My wife is a great cook. She can whip up a fantastic meal out of just about anything. I am truly blessed.
But we never have the same meal twice. She will be the first to tell you that she does not follow a recipe. Even if she tries to make the same meal, it is always a little bit different as she likes to “wing it.”
Our agriculture industry is not that way. I was recently at a great event with Gabe Brown. He is one of our regenerative agriculture rock stars. In chatting with him for two days and listening to the producer questions, it reminded me that producers want a recipe. We have been trained by the ag industry to follow recipes. Modern agriculture is a big cook book. We are told that if we do this, and this and then this, it will work.
Research by Darrin Qualman on farmers’ net farm income versus gross farm income over the last 90 years clearly shows that the recipe is not working for the farmer.
Who do you think it is working for?
Qualman shares his opinion on his website. Between 1985 and 2007, expenses, including from agribusiness input suppliers and service providers, captured all of Canadian farm revenues. Farmers produced and sold $870 billion worth of farm products over those 23 years, but expenses consumed all of it.
“During that period, all of farm families’ household incomes had to come from off-farm employment, taxpayer-funded farm-support programs, asset sales and depreciation, and borrowed money,” Qualman writes.
Not much changes right up to 2016, with 98 per cent of farmers’ revenues going to expenses. That left Canadian taxpayers to “backfill farm incomes,” transferring $100 billion since 1985. Farmers have borrowed the rest, pushing farm debt to a record high of just under $100 billion.
Do you want out of this game? Regenerative agriculture is not a recipe, but it is a way to make a profit in agriculture and to remain sustainable for generations. It is a mixture between a science and an art. It is variable and needs planning, observation, replanning, adjustments, tweaks, time and above all, change.
What it does not need is a lot of high-cost inputs. Most of our agriculture soils are kept barely functioning by the life support of adding costly fertilizers and chemicals. We need to allow our soils to function as a complete system. It’s time to pull the plug and turn off the life support.
So what is regenerative agriculture? It is not a magic bullet, as it takes management. It is not a quick fix. It is, however, a long-term solution to a lot of the problems in agriculture. Following are a few of the basic principles.
Water is the most important nutrient. We need to manage it. Regenerative agriculture puts a lot of emphasis on managing water. We should spend more time and money on improving our water-holding capacity than on any other nutrient. Has your sales person ever told you that?
Did you know that together, we have the ability as farmers to affect the weather? We can manage to improve the water cycle. Or we can mismanage it. Regenerative agriculture can fix the water cycle by building water-holding capacity and reducing run-off and evaporation.
We need to increase the polyculture of plants. By adding diverse plants to our crop mix, we get diverse root systems. Plants do not grow from the soil. It is the soil that grows from the plants. Through the magic of photosynthesis, plants produce sugar, which is added to the soil through the root systems and through leftover residue. With good management, we can use plants to grow soil.
A variety of plants will also drastically reduce the number of symptoms that appear in our crops. A polyculture will have very little disease pressure and very few, if any, pests. It will attract beneficial insects and create biodiversity, which is a benefit to your farm, instead of pests that need a high-cost input to eradicate. Today’s recipe strives for a monoculture. A monoculture is ugly, no matter how pretty it looks.
Improve our soil life. As we build our soil with more root systems, we are improving the environment for our soil organisms, allowing them to be prolific. The plants produce the sugar that the soil organisms need to survive. We need to take care of all of our underground employees.
My bacteria, fungus, dung beetles, earthworms, yeasts and nematodes all work for me. These employees work with the plants and, in exchange for sugar, find and trade the needed nutrients. There are rarely any nutrient-deficient plants in nature.
We need the soil life healthy and active to provide the free fertility for our plants. Regenerative agriculture provides great working conditions for all of its employees. Modern agriculture does not have a fertility issue, it has a biological issue.
We need to harvest the sun. I am in the business of capturing solar energy and converting it into usable forms of energy. We need to establish as many green solar panels (plants) as possible. Then we use solar-powered energy converters (livestock). It is a self-replicating technology that is portable and uses no fossil fuels. It is a pretty simple technology and it can convert energy from the sun into a nutrient-rich energy source.
At the same time, the byproduct can be used right here as a soil health improvement treatment. How do we do this? We take the energy from the sun, convert it to sugar and recycle it. With regenerative management, we can actually make this more efficient.
These solar-powered energy converters can actually stimulate more growth, create more soil life, increase available nutrients and increase production. Sounds like a win:win:win.
Do you recycle your nutrients? There is a scientific law called the Law of Conservation of Mass. It was discovered by Antoine Lavoisier in 1785. It states that matter is not created or destroyed, as the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant. This is undeniable. Every element has a cycle. The carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, the zinc cycle… need I go on?
Regenerative agriculture focuses on cycles. How much carbon and nitrogen do you export off your land? Can you figure out a way to limit the amount of nutrients you export but still maintain the sale of your product? I don’t want to have to pay to import it back. I would rather recycle it.
That’s where our solar-powered energy converters help us out. They are very inefficient, and 80 per cent of what they consume becomes a waste product. What a great concept. Being inefficient is a good thing. I bet you have never heard that from a sales person before.
If you want to break free from the downward spiral and focus on your agri-business, this just might be the solution for your farm. Regenerative agriculture builds the soil, enhances biodiversity, repairs the water cycle and can heal your farm’s bottom line.
I hope to see you soon at a soils conference. It’s time to throw away the cook book. We need to regenerate our soils so that they can be sustainable.