Part II – Regenerative Agriculture – From Useless….
Remember our shoe example from Part I of our regenerative agriculture series? Let’s continue with that….There you are, with a new pair of shoes. Based on the lessons from Part I, you’ve recognized the importance of properly managing and caring for your shoes to increase their useful lifespan. Perhaps you find yourself purchasing protective sprays, specialized shoe cleaning soaps, and for those really tough stains, maybe you have some exceptionally abrasive…err…effective chemical treatments lined up.
If we fast-forward to the first time you splash through the middle of an unavoidable mud puddle, your frustration is quickly alleviated by remembering the tools you have prepared to remove any stains. You get home, ready to wage war on the dirt that has tarnished your shoes. You prepare your chemical assault around the kitchen sink. Aerosol sprays, harsh chemicals, and rubber gloves readied; you fire the first shots. As the entrenched soil begins to retreat from its stronghold on your shoes, swirling down the drain alongside the cornucopia of chemical combatants, you begin to notice the collateral damage. As you laid siege upon the dirtied footwear, your stain lifting chemicals managed to splash on your shirt, pants, windowsill houseplants, and even the kitchen rug that you’re so fond of. “No worries…that’ll dry up in no time,” you think to yourself as you continue to rinse your shoes.
Later that evening, you notice that there are discolored and damaged spots covering your shirt, pants, and much to your chagrin, that lovely kitchen rug that doesn’t appear so lovely anymore. Collateral damage of the cleaning process used earlier on your shoes. You even notice that the windowsill houseplant by the sink where you were cleaning has spots of yellowing…yet another collateral casualty.
Perhaps this could have been avoided if you would have better controlled your chemical application, covered vulnerable materials like your clothing, rug, and plants, or even tried an eco-friendlier solution first, like basic soap and water. A similar situation is playing out for commercial agriculture operations around the globe, except on a significantly larger, and unsustainable scale. This predicament of collateral damage is the reason environmentalists and conservationists are sounding the alarm to bring awareness to the second principle of regenerative agriculture: optimizing resource management.
A Principle Where Everyone Wins
It is a common fallacy that incorporating sustainability measures will always require increased operating costs for the farmer. While this can stand true for some methods, it isn’t necessarily the case for the second principle of regenerative agriculture, optimizing resource management.
Although this seems like a wildly vague principle in name, most agree that the general concept intends to convey the practice of reducing input waste and optimizing nutrient availability with the goal of regenerating resources. Let’s explore some of the numerous methods that agricultural operators can implement as a means to better manage resources.
- Input and Nutrient Application Management – Just as occurred in our dirty shoe example earlier, farmers are equally tempted to lambaste pests and fungi with a barrage of inputs like pesticides and fungicides at the first notion that there may be an intruder that could damage their crops. Is this completely understandable? Absolutely. Is it necessary? In most cases, no. We have substantial evidence that pesticide use poses health risks to humans and the environment, but this evidence doesn’t seem to impact the nearly one billion pounds of pesticides used annually in the US.
In many cases, farmers may feel that there isn’t enough time or a need to incorporate a few best practices in terms of input application. When alerted to a potential infestation, many farmers garner a sense of panic that they’re already late to the battle. This often results in orders for farmhands to apply what they believe to be the best, most effective pesticide for the situation, as quickly as possible. This mad rush typically means operators aren’t taking the time to research alternatives or ensuring their application equipment is properly calibrated for a specific compound. See where this is going? By better preparing for potential input applications before they’re needed, growers can not only reduce the amount of wasted product — which eventually ends up in soil and watersheds — but they can also lower their operating cost by reducing wasted material.
- Adopting Cover Crops – An often-overlooked aspect of resource management, especially during the off-season, cover crops can prove to be a sustainably valuable tool in your arsenal. When your fields are barren of crops during the off-season, your soil — which should be considered a resource — is vulnerable to potentially detrimental elements. Heavy rains and strong winds can lead to erosion. Root systems and canopy coverage provided by cover crops like ryegrass and sweet clover provide a barrier between your soil and nature’s attempts to disrupt it. Of course, choosing the best cover crop for your needs can be frustrating, but Cornell University has created a useful cover crop decision tool to aid in the process.
- Adding Field Buffers and Borders – This method involves farmers lining the edges of their fields with a strip of permanent vegetation like trees, shrubbery, or grasses. These buffers serve many purposes including absorbing excess nutrient runoff, promoting pollinator presence, and even pest prevention. An additional benefit is the offsetting of your farm’s carbon footprint. Before you even mention it — we can hear the gears turning already — creating field buffers doesn’t have to be a costly process. In fact, the USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) actually provides financial incentives for farmers who establish and maintain field buffers.
…To Use Less
Of course, optimizing resource management is a topic on which entire books have been authored. The USDA and EPA have countless resources to better arm your agricultural operation with the knowledge to best manage your resources. The beauty of resource management is that, when executed properly, can lead to increased sustainability and profitability of the cultivation practices that you’ve worked tirelessly to establish.
In the meantime, be sure to check out part I of our series on regenerative agriculture as well as part III. There, we will continue our exploration of best practices for sustainable farming and take a look at how innovative AG-tech companies like FarmSense are providing tools to increase the impact of your regenerative agriculture efforts.