A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Many young people in agriculture today are looking to the past and discovering that nature’s model works best.
It is easy to forget that once upon a time all agriculture was organic, grassfed, and regenerative.
Seed saving, composting, fertilizing with manure, polycultures, no-till and raising livestock entirely on grass—all of which we associate today with sustainable food production—was the norm a century ago. And somehow we managed to feed ourselves and do so in a manner that followed nature’s model of regeneration.
We all know what happened next: the plow, the tractor, fossil fuels, monocrops, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, feedlots, animal byproducts, e. coli, CAFOs, GMOs, erosion —practices and conditions that most Americans today think of as “normal,” when they think about agriculture at all.
Fortunately, a movement to rediscover and implement “old” practices has risen rapidly, abetted by innovations in technology, breakthroughs in scientific knowledge, and tons of old-fashioned, on-the-ground problem-solving.
Take for example Dorn Cox, a young farmer in New Hampshire. He tossed away the plow, preferring to use no-till practices on his parent’s organic farm, then he developed a biodiesel alternative to fossil fuels (his sister and her husband use draft animals). He also measures the carbon content of the soil through sophisticated technology, aiming to raise the content as high as possible. And he co-founded Farm Hack, an open-source, virtual café for young and beginning farmers. “Farming isn’t rocket science,” he often says, “It’s more complicated than that.”
Like Dorn, many young people in agriculture today are looking to the past and what they are discovering is this: nature’s model works best. After all, nature has been using evolution and the laws of physics to beta-test what works for merely millions of years—billions in the case of photosynthesis. Humans are pipsqueaks and upstarts in this process by comparison and the idea that we know what’s best is looking like a dangerous form of hubris. That’s why a new generation of agrarians is returning to the roots of agriculture—combined with advances in science and social justice— for a different approach.
Soil carbon is a good example. As gardeners know, building carbon stocks underground—the dark, rich soil called humus—via soil biology is critical to plant vigor, mineral uptake, and water availability. At the farm and ranch scale it helps prevent soil erosion. A short list of practices that build soil carbon include: cover crops, mulching, composting, low or no-till, and planned grazing of livestock.
Building humus is also a great way to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in the soil for potentially long periods of time, which means “old” practices can address “new” challenges like climate change. Recently, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere rose past 400ppm for the first time in millions of years. However, it is possible to bring this level back down an old-fashioned way: with plant photosynthesis. Last spring, the Rodale Institute, a research and education nonprofit, released a white paper—entitled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming—which states boldly that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to soil-creating, inexpensive and effective organic agricultural methods.
Just a few years ago, the climate potential of soil carbon wasn’t on anyone’s radar screens, other than a few laboratories, soil scientists, and a handful of progressive farmers and ranchers. Now talk of soil carbon is everywhere. At a recent major grazing conference I attended, soil carbon was the most popular topic discussed (after cattle), with speaker after speaker extolling its virtues. And people are even talking now about slowing climate change with the stuff.
However, there are many obstacles to implementing these types of back-to-the-future solutions to food and climate challenges. Some are economic, but many are policy-based, which is why it is important to support groups like the Organic Consumers Association or the National Young Farmers Coalition in their efforts to create a policy environment that favors back-to-the-future farmers, ranchers, and eaters – which is all of us!
It all comes back to nature. I like the way the Rodale Institute put it recently: farming like the Earth matters. Farming like water and soil and land matter. Farming like clean air matters. Farming like human health, animal health and ecosystem health matters.
It all matters and regenerative practices are the way we’ll get there.
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Courtney White’s most recent book is Grass, Soil, Hope (Chelsea Green Publishing). He is the co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others around the idea of land health.