By Patryk Battle
Russell Hedrick started out farming 30 acres in Catawba County; six years later, he’s managing 1,000 acres. He’s reduced his herbicide and fertilizer use by 60-70 percent, relying instead on things like multispecies cover crops and the integration of animals such as cattle, hair sheep and pigs. Last year, Hedrick took first place in the dryland and no-till divisions of the statewide corn yield contest with 318.15 bushels per acre. He placed second in the state soybean contest with 86.5 bushels per acre.
“By implementing the principles of soil health, we have seen a steady increase in yield and profits as we’ve increased our soil’s organic carbon levels,” says Hedrick. “It doesn’t matter where you go: The principles of soil health and regenerative farming apply to all farms. They might have to adjust the way they implement it, but it can work in every operation.”
Hedrick’s mentor, Gabe Brown, is one of the nation’s leading regenerative farmers. The Bismarck, N.D., resident will be presenting a number of talks and workshops in Western North Carolina in the coming days (see box, “Live and Learn”). Regenerative farming dynamically integrates all or most of the best practices of permaculture as well as biodynamic, organic and sustainable agriculture, employing an ever-increasing understanding of the “soil food web” in ways that can actually reverse the soil degradation caused by high-tillage farming practices.
In her book Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, local author Laura Lengnick devotes several pages to Brown’s powerful story. As he was transitioning to a no-till regenerative system in the 1990s, four years of severe weather (three of hailstorms and one of drought) caused him to lose his crops and left him ineligible for bank financing. With no money for fertilizers and pesticides, Brown had no choice but to go for it.
Relying on as many as 70 cover crop species, using no-till practices and management-intensive grazing techniques, he’s tripled his soil’s organic matter content and increased the rainwater infiltration rate from a half-inch per hour to more than 8 inches. “I can easily go through a two-year drought, and it does not affect our operation to any great extent because our soil is so much more resilient,” Brown reports.
A fundamental shift
With the adoption of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, humans fundamentally changed their relationship to the rest of the natural world. As foragers, we had assisted in the cycling of nutrients, moved seeds around and, through predation, helped keep other life forms in balance just as they helped keep us in balance. But as we learned to manipulate our environment and overcome the natural limits on our ability to populate the earth, we went from being a symbiotic member of the soil community to having an essentially parasitic relationship with it.
Today, the consequences of that fundamental shift include mineral-deficient food (with its significant impacts on our health) and, for the soil, an ever-decreasing water-holding capacity and a reduced ability to sequester carbon. This last point has severe implications in a world beset by climate change.
In Western North Carolina, more and more farmers are acting creatively and diligently to mitigate those negative consequences. Many local growers are learning to use intensive rotational grazing systems, no-till planting methods, permaculture and agroforestry systems to slow or halt the damage and actually start to heal the soil.
“Farmers bring me their soil samples to analyze under the microscope so we can predict their fertility, and many of them are simply barren: no bacteria, no fungi, no predators for these organisms,” notes Asheville-based landscape and garden consultant Jane Weaver of Earth & Spirit Design. “Healthy soil not only hosts but actually is a living organism. The microbes are comparable to ourselves, and they do all the work of making soil nutrients available to plants. As they work, they also support the formation of proper soil structure, ensuring that levels of moisture and air fully support plant growth.”
But in America’s cheap food economy, making this shift work is tough financially. Even when they’re marketing directly to consumers and getting prices that the customers often think of as steep albeit worth it, growers typically operate on perilously thin margins. Meanwhile, many of the above-described practices don’t yield an immediate payoff. In order to become established and productive, these innovative methods require extra time, infrastructure and, sometimes, inputs. The learning curve can be steep and, at times, costly. In the current paradigm, it can be tempting — and, sometimes, perhaps even absolutely necessary — for farmers to stick with extractive methods just to stay in business.
Even this significant compromise, though, isn’t always enough. Erratic weather, intense disease pressure, undercapitalization and excessive time demands for very modest or even nonexistent returns are among the many reasons farmers give for surrendering.
The term “regenerative agriculture” was coined by Robert Rodale in 1990, and the Rodale Institute remains at the forefront of research in the field, says Lengnick, a local soil scientist who’s an expert on agricultural resilience. It’s “a relatively recent idea,” she continues, “that is now being widely promoted as a way that agriculture can become a solution to, rather than a major cause of, climate change. Proponents of regenerative agriculture are focused mostly on the goal of building soil quality in order to mitigate global warming, but there are many other resilience benefits associated with these practices.”
