Regenerative Agriculture: A Tiny Primer

This episode of Nori’s Reversing Climate Change podcast had on Dr. David Montgomery of the alt-country outfit Big Dirt, who miraculously is able to practice geomorphology at the Univeristy of Washington on the side (is that how you frame yourself, Dave?) Dave turned me on to regenerative agriculture for the first time through his book Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, which shocked me regarding the degree at which we are losing arable land and soil fertility globally. I just finished Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, amending my ignorance over how much the loss of soil fertility has contributed to the fall of civilizations. I would recommend both. As a non-scientist and affirmatively non-agrarian personage, they do an excellent job of making something presumed a dull subject into an active intellectual interest for a humanities guy like myself.

David Montgomery talking regenerative agriculture at Nori’s Reversapalooza summit.

In honor of Dave, I’m going to break down the basics of regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a set of general practices intended to rebuild soil fertility. There are three main components: using cover crops, complex crop rotation, and no tilling.

  • Cover crops help to replenish the soil’s nutrients and crowd out weeds both during the growing season and in fallow times.
  • Complex crop rotation means that you use ecological logic to outsmart pests. If you always plant the same few crops, pests will gain a great foothold. If you are switching between multiple crops and at different intervals, you can keep them off balance and won’t be stuck buying a lot of pesticide. This can also fix the soil with new nutrients.
  • No till means that plowing should not be practiced, as it disrupts a complex set of microscopic life that cultivates soil fertility which Dave cleverly likes to call “the underground economy.” It also releases the carbon dioxide stored in the soil in the form of microbes (surreal, I know.)

Regenerative agriculture could take three to seven years to make the transition from dirt (relatively biologically inactive) to soil (relatively biologically active) and begin to justify those years of lower earnings. At the end of the transition, farmers could reasonably expect equivalent yields relative to conventional agriculture practices, but without the costly inputs of fertilizer and gasoline to run the tractors to till.

We hear a lot of griping about Big Ag in regenerative circles. We don’t think this is ultimately necessary. Nori is not opposed to large-scale agriculture. In fact, many very large companies are switching to regenerative agriculture practices in some capacity, like General Mills. Farmers in general, even those practicing conventional agriculture for big companies, have seen the quality of their soil degrade since they were young. They want to give their children healthy land to continue the family business, and regenerative agriculture may be the way to do so.

Dave is careful to point out that what we call “conventional agriculture” is a relatively new practice, and in the last few decades there have been major advances in the understanding of soil biology. “Conventional” strategies were rational given the state of knowledge at the time, and we don’t blame them or cast aspersions given what we know now. Not only do I think that would be unfair, it is also just bad rhetoric. We want to work with big farmers to protect and improve their soil quality, which can quite amazingly pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a relatively permanent way, and then help them get paid through the Nori marketplace for doing so. They could be huge allies in reversing climate change, and an invitation is often more valuable than a denouncing.

There are some hurdles above the micro level though. Policies like crop insurance favor monoculture and business as usual, and the supply chain and most institutions are set up to service that model. This could change however, and we hope it does.

Regenerative agriculture could pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, cut economic inputs like fertilizer and petroleum with their own environmental problems, and potentially increase agricultural profitability. That’s what we love best at Nori — when it is profitable to do good things. Those incentives are powerful. Dave sees a lot of farmers beginning to think that the regenerative path might be in the best interest of their land and pocketbook, and are switching over to it. We at Nori would like to make sure this transition is as gentle as possible, and farmers have an easy way to get paid for their carbon removal services.

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