carbon & nitrogen.

Below is Dan’s list of benefits. Cover crop cost might be the only thing that might be considered a disadvantage. I will point to the last benefit under Economic Benefits of No-Till. “… leads to higher yields, fewer pests, and disease without the need for fertilizers, pesticides, or other purchased products.” Now I would like to point to the fact that our current use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer alone creates more greenhouse gases than the commercial aviation industry. We can change that.

In David R. Montgomery’s book, one of the things I learned about was the roller crimper no-till cover crop system that is used by some commodity crop farmers. Considering that there is roughly 900 million acres farmed just in the US, we could put a lot of carbon back into the soil, among other things.

Here is a short video showing how the roller crimper works.

Another disadvantage of plowing is that it brings dormant seeds to the surface to grow.

I would like to spend some time on incorporating trees into farms, because it also has so many benefits. Sequestering large amounts of carbon, and providing tons of building materials and food might be the most important.

Mark Shepard has led the way in bringing trees back onto farmland.

His farm is about halfway between Wisconsin Dells and Prairie du Chien.

The paragraph above did not mention that his family also produce honey and mushrooms. You can tour the farm in this 53 minute video.

Here is Mark’s recent book. You can catch and store a lot of water using the keyline system, which is basically putting in small trenches which catch, divert, and store rain.

Akiva Silver has provided us with another excellent book on the benefits and uses of trees.

The “Father of Diversity” Edward O. Wilson made a compelling argument for preserving and adding to the Earth’s forests in his final book.

The following is the USDA paper that is intended to convince farmers/governments that incorporating billions of trees onto farms in the Midwest can provide resiliency from changing conditions, while also drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The table below shows the yield increases with using windbreaks.

When looking at the chart below, it doesn’t look the best for major Midwest crops- corn and soybeans. Here in Iowa in 2022, we barely got enough rain to prevent drought. It is really getting dry as harvesting is underway. I don’t know if we can know for sure how precipitation will change but it seems to be trending less. This article gives a prediction of what is to come, including the optimal living zone moving northward, and places like North Dakota possibly becoming better climate for corn and soybeans. https://projects.propublica.org/climate-migration/

Below is the yield curve for windbreaks. Since corn and soybeans see reduced yield right next to trees, it seems to me that that strip would be good as a runoff buffer of grass that could be used for hay.

With the growth in demand for specialty food and agroforestry crops, it seems that it is a good time for our government to do more to help farmers make the changes. US food averages 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate.

This report also references the Dust Bowl.

Below is the areas that need cover crops and tree incorporation the most to prevent runoff.

It looks like more riparian buffers would be good for water quality/retention.

So, in light of our ability to sequester large amounts of carbon into soil and wood products, all while radically reducing our use of fossil fuels by relocalizing our economies, you would think that our government would make large investments into helping our farmers convert to regenerative farming and relocalize economies. That is not the case. What they are doing is funneling billions of our tax dollars into dangerous unproven carbon capture/pipeline projects that create few permanent jobs, while enriching corporations and their shareholders. They are now also admitting that they are using the captured carbon in fossil fuel extraction operations. If the ethanol industry creates more greenhouse gases than fossil fuel industry, and if the carbon capture facilities emit more carbon than they capture, maybe they should not exist. If you would like to know more about this subject, I will share a Sierra Club video and four articles below.

Although I was working on this presentation beforehand, after reading the following book, I have an even greater sense of purpose.

Blue Dasher Farm is the first of a network of research, education, and demonstration farms bringing scientific support to biodiverse food production.

The regenerative agriculture people really love The One-Straw Revolution. Masasobu grew grains alongside mandarin oranges. He talked of burying wood to benefit the soil, bringing home animal waste from the side of the road, renowned mandarin oranges, and collecting wild goose eggs.

In Dirt to Soil Gabe Brown ran into some bad luck with hail three years in a row, so he decided to try a new way. His book is mostly about mob grazing with animals to regenerate the land. He did so well that he sold his plow, and no longer signs up for crop insurance. He says that ideal seed mixes vary according to soil type/climate. What boosted his success was opening a local meat butchery and selling directly to the customers. He also talks about planting fruit and nut trees.

You can see his farm from the interstate on I94 east of Bismarck.

Mob grazing is basically mimicking wild animals like bison. If animals do not keep moving, they will eat plants all the way down and weaken the roots. Moving them is done easily with a moveable solar electric fence, where the animals are moved to a fresh area everyday.

Below is an excellent video with Gabe. He believes that what helps the most is using a mix of cover crops which promotes mycorrhizal health, which in turn helps with everything else including increasing soil carbon.

I was very impressed with this next book. An excellent complementary addition to Dirt to Soil which really focused on the big picture.

The following book looked at the dozens of things that biochar can be used for. It is made by heating wood/plant waste without the presence of oxygen. It was developed and still used by native people. It also has tremendous carbon sequestration capabilities.

The following book is another about a highly productive micro farm. Their(and many other’s) vision is for towns to be surrounded by a large numbers of such farms. Again, the average US meal travels 1500 miles by semis that get less than 10 miles per gallon. Can you imagine how much less fossil fuels we would use if we sourced most of our food locally? Relocalizing our economies is the most important thing we could do, according to Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything.

I have not read this one but I will share the excellent interview where he also makes the case for relocalization of our food system.

https://youtu.be/U5QJ5tgq4Fs
Kiss the Ground is another book on regenerative small farms. They also made a movie by the same name which features Woody Harrelson.

Dr. Vandana Shiva has great books that really cover the big picture of our fight against corporations, along with the widespread small-scale regenerative agriculture movement in India.

I have not read any of Wendell Berry’s books but he has some good quotes.

Jenni Blackmore wrote the following book about her small homestead in Eastern Canada. She talks about hugelculture type gardening which you can see in the following picture, and her use of seaweed for fertilizer.

Evidently Bill Mollison is big on permaculture also.

In Grain by Grain Bob Quinn and cowriter Liz Carlisle talk about how Bob revived ancient wheat. Bob did so well by switching to the organic ancient grain that he was soon the only farmer in the area with a fancy tractor with tracks. He also planted a large-scale garden to provide jobs and healthy food for his community.

Liz Carlisle wrote her previous book about how struggling farmers in Montana innovated by developing a market for the now renowned black beluga lentil.

Here is Liz Carlisle’s recent book where she takes a good look at the history and future of minorities in regenerative agriculture.

Here are a few other really good ones.

In Farmacology, Daphne Miller gets into the health advantages of eating quality grown food.

Here are a two more that also cover the health benefits.

The movement for chemical-free food and environment really took off with the help of Rachel Carson. Many are still working on the issue today.

Chemical-laden farming practices are not so good for insects especially.

In A Precautionary Tale, big apple farms began moving into the area around Mals, Italy. They sprayed chemicals too much and in improper ways, coating the entire valley. Organic farmers began to organize against it and got plenty of help when the chemicals were found in the school yard.

And last but not least, a book on regenerative fibers and dyes.

Thank you for your time! I hope you are or will be as inspired as I am.

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