Some of those benefits stem from an expanded understanding of the role of cover crops. Besides providing crop residues and, in the case of legumes, up to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre, they also pump exudates into the soil, feeding adjacent microbial communities that, in turn, can increase plants’ vigor, immunity and resilience, says Cooperative Extension agent Richard Boylan. And the greater the diversity of cover crops, the greater the diversity of exudates, resulting in ever more robust soil life — all of which, of course, is composed of carbon.
Using no-till practices leaves this structure undisturbed and enables it to build upon itself. Tilling, on the other hand, shatters this structure and incorporates large amounts of oxygen. This, in turn, triggers a microbial feeding frenzy that consumes organic matter/carbon, says Boylan. “While many growers in this region (and especially organic farmers) need to till at times to remove rocks, kill perennial weeds and/or incorporate slow-moving minerals such as phosphorus or lime into our soils, it becomes important to make ‘deposits’ of cover crops and other organic matter into the soil ‘bank account’ to balance and preferably outweigh the organic matter ‘withdrawals’ caused by tillage.”
Essentially, every new component added to the system increases both complexity and efficiency. The maximized canopy created by multiple species of cover crops results in more efficient photosynthesis and more food for grazing animals. The intensified grazing leads to increased trampling of a portion of the cover crops which, along with the enzymes and microbes in the grazing animals’ saliva and manure, feeds and invigorates the soil food web.
Stocking these animals closely and rotating them frequently mimics the great herbivore herds of the world’s grasslands. The more we emulate natural systems, the more stable and productive our agriculture becomes, notes Meredith Leigh, who wrote The Ethical Meat Handbook. “Large herds of herbivores moving quickly are an integral part of the way grassland ecosystems evolved,” the local author explains. “Integrating livestock animals into cropping systems using minimum tillage is the closest way to mirror nature in our agriculture.”
Including agroforestry and permaculture crops in such systems creates even more dynamic “edge productivity.” For instance, when leguminous trees such as black locust and honey locust are grazed down, they shed that portion of the root system that they no longer need to support the reduced canopy. Along with the roots themselves, all the nitrogen fixed by them is now left in the soil to feed other plants. Pick the right trees, and they’ll readily regrow; meanwhile, other permaculture plants provide food for both livestock and humans. Like multispecies cover crops, this strategy makes photosynthesis more efficient, increases the diversity of soil exudates and promotes robust soil life.
A permaculture-inspired system of swales and berms can boost water retention, further enhancing productivity and stability. Living Web Farms in Mills River is taking advantage of this dry winter to install such a system, which will guide any water that’s not absorbed by the soil toward a complex of ponds. During normal rainfall years, the system should be able to capture all the overflow from the fields, which could amount to more than 2.25 million gallons. That’s precisely the kind of resilience farmers will need as global climate change causes ever more erratic weather patterns.
The root of the problem
One major way that parasitic farming methods negatively impact the soil is mineral depletion. Erosion and runoff wash these precious nutrients into our waterways and, eventually, into the oceans, where they’re lost for good.
Many multispecies cover crops, on the other hand, are deep-rooted and can “mine” minerals in the soil that were previously unavailable to the crops. Allowing livestock to graze those crops and then work them into the soil via trampling and manure can actually replace the lost minerals.
Of course, neither diverse cover crops nor animals can make minerals that aren’t there spontaneously appear. But these strategies do enable us to maximize what we have and ensure that whatever minerals are present will stay put and quickly become part of the robust soil community. This is one more area where regenerative farming shines.
To help get the word out, Living Web Farms is partnering with the Organic Growers School to bring Gabe Brown to its upcoming spring conference. On Friday, March 10, Brown will give an all-day workshop at Living Web Farms. He’ll also present shorter sessions over the weekend at the conference and deliver a keynote address on Saturday afternoon.
Since switching to regenerative farming, Brown has cut his herbicide use by 75 percent and has completely stopped using synthetic fertilizer. He also says he’s increasingly finding ways to stack profit centers in his operation: the more diversity, the more profit.
That Friday, Russell Hedrick will also speak at the Living Web Farms workshop, discussing the remarkable results he’s achieved using Brown’s methods. Not surprisingly, both men have won awards for their innovative, inspiring work. And though neither of them has incorporated permaculture methods at this point, their creative efforts offer glimpses of a revitalized, sustainable agriculture for WNC and beyond.
Patryk Battle is the director of Living Web Farms, a nonprofit educational and research farm that donates the food it grows to the food-insecure. He’s been active as a farmer, innovator, baker, chef, author, radio personality and activist in Western North Carolina’s local food movement for over 30 years. Battle served on the Organic Growers School’s steering committee from 1996 to 2000 and has been a presenter at the spring conference for many years.